Public vs. Private Education
Comparing Apples to Zucchini
by Mark Liberator (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
We live in an interesting era. Too many people flaunt their belief in Warwickian psychics, crooked evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, the redeeming social value of Jerry Springer programs and outlandish government conspiracies. To the rest of us, these things exist for our amusement at best.
Daniel Gilio's article, Education and the Presidential Campaign, was also entertaining even though the subject of education is absolutely no laughing matter. Allow me to refute his claims of conspiracy, one by one, and point the spotlight squarely on education in The United States.
I promise to do my best to be impartial, considering that I am a public high school teacher and have known Dan as a friend for many years.
When Chelsea Clinton, or any other member of an affluent family, attends a private school, it should not be interpreted as the apocalypse for public education. It probably indicates a desire to shelter her from those who would benefit from her close proximity: the attention seekers or those who would harm the presidency by harming her. It certainly does not point a finger at public schools for being substandard.
Private schools, partly due to their expense, handle education under unique circumstances. Privately schooled pre-adults feel pressure to perform in part because of high tuition; there is a lot of money riding on these students. Whether paid by loans, parents or scholarships, the tuition provider acts as an overseeing force, continually checking on progress. These private schools integrate religion, have low student/teacher ratios and at times practice extreme educational standards that cannot be duplicated in the public sector.
Those who can afford the specialized services offered by private schools, like the Clintons, should be entitled to them. Paying roughly $11,000/year more than public four-year universities 1 may provide benefits such as solitude due to location, extreme rigor and the stigma of having attended a private institution. Yet these institutions are far from being educational panaceas. In fact, grade inflation and non-exposure to professors as lowerclasspersons are two huge problems that private institutions still face.
Since private schools look attractive to those who cannot afford them, the voucher system is being debated. Mr. Gilio claimed that tuition wavers would make private education a reality for those who are not a member of the "ruling class." A recent U.S. Department of Education report indicated the following [from the AFT website 2]:Private and religious schools highly value their autonomy. A recent U.S. Department of Education report, conducted at the request of Congress, indicates that private and religious schools are unlikely to participate in a voucher program that would require them to meet accountability standards in key policy areas such as admissions, student testing, curriculum, and religious training. 3Private schools can reject special needs students. They are not required to use national, state or local tests. They can teach whatever they want, prioritizing and inventing the curricula as they see fit. Private schools are not required to hire licensed teachers. Even if private schools were to accept tax dollars, the current bureaucracy would need to be expanded to monitor those schools, costing taxpayers more as a result. The voucher system, once investigated, is not as simple as some would like us to believe.
The Public School Monopoly Misnomer
As if Dan had a Deep Throat contact, he went on to claim that The National Education Association 4 and The American Federation of Teachers are members of some cloak and dagger, secret organization. Their unholy union's goal: to maintain an education monopoly. I doubt Bob Chase, President of the NEA, agreed with him when he wrote:Those who would have us believe that public education is "an ossified government monopoly," incapable of change, ought to visit one of the many "turnaround" schools across America.NEA, AFT, local union leaders and teachers of all kinds are calling for improvements. It is undeniable. There is no conspiracy. There is no monopoly. There are many concerned professionals who want to make a positive difference in the lives of students.
Visit, for example, Martin Luther King Elementary in San Diego, California. Today, King is a very different place. The drug dealers are gone, test scores are up, and a community-based Friends of King Foundation supports the school's music and arts programs.
The Alamo Middle School in Alamo, Texas has re-energized itself by reconnecting with its community. Teachers visit students' homes, and parents take evening courses at the school. Twice as many of Alamo's middle schoolers now meet Texas academic standards as did before the community reinvolvement.
Today, Willow Bend Elementary school in Palatine, Illinois, enjoys an attendance rate of 97 percent, and student test scores have gone from the bottom third to the top third in the district. Three years ago the educators at Willow Bend took a hard look at what they were doing and how they were doing it, and they reinvented the school.
In Seattle, Washington, over the last three years, 10 city schools have worked their way off a list of the lowest performing schools, with joint management-union support. In New York City, 15 schools have improved sufficiently to be removed from the state's dreaded Schools Under Registration Review.
What can we learn from these and other successful school turnaround efforts?
Raising the bar works. Set clear, high expectations for all students. That is what El Paso, Texas, has done. The majority of students in the three school districts that serve El Paso, the fifth-poorest metropolitan area in the country, now pass the state achievement test.
Downsizing works. Research now shows, conclusively, that students in smaller classes (13 to 17 students per teacher) consistently score higher on achievement and basic skills tests than students in regular classes (22-25).
Professional development works. University of Wisconsin professor Jennifer O'Day, who has studied school turnarounds, notes that successful school reform efforts invariably include a strong program of learning for teachers and support staff.
Fortunately, not every school has to reinvent the wheel. Models have been developed and demonstrated to help schools improve student achievement. These models come with curricula and instructional guides and trainers. They include Johns Hopkins' Success for All program, E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Sequence, and others. The challenge for school administrators and faculty is to find the program that best fits their local circumstances.
School renewal is gathering speed and gaining ground. However, those of us who believe in public education must remain impatient-there is so much still to do. 5
Interpreting the Statistics
After comparing Microsoft to Public Education, Mr. Gilio went on to quote some statistics, comparing public to private schools. With a few clicks through a search engine, I was able to find some statistics of my own, which parallel Mr. Gilio's. The following information was taken from The National Center for Education Statistics 6.
All three of those statistics undeniably point to the same ruthless indicator: socio-economics. Parents who have a high education generally live in expensive homes located in neighborhoods with similarly educated parents. These people place a high value on education because they understand the need for it.
- Generally, students with higher scale scores reported higher levels of parental education. The more education parents had the higher the scores of their children.
- Both public and nonpublic schools showed increased scale scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students. Public schools showed increased scores for twelfth-grade students as well. Students attending nonpublic schools continued to outperform their peers attending public schools.
- Students eligible for the free/reduced-price lunch program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scored lower than those not eligible, for all three grades. Eligibility for free/reduced-price lunches is determined by the USDA's Income Eligibility Guidelines.
What about the parents who don't live in those neighborhoods? Some parents push their children to achieve because they want their children to do better than them in life. Many other parents don't push as hard, because they neither understand the importance of education nor have the ability to foster the need for it. The student's environment in both the neighborhood and the family may help us understand the latter.
The Birth of Public Education
After reading and digesting Mr. Gilio's letter, I feel that he may be attempting to set the stage for the collapse of public education -- which is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. An extremely brief look down that avenue is all that is necessary to disprove it.
Richard Franck wrote, "necessity is the mother of invention" in the Northern Memoirs  7. He may not have been referring to the need for public education but it sure did capture it perfectly. A nation needs to have informed citizens, an agreed upon set of skills and a place to discuss issues. Public education was created to meet those needs.
The total enrollment in K-12 public education is projected to reach 54.3 million by the year 2008 8. Preparing these children to face the competitive work force, they must be trained to solve problems, communicate their thoughts and work cooperatively with coworkers. The best way to accomplish those tasks and meet the needs of our nation can clearly be accomplished through public education.
Like India, there is a class system that exists in The United States. Sure, it is less pronounced. We are not plagued by "untouchable" status, born into a rung of the societal ladder, permanently unable to improve our standard of living. Education over here is the most influential force in climbing up the social classes that certainly do exist, however subtle. Upwardly traversing our class system through education helps us achieve higher paying careers, independence and comfort.
Without an intense amount of guidance, some people never learn and consequently benefit from this important lesson early in life. Eventually there comes a time when these people do realize the error of their ways. Portions of them go back to school and land up changing careers later in life. Another portion will do nothing and wonder what would have become of their lives if they had gone back to school. Others will point fingers at the system, deny their own responsibility and continue exercising their belief in psychics, tele-evangelists, talkshow programs and uncorroborated government conspiracies.
To read the response to this article, Private Education Revisited, CLICK HERE.
Footnotes1 The NEA website is at www.nea.org, see American Education Statistics ...At A Glance. Source: U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics 1997, Table 312, pp. 326-27 (1996-97 preliminary).
2 The AFT website is at www.aft.org.
3 U.S. Department of Education Planning and Evaluation Service (PES). Barriers, Benefits, and Costs of Using Private Schools to Alleviate Overcrowding in Public Schools, by Lana Muraskin. Stephanie Stullich, Project Officer. (Washington, DC: 1998)
4 The National Education Association can be investigated at www.nea.org.
5 Bob Chase, President of the NEA, wrote an article called Change That Works: A School Can Overcome a Legacy of Failure and can be found on the NEA site above.
6 The National Assessment of Educational Progress [part of The Department of Education, www.ed.gov] can be further studied by viewing their website at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/.
7 John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations at www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/bartlett/.
8 From The National Center for Education Statistics -- http://nces.ed.gov/. The NCES is part of The Department of Education, www.ed.gov.
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