A Friendly Reminder

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the annual winter meeting of the Council for American Private Education (CAPE). CAPE is to private schools, nationally, what CAPSO is to private schools in California. Which is to say it is an “organization of organizations” whose members reflect the rich diversity resident within America’s private schools. The educational opportunities offered by schools affiliated with CAPE-members reflect differing understandings of the meaning and purpose of life, multiple perspectives on child development, varying philosophies of education and different approaches to school governance, finance, organization, pedagogy, and assessment.

This year’s meeting was hosted by the Friends Council on Education, whose Executive Director, Drew Smith, currently serves as President of CAPE. It was a special treat to have met in the historic Arch Street Meeting House, whose ‘new’ structure was erected in 1804. We were reminded of the seminal role played by Quaker educators and their fellow leaders in establishing conditions conducive to the propagation of pluralism in American education. We who were seated at the table are, surely, the progeny of their vision, teaching and practice.

During a reception marking CAPE’s 50 years of existence – the organization is actually in its 52nd year of operation, but was unable to conduct an in-person celebration of its Golden Jubilee year owing to the disruptions occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic – those in attendance heard stirring remarks offered by CAPE board member and Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, Ashley Berner. Dr. Berner reminded us of the significant role performed by private schools in advancing the American democratic experiment, the vital ways in which private schools contribute to the formation and sustenance of civil society, and the manner in which private schools promote the common good. Her remarks were sure to have resonated with all present. After all, it has long been a motto of CAPE that private schools are “good for kids, good for families, and good for America.”

Those are powerful claims. But are they true?

By way of response, I can’t help but think that if ever there was an instrument that was designed to answer that question, it is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more popularly known as the Nation’s Report Card. NAEP is, after all, the one and only large scale assessment that permits ‘apples to apples’ comparisons of what America’s public and private school students know and are able to do in reading, mathematics, and other core academic subjects.

Because NAEP takes pains to include a nationally representative sample of private school students, it is designed to capture the fullness of diversity that characterizes American private education. Private school participation in NAEP affords a unique opportunity to adduce compelling evidence that a pluralistic education system need not compromise academic achievement. Indeed, NAEP offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to demonstrate that, despite all of the differences noted above, America’s private schools can and do deliver on the ‘bottom line’, meaning academic achievement, preparation for college and careers, and meaningful participation in a democratic society. In short, NAEP extends an opportunity to make the case for K-12 private education to a national audience.

NAEP can, however, only do so if enough private schools participate to create a nationally representative sample. Regrettably, in recent administrations of NAEP that hasn’t happened. I’ve bemoaned this lost opportunity in prior writings, and don’t wish to retread the same ground. I could not, however, allow the celebration of diversity I so enjoyed witnessing in Philadelphia fade from memory without reminding readers of our obligation to preserve and advance our enterprise.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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