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Stop Comparing Private and Public Schools

I have nothing against private schools.  If parents believe that their children will do better there than in traditional public schools, I say they should apply for admission.  But what an English teacher at the all-girls Brearley School in New York City wrote about her classes merely reinforced my conviction that teachers in public and private schools live in totally different worlds ("High-School English Without the Politics," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22).

Helaine L. Smith maintained that "truth, or as much of it as we can grasp, is arrived at not through trigger warnings but through discussion and through debate that turns on details."  I totally agree with her.  But she attributes her success to the use of Scottish border ballads in the sixth grade and essays by Bacon, Montaigne et al. along with Shakespearean plays in the twelfth grade.

I wonder just how long Smith would last if she tried to teach these same works to students in a traditional public school in New York City.  I say that because so many students' first language is not English. Can you imagine how they would react to these same works of literature? Moreover, how effective would Smith be in a classroom of both sexes?  

The entire debate about the alleged failure of traditional public schools in New York City or in other large urban districts to post more than middling test scores has to be understood in terms of the students these schools serve.  Teachers who are exemplary in private and religious schools don't repeat their success when they transfer. 

By the same token, comparing the performance of students in charter schools with those in traditional public schools is also unfair.  Like private schools, charter schools enroll students whose parents choose them. Traditional public schools by law have to enroll all who show up at their doors regardless of motivation. Nevertheless, the  comparisons will continue unabated. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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