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Posted at 11:49 AM ET, 10/26/2009

Are private schools better than public schools?

By Valerie Strauss

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.

They aren’t.

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, 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?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 26, 2009; 11:49 AM ET
Tags:  Private Schools  
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"...parents who believe that certain private schools open paths to colleg...private schools have at least twice the percentage of students accepted by the Ivy League than the public system...

How many are legacy students?

Why pay twice to educate a child? Make your school better.

Posted by: rlj1 | October 26, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

The notion that parents should keep kids in neighborhood schools and "make your school better" is misguided. Parents have virtually no power to affect curriculum, instructional methods, teacher hiring, teacher evaluation or teacher retention. Too often in the school environment the only way schools want to have parents improve the school is by writing checks and supporting school discipline. That's fine as far as it goes, but as long as parents are effectively shut out of all of the substantive decisions about education, parents who care about their childrens' education will evaluate the local school offering and then decide whether to stay or look elsewhere. The incompetent administrators and incapable but tenured teachers will outlast virtually any child's time in a given school.

Posted by: bk0512 | October 26, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Private schools are better because they simply expel any child or student that is continuously disruptive. Private schools unlike public high schools do not have gang leaders or gang members in attendance.

A private school will expel the first grade child that is continuously disruptive while public schools will simply pass this child along in the public school system.

Public schools will suspend students that are violent. Private schools simply expel them.

Teachers want to teach in a private school because they are allowed to teach and not spend most of their time doing "class management" to deal with the students have been expelled.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 26, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

At this point we've spent an equal number of years in both public and private schools (pre- and lower school). I don't miss the snotty parents I had to deal with at the private school my dd attended. I do miss some of the fun extracurricular activities that were offered (and since cancelled) and the open campus was a perk. The class sizes at her public school have been about the same size (16-21) each year as her private school. While I used to attribute her advance skills to her private schooling I think that was misguided because her fellow public school peers, who are just as bright, never attended private. Thus nurture overruled nature. I could go on but what I will say is that in considering the 3 private schools in our vicinity, they clearly pad their performance and pockets with a certain type of child. If the public schools could/would parse their numbers to make an equivalent, performance comparison I would guess the numbers would be the same. Frankly, since independent schools do not report their performance, we're going by perception and arrogance.

Posted by: flabbergast | October 26, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Why pay twice to educate a child? Make your school better.

Posted by: rlj1
Affluent school system pay twice in many cases to deal with continuously disruptive children and remove these children out of the normal school system and into an alternative public school system.

Most school systems do not have the money.

At one point Americans have to recognize the fact that the public school system is not the dumping grounds for children that in many cases from an early age belong in psychiatric care, and that it is not the job of teachers to deal with these children.

Something has to be done with these children at public institutions but it should be obvious that these children simply create a further problems when they are simply dumped into the public school system.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 26, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

The Gallup poll ranks people's opinions, not actual fact. The NAEP (national report card) shows that students in private schools have better math and reading scores than public counterparts:

Posted by: spinkava | October 26, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Good point: flabbergast. And I agree with the other comments re: the real difference being that private schools are more likely to have a market for motivated high achievers with equally motivated parents. The fact is, we need a Thomas Jefferson High School in every state, and if we can ever afford it, every county.

I disagree about the snottiness though, you can find snotty people at public schools in high income neighborhoods too!
Just ignore the snot and pay attention to the people who sincerely care about kids.

Posted by: doglover6 | October 26, 2009 9:01 PM | Report abuse

A school, whether public or private, is only as good as the student population.
This applies to Community Elementary or Elite University. Schools that have a high number of affluent students with college educated parents will most likely have high test scores and will be judged as "good." Schools that serve the children of the poor and the uneducated will usually have low test scores and will be considered "bad."

Test scores correlate very highly with the socioeconomic status of the parents. This applies to all standardized tests, including the SAT. The sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we'll be able to make real changes in education.

I sent my sons to public and private schools, depending on their needs at the time. The schools I chose for them were very satisfactory and prepared them for Harvard and Stanford.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 27, 2009 12:34 AM | Report abuse

We did send our brilliant son to a local blue ribbon private school for one year. They did not have the resources to adequately challenge him. He had spent the previous 2 years in an "public" school. What we would call private. We watched his skills deteriorate over the course of the year in the American private school. Finally there was an altercation on the playground and he was severely bitten by another child. The school did not inform us of any problems. It wasn't until the end of the day when I picked him up and the bite marks were still on his arm that I knew something had happened. Needless to say we removed him from the school and he finished his education in public schools where there was proper differentiation of skills and he was able to accelerate in math (could not do that in the private school, they did not have the resources.) Public school had issues as well (nothing is perfect) but if an incident happened in school we got a phone call or note. The trouble makers at the private school were protected by the school. (they probably had well to do parents the school did not want to offend.) For my child, public school made the most sense. By the way he graduated from a top tier college with double honors.

Posted by: rit21042 | October 27, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Ultimately, I don't think the discussion should be limited to public vs. private because the US still lags behind in science and math and other universal education measures no matter how great some of these local private schools may appear. Our standard of success would be better served by a daily reckoning of our children's international peers.

Posted by: flabbergast | October 27, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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