Public v. private school: which has the advantage?


Public school or private school? Do you think it matters? Do you think one or the other will help your child get into a better college?  Having conducted a very scientific study, I can report here which school system parents think is better, and better at getting their kids into top-notch colleges:  neither.  I interviewed eight families, four who have sent their children to public school from K-12, and four who have sent their children to private school from K-12.  I asked each family (in the person of my girlfriends) five questions, designed to elicit their opinions about the public/private distinction, or whether there is one, in terms of getting into college.  I expected families to embrace their own choices, and celebrate the value of the school system their child attends.  Here is what I learned:  

  1. If money were no object, would you send your child/ren to public or private school? Explain.

To generalize, the families with children in private schools said they would (as they do) send their kids to private school.  The reasons?  Smaller class sizes, greater individual attention, perception that teachers are better, and environment is more controlled.  One said their kids went to private school because her husband and she had gone to private schools.  It’s what they know.  There was an expectation that academics are more rigorous, and a sense that the course offerings are broader in range.  

Again, to generalize, the families with children in public schools said they would probably send their children to public school, even if money were no object, because “public elementary schools are better equipped to meet a vast range of needs.  Public schools can accommodate the range of students from gifted to challenged.”  Some of the public school parents said they might consider private schools for their children if money were no object, because they like the idea of the smaller class sizes, but one of the families expressed concern that exposure to high levels of privilege might warp their children’s assumptions about the world in general, and might impact their ability to adapt to a larger student body in college. 

A point of interest:  the two places where both sets of parents found common ground in preferring private school were in class size and guidance/college counseling. 

  1. Do you think sending your child to public/private school will affect his/her ability to get into college (any college)? Explain.

Private school families:  I got a mixed bag of yes’s and no’s – some thought private school will better prepare their children for standardized testing and resume building; some thought the academics would prepare their children better for the college application process.  But two families thought it would “not necessarily” make any difference. 

Thoughts from the public school families:  No difference – “I think a good student is a good student no matter where they go.”  Based on what these families have seen in their public schools, the competitive students are taking challenging courses and doing well. “Colleges seem to look at the GPA, class ranking, AP classes, and SAT/ACT scores pretty closely,” and if a student thrives at public school, it seems to these parents to put them in the same place as a good student in a private school.  

  1. Do you think sending your child to public/private school will affect the caliber of college your child will be accepted to?  Explain.

The answers to this question were more consistent between the two groups – both generally thought the public/private choice would not necessarily affect the caliber of college their child would be eligible for, except for the perception that “colleges are actively pursuing public school students.”  One parent mentioned that the quality of the public school system really matters, and one parent held strong that private school is better for preparing their child, so it might make a difference.  Again, one factor favoring private: “the opportunity for college counseling might help with the higher caliber schools,” and if you are looking at the Ivys, private school pedigree might help.  But, one public school parent, whose son is going to Princeton in the fall, said “I think your kid is going to do what your kid is going to do wherever he or she is.”

  1. Do you think your child has better opportunities in the school system you have chosen over the school system you did not choose? Explain.

Parents agreed that the opportunities varied between public and private, but both had strong positives in their own camp.  For the privates, that individual attention, and ability to create relationships with teachers, was special – the personal experience.  For the publics, athletics were a clear plus.  Privates have study abroad, but clubs, music and drama, were diverse and numerous at the publics. 

  1. Do you think your child is happier having gone through the school system you have chosen over the school system you did not choose?  Explain.

All the parents I spoke with, save one, said their children are happy where they are and would not change systems.  There were some particular reasons (e.g., more attention at private school, local public school is not good, more teams to try out for), but the reason that grabbed my attention was from a public school friend.  She said her kids are happy because they know when it comes time to choose colleges, they will have enough money to pay for any school they want.

So, ignoring flaws in methodology, it is still interesting to hear how parents feel at this pivotal time – at the end of the elementary/high school era, where the rubber hits the road in college admissions.  I am always happy when my friends celebrate their choices and for the families I spoke to there are no regrets.

PA Eighth Graders Take Baltimore Field Trip to Hooters?


Eighth graders and chaperones from Berwick Middle School in Pennsylvania couldn’t find a single restaurant to accommodate the group of about 100 during a field trip to the National Aquarium last week.  About 20 eighth graders and chaperones splintered off and had lunch at Hooters.

School Superintendent Wayne Brookhart said he has received no complaints about the restaurant choice from parents.

Not where we’d want our kids to go on a school field trip. Just sayin’…

Fake ID Follies


University of Maryland sophomore and Montgomery County resident Teddy Michaels was federally indicted last month for making fake IDs and selling them to his fellow students. The fact is, the vast majority of young adults between 18 and 21 drink alcohol. At that age, and really throughout all of adulthood, alcohol is everywhere. In my experience, getting a fake ID is critical for most kids under 21. I remember my own desire for one; friends who had one seemed to be blessed with some sort of golden ticket. 

People who don’t have access to a decent counterfeit (like me a few years ago) often settle for the next best thing: the actual ID of a friend or relative who looks like them. That’s great if the person you find actually looks like you, but more often than not you are a peach-fuzzed baby face and that guy with the five o’clock shadow in the photograph looks like he just escaped from Guantanamo (and if you’re mistaken for THAT guy, your troubled cousin Alfred, you’ve got bigger problems on your hands). At the very least, if you try to pass one of those around, you are eventually going to be embarrassed by any bouncer or cashier with an ounce of common sense.

These problems keep quality fake IDs in high demand, which gives upstarts (opportunists) like Michaels the ability to drive up prices and make small fortunes. But people like Teddy Michaels are rare because it’s hard to acquire the equipment to manufacture convincing fake IDs. If you get one it is more likely to be printed on computer paper and laminated with an DIY laminating kit from Learning How than an elaborate copy like the ones Michaels produced. And when someone like Michaels does come around, the excitement around him is so great he draws a lot of attention not only from students, but also from authorities. Unfortunately, poor Teddy (a triple major in finance, accounting, and economics) should have known better than to merge the two things he was learning in school: business and partying.


Lacrosse Lovers: Baltimore’s Obsession


It’s six p.m. on Memorial Day and the city air is hot and still. After nearly two hours of watching back-and-forth goals and sweat-drenched celebrations at the NCAA Lacrosse Championship, the masses of red and orange clad fans filter out of M&T Stadium and back onto the streets of Baltimore. Two boys, no older than ten, wear Terps jerseys and grip lacrosse sticks roughly as long as they are tall. They chatter excitedly to each other, recounting each “sweet” goal and seriously deliberating which “sick” moves they should employ against their next opponent. They are sunburned, their hair plastered with sweat to their foreheads and necks, and their chosen team has just lost to its long-standing rival.  All of this is secondary to the spirit and the drama of the game. This is the relationship Baltimore has with lacrosse.

There aren’t many things for which Baltimore can claim exclusive credit — Hairspray, Poe (who really just died here), The Wire, Natty Boh…the list is short and eclectic, and perhaps that is why Baltimore remains so fiercely loyal to lacrosse. The city and surrounding area are home to powerhouses at both the high school and college level, like Gilman, Loyola, Boys’ Latin, St. Paul’s, McDonogh, Bryn Mawr, The University of Maryland, and, of course, Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays legendary history has made them standout in the pantheon of lacrosse greats. In both the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, lacrosse was a demonstration event, and in both years Hopkins beat out every other team in the playoffs to become the American representative in the games. The men’s team has appeared in every NCAA tournament since the creation of the playoffs in 1971 and has won the championship nine times.

But great teams do more than just create devoted fans, they also create educated fans. It seems frequent success makes fans less rabid, allowing them to appreciate the sport rather than just the victories. At the national championship on Monday afternoon, I sat among enthusiastic Maryland fans eager to see the title go to their home team, who despite thirty-four tournament appearances have not won the championship since 1975. But when Virginia midfielder Colin Briggs scored his fifth goal of the game with just under two minutes remaining in the final quarter, the Terps fan behind me clapped slowly and said to his companions, “Great play. He’s a great player.” And as the last few seconds ticked off the clock and UVA stormed the field in a sea of orange and white, Terps and Cavaliers fans alike rose in appreciation.

Baltimore loves lacrosse because it belongs to us, and we’re good at it. It’s a devotion and an understanding that extends beyond the sport itself to an attitude, a look, and for some people essentially a way of life. It’s that part of it that is difficult to explain – my older sister doesn’t play lacrosse and cannot understand how my younger sister and I can pick other lacrosse players out of a group of people with such frightening accuracy, and we can’t really either. During my first year of collegiate play in Massachusetts, I realized that it’s not just a lacrosse culture that I understand, but a Baltimore lacrosse culture. In recent years lacrosse has enjoyed significantly increased popularity all over the nation and in some other countries as well. But no matter where it is played, lacrosse belongs to Baltimore, the city that built it, that knows it, and that loves it no matter who wins.

Marta Randall is a Baltimore Fishbowl summer intern. She graduated from Hereford High and plays lacrosse for a New England liberal arts college.


Charter Martyrs: Where Do Your Kids Go to School?


The Roots & Branches Public Charter School sounds like a daunting and noble task. It aims to have “an inquiry-driven, arts-integrated curriculum – where teachers are co-learners with students” and to “create lifelong learners and community-minded citizens who embrace diversity.” In April, the school announced plans to open in Hampden for the 2011-12 school year.

But earlier this month, that plan got scrapped — in part because the Roots & Branches team was fuzzy on logistics, and in part because of Hampdenites who mobilized to voice opposition to the school. (The school’s new location is the Harriet Tubman School Building in Harlem.)

One Hampdenite lays out the anti-charter agreement nicely in a blog post entitled “Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard. (Not just yet. Not so fast.)” As the equivocating sub-head indicates, those who opposed Roots & Branches don’t necessarily hate charter schools in principle; they just think that this one would be too close to a school that’s already doing pretty okay. Blogger Edit Barry blames the “insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid.”

Part of the problem is that charter schools draw from the city as a whole. That means that a good charter school doesn’t draw parents to a neighborhood the way a strong public school might. But even parents with the loftiest ideals may balk at the idea of sending their own kids to the public school down the street. Is that racism or classism — or just the unwillingness to deal with entrenched bureaucracy and unmotivated teachers? Or maybe a little of both?

What’s your stand on charter schools — and what school do you send your kids to?

Que Sera, Sera. Test Results Will Be What they Will Be…

When the PSAT scores came home earlier this year that envelope was opened as fast as any birthday present. I’m not sure, really, what the results actually mean. They say the scores are rough predictors of future SAT scores. So, for instance, if you earn a 200 on your combined PSAT, you can expect to earn about a 2000 on your combined SATs. 2400 is the Holy Grail.
There are, however, some variables, they say. Your student will be months older when he or she takes the actual SAT (for the first time). He or she will have had those additional months of substantive instruction. And, very importantly, he or she might have taken an SAT prep course. Omni Test, Horizons, Kaplan, Sylvan, you name it. We willingly pay the small fortune for these courses, in hopes of helping our children improve their SAT scores by 100, 200, some say even as much as 400 points. These can be life-changing numbers for a kid whose GPA alone won’t earn that letter of admission. Or so we believe.
Oddly, we heard no comparisons. There was no chat about who in the class had done well and who had not. Something good has happened with our children, and they have learned to respect each other’s privacy. Or, perhaps they have learned to protect themselves. If you are not asking, then you are also not telling. Maybe they have begun to mature or evolve to that place where we adults now stand, where your position relative to others in the professional world is not something you talk about with polite company—it is a subject reserved for you and your supervisor, or you and your spouse or partner or closest friend.
For most of us, our kids have also taken the SAT by now…  Scores are in, and I can tell you the numbers do not always go up from PSAT to SAT.  I think the truth is, “test day” may be as important as the number of prep classes your child has taken.  Our daughter took SATs on the Saturday following mid-term exams.  She was fried.  No matter she had learned all the tricks for easy elimination on the multiple choice format, no matter that she understands the quadratic equation.  She was tired, and a tired kid is not a good test taker.  They don’t really focus on these common sense pieces to test prep at the fee-for-service operations.  We know she will take the SAT again – most kids do.  But now we know it is not all about the prep course (although we remain hopeful that our investment is not a waste!).  Tests are tests are tests, and sometimes your teenager performs to ability, and sometimes not.  
So, congratulations, I say! Whatever that PSAT or SAT score was, I say “good job!” As we do for ourselves in real life, I will encourage our kids to try harder, do better if they can the next time, and learn something. But, as in real life, we must acknowledge where we stand right now. Not everyone will get that 2400 on the SAT, and not everyone can be the MVP at work. For all you overachievers out there, a disappointing score might spur you to action. But for the regular kids, I say love yourself. The world will meet you where you are.    

Some College Majors Make You Money. And Some Make You, Well, Less.


Last year the Census Bureau started asking respondents who’d graduated from college what their undergraduate major was. And alas for us arts/education/social work majors — after parsing the data, it turns out that certain majors (unsurprisingly) bring financial rewards.  Or, as Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce puts it, “It does matter what you major in.”

How much?  Perhaps as much as $91,000 a year. Median earnings for counseling-psychology majors topped out at $29,000, while the enterprising petroleum-engineering majors averaged a whopping $120,000. (These figures are for workers whose highest degree is a bachelor’s.)

And while those kinds of numbers might make you want to throw up your hands and start paging through an engineering textbook, it’s not quite as stark as it seems. The report also notes that 70 percent of counseling-psychology majors get graduate degrees, which raises their income by 67 percent. 

The data revealed all sorts of other interesting tidbits. Women majoring in visual and performing arts, physiology, and information science outearn men — but for all other majors, men outearn women.

Other categories don’t necessarily line up the way you’d think they might — for example, social science majors outearn biology/life science majors; communications/journalism majors outearn law and public policy majors.

Go parse the data for yourself, and let us know what you find — any surprises?

Can a Good Slap Shot Pave the Way to a Good College?


I feel stupidly naïve.  I didn’t understand about the slap shot.  To explain…

We had our meeting last week with Emily’s college counselor at school.  It progressed as we expected… introductions, expectations, process. Emily is our oldest child, so some of this seems new.  Yes, my husband and I both attended college, and even law school after that, but we’ve never been PARENTS to someone applying to college.  Point of view is everything sometimes.  The same experience can feel so different depending on your role in the events.  So, we went to the meeting with an open mind, interested in the advice the college counselor might share.

Emily is a very strong student.  She attends an academically rigorous college preparatory high school, and her peers are very accomplished young women.  When looking at colleges, though, it is hard to know where she will get in, and where she will not be accepted.  One of the tools the college counseling office shares with the students, and their parents, is a software program called Naviance.  This program allows college juniors and seniors to compare their position, and likelihood for acceptance to any given college or university, to the position of graduates of their high school – an “apples to apples” comparison.  These earlier students have taken the same courses from the same teachers with the same standards for grading.  Just as this helps colleges and universities compare the girls, it also helps the girls predict where they will be successful in the application process.

Example:  In 2010, 13 girls from Emily’s school applied to Boston College, and three were admitted.  In 2009, eight girls applied to BC, and two were admitted.  In 2008, six applied and two were admitted.  And so on…  On Naviance, we can see what their SAT scores and GPAs were, and extrapolate what Emily’s chances for admission at that school might be.  

The information about these girls is delivered in a few different formats, and the one I like the best is a graph, called a “scattergram.”  The axes of the graph are GPAs and SAT scores, and the acceptances are charted with a green square, while rejections are marked with a red x.  Our daughter’s point on the graph is marked with a circle, showing where she falls based on her current GPA and first set of SAT scores.  In general, the scores don’t lie.  Kids don’t get into colleges where they can’t succeed.  

But, sometimes there are outliers – green squares representing students whose grades and scores are not in the heat of the commonly accepted students, falling below the averages for acceptance at the school in consideration.  Foolishly, I allowed myself to think that some outliers were getting green squares because of exceptional character, extra-curriculars, leadership qualities, and overall wonderfulness.  But I wasn’t thinking about the slap shot!

So, I asked the college counselor about my “outlier” theory.  Were those other girls from our school whose grades didn’t fit the profile also young leaders, like Emily?  Well-rounded, hard-working girls who would be an asset wherever they landed, even if their grades were not top 5%?  Did she have a chance at the schools where her numbers did not match the averages?  His response, delivered with an apologetic expression hanging on his face, was “No.  Those girls mostly have an amazing slap shot.”  I felt so foolish – I just hadn’t seen it coming.   

Johns Hopkins: For Rich Kids Only?


According to Johns Hopkins, the Class of 2015 will be “one of the most diverse in the university’s history.” Next year’s freshmen hail from all 50 states and a host of other countries; 23 percent of admits are underrepresented minorities. All encouraging facts. But as a recent New York Times article by David Leonhardt points out, economic diversity is still glaringly absent from top schools, and Hopkins is no exception.

One rough measure of economic diversity is the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants from the federal government — an approximate way to figure out how many students come from the bottom half of the income distribution. At Amherst, it’s 22 percent; nearly a third of UCLA and UC Berkeley students fall into this category. Hopkins’ figure? 11 percent.

Which is not to say that the university should be singled out for censure. Actually, it’s alarmingly in keeping with national trends. Leonhardt cites a study that examined the class of 2010 at the nation’s top 193 schools.  The economic distribution was way out of whack:  only 15 percent of students were from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution, while 67 percent were from the top quarter. In 2003, there were more students from families that earned at least $200,000 than those in the entire bottom half of the income distribution. As Leonhardt points out, this doesn’t just mean that students from poor families aren’t attending top colleges — it means that the wealthy are increasingly pushing out the middle class.

As Anthony Marx, president of Amherst, told the Times, “We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent, yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

At Amherst, administrators are increasing grants for foreign students (who don’t qualify for Pell Grants) and seeking out transfer students from community colleges. At Hopkins, there’s the Baltimore Scholars program (a full-tuition scholarship for Baltimore City public high school students accepted to the university) and other need-based grant programs. But as Amherst demonstrates, it takes a lot more effort to correct the existing imbalance. 

Is this enough? Is increasing economic diversity something the university should prioritize?

Internships: Experience or Exploitation?


When Johns Hopkins launched a new program offering paid internships with Baltimore-area non-profits, they found the response — more than 200 applications for 25 spots — “overwhelming.”

Which, if you think about it, is a little naive.  An internship is basically a necessity for today’s undergraduates, a way to make connections and build a resume. The feeling was present when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s — the sense that you’d never get a job unless you had a host of enviable institutions on your reference list; the idea that a summer spent lifeguarding or just lounging at your parents’ house, reading meant that you’d be left behind.

Which isn’t to say that all internships are worthy of these students’ time and enthusiasm. Many are unpaid, putting students in the unenviable position of having to beg to be allowed to work for free, sometimes at their fifteenth-choice organization. And of course there’s no guarantee that the work itself will be rewarding:  I got college credit for my “editorial internship” at a prestigious-sounding publication where my tasks included changing the boss’ license plate, filling out her daughter’s summer camp application (complete with forged signatures), bringing lunch to her daughter’s school when she forgot it, etc.

It’s partly in order to combat exploitative situations like this that the U.S. Labor Department recently revised its guidelines for unpaid internships with for-profit companies. Basically, if a student is getting credit for an internship, the work has to be structured like an educational experience. “The internship is for the benefit of the intern,” the Labor Department feels the need to proclaim — well, duh. But the fact that such an obvious guideline needs to be codified into law indicates how exploitative some situations have become.

So kudos to JHU for creating a program that seeks to place students in positions where they can contribute meaningfully to their community, where they’re overseen and protected by a university that takes their work seriously — and one that pays them well ($5000!). No wonder hundreds of students were interested — there’s not enough of this in the world.