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I have two nieces—one from my side of the family and one from my wife's—who attend a private high school a few cities from where I live. It's not too far, and there was an opening at the school for next fall to teach the class they will be taking. Several times when we talked, they urged me to apply.

I was tempted. I would enjoy getting back into the classroom, and I would enjoy interacting again with my nieces. It would be a lot of fun. I even got a PDF of the school's application form and began filling it out.

As I was working on the application, my son, who is about the same age as my two nieces, came up behind me and asked, astonished, "Dad, what are you doing?!!!"

He had many reasons for asking the question, not the least of which is that we've been discussing as a family where we would like most to live and what we would like most to do. We hadn't decided yet, but my son thought that my filling out the application was my preemptive decision. Because he is homeschooled, perhaps he worried that I would take him along with me if I were hired to teach there.

His question, though, got me to thinking along other lines.

What was I doing? Why did I want to apply to teach at the school?

I've heard it's a great school, founded on solid principles, principles I believe in. My sister, who coaches there, has encouraged me to apply. It seems like it would be a great environment.

But I have several key problems with it.

  1. It follows the classroom model of traditional public education, which includes segregating students by age or by interest.
  2. It segregates instruction by topic and by student interest.
  3. Its structure implies that students develop interests and abilities at more or less the same rate.
  4. It requires grading, and grading seems to do more to impair the capacity to learn well rather than to encourage it, regardless of whether a student gets good grades or poor grades.

Each of those things, in my opinion, undermine the purpose of education and limit the possibility for positive outcomes. The school, although it is a good one, doesn't really fit with my beliefs about education. So I decided not to apply.

One evening I was talking to my sister-in-law about my decision. (Her daughter is one of my neices in the class.) She commented, "It seems that private schools, regardless of how idealistically they begin, over time seem to end up following the same, ineffective public school model. I wonder why that is."

I know there are exceptions, such as the Sudbury Valley School model. But what she says seems largely to be true.

Do we trend toward the public school model because that model is the only one we can think of for educating larger groups of children? Are we really that unimaginative? Or is there another reason, such as the need to respond to a market that is familiar with and therefore demands the familiar features of formal schooling, even when they are ineffective?