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Complementarity, Not Competition: A Birthday Wish


The school vaguely alluded to in the name of this blog was indeed my father’s school, and before that it was his father’s school. Today my father would have been 90, an age that I suspect he is happy never to have attained, as his final mid-80s were rough enough.

He and I did not often see eye to eye on political things, and now I wonder what he would make of the politicization that keeps education above the fold in the newspapers of New York State where he lived: controversy over the Common Core, struggles over standardized testing, fighting over teacher evaluation. It all would have troubled him.

To be sure, he was clear in his working lifetime that certain failures of the public schools were a boon to his small school, which had been founded to serve students with dyslexia in an era when even educators had not heard of the term.
Dyslexic boys were regular victims of virtually all schools’ failure to recognize and inability to cope with fundamental learning disabilities, and so parents fortunate enough to have help in understanding their children’s needs and then to learn about the school sent their students to the wilds of Western New York in small but steady trickles. The fact is that nearly as many boys came from other private schools as from public ones.

But my father was always an advocate for a wider understanding of dyslexia, its diagnosis and its remediation. His periodic media odysseys across the middle-markets of North America were designed to publicize his school, yes, but they were also information sessions—often televised interviews on those morning “after breakfast” shows that used to fill the airwaves—on what dyslexia was and how parents could get help for their children. I want to believe that at least a few viewers watched, switched off their sets, and made phone calls to agitate for in-school programs that would serve the needs of their dyslexic public school children.

Never, though, would my father have inclined to dance on the grave of public education in general, and I think it’s an horrific fallacy to believe that independent school people in general gleefully envision themselves as beneficiaries of public school failures. Here and there we may be just that, but on a scale so tiny that generalizing outward from it would be absurd. The independent school people I know don’t even like voucher programs, in part because most offer mere drops in the bucket toward independent school tuitions—however much they may be a boon to certain other kinds of private schools—but mostly because they threaten to further reduce funding for and can thus vitiate the quality of mainstream public schools.

The controversies will continue, but so, happily, does the school of my fathers, still providing what tends to be a final and successful intervention for kids who have been served not so well by their previous educational experiences whether private or public. But I note that the faculty and administration of this school proudly send their own children to the local public schools (as my father did his own children for our elementary years, before honoring his father’s preference that we attend for our secondary years yet another independent school at which the older man had taught), firm believers in a system that works even when beset with political turmoil.

Across the country independent school educators have not turned away from public schools, seeing them as the bulwark of society even as we find ourselves in front of classrooms of children whose families, for one reason or another, have chosen different paths. These are not systems in competition but in complementarity, a role we are beginning, I think, to appreciate more fully and actively.

I would wish this to have been a happy birthday for the Old Gentleman as he embarked on a tenth decade. I like to think that he would have been unhappy to see public education under fire but pleased to see independent school people continue to stick up for our public school counterparts and above all for their students as much as for our own.

I will also take this opportunity to invite educators from all kinds of schools to participate the ongoing #PubPriBridge Twitter chat that takes place on Mondays at 8:30pm ET/5:30pm PT. My father would not have approved of Twitter chats, I believe, but perhaps he would have at least been amused at the concept.