What We Can Learn from Private Schools
Out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.
-- Mark Twain
Years ago I accepted Twain’s statement as true and I’ve embraced it for my entire life in education. Public education – universal and compulsory and accessible – determines our future as a country. Not charter, not private, not parochial, although all play a part in educating our citizens. But it’s a small part. Our democracy depends on a strong public education system available to all.
So the overreaction to Michael Winerip’s column in last week’s New York Times suggests that perhaps not everyone understands the essential importance of public education. Noting that many reformers were themselves graduates of private schools, Winerip asks, Does a private school background give [reformers] a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools? Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?
The answers are yes, no, and probably.
Of my 30 years in education, 25 were spent in public schools. For five years, someplace in the middle of my career, I was the academic dean in a private independent school. So does a private school background give reformers a different perspective? Yes. Here’s why: A private school is a business that depends on enrollment, not state aid, and to recruit students, private schools need to deliver something better than you can get for free at your local public school. Staples of private school marketing tools are a rigorous curriculum, individual attention, and strong faculty. Parents expect results (the end result is getting their kids into a good college) because they know exactly how much they’re paying for tuition and it better be worth it.
Does attending private school make reformers “mistrust” public schools? I don’t know about “mistrust.” But they certainly see the disparity between the schools they graduated from and some public schools. Even a month in private school could be enough to see the difference in attitude between some public schools and private schools in terms of teachers’ responsibilities that every child is challenged and every child learns basic skills.
Finally, Winerup asks, does it make any difference that reformers went to private schools? Probably. Many have seen how schools could be and want to work to reform what some public schools have become.
This isn’t about class warfare. It’s about making all our public schools like private schools in terms of individual attention, strong teaching, responsiveness to student needs and interests, and parental involvement.
Of course, public schools have to educate a broader population of more diverse abilities. Private schools have no obligation to accept students with disabilities or students who can’t behave. Public schools may not be selective in any way, but therein lies their beauty and strength and their essential importance to our democracy. We open our public school doors and accept the challenge to educate everyone. So let’s take what we can from the private school experience and apply what we can to improve our schools. Let’s act as if parents are paying for their kids to attend their local public schools – which they are.