Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

What Are the ‘Best’ Schools?

By Colman McCarthy — June 07, 2010 5 min read

About a year and a half has passed since Washington was astir with questions on where Barack and Michelle Obama would school their daughters. They chose Sidwell Friends, a private institution that offers sterling education: small and well-equipped classes, kempt athletic fields, well-mannered teachers aware of the school’s history of excellence, and ties to the Society of Friends. A large-lettered banner hangs over the school’s entrance: “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

Sidwell is in Northwest Washington, a part of the city with other selective and expensive schools: St. Albans, National Cathedral, Maret, Edmund Burke, and Georgetown Day. Parents who enroll their children, and have the incomes, connections, and credentials to win admission, are like the Obamas: They want the best for their children; they believe they are buying quality.

I’m not so sure. What does “best” mean? What is quality? My doubts are grounded in 28 years of teaching a course on nonviolence in both public and private schools, starting in 1982 at Washington’s School Without Walls, and a few years later at Woodrow Wilson High School, also in the city, and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, in suburban Maryland. At each, I’ve been a volunteer. At intervals and for varied durations, I’ve also had classes at four private schools: Landon, Stone Ridge, Georgetown Day, and Maret. And for three years, I taught in a prison for juveniles in Laurel, Md. By rough estimate, I’ve had more than 3,000 students, not counting a similar number in local universities.

I’m not in the camp of those on the conservative right who mock liberal parents like the Obamas with the jibe that their hearts are in the public schools, but not their children. Nor am I with parents on the left who claim moral superiority for having the money for a private school but choosing a public one—that is, using their children to take a political stand. The side I’m on is the one that respects all the choices as sincere, while knowing experientially from years of teaching children from families of wealth or poverty, and all bents, backgrounds, and dysfunctions, that private schools have their share of negatives, however much these are overshadowed by the ever-bemoaned failures of public schools.

Faculties at elite schools know that they are paid to water flowers in educational hothouses, readying them to bloom in the future soils of high-quality colleges and graduate schools. The children are well programmed to accept large amounts of homework, rack up Advanced Placement credits, and ace tests and exams. Progress, or lack of it, is closely monitored. It’s undeniable that parents who coop their young in private schools are greatly reducing the possibility that their children will be as enriched with experiential learning as they are with theoretical learning. Such children are likely to leave school idea-rich but experience-poor. Community-service programs requiring a few hours a month dabbling at the soup kitchen won’t do it.

One private school that has broken away by seeking the benefits of experiential learning is the Madeira School for girls, in McLean, Va. On Wednesdays, juniors and seniors there are released to take part in internships and community service. In recent years, I’ve had Madeira girls helping me teach at Wilson High. On arrival, they pass through metal detectors, walk through cacophonic halls where at least four District of Columbia police officers armed with weapons and wearing bulletproof vests are keeping order. All that, plus a truancy wagon out front shuttling in layabouts.

It’s hard to imagine a school as dissimilar to Madeira—its gentility, the classroom serenity, its stables for students’ horses, the order—as Wilson High. Hungry to escape the isolation of their excellent but culturally moated school, and equally famished for the excitement of the nonacademic learning that can happen at Wilson, my Madeira interns flourish. They taste and feel life.

Unlike the rarefied climate found a short walk down Wisconsin Avenue at Sidwell Friends, National Cathedral, or St. Albans, Wilson High, which has an equally gifted faculty and staff, oozes diversity: Students bound for the Ivies and ones well below grade level, students whose parents have it all and ones who have little, students who live among the political and corporate hustlers of Northwest Washington and those stuck with street hustlers in the Northeast and Southeast areas of the city. Wilson could be called Reality High. Or better, Real World Prep. It’s all there, a pot into which is melted much of what’s the sweetest and sourest of American life.

With many hours of class discussions about education over the years—including how to get away from fear-based learning that homework and testing create and move to desire-based learning that teachers like Socrates, Maria Montessori, and Rudolf Steiner practiced—I’ve never had a public school student express a yen to attend a private school. “What for?” they would ask. Many of my students at Wilson, Walls, and Bethesda-Chevy Chase have friends at private schools, but (knowingly) see them as overstressed academic captives—the underprivileged privileged.

Reversing, I’ve had plenty of private school students voice wishes to be in a public school. Some managed a transfer, to their relief. I recall a boy at Georgetown Day, whose father was in fact a headmaster of a private school, who would slip out and come up the hill to join my class at Wilson.

As much as I admire private school students who earn high grades, I wonder what they are missing out on while grinding for 4.0 bliss. Often enough, but not always, students are being processed as if they are hunks of cheese at Velveeta Prep on the way to Cheddar U and Mozzarella grad school—and on to being a Big Cheese in life.

Do I have a preference for public or private school teaching? It’s like the question parents are asked, do you love one child over another? No, you love them the same, except some children—and students—make it easier to love than others.

Occasionally, well-off parents quiz me on whether they should go private or public with their children. Ask them, I suggest. Trust their leanings. Private or public, it’s a risk either way. Remember, too, that for ill or good, parents are prime educators, as are peers and the media, along with life’s inclemencies when the weather turns.

Lucky are the children who have caring parents, and lucky are we teachers who have them: whether they walk in halls that are hallowed or howling, whether they are the children of a president or a prisoner.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as What Are the ‘Best’ Schools?

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