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What’s Missing in the Media Coverage of Private Schools

February 1, 2012

Over the past several years, I have watched in surprise as education has emerged as a topic of great interest and concern in the media.  We all know the themes quite well by now:  we see articles sharing the latest data on standardized test scores and failing schools and teachers; we read of school administrators and teachers who falsify student achievement data to save their schools and their jobs; we read of college admissions hysteria, anxiety and despair, especially as private school students face the possibility of disappointment and defeat for the first time in their lives; we read of colleges boasting of their record numbers of applications and highest yields on record; we read this week of colleges who admit that they too changed data to reflect greater institutional strength in order to gain favor with U.S. News & World Report.

What is curiously absent from much of the media coverage is an exploration of the power of American education to influence and inspire ownership, responsibility and stewardship in a new generation of Americans.  In his essay “One Percent Education” last week, Neal Gabler writes a searing portrait of the private school movement in America by arguing that we recognize, reward and celebrate an educational philosophy designed for individual accomplishment and superiority over democratic engagement and civic responsibility.  Gabler blames the colleges for setting the agenda for American schools—he assumes that intensive and highly selective college admissions must distort and mangle the mission of the private school movement.

I see the issues a different way.  Although I agree that the potential response of private schools to intense competition is often an embrace of an unhealthy and anxious brand of individualism, we in the independent school have only ourselves to blame if we turn education into a commodity, a pursuit of an empty form of entitlement and privilege.

Private schools do resist the siren song of the 21st century educational hysteria.  You can identify them when you visit, talk to students, teachers and community members.  Here are a few things to look for:

The school has a mission, a calling, a purpose that combines a commitment to individual education with a commitment to a national, global or spiritual pursuit.  These schools continually explore the purpose of secondary education in the 21st century, and they develop with strong, powerful assertions of meaning, hope, commitment and engagement.  Students at these schools know that the work of school is invariably and powerfully tied to a local, national and global good.

Students and teachers at great schools understand that the work they do together and the spirit of collaboration and teamwork in the culture collectively make all members of the community better people.  Teachers, students, staff members at great schools are learning, pushing, extending themselves in new and exciting directions.  Classes, relationships and connections are electric, affirming and transformational.  The school and its constituents do not bend and collapse in a spiral of triviality and entitlement; rather, the community moves, grows, develops in new and unexpected ways.

The great secondary school actively resists the media assumptions about private education.  To those who call us entitled, privileged, pompous and narcissistic, we answer with a deep commitment to diversity, to financial aid, to hard work, creativity and a commitment to the communities in which we live.

We handle college admissions frenzy and anxiety and hysteria by denying the power of this machine to define our schools, our missions and our callings.  We teach in ways that dwarf the work of liberal arts classrooms; we teach for inspiration, understanding and passion rather than for an empty collection of credits, AP scores or resumes.  We in the end inspire students to be citizens, leaders, agents of moral and spiritual change in our world.

If we do this work well, it will be impossible to assert that private schools exist to protect the privileges and entitlements of 1% of our society.  Rather, the private school world will assert its democratic mission and purpose.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Feifan Chang permalink
    February 8, 2012 8:10 am

    Good point raised .
    Have to be check the points very carefully & deeply.


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