Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post. Before that he wrote for Newsweek. He started the annual rankings of the nation’s high schools. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about such things. You will understand why his December 28, 2011, post—“Revealing private school secrets”—struck a nerve. The following is my response:
Dear Mr. Mathews:
I respect you as an important voice in much-needed discussions concerning education in country. You have strong beliefs, and you stick to them. I hope that, at the same time, you are willing to consider some points that don’t fit your world view.
In a recent post you were celebrating that this coming spring’s Challenge Index will include private schools. You also refer to the first publication of the list in 1998 and how “the headmasters and headmistresses of our nation’s tuition-charging high schools reacted as though I had invited them to a strip joint. They were offended.”
As one of them (and, by the way, most of us prefer the title “head of school” for many reasons), I still am offended. And the strip joint analogy is apt. Most heads of school find your approach against their ethical code. Obscene, even. And while your approach has a certain allure, we know that ultimately it's teasing promise provides no real satisfaction. It’s why we choose to be in independent schools. Repeat: independent.
Why independent? What does it really mean for us? It can take many forms, but the most important is quite simple: we have the freedom to establish our missions and to teach our students in the way that is best for them.
You have established a very simple formula by which to judge a high school’s quality with your Challenge Index. You figure out the college-level test participation rate of the students. One thing I haven’t seen is whether or not you consider how students do on those tests. Even if you do, it doesn’t change my essential concern with your approach.
I ask you to think about schools such as these. A school that takes students very much at-risk, immerses them in experiential and outdoor learning, and has them end up attending college. A school which does not teach AP American and AP European History but has a course called Understanding 9-11 that students call the best experience of their lives. A school for kids with extreme learning differences, who learn how their minds work and grow in intellectual confidence. Schools for young people who are passionate about the arts or athletics or science. Schools which are small enough that anyone, no matter their talent level, can participate in activities often open to only a select few. Schools in which character matters, and it matters more than a particular score on a particular test at a particular point in time. The National Association of Independent Schools comprises hundreds of such schools.
And our society is better for it. In another gross oversimplification, you “think this will help parents who wonder whether public or private schools would be better for their children.” To some degree, that is the choice. But the beauty of independent schools is that they provide a much greater choice. They provide families with the possibility of finding a school with a mission and culture that meshes with their own. Of finding a school that can best serve a unique student’s—and each is unique—particular interests and needs. Since you clearly want to help families make an informed choice, it strikes me that rather than deride such a world, you should be advocating such a model for all education.
But you don’t. Instead, you promote a one-size-fits-all approach when the issue cries for custom fits. I’ll give you a concrete example why that doesn’t work. Recently I was able to visit with a student at what, per your index, is one of the absolute best high schools in the United States. This is a very bright, curious, intellectually lively young person; her sense of humor is particularly sharp. Listening to her describe her school experience saddened me. Very little writing (only paragraphs), plenty of fact memorization, constant drill work—little about it engaged her. No doubt she will do quite well on the tests. But will her education have truly served her as well as it could have? (In fairness, I will say that the same thing could happen at a poor independent school. I also will acknowledge this approach could be the best for some students.)
I don’t expect to change your mind. After all, you’ve probably considered all my points at previous times. The thing is, Jay, you have one of the true bully pulpits when it comes to education. I just want to see the dialogue elevated. Right now I’m afraid you are doing more harm than good.
 Another by-the-way point of clarification. Not all private schools are independent schools. The differences and implications are great. Your failure to distinguish is a bit misleading, and it is another example of your failure to consider how finely-nuanced this issue is.