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High vs. Low (formerly Public vs. Private)


Update 8/3/07: Dear Readers: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. What a tricky issue this is. As readers' remarks made me think about this even more closely, I had to revise my words to clarify my ideas. While the original discussion revolved around public and private schools, what I hadn't explicitly written was that I solely meant low-performing public schools. So really, the discussion is about, when having a choice, if parents would send their children to local low-performing schools or high-performing schools elsewhere. The changes are marked in italics. Thanks for the comments-- keep them coming!

So last week I grouched over the lame questions asked during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debates. But I still have to ask: Public or private?

That's the question our politicians were grilled over during that groundbreaking discussion with the public. And while I scoff at its shallowness, the question (and the politicians' defensive and cautiously crafted responses) digs at an issue we have all probably considered at one point or another: Public or private? Or more specifically, whether we would send them to a high or low performing school. (This is not to suggest "public" is synonymous to "under-performing". There are thousands of high-achieving public schools in the country.)

I am not yet a parent, but do intend to be, one day in the long, faraway future. After teaching for two years and being surrounded by students I have adopted in my heart as my own, I've spent more time thinking about my one-day-in-the-way-future children than is probably normal. I've collected books I'd want to read to my one-day children, devised behavior strategies, and debated whether I would send them to local low-performing schools.

As a product of U.S. public schools (even at the graduate school level), I am proud of our system. From my (very limited) vantage point, I can only imagine working long-term at under-resourced public schools. I am committed to closing the achievement gap no matter where I am in the field, and truly believe it can be, will be and must be done ASAP.

That said, I would have a hard time sending my children to an under-performing public school, AKA a school I would likely work at. Even if it meant spending more money and/or driving longer distances, I think would try to send my children to a higher performing school, even if it was a private school, charter school, or a school in a different district.

I am very wary about writing those few lines. I feel like they make my motives to teach very disingenuous. How can I possibly believe in closing the achievement gap if I won't even send my own (one-day) children there? And how can I possibly be an active member of my community (one of the greatest joys and necessities as a teacher) if I'm not willing to participate in it as a parent? Having only ever attended public schools, I value their diverse people, ideas and opportunities. I grew from their limitations. I have countless peers who attended low-performing public schools and who have developed into high-performing scholars, thinkers and problem solvers.

Yet, I can't get over the fact that a strong education, both at home and at school, is so critical at all stages in life. Good teaching is central in pushing people's learning. Low-performing schools are likelier to be one's traditional, local public schools since individuals have a choice among private and charter schools, and would logically opt for the high-performing schools. I am concerned about mixing my mission to improve schools with my (one day) children's development.

And yet, I can't get past the sinking feeling when I hear of a family sending their child to a "better" school, whether it's a high-performing public/charter or private school. Each child who leaves the system takes away with him/her countless learning experiences that could have been shared with others. How can our schools improve if we don't invest our energy and commitment to the community we belong to?

I have a feeling this is a debate I'll be waging with myself (and my one-day husband) for years to come.

I was wondering what (current and one-day) parents think about this issue. High or low?


As a product of public elementary and middle school and Catholic high school, I believe that we may focus too much on “under-resourced” (in the monetary sense) as an excuse for school performance. My no-frills Catholic education was done at a fraction of the cost per pupil than our (quite good) local public schools. I feel that in core subjects (with the exception of AP courses – we only had one) I received a more thorough education than my friends in public school. Part of this is because we only had a budget for core subjects, so we spent more time on them. In terms of resources our school’s spending per student was roughly one fifth of the equivalent public school. Pay to our teachers was significantly lower than their public school colleagues as well. And although boys and girls could not have gym on the same day because we lacked adequate facilities, I don’t look back on my education as lacking.
I don’t have any answers, but a few things stand out to me why my high school was successful on such a low budget –
1) Parents were making a conscience choice about their child’s education (read: parental involvement and willingness to fork over $2000 a year (in the early 90s)),
2) The teachers were committed to the school’s mission,
3) Students had to pass entrance tests (keeps out low performers, aka the Harvard effect – above average in, above average out),
4) The school had the ability to freely expel problem students.

Again, I don’t have any answers. But it seems to me that by saying “under-resourced” we are making a judgment about money per pupil. It would seem to me that other factors are as important or more important. And it is these factors that give private school an advantage not matched by public schools. Until public schools find some way to compensate for these inherent disadvantages, I will send my children to private school if I can afford to do so.

Jessica, You wrote that you feel "a strong education, both at home and at school, is so critical, at all stages in life." In the context one concludes you are saying that public schools do not give a strong education.

Can you explain why? Is it because it would be impossible for public schools to give a strong education? If so, why could they not? Or do you see some other reason(s)?


Hi Susan,
Sorry for not being clearer in the blog. I originally meant (but didn't clearly write) local low-performing public schools versus high-performing schools, whether they are private, charter, in a different part of the home district or a different district entirely. I'm public school bred and know all of our schools can do fantastic things, whether they are achieving it now, or will achieve it later. I hope the revised entry clarifies things.

-- Jessica

I am presently a teacher in the public schools. I have taught in private, Christian, and public schools, but the bulk of my teaching has been in public school. After my children were born my husband and I made the decision to put our children in a Christian school, which they attended K-12. I enjoy my work in the public school, but did not feel it met the needs of my own children. Although the public schools do a good job of educating our children, we really do not address all domains of the child. Yes, we focus on the physical, social, cognitive, and kinesthetic areas of our children, but we omit the spiritual development of our children. I placed my children in a Christian school because they focus on the above four domains plus the spiritual aspect of the child. I wanted a schol that truly taught the "whole child". I plan to continue teaching in the public school until I retire. I feel that I am making a difference in the lives of the children I teach, but I also never regretted putting my children in a Christian school. Each parent has to decide which school is best for their own children. No one has the right to decide what is best for my children- that right belongs only to my husband and myself. That choice will be yours and yours alone.

I'm a school board chair who sent my child to an "under resourced school" with a large population of low income students. I was also a teacher for 10 years at a similar school, so I knew what I was doing. Yes, she missed a lot of things she might have gotten had I used my income and influence to send her to a "better" school, and I had many opportunities to doubt my decision. But I have put all my energy into improving that school for her and the other deserving students whose parents didn't have my advantages. My daughter struggled through that school, is grown now and very successful. She has many friends from her old school who have made themselves successful despite their humble backgrounds. Their school is turning around, graduates are proud of themselves, and our community is stronger. Where are the rest of you who only give lip service? Dive in. Give your commitment to education. Do it for the students you say you want to serve. Do it for yourself. Do it for the future of your own children, the community in which they will live, and the community in which you will one day retire.

The ideal of an equal opportunity public school system is one of the greatest expressions of democracy at a time when our core values as Americans are being tested by the machinations of a cannibalistic political system. An unwillingness to send one's own children to public school betrays a fundamental loss of faith not only in our education system, but in our democracy as a whole.

A first generation college graduate, I became a teacher through Teachers for Chicago from a profound desire to give back, as cliché as it sounds, because I was shepherded for 13 years by a cadre of mostly competent teachers in nondescript schools in Kansas, Colorado, and Alabama, where I received the same education as both the wealthier and poorer kids around me.

Later, I matriculated to a highly-competitive private college and found with relief that my public education stood up solidly next to that of my new peers who hailed mostly from elite private schools and the most privileged backgrounds.

If my education experience was unique, I was determined that it would not be so for my students on the south side of Chicago--or for my own future children. Thus began my journey into the Sinclairian jungles of urban education, where too many teachers lose limbs and too many children are slaughtered.

Along the way, I have painfully learned that the essence of democracy is participation. In the same way that war supporters ought put on a uniform and hop the next flight to Baghdad, true supporters of public education ought send their own children to public schools and actively work to make them safe, nurturing, and effective for all. It is not enough to simply have an opinion or even to pontificate in the blogosphere where luminary voices are lost in an infinite din of deafening blather. It’s a guiding principle crudely summed up as “put up or shut up”.

Now in Texas, I've discovered Region I is a microcosm of everything that's right (great masses students of many different backgrounds learning from committed teachers and progressive administrators) and wrong (corrupt school boards) with our education system.

Fixing our schools is not rocket science; it is good old fashioned American hard work and determination to manifest our democratic ideals. I applaud your service with TFA, and your earnest labor to improve public schools while wrestling with these tough questions.

Perhaps for now, the answer to your quandary is to purpose to make every school you touch a hallmark of democracy: "good enough" for your own future children.

I'd say that now is really not the time to be making school-choice decisions for your future child. For one thing, you don't know where you'll be then and what your situation may be. But the bigger issue is that public - and private - schools vary widely (and sometimes wildly), even within the same district. I live in decent-sized city, and never thought that I would send my kids to public school. The public schools are horrible, right? But then I learned about the many great magnet programs in our city, and now all 3 of my little darlings go to a great public Montessori magnet school. I couldn't afford to send them to private schools, for one thing, plus they are getting the benefit of a diverse student body, which I did not have, growing up in the suburbs. The school and teachers have been so inspiring that I will be entering a teacher-ed program this fall! So just wait, watch, have your children, then decide. There's lots of time.

Melissa Monaco’s rhetoric gets a bit out in front of reason in her comments above. American democracy, as currently practiced, rests on two powerful concepts – majority rule and individual choice in all matters not directly decided by majority rule. Her analogy with war supporters is fundamentally flawed. The current Administration was voted in by the people (at least once, maybe twice), and therefore we are ultimately responsible for their actions. In terms of military, we have also decided to have an all-volunteer force. That it happens to be disproportionately populated by people of lower-income backgrounds is an artifact of the system we selected. In our democracy, supporters of the war should be no more obligated to fight than protesters. And all should serve if drafted. That is our democracy, as practiced.

Having lived half my adult life in countries with severely limited personal freedoms, I think several posters under-appreciate that personal choice is a cornerstone of our democracy. Everyone should make the choice that’s best for their own children given their circumstances. I think it is supremely self-absorbed when people talk about sending their children to an under-resourced school to ‘walk-the-walk’.

Will depriving your child of the best education possible under the circumstances somehow fix the public education system?

*** Do what is best for the child rather than using them to demonstrate your own righteousness. It is your cause, not theirs. When they are adults, they can choose their causes. In the meantime, do what is best for them, public or private. ***

Charter schools ARE public schools and, frankly, there is no reason that all public schools can't be as good as charter schools. Maybe you could get on the charter school band wagon, and then you wouldn't have to worry about choosing between "public" and private.

To Patricia Weatherwax:

When I wrote public vs. private schools, I actually meant low-performing schools vs. high-performing. I'm sorry for the confusion. That's just based on my assumption that if a parent had a choice among private and charter schools, they're likely to pick the higher performing schools. I personally have mixed feelings about charter schools, mostly because they do take resources (money, students, staff) away from the traditional school system that is often in such desperate need of help. And "charter" does not mean "high performing". I know of many that perform way below the bar.

On the other hand, I've seen how a high-performing charter school movement can have the influence of raising the performance bar for schools across the region. Done right, I believe this is the pressure our public schools need to truly pick up their act.

I taught for 1 year in a high-performing charter school, and worked in many low-performing public schools during my teaching certificate practicum classes. I've come to the conclusion that there are three main problems with the public schools (versus charters): 1. Class sizes are too large by at least 5 kids, 2. No uniform curriculum program throughout the school, 3. Teachers mandated to do too much, i.e., practically parent the children and teach things that should be learned at home. I don't believe that the nation should have a standardized curriculum, but I do feel that a set curriculum in a school provides a kind of all-school standard that best supports learning. Just my 2 cents.

Jessica says that public schools can be high performing, just that they tend to be low performing more often than private. She's basing her post on the question, private vs. public, that was posed to the candidates, but very clearly writes that she is debating the merits of sending her own child to a high performing (be it public, private, charter, etc.) school vs. a low performing/under resourced school (again, public or private, etc.).

Dear all,
So I'm still a little new to official blog protocol. =) After reading comments on the entry, I realized the original wording was unclear and led to some confusion about my meaning. So I made the needed changes but didn't highlight or summarize them. The changes I made are italicized in the blog entry now, and pretty much explain that the debate revolves around local low-performing (public) schools and high-performing (private/charter/other district) schools.

Does this change the discussion for anyone?
-- Jessica

I wonder if at the heart of this debate lies one question: for what purpose? And, To what end? Well I guess that’s two questions. But let me see where I go with this.

Sitting at a Teach For America conference whose mission is to close the achievement gap in under-performing schools, it is clear to me that an excellent education means results. And—in our post-NCLB nation—results mean test scores: state-tests, AP exams, SAT’s or otherwise.

The child we teach in public school needs to do well on their standardized tests. This is the end goal
The child we raise in private school needs to do well on their standardized tests. This is the end goal

It seems evident enough that underneath it all is the statement “I want the best for my children.” And while academic achievement has clearly been linked to options in future life paths and the ability to go to college, I wonder to what end we are really driving either child.

Your (one-day) kids I follow would benefit from higher performing private or charter schools. They would no doubt do well in their classes, have a love of education cultivated for them, be coached and primed to do well on standardized assessments. They would be confident and promising and carry about a sense of purpose and entitlement that would lead them well through their courses. And having graduated from private school with honors and accolades they would be prepared for a high performing private college. Your gift would have been bestowed. And they would have choices. And all would be well. But in this school odds are good that diversity might be scarce and views from the periphery and the voice of the other would be hard to hear. And community is often hard to cultivate when brick walls surround the neighborhood and key pad entries are required. And we ask ourselves at what price must come this gift? To what end do we lead our (one-day) children to the gates of the private school?

There are benefits also for sending your (one-day) children to the local underperforming public school; though, I must admit, they do not come as readily to my fingertips. Your kids would have different kinds of friends with different voices and experiences and sometimes the realities would be life-shaping. And you as a parent would have a cohesive story. Not the self-prescribed savior. Not the lofty helper or the outside interceder. You would have a story to tell of community of how passion and love and heartache bring change. And this would be your gift to your child. But in this school and in these communities odds are good that harmony of cultures and a veritable melting pot of intelligences and beliefs would be hard to find. Results would not abound. There would be harshness and maybe violence and it would not always be safe. And it begs the question “what price must our kids pay for this gift?” To what end do we lead our (one-day) children to the fence of the public school?

Two months ago in Brooklyn one of my student’s parents came to me and asked me this same question. Her child is so bright, and I knew that if she were in another class she would have preformed better on her state test. Mom had Yale on her mind and I hope Arielle makes it someday. And if she goes to private school like her mom was pushing she might make it and she will always attribute that to getting out and being ‘different’. And if she stays in public schools she might not. But if she did, the compassion that I saw in her at ten years old was profound. And she might use her story to help others someday. And I did not know what to tell her mother that day.

Maybe I’m young. I know I’m confused. But something tells me that I’d rather my child be strong and quick to laugh and think and empathize and love the people she comes in contact with and to be loved in return. I realize that’s harder to measure than academic success. And maybe when I’m a father I will desperately want my child to make it to Harvard and to do well there. But I hope not to a point where that definition of her overshadows the first one.
I know this is real long for a response to a blog. But my plane took a long time coming and its here now, so this seems a pretty good place to stop.

As someone whose three daughters have experienced a combination of public, private, and Catholic schools from preschool through grad school, and who has taught in a private school after years of volunteering as a tutor in public schools (in one of the 1st districts in CA to go bankrupt, so NOT high-resource schools), I have carried on this discussion with myself many times over the last 25 years. Until a divorce limited my (and my children's) choices of schools for financial reasons (and also removed my previous position of final decision-maker since I was the only parent involved in researching schools) I was able to research schools for my children when they were in preschool and elementary school, and then help them research schools for high school and college and choose schools based on what each child's strengths, interests, etc. happened to be.
I firmly believe that there are at least a few good teachers at every school, "public" or "private." I also believe that a child can get a good education at either type of school. However, not even every "good" teacher will be a good fit for every student, and even good teachers have less than ideal years.
It is important to look at the style of interactions at a school (as in - is the administration supportive or bullying; if a private school, is money the ruler of all administrative decisions or will they stick up for what is right for a student even if a parent is a potentially large donor; do teachers receive credit for what they do well or does the principal/head of school claim credit for all achievements; do teachers seem to care about the kids in their classes or are the kids a necessary evil in order to have a job; are interactions with parents cordial, condescending, or non-existent; are teachers respectful of their colleagues; do teachers seem to like each other; do kids treat each other respectfully on the playground and in class; etc.). One should observe a variety of teachers and classes at many grade levels, and then ask whether the answers to these questions seem like a good fit for the child in question. It is also important to remember that a school that may be wonderfully nurturing of one child may not be the best for the next child.
Once a decision has been made, a parent needs to be involved in the school's life. Meet the teacher(s), principal, secretary, etc. Join the PTA. Volunteer as a chaperone for a field trip. Be supportive of your child's teacher. Be fair if there is a disagreement between your child and a teacher - hear both sides before jumping to your child's defense, BUT be willing to jump if that seems appropriate after you've heard the facts from each perspective. Insist that your child be respectful even towards those teachers that you know the administration has been dragging its heels about getting rid of (and remember [this was a bit of a surprise to me] there are probably kids that these teachers have taught well, even if your kid isn't one of them).
Public schools can be a great way for your kids to get to know a variety of people, ethnically and socio-economically. However, they can also inadvertently reinforce negative societal stereotypes about some groups of students, especially if teachers are [often unconsciously] biased or "teach down" to some kids or if behavioral standards are not consistent for all students. Also, if it is a smaller school, it can be more difficult for your child to find another student or group of students with similar interests, especially if your kid is exceptionally studious or already has a strong interest in a certain area that may not be supported at your public school (i.e. music, art,...).
Private schools often talk the diversity line, but don't do much to help ensure that their school is diverse. This is often a result of the simple economics of the situation - it is easier to be headmaster of a great school if everyone has tons of money and you don't have to worry if you'll be able to make the payroll or if the school will still be there the next year. So... be careful when choosing a private school as many schools now try to find a "niche" to exploit in the hopes of finding a ready-made constituency, and just because something is advertised doesn't mean it is actually a priority at the school. Another factor to consider in choosing a private school is that most power is concentrated in a very few hands, and while this allows private schools to implement change more quickly than public schools (where the pace of change can seem glacial), this also means that a school that once embodied values you embraced can morph into something almost unrecognizable pretty quickly and with very little parental input. Depending on the culture of the school, it can also be challenging to be a student with few resources (for field trips, tutoring, etc.) if everyone around you has abundant resources. Also, parents should remember that private school does not provide some sort of magical vaccine against learning difficulties in children. One still must be vigilant and make sure there is good communication between school and home about your child.
As for Catholic schools, my experience is that they do the "integration thing" very well. This is partly because they get to choose their students, and partly because most administrators, teachers, and many parents I've met in Catholic schools believe it is the right thing to do. In my daughter's Catholic school, there was a tendency to teach to the middle, and an abhorrance of things like AP classes, though I believe their attitude toward this has changed in the years since my daughter graduated (and this was just one school - many pride themselves on their high academic standards).
In summing this up, no matter what type of school one chooses for one's children, there is a requirement of significant parental involvement, especially in the early years. Kids can fall through the cracks as easily in private or parochial schools as they can in public schools. Each type of school has advantages and drawbacks, which should be weighed for the child in question. The goal should be to find the school that is going to be the best for your child. This is more difficult if one enters the process with preconceived ideas about the types of schools one is looking at. Some of the best advice I ever received was from our first pediatrician. She cautioned me against sacrificing my child's education on the altar of my beliefs.

Poor nutrition, at home and in schools, is one problem contributing to low performing schools in America. Teaching children about nutrition from a young age, especially in low performing schools where children often have hot chips and a sugary drink for breakfast and/or lunch, seems like a logical way to combat the heath problems AND health care and insurance issues of the future.

I would echo that your decision will be based on what is best for each child in the family, your available options, and perhaps your future husband (!), and that it is far in the future. However, you will never find the perfect school.

As a parent, you have to think about balancing a child's school experience with their home experience... Inner city public school curriculum is too scripted and test-driven? How about painting with two or three friends and a magical artist on weekends. High performing (whether by gerrymandered school district or tuition) school gives an unreal picture of life? Live and worship in a socio-economically integrated neighborhood. Low performing school gives child an elite view of his/her own intellectual powers? Enroll in a Johns Hopkins summer program. And so on.

Because we are teachers, we tend to think that school is the determining factor in a child's life. It isn't. The culture of the family is.

I live in California, so I am most familiar with California charter school issues. The idea that charter schools take away from traditional schools is a bit of a canard. A school chartered through a local district still has its money filtered (in most cases) through that district, which skims off an "administration" fee. The funds that remain for the charter per student are far less than what a traditional public school would receive per student. Out of the remaining money charters must find and pay for facilities and all equipment. They receive absolutely no support from the district. The district pays for absolutely nothing in the way of infrastructure, administrative costs, or support services. School districts also tend to throw up barriers, going so far as to have cities and towns suddenly change the zoning for the building the charter just leased so the school cannot operate. Yet charters do rather well overall, and the ones that don't lose their charter. Locally, a charter operator is under indictment for corruption. He and his friends will probably do some serious jail time. Traditional public schools are rarely brought to account for bad performance or corruption.
In either case, a charter or traditional public school that uses an inadequate curriculum is going to perform poorly. My private school uses the Core Knowledge Sequence, as do many traditional public and charter schools. Between choice and curriculum, a charter that uses the CK Sequence as the basis for their curriculum is, in my humble opinion, the best combination.

I too was a product of both public and Catholic education. I went to a Catholic grammar school and a public high school (college prep program) and a Catholic university for my undergraduate and masters programs and am currently at a Catholic college for a 2nd masters program, so you might say i have participated in the best of both worlds. i have almost completed raising a son who is heading for his 3rd year of college and selected his schools with even more care and caution than i did my own. For pre-school and grammar school he attended schools in areas of the Bronx that that would be considered under resourced locations and yet i chose to keep him in school there because i sent him to Catholic schools where i knew the staff personally, being a teacher in the making myself,and knew
he was going to receive a very good education. By the time he got to high school i had moved to the suburbs and gave him the option of going to a very elite Catholic school that he was accepted to in N.Y.C or another elite Catholic high school 30 minutes from our home, he chose the one near our home. Do i believe that i made the right choice not sending him to public schools, even though he was accepted to Brooklyn Tech (a very good public high school)? Yes i do! I would do it all the same again. I am not being hypocritical as a teacher who is working as a teacher in the Bronx, I am just being a mother first and then a teacher but that does not mean that i am not giving fully to all children, regardless of their economic b background. I can't my child pay for the mistakes that our government, schools, parents and teachers have made in the past and sometimes continue to make!

The idea of high performing and low performing schools is a bit flawed. Schools do not actually perform at all. The people in the schools do the performing. Similarly, the achievement gap is another shaky concept. It is based on comparisons of subgroups with little or no grouping validity. The only real gap that exists is between what students are able to do and what they are capable of doing. Teachers that concentrate on that gap will improve learning regardless of the setting.

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