Private School Student, Public School Reformer

by Robert Pondiscio
April 19th, 2011

Many of the most prominent names in education reform attended private schools as children, observes Michael Winerip of the New York Times.  Does their background “give them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools?” he asks.  “Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?”

Winerip provides a substantial list of reform leaders and the private schools they attended including Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, Fordham’s Checker Finn, and “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim among many others.   Ed reform flame-thrower Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, responds by calling Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.”  The piece, he says, is a “biased, error-filled hatchet job.”  And Whitney’s just clearing his throat.

“Winerip exposes, in dramatic and scornful fashion, that a handful of people associated with efforts to reform our K-12 public education system went to – I hope you’re sitting down – PRIVATE high schools!  Oh, what a high crime!  How indefensible!  How DARE such people criticize the existing system when they, for at least four years of their K-12 education, went to a private school!?”

Does it matter what schools ed reformers attended?  It might, but not for the reasons one might initially think.  Those who feel besieged may be quick to criticize private school reformers on issues of class, race and income.  They will no doubt presuppose that presumed privilege and a top-shelf schooling blinds them to the needs of low-income children and the efforts of low-paid teachers.   I don’t agree.   But I do wonder if those who have enjoyed a first-rate education take for granted the content of their education.  Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity.  Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.  That’s not a subtle difference.  Yet it may be lost upon those who assume that what one learns in elementary school is settled, and the differences are chiefly in the implementation.  It certainly seems to be lost upon or of no great concern to the vast majority of heavy hitters in ed reform.

Let’s say you’re in 5th grade in a private prep school in Manhattan.  The curriculum says you’re going to learn American history from the explorers through the Civil War and Reconstruction.  In science, you’ll get basic concepts of electricity, ecology and robotics.  It’s your first year of French, Spanish or Mandarin.  You will tackle Great Expectations.  By the end of middle school, you’re pretty much guaranteed a broad, rich basic education across and among academic disciplines. That’s what a good curriculum does.   

In public school, reading is skills-driven and largely dictated by student choice and engagement.  In struggling schools history, science, art and music are the first things cast aside to make room for ever-longer periods of instruction in reading strategies of questionable efficacy.  Test prep puts even greater pressure on the curriculum.  In terms of content in science, history, geography, art and music you’re pretty much guaranteed….well….you’re not guaranteed a thing. 

Nearly no one talks about the academic content of public vs. private schools, but it should not be taken for granted for a nanosecond that they’re comparable.  If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t.  But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.” 

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel? 

Like Tilson’s children, my daughter attends a well-regarded Manhattan private school.  For years I would drop her off at school and continue on to the low-performing South Bronx public school where I taught fifth grade. Here’s an observation that will not endear me to the staff or parents association at my daughter’s school:  there were teachers—lots of teachers—at the school where I worked that were clearly stronger  than some of my daughters’ teachers.   I would have gladly swapped some of my colleagues for her teachers.  I would not, however, swap her school for mine.  The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone. 

Tilson’s full-throated rebuttal to Winerip lists a number of bold-faced names in ed reform who attended public schools, including Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, KIPP’s Mike Feinberg, Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Jay Mathews, Andy Rotherham and Eva Moskowitz, who attended New York City’s competitive-entry Stuyvesant High School.  The distinction may not whether one went to a public or private school, but whether one went to a good school or not, and the assumptions they make about what children do in school all day. 

It took me quite a while, teaching in a low-performing school while my daughter attended a private prep school, to appreciate fully the dramatic difference in their respective curricula.  I wonder how many ed reformers remain blind to the difference.