Education Opinion

Home, Sweet (Rental) Home

By Nancy Flanagan — September 13, 2010 3 min read
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A teacher colleague, preparing a portfolio describing her teaching, wrote that many of her students “live in apartment complexes in the area.” I asked her why she’d included that bit of information. Were her students typically from transient or single-parent homes? Were the apartments rented only to low-income families? If so, she should

include those specific factors in her description, as a constantly revolving student population--or kids who may have unmet health needs--were definitely factors that impact a teaching context.

No, she said. There were several elementary schools in the district, but rental housing units--including expensive townhouse developments and luxury apartment buildings--were clustered near the freeway, the zone served by her elementary school. The other schools in her district were tucked into tree-lined neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. “We’re ‘the apartment school,’” she said ruefully, sketching finger quotes.

Cover story on a recent issue of Time: The Case Against Homeownership.

Homeownership has let us down. For generations, Americans believed that owning a home was an axiomatic good. Our political leaders hammered home the point. Herbert Hoover argued that homeownership could "change the very physical, mental and moral fiber of one's own children." Homeownership could even, in the words of George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Jack Kemp, "save babies, save children, save families and save America." A house with a front lawn and a picket fence wasn't just a nice place to live or a risk-free investment; it was a way to transform a nation. Houses owned by the people who lived in them, we believed, created social and financial stability -- more-involved citizens, safer neighborhoods, kids who did better in school.

Anyone who teaches in an urban setting knows that subsidized rental complexes housing multiple families are sometimes better bets than trying to own and maintain a home on a dark, dangerous block. And anyone who holds a mortgage on a home now worth half what they paid for it may have some choice words on the American Dream.

But--doesn’t home ownership provide a base of stability for community schools? If America were to evolve into a nation of renters, would there be a negative impact on the qualities that make good public schools work: identity, cooperative pursuit of excellence over the long term, collaboration between people who know each other well, common values?

Also worth asking: What is the modal housing for students in our most challenged and “low-performing” American schools?

Real estate agents now routinely present local school test results to parents who have a choice when seeking new homes, presumably because families want schools with high academic achievement for their own children plus the subsidiary benefit of making an investment in quality housing stock in a community that values education. If America looked more like Switzerland--where two-thirds of the population rents--what would happen to the idea of the school as center of a community, a place where children learn, parents meet, and everyone goes to the football game on Friday night?

We may be well past that idyllic portrait, pushed not only by economic collapse, but a changing sense of what we should expect from schooling: not a physical community for our children to make healthy growth, but a transferable commodity that gives our children marketable skills.

From Rethinking Student Motivation: Why understanding “the job” is crucial for improving education (Christensen, Horn & Johnson, Innosight Institute):

The question we typically ask is, "Why aren't schools performing as they should?"Perhaps a key reason we're so dissatisfied with the state of public K-12 education is that we've been asking the wrong question. If we asked instead, "Why aren't students learning?" perhaps we might see things that others have yet to perceive. After all, it's the children's performance that should concern us. The performance of a school is little more than the sum of the performance of its students. In "Disrupting Class" we explained that prosperity is a bittersweet reward. Poverty often serves as an extrinsic motivator for some students, as it causes them to endure monolithic, batch teaching of subjects like math and science. When prosperity has removed this source of motivation, the solution must be to make learning intrinsically motivating.

As a promulgator of “monolithic, batch teaching” endured by students for 30 years, in a high-performing school system in the heart of a small Midwestern community, I’m a little less enthusiastic about the benefits of poverty in transforming schooling into a product rather than a place.

I am currently an apartment-dweller, after 30 years of homeownership, dodging roving bands of third-graders on bikes as I get my mail. The repairman who fixed my hot water heater told me that complex managers are able to charge a relatively high price, because my school system has a great reputation. People are still willing to pay for community and a quality education, it seems.

Is there more to education than dispensing knowledge and skills? Does the community school still have a place?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.