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A Larger Public Purpose?

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It’s the hot news story of the week, that quite a few of the reformers out to fix public education have themselves been educated in independent schools: “In Public School Efforts, a Common Background: Private Education.”

At least the political–or is it ideological?–spectrum is covered. From Obama to the Bushes, from Bill Gates to Michelle Rhee (called in the Times piece “education’s Sarah Palin”), independent school graduates have indeed been putting their stamp on school reform initiatives for a couple of decades. The article also duly notes a whiff of hypocrisy, as in Arne Duncan’s and Bill Gates’ enthusiasm for larger class sizes; their independent alma maters are proud to keep this number in the teens.

While it’s nice to see that independent school graduates are making their mark on public education, I think there are some conspicuously missing participants from the national conversation about education: independent school educators. We may show up on all the panels and all the boards when the topic is selective college admissions, but independent school folks don’t seem to have found our voices when the conversation turns to the best ways to improve what used to be called the “education of the masses.” We’re looking after our own, but we don’t seem to have so much to say about other people’s children.

I’m not suggesting that we need to be butting in with “best practice” ideas on issues that may be at far remove from our daily lives and work. I’m well aware that our relative selectivity, relative affluence, and relative freedom from regulation put us in a category that looks and is privileged. But maybe it’s time for us to be listening more carefully and thinking far more deeply about what we might actually have to offer to a national, even global, dialogue.

We are still some distance from being able to offer–or to have accepted–any advice or assistance; there is plenty that we could be doing better in our own worlds. With all of our apparent advantages, independent schools in general could sharpen our practices and our missions beyond being very good at getting our kids into the most desirable selective independent secondary schools and selective colleges.

And before we start interposing ourselves into conversations with public and charter schools, we have some real work to do in learning how to speak and listen to one another. We’re working on this, I think, but it is not our habit to pay much attention to our peers; we’re often too busy congratulating ourselves on our excellence and protecting our reputations. It will take some work before we have, among us, the communication skills and the street cred to sit at the table with the Duncans and Gateses and Rhees, no matter how long our histories or how august our heritages.

But among us are great educators, great leaders, and great souls. We do some things very, very well, and we are living proof that certain kinds of practice and school structures can be extremely effective. Our schools serve students with a range of capacities and learning issues, and the mission and value statements of many of our schools speak to civic engagement, social justice, and global awareness. In our loftiest expressions, we say we want to serve. We just need to figure out how to do this as expertly as we educate the kids on our own campuses.

What we do best is teach, teach in humane and personal and caring ways. I don’t have a plan in mind, but wouldn’t it be great if actual educators from our schools were to start finding a role for themselves in a conversation that, as the Times article seems to imply, is dominated by some of our alums who favor doctrinaire, even hard-edged “solutions” over the very kind of education–humane and personal and caring–that they themselves once enjoyed?

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1 Comment
  1. As you sagely suggest – there’s a big difference between someone educated in an independent school and an independent school educator.

    I’m not very impressed by the education thinking of the reformy minded politicians, pundits and hedge-fund philanthropy types listed by the NYTimes. But I do think that independent schools have something to contribute – even if it’s only a cry in the wilderness that: “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

    Just so long as we don’t crow from the privilege of our perch, I think the good thinking of independent educators can be aligned with the good thinking of public school educators. It’s just that our colleagues there have so many mountains to climb. And especially the meddling of the aforementioned reformy minded bullies and blowhards who are working to deskill the profession and undermine the confidence of teachers.

    What astonishes me is that independent schools – with all their ability to BE independent so often choose not to be.
    – Josie

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