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Should public schools be responsible for private school references?

By Katy Murphy
Friday, October 19th, 2007 at 3:36 pm in enrollment, private schools.

I’ve been told that enrollment at some public elementary schools dips in the upper grades, as families with means or scholarships transfer their children to private schools. Many others, I hear, make the switch before middle school.

I bring this up because it’s private school application season, and a Thornhill Elementary School mom tells me her school won’t write personal references for those applications. She thinks that such a position puts kids who attend public schools — but who might want to go to private school in the future — at a disadvantage.

Here’s what the Thornhill notice said, according to my source:

“Our ongoing focus is on teaching and learning.  Additionally, it is in conflict with our philosophy supporting public school education to provide subjective references/recommendations for students applying for private or charter schools.  Therefore, staff members will not be completing personal references for students.  The school will release, upon written request by the parent, copies of records for your child that will include attendance/tardy records, report cards, and test scores from prior years.  There is a $5 copying/postage courtesy fee per school request.  Thank you for your understanding and support”.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject, on or off the blog, since I’m sure Thornhill isn’t alone in this stance.

What positions have other principals and schools adopted about personal references? Are such policies intended to protect teachers from being overloaded by additional duties, or to promote public education? Or something else?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

  • Debora

    Joaquin Miller teachers won’t provide reference letters either. Most private schools in the area know this. Julia Morgan School for Girls knows. And in spite of our teachers not providing letters of recommendation six or seven JM girls were accepted and five are attending Julia Morgan this year. This should not be a problem. I understand the problem from several perspectives.

    Children are not at a disadvantage when the letters are not provided by public school teachers. In my daughter’s own case, one recommendation letter was provided by her German Saturday School teacher. When my daughter needed a recommendation letter for a UC Berkeley summer camp, the letter was freely provided as it is a public school. Public teachers are trying to help continue public education. The requested letters of recommendation are a gift. They must be written on the teacher’s own personal time. Teachers have a right to use their time and influence as they wish.

  • Judy

    As a middle school administrator in another school district I wrote letters of recommendation for students who wished to attend private high schools . I felt that it was my “professional” responsibility to do so. Rather than spend time developing policies preventing OUSD teachers from writing such letters, maybe OUSD should spend more time in doing what it takes to encourage families to stay in public schools

  • Carrie

    Judy – I agree! I’d be concerned that kids who don’t look as good on paper (maybe don’t test as high, but might be a great match for a particular middle school) won’t be on equal footing. While I understand the wish to keep kids in public schools, denying references seems a hard blow to families who feel a private school might be a better match for their child. Policies like this don’t make me want to stay in OUSD – they make me want to go someplace that will support my family’s educational decisions for my child.

  • James Jones, Jr., Parent, etc.

    I think it’s a pretty ridiculous position to take. The Thornhill notice is a clear example of a school placing its institutional-self above the success of Students. It says simply, “we want you to be successful but only if it’s with us.” or, more cynically: “We want you to be successful as long as we get your per-pupil funding.” It’s disgraceful but surprisingly unsurprising.

  • AMH

    As mentioned above. OUSD kids seem to be at no great disadvantage when it comes to ettting into private schools. I have known many families move from OUSD schools to private schools and I have never heard of one being turned down because they didn’t get a letter of recommendation.

    I have no problem with the policy. Certainly, the school district should not spend its money paying teachers to write letters to help families move out of the district. And I don’t think it is fair to expect teachers to do it on their free time. As in the case of the JM teachers above, those teachers would have spent hours of their own time writing letters. Is that fair? Their not doing so didn’t stop large numbers of families from going to private middle school this year.

  • Carrie

    In response to Debora’s comments – yes, teachers certainly have the right to give letters of recommendation or not, and I support that right. What’s happened here is the schools/district creating a policy that the teachers may not provide letters. There are a number of concerns about this, including the belief that it’s a violation of the teacher’s first amendment rights, and the implication that the schools put their funding goals above the educational goals of students and their families that James mentions.

  • Renee Swayne

    This is a delicate subject and as a retired teacher I grappled with it, especially when charter schools were in very popular demand. At a school in Thornhill’s position, it is possible that teachers could be asked to fill out referrals for a good percentage of the students. It would probably be good for all individual schools, and the district at large, to formulate consistent policies, or at least have meaningful dialogues. It does take time and resources to fill out applications and to write references and one of the frustrations for everyone involved is the lack of a consistent policy.

    I filled out the applications and wrote referrals in the spirit of being part of a democratic society and not wanting to impose my personal opinions on parents and students. But, I was never inundated with requests–they came from only a select few students. And, it might be good to have a courtesy fee, again as long as the policy was consistent and it was clear how the funds collected would be used. Public school teachers are often expected to fulfill the demands and mandates of many interested parties without any consideration for the time, effort, or resources necessary to make the demands a reality.

  • Debora

    James Jones are you implying that I should be able to force a teacher to spend their personal time writing a recommendation letter for my child? I should be able to dictate that their personal time become my time?

    It would be a travesty if the only adults in a child’s life that could write a recommendation letter were their elementary school teachers. That would make for a very limited childhood experience. As for teachers protecting the public school system, my conversations with teachers about this subject has been that the majority of teachers truly BELIEVE that a public school experience is the best for nearly all students.

  • Mr. G

    You cannot force a teacher to write a letter of recommendation. You cannot force anyone to write a letter of recommendation. Letters of recommendation, as a previous commenter suggested, are the gift of its writer, freely given. There is no way to mandate the giving of a gift or the refusal to do so.

    So, if a teacher is overwhelmed with the number of requests for letters of recommendation they are receiving, that teacher may need to turn down some requests. That might be a difficult but necessary decision for the teacher to make. Or, if a teacher does not want to write any letters of recommendation, for whatever reason, that teacher should be free to abstain. And there should be no retribution, because you cannot force someone to give a gift, or punish them if they choose not to.

    With that said, to restrict a teacher’s ability to give this type of gift is idiotic and short sighted. If a teacher, on his or her own time, wants to write a letter of recommendation for a student, he or she should be free to do so. To forbid teachers from expressing their support for a student on the grounds that it does not fall within the school’s philosophy is a first amendment issue, without question. And these schools, if they are restricting this type of speech, are putting themselves at greater risk than if they simply put a policy in place to ensure that school resources were not being used for the purpose of recommendation letters.

    It is short sighted because, unlike Debora suggested, most people realize that private schools do a better job of educating kids. Generally, they have smaller class sizes, more resources, and higher expectations of their students. Not all private schools are better than all public schools, but in general terms the supremacy of private schools is indisputable. Check the graduation rates for public school kids versus private school kids. Check statistics on acceptance to four year colleges.

    Some public school teachers, and more prevalently the unions that represent them, need to stop saying and doing things that suggest they are more concerned with losing students (and teacher jobs) to schools that are doing a better job than their schools are doing. Write the letters until the schools improve. Actually compete with these other schools and you will have fewer requests for letters of recommendations. What these schools are doing, by forbidding their teachers from writing letters, is akin to telling parents and students, “We know what is best for you, whether you know it or not.” The reason it damages their cause is that no one buys it. It makes them look like the students are not the priority. It makes them seem more concerned with the survival of their union than the education of those whom they serve. We hear what these folks are really saying. “We know what is best for us.”

    Great teachers do whatever is best for their students, whenever they can. And though it would be best for everyone to have equal access to great public schools, this is not the reality. Forcing students to attend lower performing schools because we are unable to admit this reality is ludicrous. Our kids deserve the best educations available to them, whether it is in the best interest of the unions and the teachers they represent or not.

  • Debora

    I agree that teachers should be able to use their time and their influence as they see fit. It is theirs to give or to deny.

    I disagree that private schools categorically give a better education. My second grade daughter at Joaquin Miller is far ahead of her friends who are attending St. Paul’s Episcopal, Beacon Day School, Aurora and Archway. She is on par with her friends at Redwood Day School and Head Royce. Only a couple of the schools have a class size smaller than the 19 students in her public school class. I will say, where the private schools excel is music and foreign language for all children often beginning in Kindergarten.

    There is no categorical answer to the questions – What provides a better education, private schools or public schools? Or, should teachers give recommendation letters to those students who request them?

    The original comment by a Thornhill Elementary School parent who said that it puts students at a disadvantage when applying for private school and not been the case of the Joaquin Miller students headed off to middle school.

  • Carrie

    I do agree that private schools do not categorically give a better education. The decision to transition to a private school is a complex one, and not every school is a great match for every kid, public or private.

    What I disagree with is the school’s across the board decision to: 1) take the decision away from teachers as to whether they want to write references for one, or any student – I do believe strongly it’s a first amendment violation, and wonder if the OUSD legal department is even aware of the policy. 2) implement a policy that implies so little faith in the public middle schools that it appears they’re trying to ‘force’ kids to attend. I’d solidly agree with Mr. G on this one… it’s “short sighted and idiotic”.

  • Caroline

    I vigorously dispute what Mr. G says about the “supremacy” of private schools:

    Mr. G says:
    … most people realize that private schools do a better job of educating kids. Generally, they have smaller class sizes, more resources, and higher expectations of their students. Not all private schools are better than all public schools, but in general terms the supremacy of private schools is indisputable. Check the graduation rates for public school kids versus private school kids. Check statistics on acceptance to four year colleges. …

    But he doesn’t get it. Private schools do generally have more resources, because they’re wealthier and they don’t accept kids with high needs.

    That doesn’t mean they’re praiseworthy (are rich people better than non-rich people?) OR that they necessarily provide a better education. Studies that control for socioeconomics, in fact, show that private schools do NOT provide a better education.

    Graduation rates are not a valid measure, because private schools don’t enroll or they get rid of kids who are not likely to graduate.

    More private school kids go to college because they’re more economically privileged, and the economically privileged are far more likely to go to college. As my smart urban-public-school-educated 11th-grader points out, correlation does not equal causation.

  • Renee Swayne

    Mr. G makes some valid points, but there are issues where we do not agree. He is absolutely right that you can neither impose nor deny teachers’ rights with regard to letters of recommendation. They are “gifts” and should be freely given, or they defeat their intended purpose.

    But, I strongly disagree that private schools do a better job of educating students. His belief is commonly shared, but is not supported by facts. Private schools have selective populations and often screen out students deemed to be inappropriate for their purposes. This can cut both ways–but people need to realize that public and private schools both have successes and challenges. There are graduates of Oakland Schools who have attended and been successful at colleges and universities worldwide. This success is NOT exclusive to private schools, but it is a fact that is rarely shared about public schools. Public schools educate all students who choose to enroll, they are not able to screen out students with problems–and this allows students an opportunity to turn their situations around. It is not always successful, but it is wonderful to grant that opportunity, because like it or not we all have to learn to live together, so we all benefit in the end.

    And, inherent in Mr. G’s analysis is a belief that private schools have better teachers. But. again facts would reveal that actually the most qualified teachers are found in public schools. There are often more rigid requirements, they have more qualifications, the pay is generally better, and with unions their jobs are more secure. Unfortunately, with the current teacher shortage we should all be concerned about who will be teaching our children.

    And finally, this is not a matter of “forcing” anyone to attend lower performing schools. Ultimately parents have the right to enroll their children in schools, public or private, that will best serve their needs. This issue, whether teachers write the recommendations or not, is not at all about forcing anyone to make choices.

  • James Jones, Jr.

    Debora, you said: “James Jones are you implying that I should be able to force a teacher to spend their personal time writing a recommendation letter for my child? I should be able to dictate that their personal time become my time? ”

    JJ: I’m not sure where all this forcing and dictating and personal time crept in, but to answer your question: No, it should be the teacher’s decision. But I think creating a school-wide policy purely on the basis of [the] philosophy [of] supporting public school education indicates a greater concern for their institutional-selves than for the Student being denied a potentially critical recommendation. It’s a message that says, “we don’t care what your situation is or what you’re trying to do or where you’re trying to go” and I think there’s something wrong with that. I don’t believe concern is something you can turn on and off; you are either care or you don’t. This letter shows that Thornhill’s care is limited by [the] philosophy [of] supporting public school education.

    you said: “It would be a travesty if the only adults in a child’s life that could write a recommendation letter were their elementary school teachers. That would make for a very limited childhood experience. “

    JJ: travesties and limited childhood experiences happen. And I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to label a teacher’s Recommendation as just another “adult in a child’s life.” You would be the first to agree that a teacher is much more than that.

    you said: As for teachers protecting the public school system, my conversations with teachers about this subject has been that the majority of teachers truly BELIEVE that a public school experience is the best for nearly all students.

    JJ: Listen, you can’t find your way to Lake Merritt from Dublin using a Globe as your map—it’s much to large a scale. Overall perspectives are not necessarily useful in specific instances. We’re not talking about hypothetical kids and hypothetical schools; We’re talking about real kids and real Oakland schools. With that said: Are you telling me that sending my son to Bret Harte or Frick Jr High would be the best thing for HIM? Because they’re Public?

    last thing: Asking Public school teachers if they BELIEVE public school is best for most kids, is like asking Tennis Shoe factory workers if they think everyone should wear tennis-shoes; what do you think they’ll say?

    -James

  • K. Hardman

    Public Education v. Private Education: A great debate, but it seems to be off topic from the original subject.

    Things I would want to know about the Thornhill policy:

    -Who composed it? Was it the principal’s decision? Did staff unanimously support it?
    -When was this policy implemented? Thornhill teachers have voluntarily written letters of rec. for years (to my knowledge)
    -What exactly is OUSD’s policy?

    I hope Thornhill reconsiders its policy of mandating their teachers to not write letters of rec. As Judy mentioned from above, many teachers feel a professional obligation to do so, and do it lovingly. If this policy exists, wouldn’t it put the teachers right in the middle of an uncomfortable situation? I think the OUSD teachers are put in the middle enough as it is.

    To NOT have the choice to write a rec. as a statement in support of public education, more specifically the OUSD, is laughable if not downright deplorable.

    On a side note; kudos to Montera Middle School and new principal, Mr. Mesfun. Things have really turned around at that school in a short time. Student, parent, and teacher morale is up. So much so, that perhaps Thornhill, et al will not have too many letters of rec. to write!

    Let’s hope for a brighter future for all of Oakland’s middle schools; true turning points in a child’s and a District’s existence.

    Ok… sorry to have changed the subject.

  • http://ibabuzz.com?education Steve Weinberg

    I’m not sure why Mr. Jones picked out Bret Harte and Frick Middle Schools to make his rhetorical point, but Bret Harte has long been recognized within the district for its rigorous academic program, many electives, and excellent administration, and Frick, where I work, has one of the greatest increases in test scores of any middle school in the county over the seven years of state testing. Both schools have teachers on their staffs that would rival the best at any school, public or private. This is not to claim that either school might be the best for Mr. Jones’ son, but each has provided outstanding educations to many students.

  • Skyline Teacher

    So should I stop writing recommendations to high school graduates who want to go to private colleges? What if UC is privatized as is currently being discussed!?

    I wonder, though, if Thornhill was just clumsily trying to protect overwhelmed teachers?

  • Debora

    I agree with the Skyline teacher who believes that this may be a clumsy way of protecting the teachers. Before Joaquin Miller instituted the policy, which has been in effect for several years, nearly all of the students were requesting multiple letters of recommendation and asking that they be modified for the type of school in which the student was applying.

    I sincerely doubt that the students of Joaquin Miller and Thornhill cannot find an adult who has worked closely with the student to write a recommendation letter. This is a school policy, not a district policy after all. As stated previously, the lack of teacher recommendation letters did not prevent any of the 8 girls I personally know at Joaquin Miller from getting accepted at their first choice middle school. Exceptional maybe, or maybe with documentation the middle schools recognize that teachers are categorically not allowed to write recommendation letters and rely on transcripts, attendance and recommendations from other adults in the children’s lives.

  • James Jones, Jr., Parent, etc.

    Steve Weinberg, you said I’m not sure why Mr. Jones picked out Bret Harte and Frick Middle Schools to make his rhetorical point, but Bret Harte has long been recognized within the district for its rigorous academic program, many electives, and excellent administration

    JJ:Well, I have lived in Oakland for 35 years; I attended Bret Harte, in fact, most of my immediate and extended family attended Bret Harte or Frick (one just graduated from Bret Harte last year). Most of my Friends and neighbors attended Frick or Bret Harte also. So, you might say, I chose those schools because I know something of those schools. My oldest son may be attending Jr. High in Oakland next year (maybe not). As I said in my previous post, “we’re not talking about hypothetical kids..”

    you said:..and Frick, where I work, has one of the greatest increases in test scores of any middle school in the county over the seven years of state testing.

    JJ: Look, relative improvement is just an indicator of overall direction; it does not mean you have arrived.

    let’s look at Frick’s numbers:

    ***in 2003 only 10% of all Frick students were at or above grade-level in English.
    in 2004,that number stayed at 10%, in 2005—15.6%, in 2006—19.3%, in 2007—15%. Moving from 90% FAILING to 85% FAILING (over 5 years) in English is something, but nothing to shout from the rooftops. And Bret Harte is not doing much better; an overwhelming majority of their students are failing also.

    I’m not listing this data to say that Frick’s teachers are bad… I’m saying SOMETHING IS WRONG. The only way to affect dramatic change is with dramatic action.
    Every person involved (Parents (especially), Administrators, teachers, politicians and students) must stop and take a long hard look at how they are doing what they are doing—it’s not working.

    Let’s look at Frick’s 8th Graders (latest scores):

    89% of 8th-graders BELOW GRADE-LEVEL in ENGLISH;
    Only 22 kids out of 194 total at or above grade-level.

    96%>/b> of 8th-graders BELOW GRADE-LEVEL in MATH;
    only
    5 kids out of 135 total at or above grade-level.

    61% of 8th-graders BELOW GRADE-LEVEL in ALGEBRA;
    only 24 kids out of 59 total at or above grade-level.

    87% of 8th-graders BELOW GRADE-LEVEL in HISTORY;
    only 24 kids out of 184 total at or above grade-level.

    91% of 8th-graders BELOW GRADE-LEVEL in SCIENCE;
    only 16 kids out of 178 total at or above grade-level.

    These numbers say: last year, their were no more than 29 eighth-grade students that met grade-level requirements for each subject. that leaves 165 students that did not meet all requirements. How many of those students do you think were held back? whatever the number, I’m sure it wasn’t enough. Now some poor 1st year teacher at Skyline or Fremont is going to inherit a 9th grader with a 5th grade reading level.. and an even lower math level.. and absolutely no confidence… then some obnoxious parent :-) is going to accuse her of not doing her job. How can she? Social promotion is the Devil (period). If they aren’t ready to move on, they should have to stay in that grade. If all your kids were on the right level, then you could really push forward; then, we parents, would be able to see the benefits of having “teachers.. that would rival the best at any school, public or private.”

    ***All info taken from http://www.cde.ca.gov

  • James Jones, Jr., Parent, etc.

    ST said : I wonder, though, if Thornhill was just clumsily trying to protect overwhelmed teachers?

    JJ: That’s probably all it is, but in the process they inadvertently showed us their cards… some things are really better left unsaid.. I’m sure there’s nobody at Thornhill twisting their mustache and filling the halls with evil laughter; the principal probably got tired of dealing with parents that had been turned down by their child’s teacher.

  • Skyline Teacher

    I love (read: hate) how where we send our children to learn is so politicized. I myself embraced this wholeheartedly as a kid: I hated private school and wouldn’t allow myself to be moved to one even when I was clinically depressed in a dangerous middle school.

    My kids are in public school. But if I and their mother decide that’s no longer the best thing, I won’t let my support of public schools in general change my mind. As Mr. Jones says, these are not hypothetical children.

    Would I send my kids to the school I teach at? It would depend on what they grow up to be like. But there are days I feel like calling some kids’ parents and saying why is your child in my class? She can actually READ and WRITE and THINK CRITICALLY. Get her somewhere more stimulating!

  • James Jones, Jr., Parent, etc.

    CORRECTION… to http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/?p=266#comment-854

    “These numbers say: last year, their were no more than 16 (not 29) eighth-grade students that met grade-level requirements for each subject. that leaves 178 (not 165) students that did not meet all requirements.

  • http://ibabuzz.com?education Steve Weinberg

    Testing Proficient is not a grade level requirement. If it were, more than 60% of students in California at every grade level would be failing. Testing Proficient does not even mean that a student knows what some committee decided that a student at that grade level should know. When the state began their testing program they decided that at whatever 35% of the students could score would be Proficient. Whatever 65% of students could do would be called Basic. It is common misconception to confuse Proficiency with grade level, but it is a misconception.

  • Skyline Teacher

    Steve’s claims for the teachers at some OUSD middle schools may be true — but to me it is an indictment of how little teachers can really accomplish, at least in the current system.

    Should I not think it odd that almost none of my tenth graders could define the word “liberty” after a decade of schooling in OUSD? Are my expectations too high?

  • Caroline

    Private K-12 school in relation to public K-12 school is not comparable to private colleges/universities vs. public college/universities (even using “vs.” doesn’t make sense in relation to higher education).

    There are a whole lot of reasons that’s the case. Others can probably explain this much better than I can.

  • James Jones, Jr., Parent, etc.

    Steve said: “Testing Proficient is not a grade level requirement.”

    JJ: Listen, we’re only talking about Test scores because you brought it up, remember: “Frick, where I work, has one of the greatest increases in test scores of any middle school in the county over the seven years of state testing “
    JJ cont’d: You were proud then, but now you’re saying the test scores don’t matter. Which is it? you can’t have it both ways.

    The facts stand: Out of 194 Frick 8th graders, only “22″ met the State standard for English, and only “5″ of 135 met the standard for General math…. And meeting the state standard only required a score of 58% or higher. (58% is considered “Proficient”)..

    YOU SAID: Testing Proficient does not even mean that a student knows what some committee decided that a student at that grade level should know.

    JJ:And testing below PROFICIENT does? Please explain this to me. I would think, the higher a child scores, the more likely it is that the child understands the material—no? How would you recommend the State of California monitor the progress of the 6 million (or so) children in public schools?

    YOU SAID: When the state began their testing program they decided that at whatever 35% of the students could score would be Proficient. Whatever 65% of students could do would be called Basic. It is common misconception to confuse Proficiency with grade level, but it is a misconception.

    JJ:According to the CA’s Education Code:

    “The five performance levels designated for reporting CST results are advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, and far below basic. The state target is for all students to score at the proficient or advanced level. “

    JJ cont’d: And besides that, it’s no coincidence that the best prepared kids do the best on the test. Some may not, but we’re not worried about good students that do bad on tests; we’re worried about not-so-good students doing bad on tests. The best schools have the highest test scores, and for good reasons. I’m sure that one of those reasons is, they take the test and it’s preparation seriously. There are too many important decisions that are based on these test scores; including decisions regarding school closures. These tests also have an effect on a students self-esteem. You can argue the Benchmark and the process all you want, but right now this is the standard that we need to meet or EXCEED (period).

  • http://ibabuzz.com?education Steve Weinberg

    Mr. Jones, you make your points very forcefully, and I don’t disagree with many of them. I noticed from an earlier posting that you were the SSC chair of Sherman Elementary last year. Since the district seems headed for a new round of closure decisions, many blog readers might be interested in your thoughts about how the process went at Sherman last year.
    And please drop by Frick sometime and let me show you around. We need the support of all involved community members, even if they decide to send their children elsewhere to attend school.

  • Jim Mordecai

    The idea of proficiency is an arbitrary cut score defined by each State under No Child Left Behind. Steve says that 35% of the students scoring on a test is defined as proficient and then everyone is being supported in achieving that score. But, I would argue that this is teaching to the test; not a good idea.

    The next bad idea is grade level. What does that mean? Is it the average score of students in reading and math. What about the student that is above average in vocabulary and below average in comprehension but total score is at grade level.

    Students are not test scores. They grow and they regress. But, whatever they do it is the teachers job to be there thru ups and downs and provide support and encouragement.

  • Jim Mordecai

    I believe the goal of public education is an open question and will not concede that the goal is to raise test scores on a group test. For my money Jefferson’s priority of an educated citizenry that makes democracy work should be goal number one.

    The idea of test driven goal setting makes no sense to me. By definition a goal of everyone above average is a guarantee of 50% failure.

    It is a misuse of testing and group statistics to employ group testing as the basis of goal setting.