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Posted at 09:58 AM ET, 10/05/2011

A note to the writers of ‘Bones’

Feeling exhausted and feverish, I went home early from work and turned on the television to find a rerun of an episode of “Bones,” the sometimes gruesome but entertaining series about a forensic anthropologist and her partner in solving crimes, an FBI agent. Little did I expect to hear education-related dialogue that was so wrong that it was annoying.

In the 2008 episode entitled “The Bone That Blew,” a minor story line involves FBI agent Seeley Booth, played by David Boreanaz, worrying about where to send his young son Parker to school.

Booth talks to psychiatrist Lance Sweets about how bad he felt because he could not afford to send Parker to a private school. Part of the dialogue went like this:

Special Agent Booth: You don’t think I’m a lousy dad for not sending my kid to a private school?

Dr. Sweets: No. But you’d be a lousy father if you didn’t torture yourself about it.

Special Agent Booth: Thanks.

Wrong and wrong. Booth shouldn’t be worried about being a lousy dad for not sending his kid to a private school and Sweets should most definitely not suggest it is proper to be tortured about it.

Why would the writers pen something that gives the false impression that private schools are necessarily better than public schools? Was there no one on the show’s set who heard that dialogue who might not have known better and intervened?

Obviously, the public perception persists that private K-12 education is superior to public. As the admissions season for private schools to accept students for the 2012-13 school year now gets into full swing, it seems like a good time to point out that that perception is just not true.

The vast majority of students in the United States attend public schools. It is estimated that about 10 percent of the nation’s children go to private schools, including religious schools, though in the greater Washington area the figure is estimated to be about 15 percent. Another 5 or 6 percent attend public charter schools, which, like private schools, are sometimes considered to be — as a group — better at educating kids than traditional public schools, and that isn’t true either.

Private schools (and public charter schools) are so different in size, resources, enrollment, cost and mission that it is preposterous to lump them into one group and say they are better or worse than public schools.

An article in Washingtonian magazine once described the prestigious public magnet school in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, like this:

“About nine out of ten students arrive at Jefferson from public middle schools. Families who can’t afford the $30,000 price tag of a Potomac School [in McLean, Va.] or Sidwell Friends [in the District] see Jefferson as a private school equivalent.”

I read into that sentiment the notion that the best private schools are better than the best public schools. Not true.

Some individual private schools are better at educating students than some public schools and vice versa, but generally, the big difference is that they are, well, different. In fact, the best public schools can and often do have resources that some of the best private schools can’t afford to have.

Public attention is usually focused on the best-known, high achieving and expensive (costing more than $30,000 a year) private schools — such as Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama’s two daughters attend — but in fact there are hundreds of other lesser-known schools without the big reputations or resources.

Obvious differences involve the teachers; in public systems, they are supposed to be certified but private schools can hire anyone. Public school teachers also must teach from a prescribed curriculum, while private schools have no such local or state mandates.

There has been debate over many years about whether private school students perform better on standardized tests than public school students, but in truth the comparison is not fair. The student populations are not the same, and, anyway, any reader of this blog will know I don’t hold stock in using standardized test scores as proof of very much of anything.

Parents select private schools for their children for a number of reasons, including values education, small classes (though some private schools have very large classes), safety and reputation. Some parents believe that their child will be helped during college admissions if they come from a top private schools — but that is only sometimes true.

It has become almost reflexive these days for some folks to bash public education. We certainly don’t need a false image that all public schools are lousy to be perpetuated on popular television shows.

So, Bones writes, if the issue of where young Parker Booth attends school ever comes up again, and you find it necessary to have Booth lament the fact that his son had to attend a public school, please have Sweets set him straight. Or, for a twist, how about a scene in which Booth tells Sweets how great Parker’s public school turned out to be?

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By  |  09:58 AM ET, 10/05/2011

 
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