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What do elite private schools owe the public?

Here are some questions about elite private schools that are raised in a probing article in the latest edition of Independent School magazine:

Why aren’t more independent leaders speaking out about the pedagogical perversions of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?


Why aren’t more independent school leaders speaking out against growing inequality?


As the nation moves deeper into a winner-takes-more economic model, do the possible negative consequences on students’ college admissions cause most heads and other independent school leaders to avoid a difficult topic that might raise eyebrows and hurt admission prospects?


Are many independent schools gilding the lily?


What are independent schools? They are nonprofit private schools that are self-determining in mission and program and are governed by independent boards. Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama sends his daughters Malia and Sasha, is an independent school.

The article is titled, “Our 1% Problem: Independent Schools and the Income Gap,” and is written by Fred Bartels, who teaches online computer programming courses to students at independent schools in New York and Connecticut and who previously worked for 28 years teaching and integrating information technology at Rye Country Day School in New York. He takes a revealing look at the world of independent schools in the magazine published by the National Association of Independent Schools.

He writes that many independent schools work hard to teach their students about issues involving equity, social justice and diversity, but notes:

      …There is no getting around the fact that the primary clientele of independent schools are the wealthiest families in our country: the 1 percent, to use “Occupy” terminology. Who else can afford tuition costs that in some areas are approaching $40,000 a year?


There are, he writes, “huge social costs” to growing inequality in American society and then poses questions about the proper role of independent school leaders is sounding the alarm about equity issues in education.

That includes, he says, explaining the difference between the kind of progressive education offered in many independent schools compared to the rigid learning that has resulted in public schools from the modern reform movement in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. He writes:

Independent schools are exempt from the high-stakes testing insanity of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives that have led — quite predictably, for those aware of Campbell’s Law — to a massive outbreak of test-result-altering scandals in public schools and, more diabolically, to a narrowing of the public-school curriculum. As independent school programs have become steadily enriched by adding everything from dance to Mandarin to fabrication labs (almost all financed by wealthy families) many public schools have been shedding art, music, and physical education programs as they desperately try to avoid being labeled failing by a law with more perversity of circular logic than Joseph Heller’s concept of Catch-22.


And he writes:

I wonder if independent schools are becoming essential parts of a new framework of oppression being constructed to support, rationalize, and justify growing economic inequality. I wonder if some independent schools aren’t becoming Veblen Goods.

You can read the article in full here.   




Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · November 25, 2012

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