The water we swim in: Robert Pondiscio on culture and school performance

This extract is from is a great Econtalk discussion of How the Other Half Learns. Recommend.

Robert Pondiscio: They [Success Academy Charter Schools] require an extraordinary level of parent commitment both in time and responsiveness. And it just seems pointless to deny that for some number of parents, this is simply too much. I want to be clear here that this is not data, this is a journalistic observation, but you can see an observable difference in who makes it through the end of this [post school-lottery selection] process.


Over the year I spent in Success Academy, there’s a disproportionate number, compared to what I saw from teaching in the same neighbourhood, of parents who are married, employed, what I would call religious or spiritual, ambitious for their kids. In other words a critical mass of them are buying what [Success Academy CEO] Eva Moskowitz is selling. I’m not suggesting it’s all of them, but it’s a critical mass. They become sort of the culture keepers, so to speak. And that enables these great results. I want to be suggesting that clearly – and it’s clearly not – [simply that] they’re creating a self-selection mechanism for parents, but that’s the starting line that makes all these other things happen.


It’s just a lot easier to get these results when every adult in a kid’s life is pulling in the same direction.


Russ Roberts: And as you point out – and this to me is one of the most powerful parts of the book – in wealthy suburban suburbs, that’s the edge that all those kids have. Those parents are motivated, they have high expectations of their children, they send them to schools with high expectations –


RP: They choose neighbourhoods –


RR: They buy houses accordingly, and they expect their kids to go to a certain to quality of college. Certainly, they’re going to college, and they’re not just going to any college –


RP: There’s never been a day in their life when the kids didn’t know they were going to college –


RR: And expecting to go to college, and expecting to excel.


RP: And this is all unremarkable and uncontroversial. It’s the water that we swim in.

Robert Pondiscio and Russ Roberts on Econtalk – Robert Pondiscio on How the Other Half Learns

“The water we swim in” applies to organisations and even national cultures too.

The work of Charter schools is important and good – and we need to keep looking for ways to raise the bar sky-high without (or at least, beyond) the types of selection Pondiscio describes.

It’s hard, of course: if it was easy, we’d have done it. But the need remains, and we have the choice to part of the search.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...