We have an ethical obligation to find the right school for students

A recent New York Times article about the practice of “counseling out” students from private schools has renewed a debate over how private and public schools differ, but I caution against drawing too sharp a contrast. In my previous work in public schools, I both denied students admission and removed students from programs that weren’t right for them. That’s an appropriate function at any school, public or private.

Our friend Walt Gardner echoed the Times theme in his Education Week blog, Reality Check:

Private schools operate under a completely different set of rules. Not only do they admit only those students they deem a good fit, but they also retain the right to remove students for any number of reasons. To most people, the latter strategy is limited to egregious behavior, such as cheating or bullying. But the truth is that private schools more often engage in counseling out students who for one reason or another are not performing as well as the school determines they should.

While it is certainly true that school districts are required to educate all students, even if that means educating them in jail, the more relevant daily reality is that individual public schools are not. Even traditional neighborhood schools regularly force students to leave.

One reported example recently occurred in the 103,000-student public school district in Pinellas County, Fla. Before the start of this school year, superintendent Julie Janssen responded to troubling developments at some inner city schools by moving dozens of chronically disruptive students for the good of the academic environment of the school and the children who remained. Such moves tend to be controversial because they end up simply moving the students to a different public school environment, including alternative schools that sometimes are perceived to lack academic rigor, but an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times applauded the move. It even called upon the district to “streamline and toughen its bureaucratic, weak-kneed approach to removing disruptive students from schools.”

In my own years teaching at an International Baccalaureate high school program in St. Petersburg, Fla., we regularly denied students admission because they did not meet our academic standards. We also forced students to leave if their performance was insufficient. The attrition rate from ninth grade to graduation in our public school was more than 50 percent. Those students who left on their own or were pushed out usually went on to graduate from other schools and often with honors.

Just as a doctor should discontinue a medical treatment that is ineffective or harming a patient, an educator should discontinue educational treatment that is ineffective or harming a student. As a teacher in an academically rigorous public school program, I regularly saw students getting physically and emotionally sick because of the stress they were under. To not “counsel out” those students would have run contrary to their best interests and my ethical obligations as a professional educator.

I’m sure there are public and private school educators who push students out of their schools for inappropriate reasons. But as customization increasingly becomes the norm in public and private education, helping parents find the most appropriate learning environment for their children will become an increasingly important role for professional educators.