The Trouble with Private Schools

 

shutterstock_50734714Let me first establish my bona fides in order for you, the Ricochetti, to understand that this is a cri de coeur. I was homeschooled K-12, am a proud alumna of Hillsdale College, and for many years taught in private classical schools (I now have a position that supports school choice and excellent curriculum and teachers). I loved the kids and I loved my subject. It was a privilege to open up the virtues and vices of the classical world to my students and to challenge their minds to understand the thoughts of Cicero and Plato.

Here is why I left teaching: I began to despair that real K-12 education was possible in the 21st century. Was it because a) the children were glued to their screens? b) too much testing? c) the Common Core standards? d) administrative burdens? e) uninvolved parents?

None of the above. It was because of helicopter parents. Their fear of failure was crippling children’s ability to learn. There were often excuses for low grades and frequently explicit pressure to change them. These were parents at conservative, Christian, private schools. We teachers were not strangers to the end-of-the-year conference in which an administrator would sit down with the teacher and parents and facilitate a “compromise” in which the teacher would raise the student’s grade in exchange for getting to continue their employment. Over time, many teachers learned not to give Fs (or even Cs) to any students lest they be subjected to vitriol in their inboxes or in person, and vicious gossip about them to other parents.

That’s the trouble with private schools in the 21st century. The parents pay the school and expect grades in return. They assume that low grades mean the school is not doing its job, when, in reality, it’s just as likely that their child isn’t as bright and/or hard-working as they imagine. Grades are just information — not judgments on the inherent dignity of a human being. You see, as Charles Murray once pointed out in Real Education, half of the children are below average. You wouldn’t know that from the nosebleed GPAs at many private (and elite public) schools. The numbers of National Merit Scholars are not proportionate to the number of valedictorians or honors graduates.

It extended to the realm of behavior, as well. Teachers were discouraged from sending outrageous cases to the principal because it was understood that teachers only got to have so many parent complaints before they were not invited back.

But this problem of parental malfeasance goes beyond the K-12 space — ask university professors about the increasing number of students who demand good grades because they “showed up” or even get their parents involved in trying to force grade changes. This shift of responsibility has been going on for at least 20 years now, and it is threatening the very foundations of a once-free society. Entitlement is not a disease that afflicts only the welfare classes; it can and does infect the well-to-do.

If children spend their formative years knowing that mom and dad will always smooth the path for them — prevent them from failing, experiencing unhappiness or even discomfort, are we surprised that “safe spaces” now exist on university campuses?

A few possible objections:

“Administrators and boards should hold the line.” Correct — in theory. In practice, their continued existence depends on getting x number of posteriors in the seats. This is impossible if they don’t deliver the goods to their customers.

“Leadership should set the expectation that the school will be rigorous.” Correct — in theory. In practice, “rigor” is defined down until it is practically meaningless. The word “classical,” for example, can mean almost anything now.

“Parents who want real education will send their kids to schools where they can get it.”  Correct — in theory. But, again, it’s about numbers and critical mass — whether you’re blessed to live in a location with enough parents who share that vision.

“Couldn’t this be said of progressive private and some public schools?” Yes, it could. I’m writing about the world I know best. Parents at private Christian and/or classical schools should want more for their children than a mere credential.

“Online education will allow parents to seek out real education.” I’ll believe that when I see it. Online, multi-choice quizzes are not going to be able to measure understanding of complex, non-quantitative subjects (e.g., literary analysis, translation of Latin and Greek, historical essays, persuasive writing).

This is an open plea to well-meaning parents: are you a stumbling block? Do you view the school as your partner (in loco parentis) or as your servant? Virtue is hard to imbue; do not undermine your child’s progress towards self-governance by removing all obstacles or by providing ready excuses for failure.

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  1. Julia PA Member
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    A-a-a-men.

    • #1
  2. user_385039 Inactive
    user_385039
    @donaldtodd

    Christian parents demanding unwarranted grades for their children.  Oxymoron.

    • #2
  3. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    I hear this complaint from my patients who are former school teachers, public and private. Many give it as a reason why they retired.

    • #3
  4. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Alas, too true!

    • #4
  5. SWBart Member
    SWBart
    @SWBart

    Raising kids is hard work, and our culture is lazy.  We like to watch TV or some other screen and entertain ourselves.  Those that are driven to do more than be entertained are often more focused on economic success than on raising the next generation of responsible adults.

    • #5
  6. sophrosyne Inactive
    sophrosyne
    @sophrosyne

    It is hard to push against the prevailing culture. All of us need more courage for the fight.

    • #6
  7. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    I don’t doubt you are telling the truth.

    But as the veteran of four Catholic schools here in SoCal for my four kids (none of them elite; tuition costs in the middle of the pack) what you say is not unheard of, but it’s not the norm.

    I’ve seen more than one family leave a school in a huff when they were not accommodated.

    The schools always had the power as they were not the most expensive, so there were always waiting lists.

    I’m afraid the helicopter parenting you describe is an epidemic. My nieces and nephews go to public school in a wealthy suburb of LA and those parents are nuts. And if I were to hear my brother or SIL were driving their kids’ teachers nuts I wouldn’t be surprised in least. Seen them do it with enough coaches …

    • #7
  8. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    On a side note, that’s one of the beauties of having four kids. I couldn’t have behaved the way you describe even if I wanted to. Too many schools, too many teachers, too many kids, too many tuition checks.

    There simply wasn’t enough time or energy.

    • #8
  9. sophrosyne Inactive
    sophrosyne
    @sophrosyne

    True. I think it has a lot to do with wait-lists and admin who are willing to let discontents leave. Many of the smaller, classical schools just don’t have the wait-lists and thus don’t have the leverage.

    • #9
  10. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    I agree that the problem of helicopter parents is a difficult one.  But the alternative to parental rights is worse.

    And believe me, I’ve seen those helicopter parents.  They.  Are.  Nuts.  For my part, I am always looking for opportunities to let my kids fail.  My wife is mostly on board, but I’ve had to hold her back on occasion (no, you won’t do his science project for him).  I don’t see how they’ll learn anything (a.k.a. grow up) otherwise.

    Technically, I do view the school as my servant.  But I am an absentee master.  If my kid is unhappy with his grades for whatever reason, it’s an opportunity for him to figure out how to meet the teacher’s requirements.  If the teacher is difficult, grumpy, poorly organized, or a poor communicator, so much the better, as it’s great preparation for handling supervisors and customers.

    • #10
  11. sophrosyne Inactive
    sophrosyne
    @sophrosyne

    Right – it is a matter of how you view the “product” of the tuition check. Providing a service to educate is different than providing a report card with the artificially high grades.

    • #11
  12. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Son #1 got into the “elite” all boy Catholic school in LA, but instead chose a much humbler school in a much humbler neighborhood, mainly because the humble school had a humble football team where son #1 had a chance of seeing some time on the field.

    He was at that humble school (80% hispanic) when all the school riots hit in (remember the pictures of kids flying the Mexico flag? that was down the street from him)

    When the mob showed up at son #1’s school the Brother in charge stood at the gate and told the students they were free to leave. But he was locking the gate behind them. And every parent would get a call at work to be informed of why their child had left. A lot of those kids were on tuition assistance and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was mentioned.

    Not one student left to join the riots.

    BTW, whenever someone said my kids went to private school I corrected it to “parochial school”.

    • #12
  13. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    My wife teaches at a private school and I think she would likely agree 100% with every word in this post. Indeed, she is also leaving the private school system for public schools for the exact reasons given here.

    Some portion of the failure of private schools to enforce rigorous standards is inherent in their business model: most people aren’t willing to pay money to be made uncomfortable, which is exactly what private schools should deliver. It’s the same reason most dieting programs fail. We can always point to the exceptional cases (of which there are many) or claim we need a change in culture (which we absolutely do), but for now, our culture expects not to have to suffer as part of anything we pay for.

    • #13
  14. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    However, there is another component driving parental pressure at private schools: our system of collegiate ranking. Most parents perceive that their childrens’ future earning power will depend much more on the name of the college they eventually attend and not what job skills they actually learn along the way. And for upper-middle class students, this is not far from the truth.

    For these parents, grades are just a means to the ultimate end: getting their kid into the best college. And of course, getting into the best college means getting into the best high school, so this pressure runs all the way down the educational chain.

    If we had a job market in which actual capabilities mattered more than the name embossed on one’s degree, I imagine we would see parents pushing schools to actually their kids something. Until then, though, the parents are also just following the incentives.

    • #14
  15. Dominique Prynne Member
    Dominique Prynne
    @DominiquePrynne

    I taught at a humble community college for a couple of years.  As a business owner with a masters and professional decree, the school recruited me to teach all manner of accounting and business classes.  Accounting is tough for a lot of students, you HAVE to do the work!  Chair time, that is, actually showing up for class, not necessarily paying attention in class, was viewed by most students as adequate for making a “B”.  My students who did the work and grappled with the material made good grades and were well prepared for the university.  My other students made Cs, Ds, and Fs.  At the end of the semester, I would receive reports regarding my grade distribution from the registrar.  My dean finally had a “friendly chat” with me about my near Bell curve grade distribution at the end of my third semester.  His point was the school needed the students to make “satisfactory academic progress” (SAP for those in the biz) so that the student could continue his/her Pell grant eligibility and the school could continue to rake in the tuition and fees.  I quit at the end of the academic year.  The rhetoric about academics is just a farce.  The schools want to continue to exist so they employees have cushy jobs.

    • #15
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Probable Cause:Technically, I do view the school as my servant. But I am an absentee master. If my kid is unhappy with his grades for whatever reason, it’s an opportunity for him to figure out how to meet the teacher’s requirements. If the teacher is difficult, grumpy, poorly organized, or a poor communicator, so much the better, as it’s great preparation for handling supervisors and customers.

    My parents insisted on this model with me. Ultra hardcore. Mainly, what I learned from it was not to ask for help when I needed it.

    They softened the model somewhat for the later kids (firstborns often get extremes in treatment) and softened a little, I have to say the model worked pretty well.

    • #16
  17. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    We teachers were not strangers to the end-of-the-year conference in which an administrator would sit down with the teacher and parents and facilitate a “compromise” in which the teacher would raise the student’s grade in exchange for getting to continue their employment.

    Grrr. That would be so frustrating. I don’t think this is a pattern at the Christian school I work for. We are a middle-class, non-elite school, trying to maximize our modest resources to give the students decent preparation for college and for life. If a family is being difficult and/or unreasonable, I think our admissions procedures and advertising help us to cover the gap.

    • #17
  18. sophrosyne Inactive
    sophrosyne
    @sophrosyne

    That’s good. I know that there are many good parochial and other private schools out there. It’s just a danger in those that are feeling admission pressure – a problem of incentives. I’m glad your experience has been better.

    • #18
  19. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    It’s funny that you should bring this up and that Mendel should show up here to comment. I owe him a PM on this general subject.

    He and I went to the same (elite) secondary school but I am (ahem)  a bit older than he is.  We recently discovered this common background, and he commented to me that in his day he had complaints sort of like yours, only from the point of view of the student:  When he got to college he discovered that the background he had was not all that challenging.  When I went to that school it was really rough. Kids got kicked out or failed out, or failed courses at least, with some regularity. We were really proud of our diplomas, and we were proud of the achievement that they represented and the ordeals that we had endured.  I was  really sorry to hear that the school was no longer like that.  Kids may moan and groan about hard work when they are doing it, but they love the sense of accomplishment when it is done.

    As far as my attitude as a parent, well, I pay tuition for my daughter at a parochial school, but before that she did years and years of Montessori education.  I had lots of issues with the Montessori school she attended, but I will say one thing for it: She learned to manage her own education. She is 12, and I have never considered interceding with the school on her behalf for anything.  But I have been blessed to have a child who is doing well, and I do understand Mendel’s point about the credentialism of our society and how it might make me anxious if my child were struggling.

    • #19
  20. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Perhaps one reason some parochial schools do not have as many issues with helicopter parents has to do with funding.

    There is a decent chance that a good chunk of a parochial school’s funding does not come from the parents, but from another source (i.e.: the church). This means that the school will not suffer as greatly financially if it forces a few students to leave, and it also means the school will likely be in high demand (as it is offering an education at below-market rates). A similar phenomenon can be found among the few private schools with enough endowment to offer significant financial aid.

    On the other hand, schools which have to charge every student $20,000/yr or more and need to meet 95% of their enrollment goals to stay afloat have a much different incentive structure. These types of schools seem to be the worst when it comes to shamelessly caving into parental demands.

    • #20
  21. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    What does this problem mean for school choice?

    • #21
  22. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    sophrosyne:This is an open plea to well-meaning parents: are you a stumbling block? Do you view the school as your partner (in loco parentis) or as your servant? Virtue is hard to imbue; do not undermine your child’s progress towards self-governance by removing all obstacles or by providing ready excuses for failure.

    I guess I’ve been lucky. I had parents who wanted me to be an independent person, we want the same for our son, and the private schools with which I have direct experience were partners for the parents. When there’s a performance or behavior issue, we work together.

    However, the idea that public schools will act in loco parentis is dubious, at least in my experience. They want compliance from your child: first, last, and forever. As long as my son complied w/ classroom management edicts, nearly every one of his teachers was silent about learning issues. Feedback about missing homework, poor results in a subject, etc. only came at parent/teacher conferences…with one exception.

    My sister’s a middle school teacher at a public school. Apparently teachers are discouraged from giving this kind of informal feedback: it can’t be tracked and could be perceived as giving some students differential treatment.

    • #22
  23. user_105642 Member
    user_105642
    @DavidFoster

    Parents of this sort are obsessed with their kids getting the credentials and “skills” that they need to succeed…but they don’t seem to think much about meta-skills, or what used to be called “character”…resilience, determination, etc.  Indeed, they are systematically undercutting the development of such meta-skills.

    • #23
  24. user_142044 Thatcher
    user_142044
    @AmericanAbroad

    I work at an international school where the tuition is higher than the per capita GDP of the country in which it is located.  My experience suggests that parents are less interested in pressuring teachers to give better marks and more interested in consistent grading across the grade level.

    We also benefit from offering the AP and IB curriculum which are both externally assessed.  There is really no recourse for parents to argue when they see samples of externally-assessed work and compare it to the work of their child.  For me, standardized tests are my friend!

    I have never understood the purpose of grade inflation.  Its not as if a kid sporting a 4.0 GPA and an SAT score of 400 on critical reading is going to fool the folks in Harvard Admissions.  I think most parents recognize that and are looking for honest feedback so that their kids can improve.

    • #24
  25. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Schools are service providers.  Nothing more.  There is no partnership, we aren’t a team.  They do the things I pay them to do.

    I am generally affable, and will play the game for my own amusement so long as it suits me.  When people take their self-aggrandizing conceits a little to seriously, I have no particular issue with fixing that problem.

    I have observed since I was 9 that the public school educators and administrators are the life failures that had rich parents.  I have been given no cause to change that opinion since.

    • #25
  26. sophrosyne Inactive
    sophrosyne
    @sophrosyne

    sawatdeeka:What does this problem mean for school choice?

    This is a good question.  I think the answer is an outside funding organization which is accountable for the quality of the teachers and the outcomes of the students.  This could take the form of a church, as many in this thread have pointed out.  It also might look like a non-profit foundation, think-tank, or academic institution with vision.

    But classical charter schools also offer an alternative funding model — it is not unusual for them to have wait lists close to 1000.  They are thus able to maintain high standards without being beholden to parental pressure to lower academic or behavioral standards.

    Private schools that are too heavily dependent on tuition (or which do not have a deep wait list) often suffer mission drift.  No matter what their initial goals were, there is too much pressure to dumb down the standards for student achievement and teacher quality.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    sophrosyne: Do you view the school as your partner (in loco parentis) or as your servant?

    When the choice is between viewing a private school as your servant or a public school as your master, the choice becomes pretty clear.

    • #27
  28. user_129539 Member
    user_129539
    @BrianClendinen

    Which goes to show why class rankings is all that should matter. This idea of comparing one students academic performance via a GPA to another in anther school is almost worthless. I agree some kids are not good at standardized test but it is a better indicator now days of academic performance than GPAs.  Grades are junk any other metrics  junk in junk out. If the criteria on grades is junk the data will be junk.

    • #28
  29. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Mendel:If we had a job market in which actual capabilities mattered more than the name embossed on one’s degree, I imagine we would see parents pushing schools to actually their kids something. Until then, though, the parents are also just following the incentives.

    Bingo!

    • #29
  30. Wordcooper Inactive
    Wordcooper
    @Wordcooper

    Our private school focuses on character and responsibility. The children are held accountable for missing homework or lower grades. In some way, the teachers are also training the parents that it is the student who needs to be accountable for their own actions.

    • #30

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