To the Editor:
Does teaching since 1982 one elective course on nonviolence in public and private schools qualify Colman McCarthy to attempt to define what “best” means in education (“What Are the ‘Best’ Schools?,” Commentary, June 9, 2010)? I taught multiple required math courses for 20 years in public and private secondary schools, sent my own children to both, and still cannot identify a best school.
Mr. McCarthy writes that “private schools have their share of negatives,” then describes their students’ eagerness to challenge themselves academically as an example. He praises “experiential learning”—sheltered students doing internships in public schools with armed police “keeping order.” There, he says, “my [private school] interns flourish. They taste and feel life.”
What are the real positives and negatives in our schools?
Urban secondary schools draw students of widely diverse aptitudes, interests, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In the public school where I taught, 8th graders could be taking remedial math, prealgebra, or honors Algebra 1. They could be “tracked”—grouped with students at the same level—or all mixed together. This was true in various academic subjects. Classes averaged 35 to 40 students, including in honors and Advanced Placement courses.
The private school I taught in required students to take prealgebra in grade 7 and Algebra 1 in grade 8. Some took remedial math the summer before, to better prepare themselves. This sequence created a solid foundation for higher math and science classes like AP biology, calculus, and chemistry. Classes averaged 15 to 18 students. Many had scholarships; all benefited from the enriched academic, artistic, and athletic programs.
One of my children attended a small Midwestern town’s public high school in grades 10 through 12. Students were grouped by aptitude in language arts, math, and science; honors and Advanced Placement courses were offered. Class size averaged 20 students. Popular extracurricular activities brought together students from all academic levels.
Schools are complex entities providing excellence, facing challenges, and reflecting their feeder communities. Rather than “best schools,” pundits should focus on various schools’ best strategies for effectively educating all our children.
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as No ‘Best’ Schools, Only Best Strategies