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Public or Private School

Updated on August 4, 2017

Culturally appropriate education and successful graduates

There are two, or possibly even three, co-existent educational systems in the United States. The largest of these is the public education system, followed by the private schools and increasingly popular home-schooling. The third system will be mentioned only tangentially, as the real problems with U.S. education are considered to reside in the public schools. In recent decades, there have been various schemes put forth regarding vouchers for families who want to send their children to private schools but cannot afford the fees; none of these has borne fruit. In any case, it is doubtful that the private schools could absorb the numbers of students who would want to attend if vouchers were a reality. The problem with the public schools has been identified by most of the public and by many researchers as one of curriculum. The schools, they said, are not producing students with sufficient academic qualifications to do well in college. The cure, more than once, has been identified as compelling students to do well on standardized tests. That required teachers to teach with the intent for students to do well on those standardized tests. In addition, that is one problem with public education in the United States. Teaching a dog to do tricks is not education; teaching a student to excel in the limited scope of standardized tests is not education, either. In fact, even that has become recognized by enlightened educators, and a deploring phrase, "teaching to the test," has developed. (Eberhardt, 1999, unpaged)

Politics also enters the picture, with elected officials, rather than educators', deciding what is taught in the public classroom. None of this is what differentiates the public school from the private school, nor is it money alone that separates them. Rather, it is the fact that U.S. public schools are run according to a standard developed in ancient Greece that is no longer workable, while private schools can take as their model any educational format that pleases them, or that produces the sort of graduates the school intends to produce.

This brings up another question: What sort of graduates do public schools intend to produce, and why? And what sort of graduates do private schools intend to produce, and why?

The simple answer to the first and second questions is the same: Schools intend to produce graduates capable of living and working successfully in their own culture. This paper will demonstrate the ways in which the public schools fail to do this for the vast majority of their graduates, and the ways in which private schools succeed at preparing graduates to succeed.

Hypothesis: Private schools teach their students to succeed not because of a great deal of money poured into education, but because the schools are both free to teach the curricula they choose, and they are preparing students to return to their own cultures and succeed. Public schools, on the other hand, are not free to teach any curricula not aimed at improving standardized test scores, and the successful public school student is not prepared to return to his or her culture in a trade, but to transition out of it into an anachronistic academic culture.

Review of the Literature

A review of the literature reveals that money is not the deciding factor in the relative failure of public schools when measured against private schools. Rather, an unworkable system and expectations unrelated to modern life have predestined public education to fail. The ability to alter curricula and every other facet of the school at will has, on the other hand, allowed private schools to succeed for hundreds of years already, and has also positioned them well to continue to succeed in an even more rapidly changing society. That something will have to be done, however, is unavoidable: teaching will have to remove itself from fact-based teaching (that is, standardized test-oriented teaching) because "specific information is outmoded almost as soon as it has been learned," according to a report by Eberstadt. (1999, unpaged)

Education and culture

Bruckerhoff proposed that in public education, schools need to take into account many aspects of childhood, learning and culture. What he meant by this is that curricula would have to be reformed "to draw on sacred and secular traditions so as to nurture children's personal knowledge." (Bruckerhoff, 1995, 387+) This is difficult in public schools because there may be several ethnic and cultural groups represented. However, he insists that this is a factor missing from the educations of public school students. He proposes that public education in a democratic society is the institutional means for children to gain an understanding and appreciation of the family in its relationship with the local community as well as within a complex cultural heritage. Nowhere in his proposal does he mention outstanding test scores as a means to properly educate public school children. Rather, he proposes that the purpose of education is to help a person "make sense of his or her human condition." (Bruckerhoff, 1995, 387+) Bruckerhoff suggests that this can be done when public schools have a core curriculum that supports family life, "presents personally meaningful subject matter, and respects local culture." (Bruckerhoff, 1995, 387+) That may have happened briefly, when music education was an integral part of public school curriculum in the 1890s, when most Americans went to church and sang. (Jorgenson, 1995, 31-38)

Bruckerhoff argues further that even if this were the desire of the community, and it could get past the politicized school boards, the curriculum would still be determined by experts, those who think they must use their knowledge and political acumen to guard children from errors, most of which are culturally tied. In the name of keeping schools free of bias, they insist that students learn the experts' own biases. He argues that excessive and flawed government intervention in public schools has treated poor children like objects and recipients of the donations of their superior knowledge, and has devalued families. He notes hat the political solutions in public education have been disappointing because one essential element was missing: respect for those values embedded in local culture. (Bruckerhoff, 1995, 387+)

Teaching Dispositions

Edgar et al agree, although they lift the idea of ‘local option' in education, as a means of putting public education on a par with private education, several steps beyond Bruckerhoff's relatively simplistic prescriptions. They argue that:

Moral sensitivity, fair dealing with others who are not part of one's clan, ethical decision making, responsibility, the delay of personal gratification for a larger good, benevolence, civic responsibility-these represent dispositions in our minds and in the minds of many others who believe public schools should assume the task of teaching such dispositions. (Edgar et al, 2002, 231+)

Bruckerhoff would agree. He noted that children from advantaged families (those above the poverty line, although from any ethnic background), have values that supersede the public school curriculum. He groups their cultural identification with "dominant high-status cultures," while the disadvantaged child comes from families whose values are rooted in folk cultures which either clash with that of the public school, or don't engage with it at all. He believes public schools, to prepare students to succeed in life, must somehow cope with those cultures. Edgar et al would say that they need to ‘teach dispositions' instead. If public schools were able to "bring students to know and understand themselves in relation to other people as well as

things," then, the public school of tomorrow, he contends, would look more like the parochial and private schools of today. (Bruckerhoff, 1995, 387+)

Almost contemporaneously, Clinchy was pointing out that in fact the schools of today look more like the schools of ancient Greece than anything that is workable for today's society.

He points out that the early ‘schools' of the Greeks involved the teachers (Aristotle, et al) removing their students from society, going out into the countryside to discourse about the meaning of life, and even the meaning of words...and the meaning of wondering about the meaning of words. In short, it was all-even the math and science-philosophy. In fact, it could not have been anything else, as science as we know it would be invented hundreds of years later by people a lot less erudite. Those early Greek ‘schools' were the foundation not only of the detached method of education extant in U.S. public schools today, but of the campus style of learning as well. Universities and even high schools are generally separated from their communities by acres of greensward. Clinchy argues that this is not for peace, quiet and beauty alone, but to separate the students from everyday life. To be sure, private schools are often at least as well set apart as public schools, but the effect is different. The public school student generally is out of his or her element while on-campus, as they will live in urban or suburban proximity to neighbors and their community. Private schools students, Clinchy points out, are more likely to come from four-acre zoning affluent communities, so that ‘campus life' is little different from home, and their cultural community. (Clinchy, 1994, 745+)

This approach and the resulting disconnection was sealed into education during the medieval period, when all books were written in Latin, as well, meaning they were not readable by the common citizen, even if the common citizen could have gotten hold of them. At that point, knowledge and learning was controlled by monasteries, which also controlled what people believed. However, there was another form of education at the time as well; trade and craft education, taught within the community by the guilds. In addition, it is out of this community, Clinchy argues, that the inventions that changed the world have come. One such invention was the printing press; Gutenberg was not a university graduate, but a guild member. (Clinchy, 1994, 745+)

Vo-tech or Public School

Clinchy argues that this is the sort of education not being provided in today's public schools, and should be. Zweigenhaft has taken that idea a step beyond and has studied the relative post-graduation achievements of both public and private school students, and has proved that in fact, private schools do an excellent job of preparing students for their life roles, while public schools can do only one of two things: prepare students for academia, that is, to remain outside their communities, or to fail as academics and be suited for nothing much. Certainly, based on Zweigenhaft's work, it is possible to argue that the public schools create a great divide, doing some service to the most intellectual of their students, and failing to return the less intellectual to their cultures with any hope of success in life.

Zweigenhaft struck out to do his own research on the basis of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called a theory of ‘social reproduction.' Bourdieu thought that those in power pas son not just their material wealth, but more importantly, the ‘cultural capital' and ‘social capital' those children will need to succeed. Zweigenhaft uses Edgar' concept of ‘dispositions' as well. He also thinks that public schools avoid teaching needed dispositions because it is true that "early training in sophisticated computer skills may have valuable advantages" for those who can learn them over those who cannot. However, that still does not deal with the cultural disconnect of the vast majority of public school students who will not be whiz-kid programmers. In fact, this sort of training may be as close as one gets in public school to the guild model, returning success-oriented people to their culture. Otherwise, public school creates unsuccessful returnees to their culture, or ultra-achieving intellectuals who opt out of their cultures entirely to join the ‘groves of academe.' Zweigenhaft notes that they are acquiring cultural capital in a different culture through academic achievement. On the other hand, he notes, private schools equip virtually all of their students with the ‘social capital' they will need to manipulate and succeed in their world. Zweigenhaft explains that bright public school students are much more likely than bright private school students to attain high academic honors and advanced degrees. The private school students built relationships instead. He notes:

For those already at the top of the class structure, relationships with others who will hold power are likely to be much more important than doing exceptionally well academically. (Zweigenhaft, 1993, 211+)

Developing the Person instead of the Mind

While class-structure-based relationships are certainly more than simply good interpersonal relations, Edgar et al note that Lickona had been, in 1991, advocating teaching character and social-emotional skills in school for more than 20 years, arguing that "developing good interpersonal relations are an authentic aim of public schools. The case for teaching dispositions in the public schools has also been advocated by many noneducators from a diverse range of disciplines," including philosophy. (Edgar et al, 2002, 231+)

opposition to Change in Public Schools

In fact, some writers note that it is educators-products of universities that are even more like the Athenian model than public schools-who are most against changing the system. Lieberman notes that no reforms are likely to take place if they ignore the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers' unions. Teachers' unions, he also notes, "typically have more power to block change than unions in the private sector." (Lieberman, 1986, unpaged) He also said that he had seen no suggestions as to how to obtain union approval for public schools becoming more like private schools.

Alternatives to Public and Private School

That being the case, Lieberman argued for ‘family choice' measures-vouchers-that could allow more parents to enroll their children in private schools. That led him to believe that a change of that nature would lead to more competition, and the competition would lead to better education. He wrote, "In my view, a market approach is indeed our best bet for achieving educational reform, and public policy should encourage it." (1986, unpaged) While it has not become widespread, there have been several small excursions into for-profit educational ventures that are not private schools. Some of them may be effective in revamping the curricula, or at least, allowing more of those laboring under it to achieve sufficient school success to move on to an institution of higher learning and become members of the intellectual elite, rather than sons and daughters of trades people without a trade. They would not be returning to or connecting with their original culture (as the private school students do), but abandoning it entirely.

Millionaire Christopher Whittle, during the 1990s, began setting up a nationwide chain of for-profit schools. Known as Edison schools, there were 13 such schools in eight states in 1997, and they had begun improving test scores in reading and mathematics. (Pipho, 1997, 101+) However, that does not signal a change in what is delivered to ‘public school' students; it only signals that there is a better way to continue to decontextualize students more effectively.

Also along those lines is the growth of private tutoring for public school students. Atlanta, like most large cities, hosts both chain and local tutoring businesses. One local Atlanta company notes that its clients are about half from the public schools and half from private schools. Still, it appears, anecdotally at least, that the tutoring is in large part reinforcing the decontextualization of the public schools. Mainly, the parents of the public school students in the affluent suburbs of Atlanta are worried that their children won't be admitted to the TAG (talented and gifted) program, thus losing their chance to move out of the local culture and into the culture of academia. (Badie, 1998, unpaged)

The third model of schooling is homeschooling, and it would seem to offer the best possibility for students who would otherwise go to public school to remain culturally connected and become successful. It may hold some promise; according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, it was to begin a two-year college in northern Virginia just for home-schooled students. The college was intending to focus on both classroom and on-the-job training for careers in government, politics and journalism. Those career-education offerings appear to be culturally correct for homeschoolers; neither the banking and lawyering preferred as culturally appropriate by private school students (Zweigenhaft, 1993, 211+) nor the ‘opt-out' success route chosen by (or forced upon) bright public school students. Needless to say, it is also not the dead-end route that remains to public school students, in the U.S. non-vocational public high school, who are not academic overachievers.


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    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Florida

      Yes, dwachira, it is a tough choice for parents to make knowing that they want the best for their children.

      Thanks for reading and commenting~

    • dwachira profile image

      Danson Wachira 

      7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Parents are always torn between private and public schools but i think its all about the quality of education.

    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Florida

      Indian Chef, appreciate your comment. Sometimes when the government gets involved in stuff, like education, it does fall apart and not meet the need originall intended. Thanks for responding!

    • Indian Chef profile image

      Indian Chef 

      7 years ago from New Delhi India

      Hi BJC In India people hardly send their children to govt schools. Only poor of poorest study in govt schools while rest study in private schools because the govt schools are in very bad shape.

    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Florida

      Thank you. I currently teach middle school in public school and if the government would stay out of the classroom, schools would be much better.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      A great argument on the public vs private school concept. I prefer private because of the lower teacher/student ratio and the quality education received. Parochial/Christian schools give additional religious training that adds to the moral values of a student. There are some public schools that do provide quality education but they are becoming a rarity these days. Enjoyed your hub.

    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Florida

      Well after reading your post, you need to be in school.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      i hate school its so borin but it help u get ur education and be somebody in life so smoke drink and have fun if u dont wanna be some body

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Private school has been a tremendous blessing for our kids and our family. There public middle school was very good, but not sure if high school would have been the same.

    • Neil Ashworth profile image

      George Poe 

      9 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great hub!!! Love it..

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      9 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Very good, thanks you. I think a major problem with education is that public schools are over populated; classrooms have too many students and there is very little time for a teacher to have a one-on-one interaction with each student in order to attend to the student`s personal needs. Teachers in the public system are not paid enough either and their budgets for `materials` for class are laughable.

    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Florida

      Odd isn't it. Thanks for commenting!!

    • LondonGirl profile image


      10 years ago from London

      Interesting article! In the UK we have the other way around - public schools are those you pay for, also known as private schools. State schools are those providing free, universal education.

    • profile image

      Just.Another Girl 

      10 years ago

      I attend a private school called Bourgade Catholic High School. It is a small school with a little under 450 kids. I understand that public schools need help, but so does the catholic schools. The public school gets money from the government, but the private schools do not. I understand that we have a tuition fee, but that does not cover all the school expenses. My school needs repairs and so do many other private catholic schools in the Phoenix area. Most private schools have parishes that go along with the school, but my high schoo does not. But I understand what you said in your blog. =) Thank you. Also, you have written some very very good blogs and I enjoy reading them.

      -Just Another Girl

    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Florida

      Thank-you for your kind comments. Teaching is a difficult profession these days.

      I wrote this paper a couple of years ago and I liked it so I tweaked a little for the hub.


    • create a page profile image

      create a page 

      10 years ago from Maryland, USA

      While reading, I thought it was a thesis, which you have confirmed in your comment. I applaud you. This was a well-written and thoroughly researched paper. As a former teacher myself, I could identify with most of what was described. Private schools or home schools are a great alternative for parents who are able to afford one or the other.

    • BJC profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Florida

      Thank-you! This is a paper I had written for one of my grad classes and it's amaing what we learn when we do the research.

      I'm a teacher and agree with you that the public school system needs help, desperatly!

    • frenchge profile image


      10 years ago from Southern California

      Nice well researched and well written hub. Our public schools do need some help. If we could just get the right people in the right places.

      I think home is the best...if you can do it. WE put our kids in private school. They seem pretty well adjusted.


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