Thoughts on schools?

October 4, 2007 | 14 comments

My husband and I are going to a salon dinner next week. It’s basically a dinner party where there’s a set topic for discussion and a moderator. The goal is to have “an evening of far-reaching and lively debate” that “will take us beyond the headlines and the usual arguments”. The invitees are a diverse group of interesting people (hopefully they’ll let me in).

I’m really looking forward to it. The only problem is that I’m not very well versed in the topic that’s going to be discussed. Lucky for me, my blog readers are all over this stuff, so I’d like to pose the question to you all in hopes that you can give me some thoughts to ponder, and hopefully point me to some resources where I can learn more. The topic for discussion is (I’m paraphrasing from the invite):

Will public or private schools better prepare our next generation for society?

Are the public schools beyond saving? How much of the problem is those of us who send our children to private schools — are we contributing to a widening divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”? What needs to be done to prepare the next generation to serve society?

The invite doesn’t mention homeschooling. I’m not sure if they’re intentionally trying to limit the debate to public vs. private schools, or if they just hadn’t considered it.

Though it addresses a slightly different topic, I think Sally Thomas’ article Homeschooling and Christian Duty has some great points that could be useful in this discussion. I plan to start there in thinking and researching the subject.

Anyone else have any thoughts or resources to get me started on my research?


  1. Christine the Soccer Mom

    I’m not sure why homeschooling isn’t mentioned, but as far as the “have” vs. “have not” argument, this is why vouchers are so important. 🙂

    Personally, Nathan and I decided long ago that our children would either go to Catholic school or be homeschooled. I have worked in public schools, and I have to agree that they seem pretty broken. Discipline is a huge problem (which really stems from the breakdown of family and a general lack of respect for authority – from the parents, that is), curriculum is decided, on the whole, by committee, teachers cannot be fired no matter how incompetant they seem to be, and things tend to be so dumbed down so “no child is left behind” that the smartest kids are b-o-r-e-d. Sure, there is a Gifted program in most schools, but that is typically just once a week.

    I cannot speak for how private schools work, especially since I have no real experience with them. But with homeschooling, I can tailor my girls’ education to them. When I realized that Big Girl, despite her passing grades in math (B’s and A’s) was just not really getting it, I could back up and slow down for her. (We are talking tears and hysterics over all of school just because she dreaded math so much!) When I looked at the Kindergarten math book for Little Girl and realized that she knew nearly everything in it already, I could start her with first grade math instead. (We switched to Math-U-See this year, which is helping both of them. No “grade level” pressure – we work on something until they get it and then move on.) This, I think, is where public schools are going to have to take their cues.

    For instance, when I was in high school, we could be on different tracks for different subjects. I might be excelling in math and be ahead on that, but behind in English. So I’d be matched to the math class that challenged me and likewise with English – even if that meant my English was a lower track. If I was lacking in science, I could take an easier track for that – opting for a lower-level biology class – or if I was super-awesome in science (ha!), I could take A.P. classes and get college credit.

    Why not have something silimar with younger kids? Why not tailor their education to them instead of grouping them in heterogenius groups? Sure, there are reading groups at different levels, but there is only so much a teacher can do with one large class of 30 if she is to truly tailor to the kids’ needs. So why not group the kids who are reading at grade X together and work with them, then switch them to the math class, where they can work with other kids at their level for that?

    Something has to be done, though, because public school kids are getting the shaft. And, really, some of the teachers are not that bright. That probably sounds mean, but we are talking about only some of them. (Studies, though, point to education-majoring students as having the lowest test scores among college students.) My niece, when she was in first grade, missed the cutoff date for “gifted” testing, and my sister begged her teacher for months to test her anyway. “She’s BORED!” she lamented.

    “Oh, I don’t think it’s possible for a child to be bored in my class,” was the answer.

    Meanwhile, when our grandmother was down to visit and asked the child what she was learning in school nearly halfway through the year, she answered, “I’m not really learning anything new. It’s all the same old stuff.” (And this is a child who is very motivated as a learner and can tell you all the stuff she is doing.)

    Sorry for the wordy comment, Jen! Schools are just one of those subjects. Have fun at your dinner.

  2. Milehimama

    First, in TX, homeschools ARE private schools by law.

    Second, it depends on what type of society we want in the future – as well as what type of private school!
    Public schools are basically designed to provide employees to corporations.
    The entire system is geared towards “what kind of job are you going to have”.

    I think the real question is not which will prepare children better, but rather, do we want a society of keep-your-head down add to the domestic product workers, or are we looking for a new American Renaissance? What is meant by society?

  3. Catherine L

    I just discovered your blog today–what a pleasure!

    Here’s an article about public schools that might interest Content/Public/Articles/ 000/000/013/702uscvj.asp

    I happen to have a radical view of public schools–I think we should eliminate them. My 4 children go to Catholic schools and there are uncountable graces in working and striving to educate my children (I imagine the same is true even more so for home schoolers. My short answer to the public school problem is that people don’t value what comes “free”. While we can’t make people care and sacrifice for their children, we can make it easier for them not to.

  4. Patty in WA or Rover

    A lot of what you talk about depends on how you define your terms. Here is the definition I use when I think about “education”:

    Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, and it is accomplished by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.

    If one uses this definition of education, the salon question answers itself.

    If you want to look at more about this definition of education, and about classical education (liberal arts education) which, along with others, strive to educate in terms of this definition, there are a lot of places you can go to learn more. I can recommend the Circe Institute, here:

    Have a great discussion. Try not to come to blows. (smile)

  5. LilyBug

    As a Catholic high school school graduate and, now, teacher I can assure you that Catholic schools are as diverse in their abilites to educate children as public schools. And, depending on where you live, there are different philosophies on why one should send their children to Catholic school. Some parents use Catholic school as a status symbol; others genuinely what their children educated in a faith-filled environment (which may or may not be faith-filled); still others send their children to Catholic school because it is a safe alternative to the community public school.

    Depending on the Catholic school, the administration adapts as necessary. The school I teach at, for example, caters to the wealthy and tends to water down the theology quite a bit. While the school is very strong, academically, the theology is quite weak. Is that any better than a fine public school? I wonder.

    By the way, I am in the process evaluating our theology department with a theology teacher as a member outside of the department. It has raised some very interesting issues involving the purpose of Catholic education which I talk about on my blog, “Just Another Catholic Blog,” in case you’re curious or have anything to contribute

  6. Whimsy

    An intriging book that you may want to peruse before your discussion is called Thomas Jefferson Education, called TJ Ed for short. The thesis is that tutoring actually prepares a student for leadership better than a one-size fits all education found in institutions.

  7. Abigail

    Don’t know if you’ll have time to read, but an amazing book on this subject is Geoffrey Canada’s autobiography of growing up & attending public school in NYC titled “Fist Stick Knife Gun.” Even if you just browse the few pages copied at Amazon, it’s worth a look. He comes from desperate poverty, graduates from Brandeis, and now is an educational reformer in his old neighborhood. I loved it when I first read it at age 22. Now, as a mother of a son, I find his story even more compelling.

  8. Sarahndipity

    Wow, that salon dinner thing sounds like a great idea. I would love to go to something like that, because I love debating about stuff. 🙂

    Unfortunately I can’t be of much help since I’m not well-versed in this issue either. I can only give my opinion. I do support vouchers and I think simply throwing money at public schools will not necessarily solve all their problems. I also think parents should be able to choose what public school their kids go to instead of having to go to the one in their zip code. Competition between public schools, and between public and private schools, would improve public schools immensely.

    At the same time, though, I have to strongly disagree with Catherine that public schools should be eliminated. Public schools are the only option for the majority of kids in this country. A lot of families can’t afford private school tuition or having a parent at home to homeschool. A lot of parents are way too messed up to give their kids a quality education at home anyway. We need to improve public schools, not eliminate them.

  9. Karie


    Private schools include homeschooling, in my opinion, whether the state treats it as such or no. I personally think that public school has well demonstrated that it is dysfunctional at best, a threat to our future at worst. If you read the first documents regarding the value of public schooling, it was purposely used to separate children from their parental influence. The proponents of public school seemed to think it was dangerous to allow parents to teach their children _anything_ including their own values. I think that private schools and homeschooling should be the only options. The moneys collected for public schools should be given back as education vouchers and the parents should select what kind of education the children should get, until the age of 16, and then the kids should get a voice.

    -boy you’d never get me to shut up in that salon! 🙂

  10. Sarahndipity

    I think that private schools and homeschooling should be the only options. The moneys collected for public schools should be given back as education vouchers and the parents should select what kind of education the children should get, until the age of 16, and then the kids should get a voice.

    I would not be opposed to this as long as it guaranteed all kids a free education. I don’t know enough about the public school budget to know if that would be viable. It would be better for parents and kids to have more choice in schooling.

    I do think public schools sometimes get a bit of a bad rap from Catholics, though. Admittedly I’m speaking from my own experience of attending one of the best public school systems in the country growing up, but I honestly don’t think public schools are that bad. I went to public schools my entire life and never left the faith, because I had parents who set a good example and I attended a great CCD program through high school. I don’t remember the schools being anti-religion, just neutral about religion, which is as it should be, since kids of all faiths attended. My high school was one of the most racially diverse in the country, and I think attending it was a great experience. Attending sex ed did not make me want to run out and have sex – I already knew I was going to wait until marriage. I don’t think kids are as easily influenced as adults seem to think they are. Of course, it’s possible that I’m just exceptionally strong-willed. My husband and parents could attest that this is indeed the case. 🙂

    And this is just my experience. Every family needs to choose the method of schooling they think is best in their situation, whether it’s public school, homeschooling, Catholic school or another private school.

  11. Hope 2

    John Taylor Gatto’s book “Dumbing Us Down” would be a very good read on this subject. It has the advantage of being short so you could finish it before the salon.

  12. Catherine L

    I would not be opposed to this as long as it guaranteed all kids a free education.

    Why free? What else should we guarantee free to kids (i.e. parents shouldn’t have to pay for it)? Food? Health care? Clothing? Shelter? These are all basic necessities.

    See, I think the “free” part causes a lot of the problems in the government schools.

  13. Sarahndipity

    Because if it’s not free, there would be a lot of kids who get no education at all. Private/Catholic school is very expensive – moreso than health care (which is often paid at least partially by your employer), clothes, food, etc. Stuff like food, clothing, etc. can be purchased relatively cheaply with shopping around for bargains, using coupons, etc. If all parents had to pay for school, it would just add an enormous extra burden to a lot of families who are already struggling. It would make it much harder for families to have a lot of kids or live on one income.

    I read the weekly standard article, and I actually agree with the author’s proposal. It sounds like things would be the same as they are now – education would be free aside from what people pay in taxes – but parents would have more choice with regards to schooling. That sounds like a win-win situation to me. I think the problems in public schools are not because they are free but because of the lack of competition between schools.

  14. majellamom

    Okay, jumping in on the free education comments…

    If we were to do away with the public school philosophy all together, the tax code and property taxes would need to be revamped.

    So much of tax dollars paid go towards public education. If we didn’t have public schools at all, and parents were responsible for educating their children (whether at home or in a school they paid for), the tax burden of the average person would be quite a bit lower (this is assuming that public schools wouldn’t be replaced with a voucher system).

    So, there would be more money in the family budget to spend on education. Perhaps people would have to make better decisions (i.e. cut back on luxury items to afford a better education for their children). Even then, there would be people who wouldn’t be able to afford to give their children good educations. But then again, there can be charity. Nonprofits raise money for all sorts of things (including for private schools, etc.) Foundations could be started to give a better education to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    After all, are we really doing poor kids a favor by teaching them how to be good employees? And are we really teaching them anything? With both my parents as educators in public schools, I am not that convinced that they get through to many of the kids they have. My mom is an excellent teacher (runner up for the state teacher of the year award several years ago, and board certified in her field) but she can’t teach her subject to some of her students because she has to bring them up to speed on other subjects that they never did catch on to!

    Okay, random scattered thoughts on the subject…my dd keeps running back to tell me all about what is happening on Blue’s Clues…

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