Sunday, November 4, 2012

Election special: Presidential Prep Schools (Part I)

Our presidential candidates, like most of the US plutocracy, attended private high school.  I'm interested in the differences between the education and literacy of the elite and the education and literacy of the masses, so I spent an hour or so looking at the Presidential prep schools: the Punahou Academy (Obama) and the Cranbrook school (Romney), and another hour or so trying to think about the differences between these schools and public schools.  I find it troubling that our elites are withdrawing more and more from the spheres that the rest of us inhabit, and the private school/public school divide is just one rift among many.  What does this divide look like, and what does it mean?  I'm not really sure, but I've written two posts trying to explore the matter.  This first post is about Punahou and Cranbrook in general, and I'll post something tomorrow about what the schools' English departments say they're doing.

General differences between private high schools and public high schools
These high schools are different from public high schools mainly in their student populations.  The main reason Obama, Romney, Gates and other elites go to private school is that private schools are allowed to exclude kids who are less docile, less privileged, and less able.  Good public schools are mostly "good" because they enroll more docile, privileged and able students, and low-performing public schools are mostly bad because they enroll less docile, less privileged, and less able students. Elite private schools take this difference between "good" public school and "bad" public school to a whole different level, since even at Leafstrewn we don't actively select our students. Punahou and Cranbrook are able to hand-pick their students, and their enrollments are made up almost entirely of extremely privileged and genetically fortunate children (according to an interesting study differences in academic ability among rich kids are at least 50% genetic, whereas among poor kids environment accounts for 90% of academic ability).  At Punahou or Cranbrook, the few scholarship kids, like the young Barack Obama, are rare birds completely unrepresentative of their poorer peers (and Obama was hardly poor).  This hand-picked student body is by far the most important difference between a private and a public school, since students are the most important factor in student achievement at any school, more important than the curriculum, the teachers, or even the budget. .

Non-academic factors also matter
The student population is also important for non-academic reasons, of course. Just as I myself prefer public schools (as a teacher and a parent) for non-academic reasons, many people prefer private schools for non-academic reasons.  Having different populations means that the friends children make are different; the parent population is different; and the culture is different.  But the differences go beyond population.

For one thing, the physical plant is usually dramatically different.  My son goes to public school in a scary, depressing, prison-like structure:

Our President and his opponent, on the other hand, went to lushly landscaped academic chateaux.  (Cranbrook's campus, below left, was called, by the New York Times's architecture critic, "one of the greatest campuses ever created anywhere", and Punahou, at right, reminds me somehow of the Hearst castle at San Simeon):

Academic differences beyond the student population
Aside from the populations, and aside from the culture and the architecture and the groundskeeping, these private schools are also dramatically different from public schools in two ways: (1) they have lower student-teacher ratios; (2) they are not bound by governmental curriculum and testing requirements.

The student-teacher ratios at wealthy private schools are dramatically different from those even at public schools in wealthy towns.  The public schools in leafy Bloomfield Hills, where Cranbrook is located, are relatively well-funded, and have extremely low numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.  While nationwide about 50% of students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price lunch, the number in our own wealthy Leafstrewn is 13%, and in the Bloomfield Hills public schools it's even lower, somewhere between 2 and 8%.  Nevertheless, whereas the public schools in Leafstrewn and Bloomfield Hills have student-teacher ratios of between 11 and 15, Cranbrook has a student-teacher ratio of 8.

Private schools are also not bound by nearly as many government rules.  Punahou and Cranbrook both require standardized tests to get in, and both brag about their SAT results and their National Merit Semifinalists, but neither school subjects its students to the battery of standardized tests that are a yearly disruption of the routine at Leafstrewn and every other public school in the country.  They are also free to run their schools, including their English departments, however they wish--but I'll wait until tomorrow's post to address that.

What do these differences mean?
One thing they mean is that when politicians or billionaires talk about school reform, it is hard for me to take their words at face value.  If standardized testing is so important for improving schools, why don't elite parents push for their own children's schools to give the same tests?  My son went to a private quaker school for a couple of years in between public schools, and he did not take the MCAS.  Malia and Sasha do not have to take standardized tests every year.  Why not? And if class size doesn't matter much, as Bill Gates is so fond of saying, why is it that Punahou and Cranbrook and Lakeside (Gates's alma mater) have dramatically lower teacher-student ratios than public schools do? (In fact the data is pretty clear: as you would expect, class size does matter, and it matters more for poor kids. The chair of Obama's council of economic advisors, Alan Krueger, has done great work on this--see his 2003 article, available here--but Arne Duncan has said that larger classes in high school might be a good idea.)  So in my eyes, neither Presidential candidate has much credibility on education, and both ignore the most important factors in our country's educational health.

Another thing these differences mean is that we public school teachers might look at the curriculum and teaching at private schools, since they probably do things slightly differently.  I've been thinking a lot about how we English teachers can learn from looking at doctors, at literature, at homeschooling, at international differences, and so on; prep schools are another interesting outside comparison. So tomorrow I'll say something about the way the two Presidential Prep schools say they handle reading, and I'll say which candidate I would vote for if all I knew was their high school's English department mission statement.

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