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Public or Private?

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The everlasting question: Public or private?

As The Washington Post inevitably reports about the Obamas' personal transition to my hometown, the focus has been on the children's schools. Today's article finally called out the elephant in the room: "Like many parents moving their children to Washington, Barack and Michelle Obama will be told to avoid D.C. public schools. Is that good advice?"

Jay Mathews suggests not ruling out public schools and points out that not all of our public schools are so notoriously poor performing. In fact, Thomson Elementary has a rising program and supportive staff and is right around the corner from the White House. (Why Thomson Elementary, I wonder? In speaking to my colleagues here who have a focus on elementary schools in the district, there are a number of higher performing public schools in the region.)

But, as all articles on the president-elect's personal transition to DC will conclude, the decision is their private and personal choice, and the public has absolutely no right to judge on whether their daughters will attend an elite private school or local public school where 69% of the student body comes from low-income families. True story.

The real question that this article begs is: If you had the means and the access, would you send your children to a public or private school?

As an educator and as a staunch advocate for closing the dire achievement gap in our nation's public schools, it's been a question I've toyed with over the years. I don't believe in using children as a pawn in making social statements and my opinions on this issues have reflected that (and any hypocrisy I've dealt with) over the years. Even in the 20 minutes I've spent writing this, I've flip-flopped my mind over what I'd do if I had children. Right this second, I'm still unsure, but what I do believe in is the bottom line that we need to focus our energy on closing the achievement gap not by changing the backgrounds of the families we serve, but by fixing what we're doing in education as adults. All kids and their families must achieve on an absolute scale, whether they're from low-income communities or not. Bring it.

But as I work closer with administrators, teachers and students in our lowest performing districts in the country including Washington DC, I am more and more encouraged by what I see and, honestly, by everything we do from the time we wake up at the crack of dawn everyday until we snap the laptop closed before midnight. There is a lot wrong in DC schools and a lot of people doing things not in the best interest of children. But there are so many amazing people working toward great things for kids. I am years away from having children, let alone children who are school age. With enough hard work and change, hopefully my professional goals will allow my personal priorities to be aligned.

14 Comments

Every parents have their own decision based on different variables in their life. I send my only daughter in private school. That's not because we are using her as a pawn of our social statements. We decided to send her in private school after all observation and research what we know about public school. Its merely about moral and behaviors in public school. Not the education.

I would be very sad if the Obamas' education choice for their daughters were seen as a referendum on the value of public vs. private education. Why? The Obamas have to consider (a) the physical security of their children (b) how the necessary Secret Service detail will be integrated into the school.

On the contrary, Liz -- I think the Obamas' choice speaks volumes about the state of public education...as does the fact that almost 40% of our federal legislators send their kids to private schools. How can these decisions _not_ be seen as a message about the state of public education?

The logistics of the Secret Service mandate to protect Malia & Natasha are the same whether the building they go to school in is occupied by a public school or a private school. It makes no difference from that perspective.

From there, if the Obamas' feel that their children are generally less-safe in a public school -- well, that's definitely a statement as well.

Shane

President-elect Obama's younger daughter's name is Sasha, not Natasha.

I am sure there are public elementary schools in D.C. that are just as good as the privates in terms of curriculum and teaching, maybe even better.

I am also sure that the biggest difference between them is, as you noted, the income level of their students. That's the real elephant in the room.

My upper middle class children have attended public schools where about 50 percent of students are low-income. I hear horror stories all the time from private school parents who transferred their children back to public -- about the rampant bullying and out-of-touch elitism they experienced in the so-called superior private schools.

Contrary to the stereotype, public schools can be better than privates in many ways. Why do we never read about that? You won't see negative "research" on private schools because--they are private.

So what if 69 percent of the DC students are poor? I don't really believe it will happen, but if the Obamas are brave enough to send their children to a diverse public school, they would not be jeopardizing their daughter's education, would even enhance it, AND they would be walking the talk when it comes to supporting public schools.

The choice (of sending your children to public or private school) is deeply personal and dependent on a variety of factors. Whether private or public, religious or sectarian, every school is only as good as its administration, staff, admission policies, class size, parent support and budget. The public, with the support of policy makers and the media, have stereotyped schools in this manner: private as superior (the higher the tuition, the better the school) and public as inferior (the lower the scores, the worse the school). However, in the private sector, a high tuition cost does not necessarily translate to a high-quality educational experience for the students. In the public sector, having a low-performing status does not necessarily translate to a low-quality educational experience for the students. In fact, for each scenario, there are plenty of examples for the opposite correlations. As an educator, I have worked in both private and public schools - having experiences in each sector with high and low quality schools. As a parent, I sent my children both to private and public schools. When I could not find a high-quality public or private school for my children within a 30-mile radius of my home, I started a school.

In Chicago in the 1980-90s I sent my children to both public and private schools. One good public school was better than the private school we had been sending them to. No school was trying to be all things to all people in those days so matching your child with the school was critically important. Our daughter needed a school that was more traditional, our son thrived on constructivist teaching.

I personally grew up in Arkansas where there were 48 children in one room at every grade level. We were taught by nuns who were trying to get their BA degrees in the summer. Our parents totally supported the teachers and what the teachers said. Of the six children in our family we have 3 PhDs, 2 MA,and 1 BA degrees from 14 colleges including Harvard, Stanford, Univ.of Notre Dame, Rice and others. What happens at home is critical. The school may or may not be.

Whatever Pres. Obama does he will be criticized. I don't care if the school near the White HOuse is wonderful, his children are his number 1 concern and I don't think it would be fair to either the school or his daughters to go to a public school. A public school is just not equipped to deal with all the security. I wouldn't want to be their public school teacher! Talk about being different! Who will invite them for playdates-they belong in a private school with other students of very famous parents where they are not different because their father is the president. No public school can offer that.

When well-equipped, well-prepared, wealthier than the average families by-pass the public schools of their neighborhoods, we limit in many ways the magnificent opportunity public schools were designed to offer - the structureand support to master ones circumstances, the freedom to surpass the limitations of an individual family.
Bypassing our local public schools systematically limits opportunity for uplifting, modeling,collaborating with, and reconstituting the life fabric of those who have not yet, by those who already have. We make it more likely that those who have not yet will have ever less access to models of motivation for knowledge, know how, and the beliefs and to sustain the steadfast pursuit!
We leave brave novice teachers in the lurch. We leave children whose parents cannot afford choices in the lurch.

Decades of educational research show us that parent involvement, peer group qualities, and "inclusion" work to invigorate the performance of all. When the parents who can involve themselves remove themselves to private schools along with their students, we shouldn't wonder why our urban public schools are left doing the best they can in a spirit of pervasive poverty.
With so few students who can demonstrate the ways and means of highly engaged learners, whole school populations are left at a loss of better ways to think, be, act, and aspire.
We shouldn't then wonder why new, energetic urban teachers who arrive at the school door creative and committed, decide that the average stay of two-three years is all they can give as well. These teachers daily work do their best to weave progress from whatever children bring in terms of academic readiness, academic work values, academic models,enthusiasm for learning, prior learning,social skills, verbal skills, listening skills, conflict-resolution skills, language discrepancies, neglect, and abuse issues...the list is longer than the general public could imagine.
This experience is exaccerbated by low family involvement due to time contraints, depression, overwhelm, and lack of knowing how to support of their children's student life and progress. It's really simple: challenging urban schools, coupled with the poverty of professional support and development for novice teachers, makes teaching in such a climate like teaching in an emergency room. How long can such public school settings keep giving out before they collapse or are declared dead on arrival. It takes special people, altruistic and devoted people, to serve democracy through its emergency rooms! Let's change!! Let's start by taking a good look at the conditions that kills our public school system, systematically. Let's begin to take care of these professionals willing to devote energy to those who have fewer finacial choices as yet. Swimming upstream on a daily basis is exhausting ... let's infuse that stream with diverse resources. Let's systematically invigorate our public schools through practicing democracy unilaterally and boldly. I believe that we will discover how well-equipped, well-prepared, wealthier parents and their offspring can be the lights needed to open minds and hearts left so readily and recently in the dark. Isn't that how education began in America?

I agree with Shane. If the schools are so bad that they cannot send their girls there then changes must be made. If it is not good enough for the elite then it isn't good enough for anyone.
change it instead of going elsewhere.

Let's please also be aware enough not to lump all "public school" or all "private school" choices together. In my area, near the state seat of government and a university with a highly-ranked education program, the public schools -- even within a single district -- vary widely in their leadership, culture, and student demographic.

The vast majority of the private schools in our area are parochial/religious schools, which do not have any legal mandate to hire certified instructors, and do not tend to pay their instructors as well (or any better) than the public schools in the area do.

I choose to send my kids to public schools for the increased choices in programming, the wider number and variety of students in their cohort, and for the simple fact that I don't care to pay tuition on top of my local taxes to have my kids led through prayer and devotions in lieu of science or art class.

It's interesting to note that the Carters did send their daughter Amy to public school in D.C., but this was before the devastation to public education funding and public perception that the Reagan years brought on...

This has to be a difficult decision for the Obama's, as I know it would be for me. I am a product of Title I public education system, and both my parents were public teachers. I am the only one of my cousins who did not attend our family's traditional private school because I declined my acceptance.

I can easily see that my cousins were provided a much more challenging academic curriculum and benefited from their private school experience. However, I think I also benefited tremendously from mine. Their academic experience might have been superior, but I think there's a lot to be said for learning how to navigate life at a public school and interacting and engaging with a wide variety of peers on a daily basis. In many ways I think public school better prepares kids for the reality of an incredibly diverse world where you have to work hard and advocate for opportunities.

That being said, I'm also a TFA alum. While I dearly love many of the students and staff I worked with, I would not want to send my child to the high school where I taught. Not only because I believe there is a physical danger to students there, but also because of the pathetic academic expectations the permeate the school, with the exception of too few outstanding teachers. The students I worked with desperately deserve more than what the school offers them, and if I had another viable option for my child, I would take it. It's a tough choice to make. I will continue to advocate for public schools and improving our public education system, but I believe that responsible parents have to consider all options available and make the best decision for them and their children.

HI,
I am very interested in TFA because two of my teachers are from TFA. My own daughters have always had the choice of which schools to attend, public or private...my youngest, dyslexic and gifted, chose public school, unlike her older sisters who chose private...so remember, sometimes it is best to give a child the choice...her work is very rigorous, but the support is there and in a public school with 62 % English Lnaguage Learner students, my daughter who is dyslexic is getting the support she needs. Last year she had a TFA teacher and loved her for her English class...We loved you Miss C...as she had her students call her.
:)
Kudos for the Teach for America program

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