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Public or Private High School: Does It Matter for College?

In affluent Washington area neighborhoods where the public schools suffer from mixed reputations (or worse), parents endlessly debate not only whether public or private education is best for their kids, but which path would lead to the precious puppies attending a top university.

While most such driven parents merely talk about this, Leonard Jewler of the District decided to do some genuine research. A healthcare analyst, he focused on the D.C. public school his own child attended, Lafayette Elementary in the Chevy Chase section of the city. Taking advantage of a survey taken for a reunion of the school's class of 2000 that was held last spring, Jewler crunched the numbers and found that the Lafayette class divided rather neatly into thirds--one third went on to public high school (mainly Wilson High in Tenleytown), one third to independent schools in the District, and one third's path was not known.

An imperfect universe for a study, but nonetheless interesting. So, the results:

Using the always-controversial U.S. News college rankings, Jewler mapped the Lafayette kids' high school decisions against the colleges they eventually went to.

The list of colleges the Lafayette kids ended up at is no surprise: It's a list of some of the finest schools in the nation, reflecting both the high-achieving nature of many upper Northwest D.C. families and the economics of the neighborhood. And when you bore down into the list, you see almost no meaningful distinctions between the public and private school kids. The kids who ended up at Smith, Bryn Mawr, Oberlin and Kenyon were all public school kids; the ones who went to Williams, Bowdoin and Sarah Lawrence were all private school kids. Same deal.

The pool is way too small to make any statistically valid conclusions, but the kids who went to the top state universities--places such as Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia--seemed just as likely to be graduates of public high school as private high school. Turn to the top-ranked private universities and the survey reaches the same conclusion: An equal number of Lafayette kids who went to public high school and Lafayette kids who chose private high school ended up at universities in the top 10 percent on the U.S. News list--Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Georgetown among them.

"There is no significant difference in rankings of colleges where students were admitted based on public versus private high school attendance," Jewler concludes.

Jewler found an interesting difference in the high school choices families made: Boys were much more likely to stay in the D.C. public system, while girls tended to go to private school after elementary school--a reflection, perhaps, of the social difficulties and perceived dangers of D.C. public middle and high schools. (Though it's also interesting to note that the city's private schools have no trouble maintaining a balance between boys and girls--are more private school boys therefore coming from suburban jurisdictions?)

But the bottom line--which matches the anecdotal truths that parents bandy about--is that where you go to high school, at least given the choices available to Northwest Washington families, has little or no bearing on where you get into college. Which may help free some of the area's more college-obsessive parents to put more energy and attention into what actually does matter: Where their kids are most likely to fall in love with learning and enjoy a thriving and challenging adolescence. That study wouldn't be quite as easy to do, but it would be a lot of fun to put together and then watch the parents argue about the results.

By Marc Fisher |  March 30, 2007; 8:19 AM ET
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Where you go depends on what you know. And the ability to demonstrate it.

Posted by: Stick | March 30, 2007 10:14 AM

In this case, perhaps the choice of private versus public schools has more to do with the status needs and insecurities of parents than the educational needs of their children.

Posted by: Mike Licht | March 30, 2007 10:28 AM

I apologize for going off topic. Marc Fisher wrote a book about how commercial broadcasting does its thing now. Since then, I've wanted to ask Marc to revisit WETA. I'd like Marc to analyze and compare the transplant of WGMS into public broadcasting with what he wrote about the way radio programming is done. Here is my comment, also posted on WETA's blog responding to a fellow blogger who thinks giving WETA money will help them change their approach. I disagree and want to know what Marc thinks:


I think sending that money in is a mistake, Bob. I won't be giving WETA a dime until and unless they convince me that I am going to get serious broadcasting based on content, not mere marketing using tired old tunes to get me to and from the parking garage.

The model they are using works when you have advertisers paying.

Let's see if it works when you ask intelligent people voluntarily to endorse their degradation of classical music content into mere marketing noise.

So let them get only the elevator music money.

If that works for them, fine. but I think it won't.

And if it doesn't work, they will have no choice but to expand the net, widen their "marketing." Perhaps even abandon the commercial model of programming - the bureaucratically driven model - that they now are using. Today's Post contains a serious whine about the way Giant and Circuit City are operating -- it is a futile and misinformed opinion piece because the author seems to believe the values of customer service or the knowledge of the sales force matter in comparison with the costs you can cut by ignoring those values.

Not to the decision makers.

WETA is part of the same theory of capitalism now - nothing matters to this station but their bottom line and no set of values independent of that will be recognized or served until and unless pure economics intervene to force their hand.

You give them money and you merely enable them to continue what they are doing in the way they are doing it.

It is so disheartening, above all, to realize that WETA after all these years as a "public" radio station has descended and declined into an organization where classical music is merely marketing noise no different from rock and roll, rap, news, or any other noise - and not the music we all think we're talking about.

We all have been talking about values independent of "marketing"; the kind of values so well written about in Jens laurson's posts. Mere ad copy, it would appear -- or a loss leader to bring us in and then let us down.

This is why it does no good to speak or write to Mr. Alison or Mr. Devaney or the Board.

The music on WETA is now merely a marketing device to raise funds -- whereas once there was an additional, independent value served by public broadcasting in presenting content on the airwaves.

No more. This is what accounts for both the execrable concentration on well worn, tired old pieces, the intensely annoying focus on styles so similar they all sound like the same piece as well as the repetitive, cyclical nature of WETA playing certain pieces. You will hear, for example, Finlandia or Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, then the 4th, repeated again and again during a specific window of time -- this is no different than the approach used by every "classic rock" or other popular music radio station on what we used to call "the dial."

Marc Fisher wrote a book recently outlining the whole commercial radio system of programming - the focus groups, etc.

And it is marketing rather than content that matters to these folks at WETA. They aren't even the people we have thought we were talking to. Those people are gone, a part of our past we can remember but never recapture.

I'm afraid I've lost faith in the representations of WETA officials who claimed they would put forward a classical music format to which the level of music appreciation found in the commentary of folks like Mr. Laurson might bear some relationship.

On the one hand you have this erudite, knowlegeable source of information about what matters to many of us about classical music. On the other, you have a total disregard of us and of that level of value contained in the commentary.

You might just as well be broadcasting Montovanni's greatest ... etc. What's next? How about Rachmaninoff's greatest tunes as played by the almost inevitable reunion tour of the Electric Light Orchestra? Or Vivaldi's One Thousand and One Identical Concerti as realized by the reunion tour of Emerson, Lake and Palmer?

So, if you really want to motivate WETA to pay attention to an audience composed of people who want or demand more than elevator music, more than mere marketing broadcast at them .. you should withhold your contributions to allow them to see the paltry return they will get from folks who value classical music as little as apparently WETA officials now do.

3.30.07 at 9:37 am
by Bob L.

Ed -- I agree with you that the playlist is "simplistic" and 'elevator music." I've been saying much the same thing in other words for a while now. Between the blah content and the snippets, drive time remains unlistenable.You'd think that at least in the evenings, when all but the hardcore listeners are watching TV (unless they're in their cars), the station would loosen up a little, drop the news updates, and play some decent stuff from the last hundred years. (It's plainly too much to ask for restoration of Performance Today or an occasional concert broadcast.) But no, it's more of the same.

On the "Introducting Jens Laursen" thread I state my view that we're getting what we're getting because that's what WETA chooses to play. They can do better, even now, but they ignore all suggestions on the blog, including offers of gratis help such as mine to lend them a box full of CDs of the sort of thing they aren't playing. In my opinion, the playlist is a symptom of the fear of scaring away the refugees from WGMS on whom the station is counting in the forthcoming fund drive. For that reason i intend to sent in a three-figure contribution of my own; otherwise, I'd be conceding defeat.

Maybe the fund drive will shake something loose, or maybe the new CD library will, or maybe Jim Allison will start listening to the tiny vocal minority to which you and I belong. Right now all we get is empty promises and "Just wait until our library is complete." Yeah, sure.

Posted by: Ed Burke | March 30, 2007 10:44 AM

This mini-study just proves that the individual student and their socioeconomic/family situation determines much more than a school ever could. Some kids will succeed no matter where they are.

The more interesting question would be whether a school can make a difference for those other kids - the ones that won't succeed anywhere. Are there particular places where they WILL succeed?

Posted by: Julia | March 30, 2007 10:56 AM

Marc, you think parents send their daughters to private schools because of "perceived dangers of DC public middle and high schools"..? Um, no. That would be actual dangers. Here, for example, is an article about girls at Wilson High lining up at a public hearing to plead for more DC police officers to patrol the halls of their school:

Maybe they are just having a "perception" problem. Oh well, things will calm down once they get to Bryn Mawr, right?

The notion that DC public schools, Wilson in particular, are on a par with private schools in the vicinity is a long-cherished conceit among the Volvo set in Upper Northwest. As someone who attended and subsequently taught at Wilson, let me offer a little perspective. Send your kid to Wilson and you'll save tens of thousands, maybe more, in tuition. Also, if the student can crack a high SAT score, many colleges will be eager to have her as an "urban" public school graduate (though you'll need tutors and additional home-schooling for that). Will the child encounter violence, drugs, teacher incompetence, and academic indifference among classmates? You better believe it, on all counts -- and wait till you meet her prom date.

Students that emerge from the wasteland of Wilson for the fair pastures of higher education aren't "products" of DC public schools -- they are more like survivors. After all, it's hard to "fall in love with learning and enjoy a thriving and challenging adolescence" when you need police protection in your classroom.

DC public schools are the "same deal" as private? Wow. Well, you're right on one point -- parents might want to take a closer look at that.

Posted by: Jim, Georgetown | March 30, 2007 11:14 AM

But you don't have to worry about guns because they're illegal in DC. So there's that relief.

Posted by: Stick | March 30, 2007 2:26 PM

Public schools may work for most kids, but not for all. If you have the resources to save an at risk kid from the public schools then you have a responsibility as a parent to do so. It is not a matter of status but rather of good parenting.

My son, genius IQ with ADHD, was failing 8th grade in the Maryland public schools. The school refused to do anything to help him--his counselor even said there was nothing more they could do for him. We sent him to a private school where he is now #2 in his class, in the National Honor Society, covered with academic honors, and accepted to the liberal arts school of his choice with a large merit scholarship.

If we'd left him in the public schools my genius son would have been slinging hamburgers at a fast food joint.

Posted by: Nancy | March 31, 2007 9:43 AM

So we will have zero gun homocide now the guns are ban from DC?

Posted by: DCGod | April 9, 2007 12:40 PM

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