Private vs. Public Schools

Parents who bear the financial luxury of having the conversation, may eventually find themselves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of sending their children to a well-respected private school, over what has been described as the more lowbrow settings of many public schools.  Full disclosure: I spent some time pursuing a career as an educator in a public high school, so I can attest to the shortcomings of its structure personally, if need be.  I have also been associated with a good many private schools over the years as an academic tutor, so I can also verify how much of their oft-heralded academic superiority is greatly exaggerated by its enthusiasts.

It’s true that many private schools have higher test scores and graduation rates than their public school equivalents.  It’s also true that private schools, being primarily funded by the parents who can afford to send their students there, are not obligated to accept every child looking to enroll into their institution (having parents whose income can meet the financial demands of a private school education is also not always enough, since many private schools reserve the right to dismiss any student whose academic performance or personal views fall short of their satisfactory standards).  Public schools, being funded largely by the state through taxes, are normally prohibited from being selective about their student body (hence why it’s called public education; if you’re under 18, you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat).  However, it is also true that private schools are often better at promoting an engaged and interactive learning experience in the classroom, as opposed to public schools where preparing students on how to pass standardized tests reigns supreme.

I present all of the above not because I want to argue one educational system over the other.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably convincingly argue the talking points for either side, without ever injecting my personal views into the discussion.  What I really want to address here is the libertarian argument I often hear in my part of the country, which insists that public schools should be completely replaced in favor of private schools in order to increase the value of America’s education system.  The reason I don’t support this view is because its proponents use questionable criteria to argue against the value of public schools, and because the entire argument appears to be accepted by individuals whose real goal is to  satisfy their already existing political or philosophical ideology, rather than an actual desire to provide a better educational model for the students.

Eliminating public schools will by definition exclude certain people from getting any kind of education–primarily people who need it the most–because there will always be someone who will not be able to pay the tuition, or meet the academic standards of the private institution.  And these children also need to get a basic education if your goal is to truly have an educated populace and be economically competitive on the global market (if it’s not, then disregard this whole post and go about your day).  A proponent of the private-school-only model might argue that private schools come in a variety of forms, and several could be set up where private tuition and high academic standards will not be decisive in enrollment.  To which, perhaps, individuals can donate of their own free choosing to contribute to the basic education of those less affluent in society.  The problem with this line of reason is that it sets out to resolve something for which there is already a solution.

There is in fact already a model in place by which education is provided to those who cannot afford high tuition rates and whose scholarship is not exemplary, and it’s called the public schools system.  What motivation is there to create a complicated set of arrangements within the private school model, when the public schools already serve the function to meet those arrangements?  Essentially, I find two reasons at the heart of it offered by private school proponents, neither of which has much to do with increasing the value of education:

1.  “I don’t like taxes, and big government.”

2.  “I don’t approve of what the state is teaching my child.”

Point number one is popular with libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel that government involvement in the marketplace (be it of goods or ideas) and taxation is harmful to the system as a whole, as it leads to over regulation, a lack of productivity, and a stifling of the individual’s liberties in favor of providing communal welfare.  We can debate the validity of these economic points all day if we want, the bottom line as it relates to the public schools is that because public schools are funded by the states (through taxes) they are an infringement against the rights of citizens who may want to opt out of their requirement to pay the taxes which fund institutions they get no services from (either because they have no children, or prefer to send their children to private schools).  The issue I see with this is that while it would make for a compelling sociopolitical discussion about the role of government and civil services, none of it has anything to do with invalidating the notion that public schools serve a needed role in educating citizens who otherwise would have no access to formal schooling.  If your contention lies with the process by which public schools are funded (i.e. taxes), then you have to first voice your concern with the supreme law of the land (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8).

Whether you agree with the efficiency of it or not, the government (both federal and state) has the constitutional right to collect taxes, which it can in turn use to fund social services; education being one of those services on account that it provides a positive benefit to society.  Thus, the whole justification taken here in favor of private schools over public ones, seems to stem from the fact that the existence and funding of public schools doesn’t align with one’s political beliefs.  But this is unsatisfactory in convincing anybody outside of your mindset in the objective worth of your position, since a socialist could equally argue that private schools ought to be eliminated because they foster a sentiment of elitism and class segregation, which will lead to long-term economic ruin.  The problem with both approaches is that the topic at hand is being used to support one’s predisposed political opinions, instead of letting one’s political opinions rationally derive from the topic at hand.

The second point is, to me, a testament as to why public schools are necessary.  Speaking primarily as a former educator, it needs to be said that when I sought to teach students verifiable, testable, reliable data, I owed it to them not to let their (and their parents’) biases deter their learning process.  There is not doubt that the public school curriculum is at times undermined and dulled by the school board that overseas it, which can have negative affects on the education standards presented to the students.  But ultimately the teacher is still not held accountable directly to any parent or school administrator who may take issue with the philosophical implications of a particular topic raised in class.  Teachers are held accountable to the set district standards, whose authority lies independent of the administrators running the campus and the citizens whose taxes fund the district.  And as long as they can demonstrate that they have not violated said standards, no parent or administrator can dictate the information and content that make up the teacher’s lecture (try as they might at times, they will by necessity lose in every attempt, as they very well should).  Therefore, to promote private schools over public schools as a means to ensure the promulgation of your personal ideals and values in the classroom, is to me a position that is almost pointless to refute, because I guarantee you that there are a number of demonstrable facts, across various academic disciplines, that negate many opinions near and dear to your heart.  Once again, trying to make reality conform to whatever ideology you have chosen to accept is by definition incompatible with providing students with a thorough and comprehensive education.

It is worth mentioning that I am in no way arguing that private school should be abolished, or even that public schools provide a superior education.  I know that there are private schools that do exemplary work, whose curriculum is completely devoid of political or theological considerations, where the primary objective is to give its students a proper education based on good scholarship and proper critical thinking skills.  Hence, I take no issue with there presence in the greater educational system, serving as an alternative to parents who are considering it as a viable venue by which to educate their children.

My main point here is to argue that public schools are necessary as a social service.  Furthermore, my aim is to counter the view prevalent in my neck of the woods (conservative, libertarian-leaning America), where people are inclined to argue against public education because they feel uncomfortable with the way they are funded (i.e. taxes), or don’t like the lesson plan being taught.

If, for instance, you are a parent who prefers for your child not to learn about evolutionary biology, or analyze a work of literature you find vulgar, and opt out for the private school route to avoid the implications you think such things will have on your child’s greater thinking, you have the right to do so without considering my feelings on the matter; nor would I even try to suggest that you in anyway ought to take my considerations on the subject seriously.  However, if you come to this conclusion, and therefore insist not just that other parents should follow your lead, but that the educational system needs to be designed in such a way as to undermine the existence of the public school model, you have essentially forced me to engage you on the matter.

My position does not stem from a desire to satisfy the axiomatic precept of my political or theological identification, but from a recognition that many members of society benefit from–and are dependent on–the existence of public schools to educate their children; in hope that a decent education will provide at least some chance of letting them rise higher in the economic hierarchy than their parents.  I see no reason why I should stand in the way of this hope, or concede the argument to those who aim to do just that.

Education System’s Deficiency in Deterring Disorderliness

There is a form of punishment used in many U.S. public schools.  Most of these schools have their own unique abbreviation/initialism for it, but essentially it can best be described as in-school detention.  Although policies can vary from district to district, the standard procedure by which this form of detention operates is to segregate students who are troublemakers away from the rest of their peers for a designated period of time, usually by placing them in a room with other equally unmanageable youths.  The reasoning underlying this practice is based on the principle of deterrence, where we are aiming to deter further behavioral problems from the troublemaker students, by cutting them off from the rest of the school network.  Moreover, we are aiming to deter any bad influences said students could have on their fellow classmates.  Unlike suspension, in-school detention presumably provides a set of extra motivating factors to correct bad student behavior.

When a student is sent to be disciplined in this way, her/his teachers will often get a note in their office box asking them if they could either send out busy work for some of the students currently “doing time” in in-school detention (they are still in school, after all), or if they could step in to supervise the troublemakers during one of their off periods.  Normally, none of this is mandatory, and unless one of the disciplined students is one of your own, faculty members generally don’t feel much obligation to respond.  The problem a lot of teachers are seeing, however, is that every time they receive the list of names of students placed in in-school detention, they notice a strange anomaly about the rationale behind this deterrence system; namely, that the names on the list are almost always the same.  Which means it’s the exact same students getting repeatedly crammed into this same room, for largely the same reasons they were there a week ago.

Now, I may not be the brightest bloke around, but how does a form of discipline, operating under the rationality of deterring bad behavior in students, keep having to discipline the same exact students for the same exact behavior it’s set up to deter?  At when point does the whole deterring factor actually come into play here?

I understand that something needs to be done about students who act out badly.  I know that undue lenience can lead to the same result as completely ignoring an obvious problem.  But is this form of punishment really any different from ignoring a problem?  If not, than why are the exact same students always the recipients of a punishment whose primary purpose is supposed to be to correct their bad behavior?  At what point can we say that the policies and procedures in practice have failed to fulfill their desired goal, and maybe–just possibly–an alternate route ought to be considered?  Because if the goal is to truly correct bad behavior (instead of just putting troublemakers out of sight, out of mind), what we are doing now in schools is definitely not working.

One suggestion I have been told is that the punishment is not severe enough.  The rationality here being that young people need to be frightened into a certain mode of behavior, and in-school detention is just not frightening enough to mischievous youths.  To individuals who feel this way I would like to–in return–suggest that they first take a look at how well emphasizing severity as a punitive punishment has worked out in the U.S. criminal justice system over the last 40 years in terms of deterring criminal behavior amongst convicted criminals.  Judging by the fact that the reciprocity rate of criminal offenders has suffered no drop whatsoever (while arrests, and re-arrests, have increases exponentially in most metropolitan areas), I would suggest that perhaps we brainstorm a few other ideas first.

Furthermore, speaking as someone who has supervised in-school detention periods before, I can assure you that the students who are sent there aren’t happy or proud about it.  They understand it’s a punishment, and they view it as a punishment, and they feel no pleasure from being there.  What they do feel is anger, which is fine if the goal is to make them feel pissed off for having been caught breaking the rules, but that’s not what these sort of disciplines are claiming as their goal.  The claimed goal of in-school detention is to deter and correct bad behavior.  Getting people angry for the bad things they do can never correct bad and stupid behavior, because anger is a catalyst for more bad and stupid behavior.  When you’re angry you don’t sit back and reflect rationally about your bad judgment.  In fact, in such a state of mind you are much more likely to exercise even more bad judgment.  Besides, short of going back to the olden days of beating bad behaving students with a ruler, I don’t really see what more we could do on the severity scale on account that for the hours they spend in in-school detention we are already treating them like incarcerated criminals.  And make no mistake about it, that is exactly how they feel and it’s doing nothing to remedy whatever is instigating their behavior.

“Okay, Sascha.  How about then you step down from your soapbox, stop being a condescending ‘know-it-all’ blogger, and actually tell us a practical alternative route we can take.”

Fair enough, hypothetical reader (who somehow always seems to know just what to say to keep the plot of my posts moving along smoothly).  You don’t correct bad behavior by ignoring it, and you don’t correct it by emphasizing the severity of punishment above all else either.  In my experience what works best is a combination of swiftness and discretion.  If a student breaks the rules in place in a classroom, it makes no sense to me to send her/him to the principle’s office, who will then send her/him to another office, who will then place her/him in a segregated classroom for about a week, where s/he will sit isolated from the rest of the school, without a word of explanation from anyone as to why s/he shouldn’t be behaving the way s/he did (aside from the patronizing, “Because it’s against school policy”).  But this is exactly what so many educators do.  Instead of dealing with the problem swiftly and directly, they pass the responsibility of assigning concrete consequences on to someone else; i.e. out of sight, out of mind.

In my experience, the best chance for actual long-term behavioral correction comes by confronting the student about their behavior, on your own terms, and explaining the consequences that will result from this behavior immediately following its occurrence, without constantly shipping her/him through some asinine administrative roundabout.  If the offense is committed in my classroom, it is my responsibility to deal with it, because individual cases of misbehavior require individual consequences.  And I promise you, when consequences are customized to each breach in conduct committed by each individual student, it leaves a much more lasting impression on the mischievous youth than a generalized decree ordained by some top-level administrator who doesn’t even know the student’s name, let alone the circumstances surrounding her/his behavioral issues.

Please don’t misunderstand what I mean by “confronting the student” as some sort of public declaration against her/him in front of class.  Consequences to bad behavior have to be swift, but they are also most effective when discloses in private.  When someone publicly confronts you about your behavior (even when you know that you’re in the wrong), you are much less receptive to the message than you would be if the person made the effort to avoid humiliating you in front of your peer group.  I don’t care how your intuition tells you to approach it, the plain fact is that discreteness in these situations works because it gives the teenager–whose full reasoning faculties are still developing–the thing s/he craves most:  the courtesy of being spoken to like an adult, instead of being repeatedly scolded like a child.

I know someone reading this is probably dismissing me as just too soft on those disorderly “little assholes”.  If you’re one of these readers let me ask you, what do you think is more likely to happen when a teacher publicly calls out a student for behaving like the “little asshole” s/he most probably is?  Do you think that the student will rationally consider the consequences of their misbehavior, and thereby learn the value of civil conduct?  Or is the student going to feel that s/he has to go on the defensive and save face in front of her/his friends by stubbornly locking horns with the teacher?  All of this is dependent on what results you’re aiming for.  I’m aiming to actually correct delinquent behavior; if you’re aiming to simply piss off “little assholes” and “give ‘em what they’ve got comin’” have fun engaging in your pissing match with an adolescent, just remember only one of you is expected to be the adult in the situation.

The reason I care about this issues is that I’m concerned that the policies and procedures we have in place to deal with misbehavior in the educational system parallel too closely with the practices prevalent within the criminal justice system.  Educators are entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing minds that are still maturing.  As the adults in the room–the sole individual with the experience and developed cognitive faculties to exercise the restraint and judgement necessary to deal with a volatile situation–the consequences of how disorderly conduct is treated and corrected has to fall on our shoulder, whether we like it to or not.  But I don’t see how we all can live up to this duty, how we can mend well-adjusted adults as a society, if we keep placing disorderly students into ineffective programs and policies that are firstly failing to address the underlying issues causing bad behavior, and secondly failing to correct said behavior.  I care about this because there is a decent chance that today’s delinquents will be tomorrow’s felons–and if we condition them at a young age that social institutions have no means or interest in dealing with them as thinking persons, there is little reason for them to be.

Fearing Our Dangerous Children

There is a bad perception a lot of people have about teenagers.  They think of them as too moody, too violent, too energetic, and too unhinged in some way, to be fully trusted.  And I have to admit, I have had experiences with some adolescents who fit that description, just as I have had experiences with some adults who fit that description.  Most teenagers are fairly well-adjust, somewhat socially awkward, but nothing to get too bend out of shape about.  Due to their age they are a bit self-conscious about how to respond to their emotions properly, but that has more to do with gaining enough situational experience than some dire personality disorder.  Also, the much dreaded teen angst I keep hearing about doesn’t seem to be all the more present than the less discussed adult angst I see, with the only difference being that adults have learned through years of emotional repression to keep it at bay.  To be honest, I’m more concerned that the affect of our preemptive worry about the potential threat of adolescents will work to actually create the very danger we are trying to avoid.  I mean, how long can you treat a person as a common criminal, with zero-tolerance policies, before s/he begins to assume the role as a result?  Now, please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say.  I thoroughly support safety precautions, but what I can’t support are precautions that stretch the bounds of reason.

I constantly hear figures being thrown around to support the notion that teenagers are the greatest threat to humanity since the bubonic plague.  School shootings on the rise; no one’s safe; blame the music industry;  what we need is to crack down on these punks with force and teach them that violence is not the answer; all kids care about is sex, drugs and rock n’ roll (apparently the corniness of the pubescent plague knows no bounds).  But what these people seem to miss in their statistical analyses is that for every teen who shoots up a school, there are thousands of others who don’t.  By the standards we use to justify our zero-tolerance policies towards students, shouldn’t we also be asking all teachers and school administrators to register as potential sex offenders, on the grounds that there are just so many darn news reports of inappropriate teacher-student relations that we just can’t be too careful.  Personally, I don’t think I would enjoy being treated as a pedophile simply because of my profession, and I assume that students don’t enjoy being treated as would-be murderers because a minority of their classmates were psychologically disturbed.  By all means, let us be vigilant and keep an eye out for those we suspect need serious help, and lets have security guards and cameras keeping watch over our schools.  But we cannot justify turning school campuses into quasi-prisons on the basis of keeping everyone safe, because our goal should be about more than just making sure every child goes back home alive (one of the biggest problems I have with education system nowadays is that they’ve practically become large daycare centers, rather than places of academia).

The warning signs to a potential danger are almost always present to those who bother to pay attention, but if we start to psych ourselves out preemptively, we are certainly setting ourselves up for failure as we will begin to frantically see threats where non exist, creating the very danger we are desperate to combat.  Thus, ironically, increasing the danger of us missing something we should have been looking out for, but didn’t, due to the fear and mistrust we have of our children.

The State of the American Education System and Its Sputnik Legacy

As someone whose early academic background was split fairly evening between Europe and the United States, I’m occasionally asked by my now-fellow Americans whether I believe there is any truth to the oft cited inadequacy of the U.S. education system.  The simple answer is an obvious, “Yes.”  Of course, as I write this it needs to be remembered that there really is no such thing as the U.S. education system, for the same reason that there is no such thing as the U.S. culture.  Education is primarily a state matter in this country, therefore what we have is a loose collection of 50 independent educational systems (who themselves house several diverse district school systems) that at times exchange information and resources, but ultimately set their own standards on what is to be considered academically adequate within their individual state borders.  I’m aware that non-American readers might hear this and still wonder what sort of nation could possibly allow any segment of its population to fall behind academically, while letting another segment flourish.  This is an understandable though somewhat hasty reaction, as it ignores the difficulty that comes along with uniformly managing a nation as heavily populated as the United States (the latest census has Americans numbering over 300 million, and we’re still stretching from one ocean to another and beyond if we count Alaska, Hawaii, and a handful of protectorate territories).  Taking all that into consideration, it is still undeniably true that the U.S. could be doing a whole lot better of a job when it comes to fostering a decent education for it young citizenry.

The figures that are usually cited by cynics of the American education system read along the lines of how, nowadays, only 53% of American adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, only 59% know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time, only 47% know what percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water (and only 1% of that know what percent of that is fresh water), and only 21% of American adults are able to answer all three of the above questions correctly.[1]  Now, one needs to keep in mind that this sort of data is collected through survey polls, and the limitations of relying on a particular population sample who happen to just randomly come across the survey in order to be included in its statistics, always leaves the possibility that the gathered results are unduly making the issue in question seem worse than it really is.  Nonetheless, one doesn’t really need the controversial figures above to note a clear lack of academic rigor in contemporary U.S.  schools; the lackluster national averages on basic test scores does that just fine (if you need prove, ask a random American to add two fractions and see what happens).  When one considers that today’s generations has a wider access to resource material than any generation in human history–where all you really need to do to research a subject is use Google–figures shown even half of the percentages quoted above would still be rather frightening.

Figures from academic disciplines I have personal exposure to don’t fare much better nationwide.  Americans from all backgrounds show a complete lack of knowledge in matters concerning US history and politics, where only 50% of US adults can name all three branches of government (meaning that half of us cannot), only 54% know that the power to declare war belongs to congress (40% incorrectly thought it belonged to the president), and as for those noble souls we elect to public office, only 57% know what the purpose of the electoral college is.[2]   I admit there has occasionally been a part of me that shuddered to think how, if we can’t pass tests regarding our own country, what our performance would be if we were asked about events beyond our borders).

When it comes to the people who comment and frame sociopolitical conclusions about the American educational system, the question I believe they really want answered is why the U.S., as a leading first-world country, can’t seem to find a way to curb its descending academic standing.  However, those who hold this question in mind would probably be surprised to learn that it’s really not so much a question of “why can’t”, as much as “why won’t.”  Because the United States, in its not too distant past, had experienced a similar fall from scholastic grace, only to emerge from it as a leader in 20th Century technological and scientific advancements.  But to fully explain the circumstances I’ll have to give a brief history lesson.

On October 4, 1957, the Unites States of America received the greatest blow in the Cold War struggle up to that point.  Surprisingly, it did not come from a military lose, nor was it the result of any covert attack on the part of our allies. Yet, it was an event that hit deep into the recesses of our society, and shook us harder than any missile ever could.  And for the first time—in a long time—made us question our position as a leader in the world stage, while simultaneously bruising our pride as a nation for having allowed ourselves to suffer such a humiliating defeat.  This event, of course, was Sputnik, and as the Soviet Union launched its satellite into outer space, America watched itself fall back into stupendous awe at the enemy’s technological advancement, and loathing bewilderment at our own programs’ shortcomings.  Did not our earlier attempts at space exploration with Project Vanguard end in utter failure?  How could these “godless commies” beat us to it–by what right?  Bemused and anxiety followed quickly thereafter, but the core of the problem was clear to all:  We had fallen behind, and something would have to change if we were ever to reclaim dominance again.

The Sputnik crisis spurred an immediate response from the US government–unwilling to allow those nogoodniks in Moscow to surpass us by any means–leading to a drastic increase in federal spending on science research and education.  The effort paid off, when on July 20, 1969, the American flag was planted into the Moon’s surface, becoming the first nation to do so.  Yes, a compelling argument can certainly be made that the underlying reasons for the sudden concern for the country’s educational well-being, and all the achievements that stemmed from it, were inspired by a jingoistic impulse to establish American dominance in the Cold War effort.  But acknowledging this fact doesn’t make it less efficient in its immediate outcome: improving the standard of the then-mediocre U.S. educational system [we’re speaking on average here, not across the board].  Therefore, I don’t see the question of “why can’t” the U.S. identify and fix its academic problems (the exact content and contributors of which are open for debate) as a viable one, since it did manage to successfully do just that in the past (for however long or brief a time it was).  The difference between now and then is a issue of incentive and priority.  Immediately post-Sputnik, education became a matter of national defense.  These days, however, America’s national defense priorities do not involved enemies looking to match us on the scholastic front (destruction is really motive in today’s theaters of operation).  Thus, outside of offering a few rhetorical points during election seasons, policymakers really have no high interests when it comes to investing the effort and funds to reassess how education is administered in this country.

To summarize:  In 1969 our enthusiasm for scientific discovery and educational progress as a component of national security brought us to the moon and beyond.  Faced with a potential danger, we recognized our faults and took action to combat an issue that was threatening our sociopolitical status; today, as a nation, our attitudes, enemies, and priorities on the matter have simply changed.

So, does the U.S. have a problem in its educational system(s)?  Yes.  Can it be fixed?  Sure.  Will it be fixed?  Probably not any time soon.

[1] ScienceDaily, “American Adults Flunk Basic Science”, March 13, 2009,

[2] Figures from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, reported by NBC Los Angeles, “Americans don’t know much about History”, January 26, 2009,