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Sunday, April 14, 2013

On choosing private school

My family’s public school era is coming to a close.

My youngest will be starting high school next year, and not at our town’s public high school. She’ll be joining her two older brothers at one of those “elite private schools” one reads about. You know, the places where so many politicians, wealthy philanthropists and assorted academics choose to send their kids, the implication being that those who are most vocal about what public education should be rarely choose it for their own children.

Others have already written about the difference between choosing private school precisely because it provides the education you think all children should get, and choosing private school while advocating something very different for other people’s children in public school.  Nevertheless,  there’s a certain amount of guilt that comes along with this decision. If my kids leave the public education system, don’t I lose credibility as an authentic parental voice on public education? Does my ability to afford an alternative education make me more of a dilettante than an advocate? Am I just a coward who’s fleeing instead of fighting?

I suppose those doubts will be my cross to bear. I do truly and deeply believe that the high school my kids will attend adheres to an educational philosophy that would benefit all children, and that it is possible to implement it in the public education environment. I also know that my kids only get one chance at high school. The way things are going in New Jersey, these next few years are going to see far too many negative changes in public education that would have a terrible impact directly on my kids, like more high-stakes testing; the loss of great, experienced teachers due to the insane pressures of test-based evaluation and other state mandates; and more time spent on things that make the school look good in the data game as opposed to things that actually educate kids.

Anyway, as I said before, others have gone into all that in great detail, with greater expertise than I have.

Instead, as my family embarks on this new chapter, I’d like to offer two lists: The five main things we hope our kids will get in the high school we chose, and the five main things we’ll regret leaving behind in the public school system.


  1. A rich, diverse curriculum with a good balance between learning information and learning critical thinking, communication and reasoning skills that make information meaningful.
  2. Small class sizes and plenty of opportunities for kids to work closely with teachers.
  3. A school that devotes significant effort to promoting a sense of community and teaches the responsibilities and benefits of being members of that community.
  4. Goals set high, with every individual encouraged to aim for excellence and not settle for mediocre proficiency.
  5. The opportunity to try new things and get out of one’s comfort zone without being discouraged, labeled, or bullied.


  1. A truly diverse student body, and all the deep understanding of our community and our world that comes from broad human contact. Private schools try, but there is no substitute for the true cross section of humanity that walks through the doors of a public school every single day.
  2. Music. This seems counterintuitive, with everyone lamenting cuts to the arts in public education. Who knows? Our district could very well suffer the same fate in the coming years. But up until now, we’ve been privileged to be part of a district with an excellent music program, and our kids have benefited enormously from it. A large school with many kids can offer so much in the music department: marching band, jazz band, orchestra, choir, etc. A smaller school simply doesn’t have the deep well of talented kids to draw on. Yes, their new school has a music program, but it lacks the depth of the public school offerings.
  3. Some of the most inspiring teachers you’ll meet anywhere. Sure, we’ve encountered plenty of mediocre teachers in public school, but some amazing gems as well - highly experienced educators who draw great achievements from their students. What I’m about to say is conjecture on my part; maybe I’m overgeneralizing. But it seems to me that, because public school has traditionally provided a high degree of job security, benefits, etc., a person who wants to dedicate him/herself to a career in education - who has a fire in the belly for teaching and wants to remain in the classroom - has been likely to make that career in the public school system. Unlike what the anti-union crowd would have us believe, tenure and strong union contracts can enhance the quality of education by making teaching a viable career choice for the long haul.
  4. A school community that is also a geographic community. Kids benefit when the people they live among are also the people they learn with.
  5. The fundamental sense of being part of the social contract; kids knowing that everyone in their community is chipping in to educate them because they are valued members of society, and that we are all obliged to serve each other as citizens of a democracy.

Sigh. Nothing is simple.


alto2 said...

Just a few quick comments based on my experience teaching in a private school (you've heard some of these before, but for the good of the order):

Most of the teachers at a private school want to be there. The question is why they want to be there. Do they actually want to teach, or are they there to coach and teaching is a necessary evil for them to reach that goal? Depending on what the private school's priorities are, the proportion of coaches to teachers will vary, but you'll likely encounter some of the latter, and you'll know by the fact that they can barely teach their way out of a paper bag.

You're definitely right about the lack of a music program on the scale of public school, but how the private school handles that can vary widely, too. The school I taught at had a great instrumental music teacher who put together several ensembles and was able to challenge them despite the lack of numbers. Again, depends on the school's priorities.

The anti-union folks don't really get (or care) that teaching in a private school means that you have zero job security. You can do a fabulous job and be fired because the HM doesn't like the clothes you wear or the fact that you are not, yourself, a private school grad. Or one parent called to complain because you gave their kid detention. You are dead on when you say that tenure and unions make teaching a viable career choice. Teacher turnover at private schools is a lot higher. Some of it's by choice, but a lot of it isn't. The career teachers at private schools are rare birds--and usually old enough that they didn't encounter this crap at the beginning of their careers because the world of education (and ed policy) hadn't gone completely nuts yet.

In theory, private school curricula and teaching are what public school wants to be (and once was). But in practice, it's still a mixed bag. I think the fat cats send their kids to private schools for the prestige (legitimate or appropriated) and so that they can dis public schools from on high. There are no guarantees that kids get a better education in private schools, or that those lofty goals are anything more than words on a piece of paper. We hope that they are, but it will vary from school to school and it will vary from classroom to classroom within a given school.

There is a lot of madness in the private school system; it's just a different kind than you find in public. There's a lot of good in both, too. The only way to have any sense of what you're getting with private is to do your homework and not assume that your financial investment automatically equals excellence (which I know you don't do, fortunately, but there are plenty of parents who do).

Parents who assume that throwing money at an education will make everything hunky-dory are living in la-la land, especially if the child involved is troubled or disadvantaged in some way (learning differences, etc.). And anyone who assumes that any private school is by definition far better than a public school is a fool.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

All good points, alto2. I didn't get into the whole process we went through in choosing the right school, but it wasn't easy and it was very scary, because they are all over the map in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out the right fit for your kids, your family, and your values isn't easy. You end up making compromises, as in everything in life.

It's interesting to hear your perspective on teaching in private school and the lack of job security. Our experience so far has been that the quality of teaching in my kids' high school is overall high, but there are fewer older, career teachers. In the public schools, my kids were lucky to encounter a number of extraordinary teachers (I would say my kids had around half a dozen among the three of them through elementary and middle school) who were all highly experienced, career educators. That's anecdotal and of limited value in terms of making generalizations, but it's interesting nevertheless. Still, the overall, cumulative experience with private school teachers has been very, very positive.

Harriet Knevals said...

You don't lose your right to voice an opinion regarding public education as a citizen and as a taxpayer. As a matter of fact, I wish you would speak far and wide as to why you left public education. Your children have received a foundation that will carry them through the school of your choice and the public should know how well that has served them. I always shook my head at those who laud the private high schools for getting their children into fantastic colleges while forgetting the first nine years of public education. Your voice regarding the excessive use of testing data to drive public education would benefit all children who have to remain. My experience using the same schools has been over the top. The high school has so many choices that there isn't any private school that can compare. Having science award winners, top-notch literary magazines, and two perfect SAT students as well as a diverse student population, makes your public high school a real choice. I'm sad to see you take your wonderful children who would have both added to and gained so much from the local schools away to a private school that will claim they have succeeded where the public school has failed. Seasoned teachers are not always the best. Those have only a few years experience may be able to bring educational experiences far beyond what one expects. You are wonderful people and I truly wish your wonderful children would stay in their local high school. They will gain a superior education because they will demand it both of themselves and of their teachers. They will also enrich the children around them and show that public education is a superior and valued choice.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

You're absolutely right, Harriet - the foundation my kids got in public school is standing them in good stead in a selective private high school. The way I look at it, it's not all that different from a kid who graduates a public high school and goes off to a private university to seek out the next stage of their education. The choice of a private institution in no way invalidates their earlier public education.

alto2 said...

Ah, yes--the lack of older, career teachers at private school. Know why that is?


No, seriously, private school HMs like kids who're just out of undergrad because they hardly have to pay them anything. (I've heard them say it and I know it's true regardless.) If the school has boarding and said faculty live in the forms, they can pay even less--often barely a living wage--because now they get "free" housing. So when a new HM comes to town and starts targeting the older teachers, can pretty safely say it's because someone's either under pressure to cut costs, or is fundamentally against paying teachers a salary they've earned through decades of experience. (Or, in some cases, just doesn't think older teachers project a good image for the school.)

It's a sad, sad thing. I watched all the years od teaching experience slowly leave my school when a new HM arrived for all of those reasons, and it was depressing. You can't run an elite private school with a faculty that are all fresh out of school and have no experience. You just can't--who can help the new teachers adjust and find their way if they're ALL new? And yet there are those who think it's a good idea to try anyway.