Public vs. Private Schools

Although my area of expertise is higher education, I feel that the problems we face at the college level can't be solved without major changes taking place in our grade schools and high schools.

As I've indicated in a previous column on curriculum reform, there is no shortage of criticisms of U.S. public schools or suggestions on what should be done to fix things.

The fact that things need fixing was emphasized by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal that provided statistics to show that U.S. schools are the least efficient in the industrialized world.

It was pointed out that:

  • The United States spends more on education per pupil than almost any other nation—75% more than the international average for primary schools and 53% more than the international average for secondary schools.
  • At the same time, our year-to-year academic achievement gains are among the lowest in the world. Among 17 OEC nations the U.S. ranks second to last.

(The OECD study cited in the Wall Street Journal article is available at

The consequences of our embarrassingly-low educational standing are demonstrated in many ways.

Particularly significant for the future of education are the qualifications of new teachers.

To cite just one example, in Massachusetts the results of the teacher certification test had to be "curved" after more than half of the prospective teachers failed the basic reading and reading portion of the test.

All too often, the "solution" to fixing things is not to improve quality but to lower standards--or in some cases simply to eliminate the measures that call quality into question.

With statistics showing that the U.S. system of education is the least efficient in the world, we need to take a hard look at some "fixes" and possibly some alternatives.

What comes immediately to mind, of course, is subsidizing private schools through a voucher system.

This would mean that many more parents could afford to send their children to private schools where, for the most part, the educational experience would in many cases seem to be more effective.

Of course, such academic assessments typically discount the fact that private schools not only attract the better students to start with, but cater to parents who tend to be more interested in the academic accomplishments of their children.

The latter fact has been shown to be highly correlated with student success.

At the same time, there are some major problems associated with a move to private schools.

First, many private schools have a religious orientation. This raises the thorny issue of church-state separation.

Should the government support educational systems designed to further specific religious goals? Often these views are not only rather narrow, but gloss over or avoid any ideas that do not conform to their specific views.

Next, would some private schools need to be so profit oriented that they would be tempted to cut corners and deprive students of extracurricular activities, services and enrichments?

To insure success would limited funds and resources have to be spent on recruiting students?

Possibly even more significant is the fear that funds for public schools would be diverted to the private sector and that our public schools would end up being even worse off than they are now.

As the better students and their politically influential parents abandoned the public school system would this not produce a downward spiral in overall quality?

It has been suggested in this scenario that if left unchecked our public schools could eventually end up resembling remedial detention centers housing unmotivated and uninterested young people—students who were well aware of the fact that they were getting a second- or third-rate educational chance in life.

Although this might be a reactionary assessment, it nonetheless points to some possible—some would say probable—dangers in a shift to private schools.

Is there any way to save our public school system?

I would like to offer five suggestions that could at least serve as a starting point for debate.

1. First, we need to buck politically-motivated opposition and move forward with uniform, national standardized testing.

Although no testing system is perfect, at least we would be able to compare educational experiences, see what's working and what isn't, and zero in on specific academic and geographic problem areas.

2. Along with this we need to establish solid academic standards for grade promotion and graduation.

This would end "social promotions" and in the words of one politician, "the awarding of high school diplomas to people who can't even read them."

If we could restore faith in academic standards, employers might again start to rely on the judgment of our academic institutions in evaluating the basic abilities of graduates.

With employment (and income) more clearly tied to academic standards, students might be more motivated to succeed in their studies.

In countries where this link is clearly established, and academic standards are higher, students and parents catch onto this relationship early and tend to make the necessary sacrifices and accommodations.

For many in this country the value of education is not evident.

3. We know that the chance of success is limited for a child that comes from a home where the parents show little interest in or respect for education.

Although requiring parents to be actively involved in their children's education is a thorny issue, school systems should have the legal clout to require conferences and even workshops with parents whenever their children run into academic or disciplinary problems.

This could be handled like jury duty where, if necessary, minimal transportation costs are met for after work meetings, and fines are levied for non-participation.

4. Next, we need to better attune education to the experiences, interests, and aptitudes of today's young people.

This generation grew up with color TV. We also know that they typically spend many hours with video games, not to mention spending millions of dollars playing competitive video arcade games.

We also know that people this country tend to read fewer newspapers and books than citizens of the other industrialized countries, a statistic that isn't apt to change anytime soon.

Fortunately, one of the areas the United States does excel in is learning software.

We have to face up to the fact that one of the most effective ways of reaching and teaching young people is through interactive games. (Does anyone still believe that effective learning can't be fun?)

Evidence clearly shows that for today's youth a well-designed, computer-based learning game is far more effective in teaching concepts than assigning a chapter in a textbook—especially if it's a homework chapter.

We need to add the element of game score keeping in some assignments where students can compare scores and compete just the way they do in video arcades.

Where this has been tried teachers sometimes find that they have trouble getting students to leave the classroom at the end of the period.

We need to get past our fears about inappropriate subject matter on the Internet and open the doors to the wealth of information that's available with a few computer mouse clicks. (The issue of inappropriate subject matter is a whole other issue.  This article addresses this.)

There are many related possibilities including allowing students to capture pages from the Internet and design classroom presentations on assigned topics.

5. Finally, I would suggest that we consider the 17 curriculum concepts outlined in a previous column on curriculum reform.

Although these five suggestion areas would apply equally well to public and private education, it's the public sector that's in the greatest need of reform.

It has been in large measure the public school system and the opportunities it has given to so many that has made our country what it is today.

I would hate to see us lose what has been one of our greatest national assets simply because it has become so mired down in parochialism, anachronistic attitudes, budget cutting, and "yesterday's thinking" that it can't acknowledge and meet the unique needs of today's youth.

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