It’s the academic content, stupid

Some well-known education reformers attended private high schools, wrote Michael Winerip in the New York Times. His list includes Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Teddy Kennedy, Checker Finn, “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, Jeb Bush,  and others.

In response, ed reformer Whitney Tilson called Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.” Tilson also lists education reformers who attended public high schools.

In Private School Student, Public School Reformer, Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio takes a calmer look at the issue. He thinks that well-educated people may take a strong curriculum for granted.

Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity. Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.

The difference is significant, Pondiscio argues.

If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t. But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.”

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel?

Pondiscio sent his daughter to a Manhattan private school, while he taught at a public school in the South Bronx. Lots of public-schools teachers were stronger than some of the private-school teachers, he writes.

The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone.

I went to public schools in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. We had a mix of excellent, average and lousy teachers. The curriculum was hit-and-miss, especially in elementary school. But we had a first-rate school tone. Our education-centric parents — mostly college educated and Jewish — had moved to the suburbs for good schools. They sent their smart, ambitious kids to public schools. And the schools were good.

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