A high school senior named Matthew Paul Dollar sent me a long letter detailing his experiences in public and private schools. (His family moved a lot, and he went back and forth between various schools.) I agree with this part:

Two buzzword concepts in modern mis-education are “subjective” and objective” thought.  The trend in not teaching students the dates of historical events is a huge mistake. “Educators” claim that they want to encourage creative, “subjective” thought instead of “objective” fact regurgitation. But I have found that without dates, I cannot fit historical events into context or recognize their relationships with each other. Without a strong foundation of factual objectivity, I am not capable of formulating rational, creative and subjective thoughts. If I do not know the facts for myself, but am just taught to interpret subjectively, then I will always be subjected to regurgitating somebody else’s subjective interpretation, and will interpret nothing in a “subjective” way. (If I have misused the word “subjective”, it is because the word has been so overused that it barely has any distinct meaning.)

He left public schools in Rye, New York to attend a boarding school, The Masters School, in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

Being at Masters has been a wonderfully refreshing experience. The teachers are experts in the material, and there is a mutual respect between teacher and student. In Rye, the teachers fought me tooth and nail to keep me out of advanced courses, but I have since been able to see that there is nothing special about AP courses; there is no danger of bruising your brain from taking one of these classes. The danger comes from not taking advanced classes.

. . . The reason people say “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” is because the public school system barely teaches anything beyond a kindergarten level. They avoid the introduction of new topics, and drag out kindergarten through all of elementary school. . . Right now, our schools function more as minimum security prisons, than institutions of education.

He’ll be an aeronautical engineering major at UC-Irvine in the fall.

About Joanne


  1. ccwbass says:

    Well, at least he’s prepared for what an intellectual letdown college will be.

  2. Roy W. Wright says:

    Coincidentally, I attend UC Irvine.

  3. That is one anecdote…

    I have another.
    I attended an average public high school in a working/middle class suburb of Boston… this was in the mid to late 1980’s… For the most part, the majority of my teachers were outstanding, dedicated, passionate… and had high standards. They expected us to certainly know objective facts, whether it was history, biology, or calculus. Writing skills were strongly emphasized… my A.P. English teacher rarely gave A’s… and routinely gave C’s and even D’s to students who were used to only getting A’s… the year I took A.P. English, almost everyone in the class got a 4 or 5 on the A.P. exam…
    in good part because of his incredibly high standards.
    I took 5 AP exams in junior and senior years… earning four scores of 5, and one 4… due both to my hard work and the dedication of my teachers. My public school education prepared me quite well for Harvard, where I majored in astrophysics.. certainly a rigorous major.

    I’m not naive.. I know there are some horrendous public schools out there, especially in urban districts… I have volunteered in public schools and tutored high school kids for years… both in inner-city Boston and in Oakland…
    I could go on and on with horror stories… These problems certainly, absolutely, unequivocably need to be fixed…
    but the solution is not to abandon public schools, as many (not all) people here seem to advocate.

    I guess I’m just ranting, because I get frustrated with the non-stop drumbeat at this site that says: “Public schools=failure, private schools=utopia”…
    I’m all in favor of higher standards for public schools (really, I do… I now teach at the university level, and I see first-hand how students who were poorly prepared in high school will be set up for failure at the college level)…
    I have no problem with charter schools as offering alternative models to spur innovation in public schools…

    But I am committed to making public education work…

  4. Fuzzy Rider says:

    I think that the competition of thriving private schools is the ONLY thing that will improve/save public schooling.

  5. Fuzzy Rider,

    Too bad private schools weren’t around years ago when public schools started to go bad… Oops!they were. It’ll take much more than the existence of options to save public schools from themselves.

  6. PJ/Maryland says:

    Too bad private schools weren’t around years ago when public schools started to go bad… Oops! they were.

    Good point, Jon, though it’s asking a lot of private schools that their mere existence should keep the public schools on the straight and narrow. Fuzzy Rider talks about “the competition of thriving private schools”, but it’s hard for private schools to compete against “free” schools.

    Still, I wonder if there has been some effect, even without vouchers. My impression is that New England public schools tend to be better than California ones, and I think there were lots more private schools 20 years ago in the East than the West. If both those impressions are accurate (and I’m not sure how to figure that out), then maybe the private schools are having an effect.

  7. PJ/Maryland says:

    “Public schools=failure, private schools=utopia”…

    Jab, I’m sure you realize you’re exaggerating the usual analysis here. I think a more accurate assessment would be that public schools tend not to fix whatever problems they have, and so tend to get worse over time. Private schools that fail to fix problems tend to go out of business, so they will tend to be better than nearby public schools.

    There are far more kids in public school than in private, so even if they both had problems, you’d expect the public school ones to get more attention. And, the public schools are funded entirely with taxes, and often soak up a huge percentage of local tax dollars; people paying those taxes (ie everybody) logically want them used efficiently.

    You say you are “committed to making public education work” and “the solution is not to abandon public schools”. Frankly, it sounds to me like your own mantra is “public schools good, private schools bad”. You are certainly not alone, but it’s an attitude I’ve always found puzzling. Do you feel a similar moral imperative towards public vs private parks, or bathrooms, or housing, or liquor stores?

    I note that you think charter schools are acceptable, apparently because you consider them public schools. (Since they are not unionized (AFAIK), the teachers unions _don’t_ think they are public schools, and are keen to prevent them.) But except for their source of funds, charter schools more closely resemble private than typical public schools (the rules vary from state to state, of course). The conclusion I’m led to is that it’s really the public school funding system you want to save… which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  8. Fuzzy Rider says:

    A crappy private school would quickly lose students and go out of business. A crappy public school would not only continue to be crappy, but would probably get more cash from the gov’t- so it can improve, don’t you know… where are its ‘inmates’ going to go anyway??? Vouchers scare the establishment because they would require REAL ‘accountability’ instead of rhetoric; out where I am we are drowning in platitudes about ‘standards’ without any real attempt at implementing them!! Since there are no really viable private school alternatives, it will never change.

  9. PJ,

    When I say I’m committed to public education, I mean every child, no matter the socio-economic background or the education background or lack thereof of parents, gets an outstanding education… yes, I know “public” isn’t exactly “free”… the money obviously comes from somewhere, namely taxpayers… but I believe that the quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be pre-determined by parents economic background… so yes, I want a fully socialized educational system where the rich subsidize the poor…
    Obviously, competition is good… it separates the wheat from the chaff, so I’m all in favor of charter schools with more autonomy… there should be a range of different options for parents within their districts, and they should be free to choose… principals should have more flexibility in hiring/firing…

    My concern is that the vouchers movement has nothing to do with providing competition to spur improvement in public schools… nor is it about helping a relatively tiny few from getting a better education (although I don’t begrudge individual parents who seek this route)… the voucher movement is a stealth movement whose goal is the complete, total abolition of the entire public school institution… just a step on the road to complete and total privatization…

    My fear is that this will lead to accelerating socio-economic stratification… where rich schools cater to the rich, and McD schools cater to the poor… which further perpetuates the gap.

  10. Rita C. says:

    Jeez, and I spend all my time trying to get kids to move *up* a level. I’ve never, in all my life, seen anybody try to keep kids out of honors classes. I always find these stories very, very weird.

    More choice within the public school system would be nice. For example, my daughter’s public elementary offers the choice of a traditional classroom, a looping class, and a multi-age class. This seems to meet the needs of just about every kid. Right now we’re in the process of making teacher requests for next year. Yes, parents get to request certain teachers or certain styles of teaching that they think will be most compatible with their kid. (I didn’t make a request this year; I trust her current teacher’s judgment.) There’s no reason other districts can’t do the same thing.

  11. Anonymous says:


    Are you a middle school or high school teacher? I wonder why you find these stories weird.

    It’s true, many schools artifically limit the number of children they permit in honors classes. For example, in our middle school there is only one honors algebra class for 8th graders. The children whose scores are in the top 24 are admitted to the class. The test is nationally standardized. Two years ago a children with a score in the 86th percentile would be admitted to the class. Last year, an individual student needed to score in the 94th percentile to be admitted.

    Why not open another class so all qualified and motivatied students could take the class? I really don’t know what their logic is, except I suspect they are trying to create some kind of predetermined elite group of kids.


  12. Rita C. says:

    Jessica, I teach high school. As I said, I find these stories weird because they run completely contrary to my experience (even in the so-so public school I went to, I was pushed into AP classes).

    I suspect they don’t open up another class because of staffing issues, but couldn’t say.

  13. Richard Cook says:


    I think you are wrong. The Charter/Private/Voucher momentum started precisely because public schools refused or could not fix schools that consistently provided poor education (Cleveland/Washington). If the schools are good there is little pressure for the establishment of an alternative. Class stratification is always going to be there, the real job is to provide access to quality education
    no matter where you live.

  14. Cousin Dave says:

    Matthew: when you graduate, send me your resume.