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July 20, 2006 [feather]
False dichotomies

The New York Times responds to the Education Department's new study showing that students in private schools don't do demonstrably better at reading and math than students in public schools:

The national education reform effort has long suffered from magical thinking about what it takes to improve children's chances of learning. Instead of homing in on teacher training and high standards, things that distinguish effective schools from poor ones, many reformers have embraced the view that the public schools are irreparably broken and that students of all kinds need to be given vouchers to attend private or religious schools at public expense.

This belief, though widespread, has not held up to careful scrutiny. A growing body of work has shown that the quality of education offered to students varies widely within all school categories. The public, private, charter and religious realms all contain schools that range from good to not so good to downright horrendous.

This point was underscored last week when the United States Education Department released a controversial and long-awaited report comparing public and private schools in terms of student achievement as measured on the federal math and reading tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As with previous studies, this one debunked the widely held belief that public schools were inferior to their private and religious counterparts. The private schools appeared to have an achievement advantage when the raw scores of students were considered alone. But those perceived advantages melted away when the researchers took into account variables like race, gender and parents' education and income.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, quickly asserted that the study showed public schools were "doing an outstanding job.'' That seems absurd, when we consider the dismal math and reading scores that American children racked up on last year's national tests.

What the emerging data show most of all is that public, private, charter and religious schools all suffer from the wide fluctuations in quality and effectiveness. Instead of arguing about the alleged superiority of one category over another, the country should stay focused on the overarching problem: on average, American schoolchildren are performing at mediocre levels in reading, math and science - wherever they attend school.

It's good to see the magical thinking that dominates discussions of K-12 education reform named for what it is. People tend to assume, like the well-trained consumers they are, that an expensive education must be better than a free one--but what they don't realize is that private schools are only as good as the standards they set for themselves. Those standards, it hardly needs saying, are independent of schools' public self-presentation, and even, to some degree, separate from reputation. They vary widely from school to school, and even within schools.

Private schools have much more leeway than public ones when it comes to who they can hire to teach. This can be a very good thing. Private schools are free to hire people they believe either are or will be good teachers, regardless of whether they have teaching credentials; this allows them to hire, for example, professionals looking to make a career change, or college professors looking to focus on a different sort of teaching. This can also be a very bad thing. There is nothing to stop private schools from hiring people for reasons that have nothing to do with teaching--coaching, for example--and then using them as teachers anyway, despite their manifest weakness in the classroom.

Economics is a factor here, as are pragmatics. Private schools require their teachers to perform multiple roles within the school; they almost never hire someone just to be a math teacher, for example--the math teacher must also be able to coach a couple of sports, or to advise the school paper, or to manage the debate team. Conversely, private schools almost never hire coaches to be coaches--coaches are also teachers. But at schools where sports are serious business--and sports are serious business, required of all students, at a great many private schools--people are sometimes hired primarily for their coaching skills, and are then slotted into teaching secondarily. It's understood that this is a done thing, and the theory is that the curricular weak link this creates is made up for by the athletic strength it brings (the obsessive focus on sports that drives so many independent schools is a subject for another day). Private schools--particularly boarding schools--will also try to make sure that they have a good number of young and inexperienced teachers fresh out of college. The idea there is that what the teacher lacks in experience and expertise is made up for by his or her youth, which is seen as an important bridge between students and older faculty. It goes without saying that such teachers are also very easy to come by and very cheap.

While there are accrediting organizations for private schools, accreditation is not always a measure of quality. The boarding school where I taught during the 2004-05 school year was accredited--but this was hardly a guarantee of quality, or even of responsibility on the part of the school. This school cost more than $32,000 a year, which is the going rate for boarding schools in New England and elsewhere around the country. That's a price tag that creates some entirely reasonable expectations; one imagines, if one is mortaging one's future to send one's child to such an institution, that for $32,000, one's child will have access to one hell of an education, one that far surpasses, in quality and variety, what's available at the free public school just down the road. But in schools as in other commodities, price tags are really only price tags, and all they tell you is what the market rate is for the commodity at hand. That's one of the many things I learned during my year teaching at a very expensive, but very academically weak school.

I won't name the school, since it's not my goal to cause problems for the school itself, and since it is my goal here to use my experience at the school to point to larger issues with the private school system. But I will give some particulars, just to explain what I mean when I say the school was academically inadequate. I say that the school was academically inadequate because it employed teachers to teach subjects that they were not able to teach. There were some excellent teachers there--but they were outweighed by the bad ones. There was a biology teacher who also taught introductory Spanish--but who did not speak Spanish, could not read or write Spanish with any real skill, and had no idea how to teach a foreign language; her worksheets and quizzes were riddled with errors because her own grasp of the language was so weak. There was an English teacher who also taught algebra one and two--but who could not actually explain the principles behind the math, and who, by the end of the year, also could not solve the homework problems assigned in the textbook. Because the school failed to employ a competent algebra teacher, large numbers of students lacked the skills to go on to pre-calculus. There was a U.S. history teacher who taught current events and leftist ideology rather than history proper. Because there was no set English curriculum and no real training in writing (one teacher actually devoted substantial time to having students write and illustrate comic books), the school graduated functional illiterates with depressing regularity. The SAT scores for students at this school were ludicrously low. They did not reflect students' intelligence, but they did reflect the poverty of their educational experience.

For $32,000 a year, parents were paying for a school that probably did more to harm their children's chances of going on to a good college than not. Worse, the parents did not seem to have the faintest idea that this was the case. The students at the school were, by and large, quite happy there (though many of them would tell you, with a frankness peculiar to teenagers, that they knew it wasn't a real school they were attending). There was much that was wonderful about the school apart from its abysmal academics--and parents, seeing their children happier than they had been at their previous school, and admiring the excellent arts program, the work program, the good cooking, and the school's pastoral setting, assumed that all was well. Teenagers don't tend to talk much to their parents about the daily details of their lives if they can avoid it; they especially don't tend to talk much about what they are learning in class; and the parents of boarding school students are exceptionally cut off from those kinds of details. The happiness of the kid and the price tag stand in as proxies for quality of education. It was scary to see how willing this school was to flush students' opportunities; scary, too, to see how trusting parents were, and how misplaced their trust was.

Part of the problem with the school was economic. Bad financial planning had left it with virtually no endowment and only a rudimentary alumni network; overzealous philanthropy led the school to award far more scholarship money to disadvantaged students than it could realistically afford. The school cut costs wherever it could--and one place where it cut costs was in the hiring of competent teachers. Young, inexperienced teachers fresh out of college were not only cheap, but too inexperienced to be able to see clearly what was fraudulent about the school; young, inexperienced teachers who also happened to be alums of the school came even cheaper, plus they brought with them a ready-made institutional loyalty left over from their student days. The school did not have to earn their professional respect, as it could rely instead on their nostalgia. I took a 60% pay cut to work at this school (trusting, as parents trusted, that the academics at such a costly place were in order, and liking the unusually warm feeling of the place so much that I turned down far better offers to take this one). But in the spring, the school decided it could not afford to continue to pay me my very meager salary, and downsized me out of the job.

The school's troubles were not only economic, they were also ideological. The school was an avowedly progressive school that had over time developed something akin to an institutional phobia about strong academics. Despite the glaring and pressing problems I've described, there was no real acknowledgement that academics were an issue at the school; there was instead--it took me awhile to work this out--a deep undercurrent of fear about the damage that a strong curriculum could do to the school's community. The school was a warm and nurturing, if insular and sometimes repressive, place, and kids there formed remarkably strong bonds with one another and with teachers. What was never spoken, but what was operative at every point, was a conviction that taking the academic side of education seriously would weaken those bonds--by making kids compete with one another, by suggesting that smarter kids were superior, and that weaker students were lesser people. This fear--which I think was an irrational one--resulted in a reluctance to encourage smarter kids and a shameful neglect of struggling students. The egalitarian goal was to see everyone as the same, and in order to achieve that goal, the school went out of its way to ensure that students did not differentiate themselves from one another academically. The school's weak academic program did not do much to prepare students for college, but it went a long way toward effecting the intellectual leveling that was so central to the school's mission.

I could go on. But the point I want to make is simply this--this was an extremely costly, exclusive boarding school that superficially seemed to be everything a parent could want for a child and more. But in reality, the school was an academic sham that used the money collected from tuition-paying parents not to educate, but to conduct an egalitarian social experiment that was seriously at odds with the best interests of individual students. The specifics of this school's situation are unusual--but the basic fact of its disservice to unsuspecting parents who believe that high tuition is a guarantee of quality can and should be generalized. Just as there are a lot of good public schools out there, there are also a lot of bad, or simply mediocre, private schools.

There is no simple answer for parents who want to ensure that they send their kids to good schools. But not taking any school at face value is a good first step, and looking closely into who is teaching one's kids and what one's kids are being taught--indeed, whether one's kids are being taught--is essential. Parents who pay for the fancy school without doing their homework are taking a huge chance with their children's futures.

posted on July 20, 2006 3:53 PM


Erin, thanks for sharing with us a little bit of your boarding school experience. I was certainly curious about how it went up there. I know, because I remember your writing about the opportunity, how excited you were when you were headed up there. I'm sorry it didn't work out differently for you.

Posted by: RP at July 20, 2006 4:56 PM

Certainly, teachers should be able to teach the subjects they are teaching. (yeah, I know that was an awful sentence.) But a lot of the "teacher training" so beloved of the NYT and its allies consists, as we all know, of stuff that has nothing to do with subject matter and very little to do with effective pedagogical skills.

The question of specialists vs generalists is an interesting one. Ideally, one would hope that any intelligent adult could teach any high school subject, since we pretty much all took all of them at some point..but I guess this is too much to hope for. Re the coaches who also teach academic subjects, in 8th grade I had a civics class taught by a coach who did I truly outstanding job..but this probably is an exceptio.

The phobia about strong academics that you mention at this school seems to me to be fairly common among K-12 teachers and administrators, based on what I've read. It's very difficult for me to understand how someone could choose to devote his life to teaching if he didn't have a sincere interest in the acquisition and transmittal of knowledge, but it does seem to be very common.

Posted by: david foster at July 20, 2006 6:53 PM

I had wondered what had happened. I'm glad you are ok now.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at July 20, 2006 7:50 PM

Also: I'm curious why - if you had other choices - you chose this school? You sound like a much better fit for the insanely competitive - and academically rigorous - Exeter, Andover and St. Paul culture. I assume you must have known about these students, and the culture of learning at the school, before you signed up.

Posted by: Nobody at July 21, 2006 2:50 PM

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Erin. As a long-time board member of several schools, I look at the voucher/charter school mania with a bit of a jaundiced eye.

Running a school well is hard. Your former school's board of trustees made a series of mistakes (in failing to build a robust development organization, in failing to build an endowment, in failing to balance the budget, and in retaining (or hiring) heads of school who kept on with failure).

I don't think the specifics are all that unusual.

Posted by: Liz at July 21, 2006 5:05 PM

I also would like to thank you for the thoughtful post. And to an earlier commenter, I'd like to say that it's important to be able to distinguish between thoughtful critique and insult.

Posted by: margaret soltan at July 21, 2006 5:12 PM


I deleted your first comment. Personal speculations about me are not welcome on this blog. In answer to your second question, I chose the school because I admired it very much. Unlike so many private schools, it was not a boilerplate edition of expensive generic excellence. It was a unique place, with really special kids--many from the wrong side of the tracks--and a really special feel about it. So special that despite what I saw over the course of the year, I would have stayed on there if I had had the option to do so--regardless of the low pay and the frustration and guilt at being part of an institution that was not up to snuff academically. I believed in the school, I understood its financial constraints, and I wanted to be part of helping it turn things around, academically and economically. I was actually hired in part as an admissions and development person, with the express aim of being part of a larger revitalization. In response to your question, I have no interest in an "insanely competitive" environment and turned down offers from schools where that was clearly the prevailing mood.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at July 21, 2006 5:53 PM

I ducked the question of how parents can investigate a potential boarding school.

1. Don't believe what other parents say. Parents are a fount of disinformation or outright gossip.
2. Don't believe what the school says. Schools are under a lot of pressure to polish their presentations--it's like an arms race.
3. You could do worse than hiring an educational consultant (go here to find one):


Ask the consultant when they last visited the school(s) you are interested in, if they have benefitted from any of the school's largesse (was the trip to the school paid for by the school or the consultant?), and what hard evidence the consultant has for his or her opinion.

4. Investigate the school's finances using Guidestar, which should have the school's IRS form 990 on file. This will let you know how big the school's endowment is, the percentage of the school's income that is derived from fundraising (development) and the percentage from endowment revenue. There aren't any great hard-and-fast rules here.

5. I certainly wouldn't use Ivy- League- Acceptances- per- graduating-senior as a metric of quality. A lot of kids are wising up and realizing that small liberal arts colleges give better education per dollar than the Ivies.

6. I wouldn't use number of APs per student as a metric of quality, either. (I'm not a fan of APs in private schools -- I think it is a sell-out of robust curriculum development.)

7. What you can use as a metric is the average SAT scores. You have to know the base student population though -- many boarding schools recruit students from abroad, students whose native language isn't English. This tends to depress the verbal component of SAT scores.

8. Teachers and teaching: ask to see the school's teacher profile. If the school doesn't have one, ask why not? Not every school does this, but it is a useful management tool. You are looking for something like a series of bar charts, showing #s of teachers with BAs vs. MA/MS vs. PhD; years of teaching experience (0-3, 4-8, and so on).

9. Ask to see the current strategic plan. If the school doesn't have one, ask why. Private schools need to be constantly renewing themselves. Just coasting won't do.

10. Above all, plan for a full day's visit to the school, and insist on sitting in on critical classes. I'd ask for an algebra class and a literature / literacy class.

Posted by: Liz Ditz at July 21, 2006 5:56 PM

Erin, your school sounds a bit like Summerhill.

I've never thought there was anything magic about private schools. My daughter attended both private and public schools. About the only advantage to a private school that I could see is that disruptive students were summarily expelled. And that is a big advantage if a student's safety is threatened.

As far as academics are concerned, there's really a finite group of people from which to draw teachers and adminsistrators. If all public schools became private, the same people would be running them. The same kids would be in them, too, except for the ones permitted to grow up completely uneducated.

Did anybody else catch this, from the Times article: "on average, American schoolchildren are performing at mediocre levels in reading, math and science - wherever they attend school." Of course average children are performing at mediocre levels. Duh.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at July 21, 2006 9:44 PM

Laura...actually, "average children performing at mediocre levels" is not a tautology in the way that "average children performing at average levels" would be. For comparison, try: "Average airline pilots are performing at mediocre levels," which would indeed be disturbing if it were true.

Posted by: david foster at July 22, 2006 12:05 AM

David, I don't know why. First of all, "average" is defined by whatever average people do, which is another reason why the Times article's crying about the poor performance of both public and private schools. Who exactly are these kids being measured against? Secondly, mediocre does mean "average", as evidenced by the "medi" part of the word.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at July 22, 2006 9:45 AM

Laura...probably you are right about the formal definition of "mediocre" since you usually tend to be right about stuff. But I think what the Times writer was trying to say was that average students are performing at reading/math/science levels that are too low for effective functioning in today's world.

Posted by: david foster at July 22, 2006 10:03 AM

David, that may be true, and if so, it's a problem. I don't think we can redefine what average kids can do by raising the bar on what we consider to be acceptable scores on standardized tests. Could schools do a better job? Always. How much better, ultimately? Don't know.

It goes against our grain as Americans to accept the fact that there will be haves and have-nots. The only thing I know to do is to try to ensure that each individual child has the opportunity to go as far as his ability and ambition will take him.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at July 22, 2006 12:01 PM

I went to both a private girls day school and a St. Grotelsex boarding school. The girls school did not require teachers to be coaches nd was quite academically rigoros. The boarding school mostly did, and it suffered from some of the problems you described, though I never saw a biology teacher teaching Spanish. In fact, good science teachers are rather harder to come by than Humanitoes teachers. The chemsitry eacher lived off-campus and taught no sports. My French teacher was bit of a Nazi and ranthe dining hall program, but he was also French and perfectly competent in the language. (He told me not to go to Harvard, because the French department there was bad!)

I think that the freedom that independent schools provide *can* be superb, and academics are often taken very seriously at day schools.

In the UK, there are boarding schools which are very academically serious. I think that teh standards at Winchester are higher than those at many top universities in this country.

Posted by: Abby at July 25, 2006 10:16 AM