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Independent Schools and Public Schools--Is There a Common Perspective?

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Last month Alan Jones wrote an eloquent "Commentary" essay titled "Mr. Obama: Most Schools Aren't Like Your Daughters' School." He offered a painful comparison between his observations of many public schools and the environment at the independent school attended by the First Daughters. Dr. Jones noted that many policies favored by the Obama administration, like those of preceding administrations, are likely to further dilute the quality of the student experience in public schools.

Having spent my life in independent schools, I am used to and wince at such comparisons. I was raised on the campus of a tiny school founded to teach dyslexic boys. I attended an independent school, and I have taught at four and spent working time on the campuses of many more. I know quite a bit about their aspirations and faults, their struggles and vulnerabilities.

What are "independent schools"? In the United States such schools are independent of external bodies--governments or churches, for example. Under federal and state regulations they develop their own curricula and standards and fund themselves through tuitions and donations. Independent schools are full-on examples of "site-based" governance, their basic policies set and leaders hired by self-sustaining volunteer boards. A tiny handful are proprietary or for-profit and thus ineligible for membership in the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). NAIS also requires member schools to have "a demonstrated commitment to ethnic and economic diversity, as evident in [their] nondiscrimination policies for admission and hiring."

At a later time I will explore the variety of independent schools, but overall they represent an astonishing and stereotype-busting range of missions and cultures. All 1400 or so NAIS member schools are accredited by regional bodies working on the same principles that guide the accreditation of public schools. Most, perhaps in some contrast to the Obama children's, are neither extravagantly resourced or breathtakingly selective.

But Alan Jones is onto something important, something that troubles me and many of my independent school colleagues deeply. Public policy and debate on education these days cast a widening shadow over the work of teaching and learning. No Child Left Behind-driven testing regimes distort curricula and teaching, and over-reliance on test results to evaluate teachers and schools is misguided and damaging. Although independent schools are "private," I am sickened by the notion of the privatizing public education--especially of privatization for profit and the imposition of business-inspired "efficiencies" on children. My personal jury is still out on charter schools, however noble the basic idea and however successful many have been. Vouchers seem at the very least to offer boards of education a pernicious escape route from making substantive improvement in the schools they are charged to operate.

Independent schools are permitted and even encouraged in this country because they offer diverse alternatives that are thought to represent a public good. These schools and those involved with them have often been stereotyped as elitist and out of touch, and historically and (alas) at present there is some truth behind the stereotype; sometimes we have forgotten why we exist. Some months back I spoke out in a "Commentary" piece of my own on the need for our schools to engage in the broader conversation on education--that we have much to learn and possibly even a thing or two to teach.

Independent school educators are as worried about public education as everyone else. There is no consolation for us in policies that exacerbate the differences between public and independent schools as described by Alan Jones, no celebration when public districts cut services or programs. Even when we are the incidental beneficiaries of such cutting, there is no pleasure in contemplating what schools are like for children who cannot, for whatever reasons, attend ours.

I hope here mainly to focus on schools--on teaching, learning, and students, rather than on policies and politics. I also plan over time here to write more about why independent and public school educators need to interact more.

In the end I can speak only for myself, but I know that in the independent school community I am not alone in wishing that the public and independent school communities, sundered by history and economics, might better understand each other. There seem to be people eager to see the end of public education in this country, but the vast majority of independent school educators in my acquaintance are NOT among that group.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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