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.


  1. If you treat kids like the “Stepford Kids” then maybe the private school experience is the best learning tool. That could be easily why these artificial reformers are ecpecting all students to fit into the same standardized box full of word games and math riddles.

    The reality is, public schools take on all comers. Students considered gifted along with those who have severe special education needs. Those whose skills are near the gifted along with those whose skills are enough away from those with special needs to be considered “normal” And everyone in between leads to a wide range of skills.

    Is it no wonder that our pseudo reformers still try to have everyone pass the same test at the same time.

    What they do is NOT reform and what they do to kids is not simply unethical, it is immoral!

    The entire system must be changes to take every child from where they are.

    Cap Lee

    Comment by Cap Lee — April 19, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

  2. Why do they remain blind? Hydrophobia, I suspect. At least in Tilson’s case.

    Comment by bill eccleston — April 19, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

  3. Well said Robert. I have long wondered why so many education reformers fail to understand what the real problems are regarding public education. It is obvious that they are hopelessly out of touch and this might explain part of the problem.

    Comment by Mary S. — April 19, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  4. You don’t need to be hopelessly out of touch. Operating with a few faulty assumptions will do just as well.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 19, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  5. Great piece, Robert, really very good.

    I also like Cap Lee’s perspective; quite profound if you think about it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 19, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

  6. Robert — how did you reconcile the differences? Furthermore, why did you not have your child attend the school that pays her tuition? I have often thought if government educators had their kids in the schools in which they taught a lot of the stuff supposedly passing for education in government schools would not occur.

    In particular the very narrow curriculum, culture, lack of discipline, lack of quality teachers in some classrooms (yes, private schools can and do have weak teachers too), the focus on testing for the wrong reasons, pacing, etc.

    There needs to be a better way to do government education…

    Yes, I have attended both as did my kids…

    Thank you –

    Comment by tim-10-ber — April 19, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

  7. I completely agree with your post, Robert.

    On a related note: I’ve often thought that Obama’s lack of experience in the public schools prevents him from fully understanding the PUBLIC (not to mention public education reform). He, like many well-educated liberals, seems to assume a level of knowledge and thoughtfulness among the electorate that seems unwarranted to those of us who see how little real education occurs in many schools. At election time last November I asked my 200 mostly middle class seventh graders if they could name California’s US Senators: only five could name Barbara Boxer; only one could name Diane Feinstein. So for extra credit I told the kids to ask their parents who their US Representative was; many came back saying their parents didn’t know. I fear many American adults are innocent of even the basics of civics.

    I think many privately-educated wonkish-types can’t even begin to fathom how knowledge-deficient our schools (and, consequently, our voters’ minds) are.

    Comment by Ben F — April 19, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

  8. FWIW, the parochial schools that my DH attended growing up were *WAY* more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse than the public schools I attended growing up. The only way in which my school was more diverse than DH’s was religiously. And even then, it was relatively homogenous- about 45% Catholics, 45% mainline Protestants, and the remaining 10% a mixture of other Christians, Jews, and Mormons.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — April 19, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  9. I understand the author’s point. However, I disagree with the assumption that being educated in a private system makes one oblivious to the problems in public school. I did not attend public school until I went to graduate school, and I am still aware of the disparities that exist between public and private schools. Assuming that all privately-educated people are out of touch, elitist, and rich is classism, pure and simple.

    Comment by privatelyeducated — April 19, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  10. How many private schools use Core Knowledge in the classrooms, compared to the public schools?

    I’d be interested to know if private schools really have a better curriculum than the public ones. I have not seen much data to discern that, but my gut feeling is that the answer is probably, they do not.

    Robert’s observation about privately schooled reformers who do not appreciate curriculum can be interpreted to mean, on the contrary, that the program followed by their private schools did not inspire them sufficiently to make them understand what a difference their curriculum made for them.

    I fear that private schools are different more than anything else because of the self-selection of their students. This will work to an advantage, especially when comparing to the worst inner city schools with discipline problems and irresponsible parents. Private schools also have a bigger share of the ivy league college admission slice, but this may be due less to the capacity of their students and more to track record of their parents in affording expensive tuition.

    I think regular schools do look up to the best of private and suburban schools, but the problem is that these best schools offer a bad model to the rest of the lot. The model schools can get away with discovery learning and random-spiraled curricula when parents can afford the after-hours tutoring.

    And private schools can be outright snooty. George Orwell publicized his experience in such a prep school, posthumously, in “Such, such were the joys”:

    Orwell tells of when he was ordered to report himself to the Sixth Form to be whipped, for the offense of repeatedly whetting his bed – despite instructions to the contrary from Flip, the sportish wife of the headmaster. The Sixth Form is a team of older students that maintain order amongst the freshmen – but young Orwell misunderstands the name as ‘Mrs Form’, identified as a friend of Flip’s who happened to be visiting:

    “I merely assumed the ‘Mrs Form’ was a stern disciplinarian who enjoyed beating people (somehow her appearance seemed to bear this out) and I had an immediate terrifying vision of her arriving for the occasion in full riding kit and armed with a hunting-whip. To this day I can feel myself almost swooning with shame as I stood, a very small, round-faced boy in short corduroy knickers, before the two women. I could not speak. I felt that I should die if ‘Mrs Form’ were to beat me.”

    There’s a lot more to the story – but as to ostentation, Orwell writes:

    “…All this was thirty years ago and more. The question is: Does a child at school go through the same kind of experiences nowadays?

    “The only honest answer, I believe, is that we do not with certainty know. Of course it is obvious that the present-day attitude towards education is enormously more humane and sensible than that of the past. The snobbishness that was an integral part of my own education would be almost unthinkable today, because the society that nourished it is dead. I recall a conversation that must have taken place about a year before I left St Cyprian’s. A Russian boy, large and fair-haired, a year older than myself, was questioning me.

    “‘How much a year has your father got?’

    “I told him what I thought it was, adding a few hundreds to make it sound better. The Russian boy, neat in his habits, produced a pencil and a small note-book and made a calculation.

    “‘My father has over two hundred times as much money as yours,’ he announced with a sort of amused contempt.

    “That was in 1915. What happened to that money a couple of years later, I wonder? And still more I wonder, do conversations of that kind happen at preparatory schools now?”

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — April 19, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  11. @Andrei From memory, I think about 45% of Core Knowledge schools are traditional public schools; 35% charters; 20% private or parochial.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 19, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

  12. From my own experience teaching and/or substituting in a range of both public and private schools, I’m not sure that I’d agree with Robert that private schools have a ‘better’ curriculum. In my experience, private and otherwise selective schools tend to have students who behave better (are more likely to do their homework, come to class each day, etc.) and to have parents who are more involved in their children’s schooling.

    As such, I found it easier to teach in private and/or selective schools (as well as selective classes such as honors classes)because I could spend more time on the material and less time on discipline and attendance issues. In addition, I found that private schools were less likely to have students performing far below grade level, so I would suspect it would be easier to create a standard curriculum that would generally meet the needs of the majority of the students. I don’t have any data to back up these points, but they seem like common sense to me and tally with my experiences.

    Comment by Attorney DC — April 20, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  13. It’s not about a better or worse curriculum, but whether a defined one exists at all. I’m going on anectdotal experience too, but most of the top private prep schools in Manhattan have clearly defined curricula. The catholic schools seem to as well.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 20, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

  14. I have two children. One went to a competitive-admission all-girls Catholic college-prep academy. The other went to our local high school. As an up-close observer, I saw things to like and dislike at both. (Wrote about them, here:

    The core curriculum was actually much more comprehensive and clearly defined at the public school. The math and science courses and instructors were vastly superior at the public school. But the private school offered small classes, rigorous assignments including frequent research papers, as well as Latin and courses in ethics and logic. Plus, of course, cachet.

    The reason the curriculum at the public school was better was because they were compelled to follow the state curriculum frameworks and the students were tested on these things. In addition, all kids in the public school were required (MI state law) to take the ACT in 11th grade. There were clear targets. At the private school, “curriculum” was often centered around outdated textbooks. There were great teachers and mediocre teachers and instruction in both places.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — April 20, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  15. Well said, as usual. I suppose this is the best place at the moment to ask this question. I’ve been a fan of the Core Knowledge books, blog and foundation for over ten years as a parent. As I near the opportunity to perform demonstration teaching, I desperately want to teach in a Core Knowledge school. Is it possible to somehow match student teachers with CK schools via the CK website?

    Comment by Cindy — April 20, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  16. Robert: Thanks for writing back to my comment. Perhaps I should have focused on the existence of a curriculum rather than the quality of it. However, my experience w/ private and public schools appears to the direct opposite of yours: The public schools I worked in (especially in California) had pretty restrictive/mandated materials that were required to be taught. In one school, I taught English at the middle school level and the Readers/Writers workshop approach (with all the related terminology) was mandatory. In addition, in all the California middle schools I worked in, we had to set up the classroom in certain ways: Desks in groups instead of rows and other similar requirements.

    When I taught in private schools (perhaps because they were more decentralized) the teachers were given much more freedom/responsiblity to develop their own curriculum. In some ways, this was difficult: As a new teacher, developing all new lesson plans from scratch was rather daunting. But I definitely enjoyed more freedom to create my own lessons and structure my classes in the private schools in which I worked.

    Comment by Attorney DC — April 20, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  17. @AttorneyDC As my Teachers College (Readers/Writers Workshop) staff developer reminded me frequently. “Readers Workshop is not a curriculum. It’s a philosophy.”
    @Nancy High school is a different kettle of fish. Build a strong knowledge base in elementary school and you’ve got intellectual gas in the tank. Fail to, and you’re playing catch up for the rest of your life.
    @Cindy email me at

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 20, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  18. Robert: Well, Readers/Writers Workshop may not be a ‘curriculum’ in the strictest sense, but in my schools the ‘philosophy’ of Readers/Writers Workshop basically determined every activity we did each day — even extending to the seating arrangements, wall posters, and terminology we used. In addition, the reading specialist at the school was tasked with giving us ‘appropriate’ materials to use in our classes, such that the end result was essentially all the English teachers being told what to teach each day and how to teach it. Point being, it was a lot different than the private schools where the principal basically said, “Teach a course on American literature as you see fit.”

    Comment by Attorney DC — April 20, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  19. I think the problem is not just that they are out of touch, but that public schools are for other people’s kids, who need to acquire “skills” for the “workplace.”

    Whatever your overall view of John Dewey’s educational philosophy, his rule of thumb what we want for our own children (since we at least strive to be the best and wisest parent…) should be what we want public schools to provide is a powerful one.

    Comment by Rachel — April 20, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  20. I’ve always bridled against that particular Dewey quote. It’s the education equivalent of “if you love something set it free…” Every classroom contains some children of the best and wisest parent. They come to school having heard millions of words of spoken language and enjoyed the benefits of cognitive stimulation from the moment they sprang from the womb. The go on supervised playdates, the children’s museum, Mommy and Me and story time at the library. That classroom also has the children of earnest, well-intentioned parents who work two jobs and don’t have time to read to their children every night. And parents who leave the television on as an electronic baby-sitter. And parents who speak to their children only in the imperative tense. And parents who leave the baby in the care of his seven-year old brother while they go to the corner to buy beer and come back five hours later.

    So creating the school for the child of the best and wisest parent is a lovely ideal. Easy to say. Hard to do. And back to our well-educated reformers. If you do not account for where the children are when they arrive and what it takes–what it really takes–to catch them up to the child of the best and wisest parent–mischief follows.

    Homilies never educated a kid.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 20, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  21. You’re right that for kids who don’t have the best and wisest parents you may need to provide more education in school to make up for what they are missing at home.

    But my sense is that a lot of “accountability” focused reforms will actually settle for a lot *less* for other people’s kids.

    Comment by Rachel — April 20, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  22. [...] Private School Student, Public School Reformer, Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio takes a calmer look at the issue. He thinks that [...]

    Pingback by It’s the academic content, stupid — Joanne Jacobs — April 25, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  23. Even though I attended public, I feel that private schools have many advantages over public school. One idea that they have is that everyone test the same. I for one would vote on different measyres of testing children. Whether a person has went to public or private should not be important,I think that our leaders in the school should be collaborating with our leaders in the office to make a change to better educate our children, and let parents share some of the blame for students not on task. I am a teacher in the classrom of a public schools. I see first hand what students do. Some can do the work and won’t and so I ask is it the teacher’s fault when they feel that they don’t have to do the assignments and the parents don’t intervene.

    Comment by Stephanie Peterson — May 19, 2011 @ 12:52 am

  24. Robert, I was just about to suggest that we pay more explicit attention to the best curricula of private schools when lo and behold !!! And by “pay more attention” I guess I mean perhaps actually reproducing a couple of the best (including maybe that of the Obama kids’ school), at both elementary and high school levels, without naming them? OR naming them? You would know much better than I about this. Also should this be accompanied by pointing out that public school teachers have to go to the ed schools but private school teachers don’t etc.? All of this is old hat but … I’m sure you would know best whether this is a good idea or not and if so how to do it.

    Best, LCS

    Comment by Louisa Spencer — May 20, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

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