Are private schools better than public schools?
Admissions season for private schools is now in full swing, which is perhaps why I cringed more than I otherwise might have at this part of a recent Washingtonian magazine article about the prestigious public magnet school in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology:
“About nine out of ten students arrive at Jefferson from public middle schools. Families who can’t afford the $30,000 price tag of a Potomac School or Sidwell Friends see Jefferson as a private school equivalent.” [Potomac is in McLean, Va., and Sidwell, where President Obama’s daughters go, is in the District.]
I read that as saying that private schools are automatically better than public schools, or at least, the best private schools are better than the best public schools.
In fact, there isn’t even a “they” there.
Private schools are so different in size, resources, enrollment, cost and mission that it is preposterous to lump them into one group and say they are better or worse than public schools--which, by the way, also can't be stuffed into the same closet.
It is estimated that about 10 percent of the nation’s children go to private schools, including religious schools. A survey I once conducted in the greater Washington area showed that about 15 percent of students in this region attend private schools.
Parents send their children to private schools for many different reasons.
When I ask admissions directors for the one most frequently cited, I most often hear “safety” and the values education provided in religious schools. Small class size is a popular reason, too, though some private schools have large classes.
There are parents who want to keep their kids out of a public system they think is poorly run, or out of a culture in which high stakes standardized tests rule the day. I live in the District, my children go to private school and I fall into several of these categories.
There are also parents who believe that certain private schools open paths to college that public schools don’t. That is sometimes true; some of the best known private schools have at least twice the percentage of students accepted by the Ivy League than the public system they compete against.
Let’s say you're obsessed with getting your child into Harvard and you send him to a fancy private school where there are lots of parents like you and lots of kids with amazing resumes.
Harvard will only accept so many students from each school. So the competition at an elite private school may be far more fierce for your child than it might have been if you had sent him to your local public school and provided the enrichment you thought necessary. I know parents for whom this has worked out splendidly.
One misconception I often hear from parents is that private schools have enormous resources. In fact, a good public school is likely to have more academic offerings, and more after-school activities than most private schools.
Most private schools not established for the purpose of helping kids with special needs lack all kinds of special programs. That includes programs for kids who are brilliant as well as students who need significant remedial help.
Private schools, though, do allow teachers greater freedom in the classroom, a key reason some teachers prefer these institutions even though they rarely are paid as much as they do in the unionized public systems.
But remember this: The annual PDK/Gallup poll on how Americans view public education consistently shows that public schools are ranked more highly than you might think from the constant bashing by critics.
The 2009 poll, published last month in Kappan magazine http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/, found that 51 percent of respondents said they would give the public schools in their neighborhood an A or B. And when asked about the school their oldest child attends, 74 percent said they would give the school an A or B.
But only 19 percent said they would give public schools in the nation an A or B. In that question, they are judging schools about which they have no first-hand knowledge.
So if you ever hear someone say a private school is “better,” ask, “For whom?”
If you send your child to a private school, why? If you don’t and had the chance to do so, why didn’t you? If you don’t have the choice, would you want it?
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