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Your Favorite Public Education Reformer Probably Went to Private School

Many of today's prominent education reformers attended private school. Their policies for public schools are a far cry from that experience.

What do some of the nation's most prominent public education reform advocates—Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, President Obama, and Davis Guggenheim—all have in common? They received their K-12 education at private schools. "In Public School Efforts, a Common Background: Private Education" from this Sunday's New York Times spotlights this phenomenon and raises important questions about the discrepancy between the well rounded education these reformers received at elite private schools like Exeter and Sidwell Friends, and what they recommend for other people's children.


Even the original champions of the well-intentioned 10-year-old No Child Left Behind act, which first put our nation on the road to an education experience dominated by standardized tests, Democatic Sen. Ted Kennedy, President George W. Bush, and House Speaker John Boehner, all attended private schools. The list of schools the NCLB sponsors and the other more current reformers attended is pretty impressive:

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  • Cathleen P. Black, (Aquinas Dominican High School, Chicago)
  • Steven Brill (Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, Mass.)
  • John A. Boehner, (Archbishop Moeller High School, Cincinnati)
  • George W. Bush (Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.)
  • Jeb Bush (Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.)
  • Arne Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory School)
  • Chester E. Finn Jr. (Phillips Exeter, Exeter, New Hampshire)
  • Bill Gates (Lakeside School, Seattle)
  • Davis Guggenheim (Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.
  • Senator Judd Gregg, (Phillips Exeter, Exeter, New Hampshire)
  • Edward M. Kennedy, (Milton Academy, Milton, Mass.)
  • David Levin (Riverdale Country School, the Bronx)
  • President Barack Obama (Punahou School, Honolulu)
  • Michelle A. Rhee (Maumee Valley Country Day School, Toledo, Ohio)
  • Mitt Romney (Cranbrook School, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)
  • Merryll H. Tisch (Ramaz School, Manhattan)
  • \n

At private schools, students are still regularly taught social studies, science, music, art, and foreign languages. Critical thinking and creativity are encouraged and class sizes are kept small. In a particularly stark contrast, when it comes to test prep, President Obama summed up the private school experience at a town hall meeting late last month while talking about his daughter's experience at Sidwell Friends.

"Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize."

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That's a far cry from what goes down for everyone else's kids. Nowadays, marquees in front of public schools proudly proclaim, "It's 27 days till state testing!" and some poor custodian has to change that number every single day. Many of these reformers also relentlessly advocate using tests scores to evaluate teachers and punish schools. A Sidwell Friends faculty member recently dismissed such practices, saying, "We don’t tie teacher pay to test scores because we don’t believe them to be a reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness."

Unfortunately, a public school education has long not been, especially for children from low income backgrounds, at the same level of rigor as a private school education. I attended a private school from fourth through eighth grade, and my freshman year at a public high school, even in honors and AP classes, was pretty much a repeat of the previous year. As an educator working in low income communities, I drew heavily on the standard set by my private school experience. Even though my school only required students to produce one written paper a month, my kids had to write a creative five paragraph essay every single week because that's what my private school experience had been. And, instead of teaching the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation through endless test prep worksheets—which is what happens in schools now—my students learned those rules through writing.

Although these reformers surely want what's best for children, why doesn't the way they're going about it reflect their own stellar private school experiences, or the private education many of them provide for their children? It has to be possible to change the status quo of public education by drawing on the excellence present in private schools. Too bad it seems like this current crop of reformers doesn't believe it.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Medill DC

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