In report after report, commission hearing after hearing, articles, books, monographs, government-funded study after study, we see education reform-people seeking models that work and suggesting that if School X in this or that ghetto or barrio can succeed, then all others should be able to as well. Usually, however, what we find is that School X succeeded or succeeds because of an exceptional leader, a charismatic one-in-a thousand principal who manages to create a one-in-a-thousand school.
But School X is usually not a model but an exception. It is like the other schools: under-funded and lacking adequate resources, but one of two things occurs to make a difference: either the genius principal manages to inspire an entire school community to rally behind her or him, or that principal becomes an extraordinary fund-raiser and resource magnet. In any event, School X is not replicable on a large scale because genius leaders cannot be mass produced.
So if we cannot look to the occasional School X for systemic change, what can we do? Where can we look? I would suggest, now that I am mostly at work with public schools, that public schools could learn from private school models. Usually, public school educators dismiss private schools as not being relevant to their concerns. After all, private schools are selective in admissions, sometimes making them elitist, and de facto racially segregated by neighborhood, economics, and, hence, usually by race. So what could we – public school folks – learn from the private schools?
I would submit that they could learn what excellence looks like. They could learn why private schools have a virtual 100 percent college entrance rate year after year. The conditions which allow for this systemic excellence could be identified, costed out, and be made the basis of intelligent discussion for real and meaningful reform.
If such a study were undertaken, here are some of the ingredients of private school excellence (excluding genius leadership) that I believe public school folks would find:
1. Class size: 15 to 20 students (not 35-45 as in many inner-city high schools)
2. Teacher load: four classes per day of 15-20 students each (not 5-6 classes per day)
3. Books for each student: to take home (which public school students often do not have but which all private schools do offer)
4. Diverse curriculum: studies indicate that public school students are often bored with school. Why? Because they do not have what private schools offer as a matter of course – rich offerings in arts classes, field trips, environmental classes, community service, physical education, after-school productions, clubs – all taught by professionals
5. Counseling: college counseling, social and emotional counseling, special needs counseling; private schools provide all of the above and in appropriate ratios of counselors per students.
Teachers and counselors are effective in private schools because the conditions allow them to do their jobs.
The list could go on and on. Suffice to say private schools spend more per student than public schools – as much as two to three times more. For example, LAUSD spends about $8,000 per pupil per year while the most sought-after private schools spend $26,000-$28,000 per pupil. Money matters. As one study indicates, unequal resources yield unequal results. Funding buys quality. So if we are serious about reform, then let’s have the right discussions.