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Sidwell Friends School as Rorschach test

My colleague Michael Birnbaum's great story about demonstrators descending on the Sidwell Friends School because of the First Family's presence proves once again that people see in famous schools---as they do in Hollywood celebrities or sports stars or religious leaders---what they want to see. My new column on the late education media critic Gerald W. Bracey also deals with Sidwell. Bracey thought it was an example of a great school with a teaching system that is very different, and better, than what President Obama wants for regular schools. He asked why Obama was willing to settle for less for schools that don't educate his daughters. I think this was a rare moment when Bracey, a great skeptic, failed to visit the school, as I have many times, and found its methods to be no different from what Obama is pushing for.

By Jay Mathews  | November 13, 2009; 1:38 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Sidwell Friends School; Gerald W. Bracey; President Obama's daughters; private vs. public schools  
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Next: Want to eliminate at-risk kids? Call them something else.


Do the Obama girls take 3 DC-BAS tests to prep them for the DC-CAS each year? (This is in addition to all the other test/quizes, etc that are required of students.)

Do the Obama girls miss out on art, music, PE and library during those same time periods, because the "specials" teachers are proctoring tests? Mind you, this occurs for every child in the building, even 4 year olds miss out on their specials because the "older" (8-10 year olds)are testing.

Posted by: redemma | November 13, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Sidwell kids take practice tests, in the form of homework, all the time. Because they have parents like the Obamas for whom education is the central focus, and who have the time and the confidence, given their own successful experiences in school, to oversee the homework, this works fine. In inner city schools many of the parents don't have those skills and those successful school experiences to guide them, and sometimes avoid helping with homework because of the bad memories it inspires. So if those inner city teachers are going to give their students that kind of review---which all teachers everywhere use--they have to take class time to do it. That is partly why many well-organized charter schools have adopted longer school days so they have time for that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 13, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

If DC district schools weren't an educational train wreck then the complaints about testing might have some validity. But what's the value of art, music, PE and library if kids graduate illiterate and innumerate if they graduate at all?

Posted by: allenm1 | November 14, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Are you truly suggesting that the educational opportunities students at Sidwell Friends receive are comparable to those in DC public schools (or in public schools across the country)? I've not had the pleasure of visiting during a school day with students, but I spent a Saturday there at a workshop last year and I could see numerous differences simply in the physical surroundings. My understanding is that class sizes are significantly different.

I'm not suggesting that DCPS should be what Sidwell Friends is. I do, however, believe that Obama's decision to send his daughters there does illustrate something about what he values in education and it is not reflected in the policies he and Duncan are pushing.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 14, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if this is one of those times you might need to append a disclaimer explaining your own personal connection to SFS. I imagine not all of your readers are aware of it and surely it has influenced your view of Sidwell, as well as your access there. Just a thought.

Posted by: ezr1 | November 15, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

for ezr1---I usually disclose that I am a former Sidwell parent when I express a view about Sidwell, as I did in the Bracey column. It seems a bit odd, since my familiarity with Sidwell has made me less, not more, in agreement with its image, but your point is valid no matter what direction I am coming from.
For Jenny04---Good facilities are nice to have, but have little to do with the quality of the educational opportunities in my view. Some of best high schools in the country, like Mamaroneck High in Westchester County, a school I hung around at for three years for a book, have lousy facilities. As for Sidwell vs. DCPS, there are some DCPS high schools that offer a level and range of teaching that is at least as good as Sidwell's. These include the School Without Walls, Banneker, Wilson and to a surprising degree, Bell Multicultural. There are also some charters that show the promise of being as good academically, although many of the charter high schools in the city have not reached their full size or potential.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 16, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

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