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Private school education breeds public school reformers

By A. James Memmott

April 19, 2011 at 8:06am

A large hole in the resume of Cathleen P. Black, whose recent three-month stint as chancellor of New York City public schools was marked by controversy, was that all of her education had been in private schools.

But it might be argued that a private-school education is a kind of first step toward becoming a public-school reformer.

“There is one thing that characterizes a surprisingly large number of the people who are transforming public schools: they attended private schools,” wrote Michael Winerip in The New York Times this week.

Winerip’s list of reformers who spent some time in private elementary or high schools includes:

Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, who graduated from the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Davis Guggenheim
Davis Guggenheim

Michelle A. Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, who attended a public elementary school before entering the private Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo, in the seventh grade. She now leads Students First, a self-described “movement to transform public education.”

Davis Guggenheim, whose film, Waiting for Superman, makes a case for charter schools, is a graduate of Sidwell Friends, a D.C. private school now attended by President Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Barack Obama, champion of Race to the Top, the federal program that funds education reform in the states, attended both public and private elementary schools in Hawaii and Indonesia before enrolling in the private Punahou School in Honolulu in the fifth grade.

Former President George W. Bush, who successfully pushed for the No Child Left Behind legislation, attended public schools in Texas through seventh grade. Then he attended a private school in Houston for two years before going on to the private Phillips Academy, Andover.

His father, former President George H. W. Bush, and his brother Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who now leads the Excellence for Education Foundation, also attended Phillips.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire who has championed education reform, graduated from the private Lakeside School in Seattle.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, a sponsor of the No Child Left Behind bill, graduated from the private Moeller High School in Cincinnati.

And Dave Levin, a cofounder of KIPP, a national network of charter schools, graduated from Riverdale Country School, a private school in New York City.

Winerip lets his readers decide whether it matters that this diverse group of reformers spent their formative years in private schools.

Perhaps their experience gives them a “fresh perspective” on public education; perhaps it leads them to distrust public schools; perhaps it doesn’t matter, he writes.

Many members of the group share a belief in testing students and using those scores to rate teachers and schools. And, in general, they support charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools.

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