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Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet | Analysis

Are private schools really better than


public schools? A look at the data.
By Valerie Strauss
March 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

(iStock)

Independent schools are nonprofit private schools that are governed by an


independent board of trustees and are supported primarily through tuition
and contributions. There are more than 1,500 independent private K-12
schools in the United States, including some of the country’s best known,
including Sidwell Friends School in Washington, where several presidents
sent their children.

It is commonly thought that many of these private schools provide a better


education than public schools — and data published recently by the
National Association of Independent Schools and Gallup find that their
graduates may have better long-term outcomes.
But data can be misleading, and there is a legitimate question of how much
sense it makes to compare private and public school performance when the
populations of students are different.

In this post, Alden S. Blodget — an educator who spent decades in


independent schools — writes that the NAIS-Gallup report, “Seeking Critical
Collegiate Experiences and Consistent Progression in Higher Education,”
could have “unintended consequences, the most dangerous of which is
confirming a tendency to believe that education in independent schools
must be better than what happens in public schools.”

Blodget was both a student of independent schools and a teacher of English


and drama, as well as an administrator in five different schools in several
states during his nearly four-decade academic career. He has published
numerous pieces about education. And from 2000 until 2014, he worked
with University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Helen
Immordino-Yang, offering workshops for teachers to explore the
implications of her research and that of Harvard University’s Kurt W.
Fischer.

Immordino-Yang researches the psychological and neurobiological bases of


social emotion, self-awareness and culture, and their implications for
learning; Fisher has been a leader in researching how neuroscience,
cognitive science and psychology tell us about learning and the cognitive
and emotional development of young people.

Blodget published a short book based on these workshops: “Learning,


Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions.” He
has retired from teaching and is the editor of ParentsAssociation.com, a
free online resource and idea exchange for parents, students and teachers.

By Alden S. Blodget

“We have built a cult of data, and we are now enclosed within.”

                                                                                    — Nicolas Sarkozy

We live in the age of Big Data. People no longer seem to trust intuition,
experience or observation, and anecdotal evidence causes the eyes to glaze
over. If you have a thought, chances are good that few will take it seriously
unless some sort of research supports it. Conclusions and evidence based on
research-produced numbers increasingly determine not only the direction of
decisions but whether a new idea is even considered.

Research and data can certainly be important tools in assessing claims and
effectiveness and in guiding people as they explore new initiatives, but the
elevation of data to a sort of monotheism is dangerous. Numbers offer only
one view of reality. Experience offers another. The worship of numbers,
especially when those numbers present a reality sharply at odds with the
reality that people actually live, can limit or stifle change and innovation.

In his foreword to “Mis­Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add


Up,” Nicolas Sarkozy wrote about a “gulf of incomprehension between the
expert certain in his knowledge and the citizen whose experience of life is
completely out of sync with the story told by the data. . . . We wound up
mistaking our representations of wealth for the wealth itself and our
representations of reality for the reality itself.”

Sarkozy’s observations apply to areas other than the economy.

Recently, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)


partnered with Gallup to compare the college experiences of NAIS graduates
with those of graduates of other high schools. Not surprisingly, its report
(NAIS­Gallup Report on NAIS Graduates) showed that NAIS
graduates fared better in college and in life after college.

Although the survey claims only to look at factors that contribute to a future
sense of well-being (good job, good life) rather than how well educated
students are, there is a tacit invitation for people to draw conclusions about
the superior quality of an NAIS education. As a result, the report could have
unintended consequences, the most dangerous of which is confirming a
tendency to believe that education in independent schools must be better
than what happens in public schools.

Comparing NAIS students to students in non-NAIS schools might produce


nice marketing fliers, but it can also solidify comfortable self-satisfaction
and complacency, lulling independent schools into thinking that they are
some sort of model of excellence in learning outcomes.

The data from this study are certainly being used in new marketing tools to
claim that NAIS schools are superior to public schools. After all, just look at
the numbers used in the NAIS fliers: “77 percent of NAIS grads complete
college on time, compared to 64 percent of public school grads,” and about
the same percentages enjoy academic challenges.

So why mess with success? Resistance to change has long dominated


independent schools, especially those that send large numbers of graduates
to Ivy League colleges, and this report offers support to those who prefer to
keep things as they are. Data are good; parents are happy. Why rock the
boat?

I have no doubt that a higher percentage of independent school graduates


feel more positive about the categories that the NAIS-Gallup poll measured
— though I wonder how these percentages are skewed by other variables
such as the population of wealthy, motivated students attracted to
independent schools vs. the greater range of abilities and resources in the
even larger number who go to college from non-NAIS schools.

But what do these categories and percentages have to do with education,


with meaningful learning? Nothing, and although the report does not claim
that they do, the tendency to conflate one with the other is irresistible.

What is the reality of independent school? Does it merit this lavish self-
congratulation?

Finishing college on time, having higher SAT scores, being active in


extracurricular activities and feeling prepared for college or enjoying
academic challenge are mis-measures of deep learning. Yet the implication
seems strong that these categories offer legitimate insight into the overall
quality of an NAIS education, which implicitly includes learning. In fact,
schools generally do not use assessment tools that measure deep learning.
The SAT and ACT provide no insight into students’ level of skill (what they
can do) or complexity of conceptual understanding (what they really know,
as opposed to what they have memorized).

As a citizen who lives in the gap between the NAIS-Gallup data and my years
of experience in independent schools, I see a different reality “completely
out of sync with the story told by the data.” And I know that many of my
colleagues share this perception of reality, which comes from faculty rooms
and meetings filled with voices ranting about kids who can’t think, can’t
write, aren’t curious, don’t listen, know nothing, remember nothing, can’t
read and don’t care.
Teachers in NAIS schools, as well as public schools, complain about the
steady decline in focus and attention span as students become more
addicted to social media and smartphones: “I can’t give the same
assignments or tests to these kids that I could give them 15 years ago.”

At the same time, everyone worries about a reality that produces an


increasing number of depressed and anxious students, the kids who can’t
cope with the pressures to get the grades they need to attend “a highly
ranked college,” where they arrive already burned out. And this reality is
reflected, too, in an earlier Gallup poll that identified the two words students
most frequently used to describe their experience of school: “bored” and
“tired.” Their words resonate with my own lifetime of experiences and
observations of students in many classrooms in different independent
schools. Given this reality, does it really matter whether someone finishes
college on time?

My reality also comes from years of reading books and articles written by
others who think about and work in education. The most recent is education
philosopher Zachary Stein, who writes:

The recent economic crisis has involved the best graduates from our
most prestigious schools. The key players were our greatest test­
takers, our academic overachievers, and those who leveraged Ivy
League success to land (unconscionably) high paying jobs in the
financial sector. Their greed, incompetence, and narcissistic
irreverence speak eloquently to the failure of our educational
systems.” (Education in a Time Between Worlds)

Stein is not alone in a belief that the complexity of the problems we face
today, from the degradation of our planet to the failure of our economic
system, far exceed the capacity of our schools, as currently designed, to help
students develop the skills or understanding to solve them. This is the
reality that the data produced by the NAIS-Gallup report not only fail to
capture but actually hide by implying that learning in NAIS schools must be
superior to learning in public schools.

One problem with comparing graduates from NAIS schools with those from
other schools is that schools are still schools. With a few exceptions, they all,
public and private, rest on the same flawed assumptions about how people
learn: teaching, telling and learning are synonyms; single skills can be
learned in a linear fashion; natural and necessary regression of a skill is
failure; emotion interferes with rational thinking and learning; brains come
in two forms — normal or disabled; performance can be judged independent
of context; recall is evidence of learning. We have a system badly in need of 
rethinking and redesign.

One of the reasons so many educators, even in NAIS schools, might perceive
that students are not learning in deep, meaningful ways is that students are
not learning in deep, meaningful ways. The last thing we need is a poll that
assures those of us who work in independent schools that all is well.

Unlike most public schools, independent schools have the freedom and
resources to rethink education, yet reports like the NAIS-Gallup study are
likely to prevent deeper self-examination. After all, the data percentages that
the study produced are in our favor. We must be doing something right.

Sarkozy warns that “treating these [statistics] as objective data, as if they are
external to us, beyond question or dispute, is undoubtedly reassuring and
comfortable, but it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because we get to the point
where we stop asking ourselves about the purpose of what we are doing,
what we are actually measuring, and what lessons we need to draw. That is
how the mind begins to close . …”

We need to focus on more profound questions about the purpose of


education and make sure that what we are measuring will allow us to learn
the lessons required to improve our schools. Formulating these questions
depends on understanding a complex reality.

The point is not that data should be ignored. The point is that intuition
based on experience and deep knowledge should not be relegated to its
current inferior status. Anecdotal evidence can be useful. Data and intuition
can be equally valid (or invalid) tools for gaining insight into reality.
Intuition can serve as a meaningful check on data; data can serve as a
meaningful check on intuition. People need an accurate and complete sense
of reality from as many perspectives as possible to improve the actual lives
of people — those of our students.

 13 Comments
Valerie Strauss is an education writer who authors The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The
Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk
editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs
reporter on Capitol Hill. She also previously worked at UPI and the LA Times.

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