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The Debate: Public vs. Private vs. Home School

Back in the early '70s, my mother had given up on public schooling, but my dad saw no reason his kids couldn't go to public school like he did. That lasted until my mother learned that my sister was sleeping through classes and getting straight A's and my brother was a handful and needed a better environment. By the time I started school, the path was set. From nursery school on, I never stepped foot in a public school.

That is, until I had to decide on a school for my 5-year-old. During my search I looked at many schools and in the back of my mind was always one thought: Is this school so superior to the public school that it was worth spending money for it. I looked at a couple of religious-based private schools. I looked at the public school language immersion program. I looked at our zoned elementary school and eventually chose to send him there.

Clearly, there are differences in public vs. private schools -- in parental involvement, in economic diversity and in bureaucracy. At the public school, a core group of parents seem to do everything. A friend who chose opposite me and now sends her child to private school tells me that the group of involved parents is much larger. The public schools have lots of government mandates to follow and county bureaucracies to deal with for funding. A mom of a high schooler at a private school tells me that she chose her route because she realized early on that this type of bureaucracy would drive her crazy.

And then there's diversity. Our school is far more racially and economically diverse than anywhere I went to school. As an adult who grew up going private, I see that diversity as beneficial for my child's social development. Academically, though, I wonder. He comes home with work that's so easy for him it's almost laughable. Even his retired public schoolteacher grandmother was questioning when the school would give him something harder.

Of course, there are options outside of public and private schools. According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, more than 1 million students were home-schooled in the U.S. in 2003. In a 1999 report, parents who home-school reasoned that they can give their child a better education. They also home-schooled for religious reasons or felt school offered a poor learning environment.

What type of school have you chosen? What strengths and weaknesses do you experience in public, private and home-schooling?

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By Stacey Garfinkle |  October 19, 2007; 7:30 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Teens , Tweens
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Our son started kindergarten at a charter school this year and we really like it. The public schools in our district are too large for our tastes, and they are overcrowded with classes with over 30 kids in elementary. We really like that the charter school doesn't have to follow the mandates from the board of ed and can just let the teachers teach. The school get 4 or 5 applicants for every spot, so obviously a lot of parents feel like we do.

Posted by: Dennis | October 19, 2007 7:58 AM | Report abuse

My mom pulled me out of elementary school in the fourth grade when she discovered my older sister was reading through class instead of paying attention. She decided to start her own business, work from home, and home-school us.

The first thing we learned was that schools waste a LOT of time. My sister and I could get through our school work in about 2.5 hours, instead of 6-7 hours at school.

Which is good, because we had very busy lives. We played community league sports, volunteered to baby-sit for parenting classes in our community (talk about diversity!), had home-school association meetings (so we would get to know other kids), and church events. I started working part time at my grandmother's clothing shop when I was fourteen ($$$).

My mom didn't feel very comfortable teaching us English (she was an engineer), so she hired an English major from our local community college to come teach us once a week.

We both started taking classes at the community college when we were 16 and we found that our study skills were much better than most public/private school kids. We knew how to learn from textbooks. Most people have information spoon-fed from a teacher their entire lives, so when we had a professor with a strong accent or one who was just a bad teacher, we could still learn the information and do well, unlike our peers.

When it was time to go to "real college", it was a little more difficult to get scholarships (no class rank). My mom spent a lot of time on the phone arguing with admissions people, but eventually everything worked out fine. I got in, made tons of friends, did well, got out and got a job.

Home-schooling has its faults. You don't spend as much time with kids your own age, no prom, and no highly competitive sports (community league just isn't the same).

But it also has some great benefits! I have a close relationship with my family, I learned how to interact with adults better, and I had more time to pursue the things I was interested in.

Posted by: Katie | October 19, 2007 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Private schools don't have stringent requirements on teacher credentials. I know people from college who taught in private schools while they decided what they wanted to do. Does a history degree in any way make someone qualified to teach math?

As for home-schooling -- I really don't think English once a week can be remotely sufficient. And parents aren't going to be well-versed in every subject. There's a lot of forgetting that happens when someone has been out of school for a long time.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 19, 2007 9:05 AM | Report abuse

My sister and I grew up attending public schools in Arlington. My husband attended public schools in another state. We both intend for our daughter (and subsequent children) to attend public school. We currently live in Arlington.

I think people need to make their own decisions on what school is best for their children, and I believe that in a democratic society the government should provide the proper schooling for its children. I feel strongly that people should use the public schools when they are adequate and available, because their participation in this process is what will keep the system running smoothly.

Obviously not all public schools are created equal, but we are happy with the options in Arlington. A few years ago I was thinking we'd be interested in one of the county-wide magnet programs, but lately I've become impressed with our neighborhood school and I think there is a lot of value to attending a "neighborhood school."

I do think diversity is an important factor that can help children grow into more open minded and well rounded adults. The public schools I attended were overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class. Our neighborhood schools are less so and I think that's just fine.

Posted by: viennamom | October 19, 2007 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Trustme, English once a week was plenty sufficient. He would give us a book to read, a paper to write, and 20-30 vocabulary words to learn every week. During the week, we would read the book, write the paper and learn the words. He would come and we would discuss the book, talk about how to make our papers better and he would quiz us on the words. We did about twice the work my public school friends did.

Posted by: Katie | October 19, 2007 9:21 AM | Report abuse

"He comes home with work that's so easy for him it's almost laughable. Even his retired public schoolteacher grandmother was questioning when the school would give him something harder."

Um, he's in kindergarten -- did you expect Algebra?

Posted by: orbit | October 19, 2007 9:23 AM | Report abuse

I think it varies from child to child as much as family to family. Right now only 2 of our kids are out of preschool. Our oldest does attend our neighborhood public school. Class sizes are small, teachers readily available, and the focus on arts, music and recess is large. It is a great school. That being said, I do not think that our 2nd child, currently in the Montessori equivalent of Kindergarten will go there next year. While my oldest daughter is not very self-motivated and thrives on the type of structure her school demands my other one does not. I don't think she will take kindly to sitting at a desk and doing what other people want her to do. We are currently investigating some other options for her.

Posted by: michelewilson | October 19, 2007 9:24 AM | Report abuse

My 2yrold son is in Montessori right now, and this is a debate I am having. Should I keep him in Montessori through 8th grade (or at least through elementary) or send him to public school in 1st grade?

I am leaning more toward keeping him in Montessori because we can afford it and I am really disgusted with the whole "teach to the test" attitude that No Child Left Behind has propagated. My mom was a 5th grade elementary teacher who just retired (public), so I know the pressure the teachers are under.

She advocates visiting the public school and observing before I make my decision, and that is most likely what I will do.

Another thing I do like about Montessori is that kids are not stuck at a desk learning all day long, but can move about the classroom and pursue work that interests them, under the guidance of the "directress" (Montessori word for teacher).

I'd be interested in hearing any other parents' experiences with Montessori for elementary or older kids.

Posted by: Rebecca | October 19, 2007 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I have always been impressed by home-schooled kids. They tend to see other adults as resources instead of *the enemy* and they tend to have a lot more initiative and take more responsibility when it comes to learning.
Unfortunately as a single Mom, that's not an option for me. Besides I really like my work and I'm not confident I'd be able to do right by my kids academically. But I do wish public schools did more to encourage children's interests and give them some room to pursue those independently. I guess it's a different mindset about education.

Posted by: anne. | October 19, 2007 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I went to Montessori through the sixth grade. Then, I went to private Catholic schools all the way through college. My only experience with "public" school was in graduate school.

The Montessori school was fantastic because it followed the European style of Montessori (i.e. the original kind) rather than the American version, which is a hybrid between Montessori and American sit-at-your-desk-and-be-quiet style. Anyway, I was doing algebra in the 5th grade, no prob. Transferring to a regular private school in the 7th grade was bad simply because suddenly I was sent back in math to doing what everyone else was doing, which was incredibly boring.

The reality is that, unless you've got your kid at some special "genius" private school, both private and public schools fail horribly at educating our brightest students. Both sets of schools are aimed at raising up the kids at the bottom (hence, the "mainstreaming"). If they were interested in the brightest kids, they'd move the brightest kids into their own school and greatly accelerate the rate at which they teach.

Oh, and homework for 6th grade and below is a giant waste of time. It should never be given and studies have indicated that homework during elementary school has no relationship to learning (there is a relationship for high school). Stacey, you should talk to your colleague Jay Mathews about this. Death to homework for elementary school!!

Posted by: Ryan | October 19, 2007 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Yes, teach to the test is the stupidest thing ever. We all know the better schools and where they are (just look at the housing prices!). It's just that only some of us get to choose (hmm, where is she going with this?).

Anyway, one reason we live where we do is that the schools are great. While I don't think that our high school has a rate where 98% of the kids go to college (as was the case where I grew up), my kids have parents with four degrees between them, so they will know it's important to us (not the case with my parents). If they choose not to go to college, they'll learn how hard it is out there - and maybe choose to go later.

I went to a school in a different situation - where the schools are in the top 10/20 of ALL SCHOOLS, but it was a public school. So I think I got the best of a lot - a great school, competitive (with options for those who are not), and yet diversity of all the kids from the neighborhood being there (that's one drawback I see with private school - it doesn't foster a neighborhood, the kids are all spread out, etc).

I wish we had school vouchers and could actually above board, choose our kids school (I'd choose the one my kid is at). I'm happy we're in the city, but in a great school district that is diverse. He's learning a lot and doing a great job. He's in kindergarten AND SHOULDN"T HAVE HOMEWORK ANYWAY. We get 'report cards' today - what a crock. Kids shouldn't get report cards til they are in 3rd grade. Progress reports, but not report cards. The whole idea that testing kids more leads to better schools is laughable.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 10:18 AM | Report abuse

and a not so bright thing is keeping kids back even when they are ready for more. Even though I went to a competitive 'difficult' high school (i had done stuff in college for two years or so that I had at least seen in high school), I wasn't a 'star' academically - cause I was slightly bored.

However, sometimes it goes too far. Everyone wants 'their' kid on the gifted track. Can't happen. Apparently, they used to test kids in KINDERGARTEN for this. Now they wait til after 1st grade, test everyone, AND take teacher comments. Parents sometimes can be a pain, tho, I suppose. they started something when I was in elem. school, and I tested into it, and still my mom was on the fence about it (I eventually was in the program).

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 10:23 AM | Report abuse

We choose Montessori for both of our children for several reasons. While we have public schools that are academically terrific, I am apalled at the behavior of many of the children, some of whom are our neighbors. I liked the way in which Montessori expects respect in everything the children do. I liked how the multi-age classrooms cultivate a sense of patience and responsibility to those who are smaller. My son, currently in elementary montessori, is no genius, but he is well ahead of his peers in the public system - but more importantly, he loves learning. This has been my goal in everything with my kids - Don't kill the joy! If they love learning, they will be good at it! He doesn't have to stop doing math, because math time is over. He can do math for a whole day if he likes. The Montessori method also does a wonderful job of instilling a sense of independence, capability and responsiblity. Oh, and at my school they don't have any homework until 5th grade and that's just to prepare them for it as we don't have a Montessori program after 5th. Although, often my son will come home and want to show me or keep working on something he learned at school. That's how it should be! As long as you can afford it and you and your child are happy, I'd say stick with Montessori as long as you can. Good luck. Its a tough decision.

Posted by: Moxiemom | October 19, 2007 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I predict that there will be a lot of comments today from folks who wax on their own public (or private, I guess) experience from 20 or 30 years ago. Esp. public.

I beg of you, don't do it. It's apples/oranges now, even in the very same school building. Constant testing is the big driver, but also cultural changes, etc.

So please, just don't do it. Evaluate the here and now.

Posted by: slow.down | October 19, 2007 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Thanks to all who have commented thus far. I have one more question. A lot of friends/relatives ask me about my son's experience and I try to explain Montessori without feeling I have communicated it very well.

Anyone involved with it, do you have a 1-2 sentence "explainer" you use?

I say things like, "It is self-directed learning, kids can move about the classroom and pursue their own interests under the guidance of the directress."

However, I feel like I have a hard time communicating just how Montessori is special. Any suggestions?

I just talked to a friend this morning who was concerned about the "lack of socialization" in Montessori. I tried to explain that if you get a group of kids together in a room, they will socialize no matter what, and that Montessori teaches respect and that things are peaceful and harmonious in the classroom.

She still seemed doubtful though.

Posted by: Rebecca | October 19, 2007 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I went to public school, and really my only criticism of the school is that they must have found the most uncomfortable desks available.

I still managed to sleep through all of my classes, but how did they expect the less-narcoleptic among us to sleep in those god-awful desks?

Posted by: Bob | October 19, 2007 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I had the chance to do all three: public until 2nd grade, private until 5th, then home schooling for a few years until public high school. My siblings have all done different combinations as well. The most important thing was finding what works and changing when it no longer does so. Personally, I was thrilled to go back to public after homeschooling because it was SO much easier. And the two best kids I know are currently homeschooled - but that doesn't mean its causation, just correlation.

Posted by: Becky | October 19, 2007 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I will admit that I have always considered the public/private school debate to be somewhat moot. Even if everyone could afford it, the private sector does not have the capacity to accomodate the number of students. Even the market based arguement fails to take this into account. This is not to mention that the private sector in education suffers from many the same problems as the public sector. There are bad and good private schools, just like the public schools.

Home schooling, on the other hand, is a different bag of beans. Though there are cases of poor quality home schooling, I think that the results can be overwhelmingly positive. This is especially true when homeschooling parents network to find good tutors for subjects that they do not know themselves. Definately not the solution for everyone, of course, but it is an option that I generally think is underutilized.

Posted by: David S | October 19, 2007 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Well, really, I was SHOCKED, my WHOLE LIFE, when people kept telling me how wonderful our schools were, how they were the best in the country, etc. I thought: you have GOT to be kidding, right? THIS is the best we can do?

Then I went to college and met all sorts of people from places different than myself - and realized, wow, everyone was right. Look how much more horribly these others have been educated. Wow. It was EYE OPENING, I tell you. I am so embarrassed by our school systems in this country. It is quite appalling what we call education.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 10:52 AM | Report abuse

David S: yes, I was SHOCKED when a public school teacher said she was against school choice - cause the reason was: you know, then no one would send their kids to public school. Well, um, are you ADMITTING then, that it is an inferior product? That people have to be FORCED to use it? Then, you shouldn't want anyone to send their kids there, really. If you can't compete, just go home - and tell people that you are giving them a highly inferior product, and let them send their kids to private schools.

I mean, really. What kind of an argument is that?

Disclaimer: I send my kid to public school.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I am angling to place my son in a private school here in DC. The local public school is supposed to be one of the best, on par with the top-notch suburban ones (based on test scores), but I still want him to go to private.

My reasons: I can't stomach the thought of him losing out on any recess, art or music because of SOL-type "teaching" for a test.

As the grades progress in his local school, I have noticed that more local children leave and more out-of-boundary students come in from elsewhere in the city. Why, I wonder.

I can't deal with DC admin. nonsense.

I afraid that he won't be admitted into a DC private school when he's, say, 12, because they are so competitive. So I figure, apply early, in preK or K.

Smaller class size.

That about covers the big things. Thanks for raising the topic.

Posted by: NW DC | October 19, 2007 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I am angling to place my son in a private school here in DC. The local public school is supposed to be one of the best, on par with the top-notch suburban ones (based on test scores), but I still want him to go to private.

My reasons: I can't stomach the thought of him losing out on any recess, art or music because of SOL-type "teaching" for a test.

As the grades progress in his local school, I have noticed that more local children leave and more out-of-boundary students come in from elsewhere in the city. Why, I wonder.

I can't deal with DC admin. nonsense.

I afraid that he won't be admitted into a DC private school when he's, say, 12, because they are so competitive. So I figure, apply early, in preK or K.

Smaller class size.

That about covers the big things. Thanks for raising the topic.

Posted by: NW DC | October 19, 2007 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Oh, I guess that the public school teacher was mimicking what the union told her to say....

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 11:01 AM | Report abuse

to NW DC: have you actually checked out the school to know that this is the case? When we did (granted, we are in Atlanta, but realistically, the elem school district I'm in is great, not so much with several others), and I was VERY HAPPY. My son is on the playground for recess, they have art, spanish (some districts are actually teaching chinese).

If I wanted private, I'd sell my house and move to a district where I could afford it (housing prices and taxes and all - again, indicative of the schools). I don't want to sell my house...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Rebecca, good luck explaining Montessori - to some degree, you just have to experience it to get it. We've been involved for 4 years now and I'm still learning about it and amazed that it works. One thing I often say to people is that its like a liberal arts education at the elementary level in that they learn how to learn, how to gain and apply knowledge. Even so, people don't get it. Just wait until they see how interested and well behaved your kid is. That ususally sells them.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 19, 2007 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I just thought I would throw my two cents out in the discussion. I am currently in college, but I went to both public and private schools. I switched to a private, boarding school halfway through my high school years. It was the best decision I ever made. It allowed me the oppurtunity to learn in an enviroment conducive to well, learning. Class sizes were intimate, and the teachers knew about you, and understood how to make their point with each kid individually. Having had the experience of both types of schools I will not hesitate in enrolling my child into a private that best suites their needs.

Posted by: Mandy | October 19, 2007 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Posted by Rebecca @ October 19, 2007 10:36 AM:

"However, I feel like I have a hard time communicating just how Montessori is special. Any suggestions?

I just talked to a friend this morning who was concerned about the "lack of socialization" in Montessori. I tried to explain that if you get a group of kids together in a room, they will socialize no matter what, and that Montessori teaches respect and that things are peaceful and harmonious in the classroom."

I'm a big fan of Dr. Montessori's method. To grab a quote from the International Montessori Index (

'At any one time in a day all subjects -- practical work, math, language, science, history, geography, art, music, etc. -- will be being studied, at all levels, by children of mixed ages learning from each other, facilitated by careful observation, individual lessons, record keeping, and help of the teacher.'

So, they key is see the method as being supervised, but not directed by the teacher. It is also important to remember that the environment is highly controlled on the supply side. The aforementioned site has a list of Montessori approved suppliers as well.

This is why it can be important to make sure your Montessori school is certified. Not to add any headaches for parents, but the Montessori name is not copywrighted so pretty much any school can claim to be a Montessori school. This is not to say that all non-approved schools fail to follow Dr. Montessori's method, but if you have a certified school, you know that you are getting that method for sure.

Also, Rebecca, your friend's comment about socialization probably reflects a desire for her child to have a school experience that parallel's her own. That said, you could always try to get her to visit and see what the fuss is about. It might change her mind.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 19, 2007 11:20 AM | Report abuse

And, I think, most schools implement some type of montessori method in their teaching. At least all that I've seen (even the public ones).

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 19, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

"Um, he's in kindergarten -- did you expect Algebra?"

Ditto this. Plus, one has to wonder why a kindergartner is even "bringing work home" in the first place. Is she talking about what they've done in class, or homework? If it's the latter what I would be wondering about is why the school is wasting precious family time with silly little homework projects for 5 year olds.

Also, we're less than 2 months into the school year. Most of what goes on in that time, especially in the early grades, is assessment of the children. I wouldn't be getting too worked up over my 5 year old not being challenged until later in the year - then if he's still doing work far beneath his capabilities, have a talk with the teacher about it. But also remember that the teacher is teaching 20-25 kids with abilities ranging from not knowing any of the letters to reading chapter books, and that it's very difficult to fully accomodate every single child, and that just because your child is in school doesn't mean that you're personally off the hook for making sure your child is being challenged and enriched.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 19, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I homeschooled for part of high school, and it was great for me academically. I was able to study what I was interested in, at my own pace, and I learned far more than I had in public and private schools. I got a high school diploma through the Learning Community, a homeschooling organization in Maryland, so getting into college was no problem for me.

One of the drawbacks of homeschooling is that if the kids are young, you can't really do it unless there's a stay-at-home parent. That wasn't a problem for me because I was old enough to stay home by myself and drive myself to art classes, etc. The other problem is not spending a lot of time with other kids, but I think getting involved with homeschooling groups and other activities can make up for that.

Posted by: Julia | October 19, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

My daughter attended an open enrollment school k-3. It was a public school that anyone in the district can go to but had an emphasis on science. That school closed down due to budget cuts and she went to the local public school for a year. What a waste. She was doing exactly the same thing in that class she had done the previous year. When a charter school opened that was created by parents displaced from her original school and another in our area that taught spanish in elementary school, I thought it would be a great opportunity for her. She went for 5th and part of 6th. The middle school portion of the charter school was a mess. The administration was so out of touch with reality and children, they actually told them they were better than the kids who went to the local public schools. The charter school actually made the local paper with all the issues they had. I removed her from there and placed her in our area middle school. She has done really well there and we are glad we moved her when we did as the charter school got worse. It is just hard to make those calls for your kids. You hope you are doing the right thing and just need to be flexible when you see things that are not working.

Posted by: California Mom | October 19, 2007 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Thanks so much for your post. Can you say a little more about how you structured your time. My elder DD is very self-motivated and though I can't home-school her now because I work full-time, she may be a candidate for homeschooling in high school when she's more independent. How much were your parents involved in your education?

Posted by: anne. | October 19, 2007 11:47 AM | Report abuse

To explain Montessori (having gone to one), here's what I say:
Montessori is based on the fundamental principles that children ENJOY learning and do so naturally and that children learn best when they physically interact with what their learning. To that end, Montessori uses materials for all its lessons that facilitate the learning of concepts.

If they want more explanation, I go on: Moreover, because Montessori does not turn learning into something painful (like most schools), children do not require being constantly told to do things in the class. They can and do choose which materials and lessons to work on and they enjoy it.

As for the socialization thing, I've never heard that. We socialized all day long in my school. Because it's Montessori, there are no desks -- just tables. And we would share the table with 3 or 4 other people with whom we would talk as we did our work, even if we were working on completely different subjects.

Montessori was a lot of fun. It's unfortunate that so many people think that there is an inverse relationship between having fun in school and learning. The reality is that that inverse relationship has to be drilled into kids. If you let the kids do what they do naturally, learning and fun will have a positive relationship.

Posted by: Ryan | October 19, 2007 11:47 AM | Report abuse

i think it depends on the child, the school and the family. our son attends a school in arlington. he's in 2nd grade. he loves it & is thriving in it. one of his friends has learning disabilities and is having a tough time in the school. obviously, the school is not working for his friend. the mom told me she is thinking of moving her daughter to a school that is geared towards kids with learning problems. i think that is a great idea. i do not think that her choice to move her child in any way reflects on my choice to keep my child in the school.

Posted by: quark | October 19, 2007 11:49 AM | Report abuse

The anonymous poster at 11:20AM was me.

Posted by: David S | October 19, 2007 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I am following this discussion closely because our family grappled with this issue over twenty years ago when our children were starting school. We chose the public school route for a variety of reasons.

1. As parents who value education and hold multiple advanced degrees, we felt confident we could provide exposure to any supplemental cultural opportunities that might be squeezed out in public school cost-cutting measures.

2. We could not, however, provide our children with the kind of cultural education that comes with exposure to families and children from the wide variety of backgrounds. We are economically fortunate. We wanted our children to know about the lives of children who would not be going to Cancun for spring break and who bought subsidized school lunches but still had high ambitions.

3. We had one child with special needs who would not have had the opportunities he had in any of our local private schools.

4. The values systems in local private schools, while presented in positive light, were often not as evident in the children and families who attended the schools.

5. I am a former high school English teacher and would never consider home schooling an option. My children introduced me to new literature that expanded my world! I can't imagine how I would have coped with math and science.

Finally, I can't tell you how pleased we are that our Harvard educated special needs son is a Teach for America alumnus who is making his career in public education. There are many young, energetic and committed teachers like him in our public schools.

In the end, while each educatinal format serves its purpose, my husband and I felt that it was important to support our local public schools. I realize that some systems are horribly beleagered, but we still remain optimistic that our schools are the strongest democratic institutions we have, and that they offer opportunities although they demand more work from parents to make them effective.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 19, 2007 12:05 PM | Report abuse

As an aside, our Montessori school is more racially and culturally diverse than our public schools. We also have a variety of incomes. Some families have made some very serious sacrifices for this education so it's not all nannies and BMWs at pick up. The children in the neighborhood are all in classes with 26 other white, Christian kids. Not true of every place, but another bonus for us.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 19, 2007 12:19 PM | Report abuse

My son's in a Montessori-based daycare (certified, but he's in the toddler programme right now). So far I'm very happy with it.

I did want to challenge the diversity argument. It completely depends on your school and area.

My public school was about 95% WASP, but my private high school (merit-based, bursaries for all who needed them who passed the entrance exam) was much more diverse. Not quite as economically diverse as a public school but not bad, including the homeless single mom with the daughter living in the car.

It may be because it's daycare, or our area, but my son's daycare trumps my private school - it's the most culturally diverse group of people I've ever seen - the school is only 26 kids, but represents 17 countries of origin. I think Montessori is such a worldwide thing that families have gravitated to it that wouldn't look at other daycares.

Posted by: shandra_lemarath | October 19, 2007 12:27 PM | Report abuse

And, as an aside, for my son's preschool experiences, we really weren't looking for diversity. They went to (are at) different religiously focused schools. We are VERY happy with that. My youngest is now at a brand new school with just six kids. Just so happens to be 3 boys/3 girls. He is loving it and doing great. He's not yet 3, though.
My DH's aunt told us (years ago) how we HAD to send our kid(s) to private school. And we told her when she paid for it, she could have much more say in where our children went. That quieted her down...

Posted by: atlmom | October 19, 2007 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Some public schools are good and teach the kids challenging materials. This has been my experience with Fairfax County. My only complaint is that the Kindergarten and perhaps first grade need tweaking. In kindergarten, the kids don't spend enough time in school to learn much and the kids that are already expert readers and writers are left unchallenged.

Montessori education is good for kids that are either advanced learners or slow learners those that are average are left to languish. Montessori education was developed in Europe for children with learning disabilities because it allows them to learn at their own pace rather than at the pace set for the entire class.

Some public school systems like Fairfax county public schools have the GT programs for the advanced learners.

I have spoken to some parents who moved their children out of private schools (Montessori in particular) to public shcools and found that their children could not keep up with the learning pace of the class. Homework was too difficult and in fact, they were not used to doing any homework. Also, not many of these small private schools provide training in band and orchestra or music in general at no extra cost.

I am a believer in homework but feel that Fairfax County Elementary schools overdo it due to the stress of making SOL grades.

Bottom line, if your child is a very sharp pencil or needs a little sharpening, Montessori may be a good idea.

Maybe, you should use Montessori for early education when children learn at different paces and then from 3rd grade on, give them the challenge of public school only if you live in an area with good public schools. Otherwise, move them into a non-Montessori private school.

Mother of 3 - College, high school and grade school.

Posted by: Fairfax | October 19, 2007 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Private school all the way. I went to public school (I graduated in 2001), and managed to get by while doing the smallest amount of actual learning possible. I literally slept through about half of my classes, yet I still graduated with a 3.5 GPA. My husband, on the other hand, went to private school. I am working my way through college, and am learning a lot of things, for the first time, that my husband learned in 7th and 8th grade. I really don't feel like my public school education prepared me for college, especially in history and geography. Therefore, when I have children, I will be sending them to private school, no matter what financial sacrifices I have to make.

Posted by: Cindy | October 19, 2007 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Posted by Fairfax @ October 19, 2007 12:37 PM:

"Montessori education is good for kids that are either advanced learners or slow learners those that are average are left to languish. Montessori education was developed in Europe for children with learning disabilities because it allows them to learn at their own pace rather than at the pace set for the entire class."

While Dr. Montessori worked as a physician in a psychatric clinic and treated and advocated for children with special needs, the statement that she developed the Montessori system for those children is incorrect.

The Montessori system was designed for the (now famous) "House of Children" in Rome, and was a school for the poor, not special needs, children. (As a citation, I can offer, again, the Montessori Index at

Also, this is the first time I have heard the criticism that the method is unsuitable for "average" children. There are many criticisms of the method, such as the mentioned difficulty in adjusting to "standard" education, and grading practices, but this is new. Would you mind sharing the source (or context at least?) with me so I could look into it?

Posted by: David S | October 19, 2007 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm with the anonymous poster at 12:05. If you have a good public school in your area, nothing beats it. We made our last two housing decisions based solely on the schools. We've paid a large mortgage, and now an even larger rent, so our DS could attend certain public schools, and we managed on a lower-middle-class income. We have chosen to do without most of the gewgaws of middle-class life, such as a late-model car, broadband, cable, cell phones, etc.

Our kid is bright but has ADD. During the years we were sending him to a private school, we were constantly on tenterhooks, worried that he would be "good enough" for them. My son was becoming more and more resistant to the loads of homework that I now recognize were age inappropriate. He was learning how to have fights over schoolwork more than anything else. In public school, I've had a succession of teachers who were rigorous but supportive. Today my son is not perfect, but he is responsible, organized and proud of his work. He seems from the outside like an ordinary boy, but I see a miracle.

Finding the right school for your child is the only consideration. I have a friend who homeschooled all four of her kids with great success. I couldn't have done that with my son; blood would have been drawn.

Posted by: Floomby | October 19, 2007 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Public schools, in general. I was educated in public schools and in military dependent schools all the way through and including grad school. However, once our kids started getting near school age, we chose where to live based on the school district - there are certain public school districts that are so bad it's just not worth putting your kids in them.

Our son does go to a private (Catholic) high school, but it's a situation where the local public high school was very overcrowded. And he's the kind of kid that needs individual attention. His sisters flourished in the local public high school (as evidenced by the amount of scholarship dollars offered), but he needs the much smaller classes and constant interaction with the teachers that he gets at his private school.

Posted by: Army Brat | October 19, 2007 1:39 PM | Report abuse

"I have spoken to some parents who moved their children out of private schools (Montessori in particular) to public shcools and found that their children could not keep up with the learning pace of the class"

Oddly enough, the ones I spoke to had similar comments - that their (average) learners could not SLOW DOWN to the learning pace of the class. But to my mind that's not a problem with Montessori.

But I think it is wonderful when we all have choices and we don't have to make the same ones. :)

Posted by: shandra_lemarath | October 19, 2007 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Overall I think these stories are so warped by our own personal biases and experiences that there's no way to get to the right answer.

I started at terrible public elementary school so my mother transfered me to the second best elementary school in the county. Both were public schools and both were radically different. I went to one of the top public high schools in the country.

My wife went to the best academic catholic school in her city. Her brother went to military school for screw-ups. Her cousin went to the parish school and did hard drugs every day and never got kicked out.

I know a kid in our neighborhood who is homeschooled. This child is remarkably polite to my wife and I and seems to have great rapport with adults, but does not make any friends with any kids in the neighborhood and only seems happy when she is showing off her knowledge to adults, alienating her peers. For instance, while everyone we know is in a bilingual kindergarten showing off how much Spanish they know and this kid's parents aren't teaching her Spanish.

But it all came down to my neighbor as a kid. She was a raging alcoholic who wrecked multiple cars, had fires in her house from neglected kids and was one of those hopeless moms in a housedress with her hair in curlers. Her husband sent her off to dry up and when she came back she told my mother she had a brand new job- she was hired to teach the 4th grade by a local private school that hired people out of a drug and alcohol treatment program!!! My mother literally called everyone we knew to tell her this awful story. But there she was, the teacher who would go off to school looking like she hadn't showered and barely getting her own kids together, let alone how she was supposed to teach some 4th grade class and as my mother said, "People are supposed to pay $3000 a year for some uncertified teacher who 6 months ago was a raging alcoholic?" And while I don't want to besmirch too many private schools, they hired friends of mine from the University of MD after they were rejected by the public school system. So in some cases their teachers were PG County School rejects.

If that doesn't fit your stereotype then that's ok, I just wanted to toss out some true stories that don't fit the stereotypes.

Posted by: DCer | October 19, 2007 2:11 PM | Report abuse

DH and I were educated in public schools all the way--middle class/working class backgrounds for both of us. I taught for almost 12 years in public schools. When it came time for our kids to go to school, though, we chose private schools all the way. K-8th in an Episcopal school, 9-12 in a non-affiliated boy's school. We got exactly what we wanted--small classes, moral/ethical environment, and demanding academics. They were known by their teachers and even by teachers who did not have them in class. There was diversity and there were high expectations for performance, both academically and behaviorally.

Our local public schools are okay, but thanks to large classes, lower expectations than we have for our kids, and discipline problems the norm rather than the exception, I would not do it any differently if I had the chance to do it over. Mediocrity seems to spell success for the most part, especially at the elementary level. It's pretty disappointing, since the schools are touted as being among the best in the country in our county.

We know kids who are being home-schooled, and they are charming, intellingent, pleasant, and interesting people who know how to get along with their peers as well as how to converse with adults. They appear to be well-educated and well-rounded from all we can see. I think this is a viable alternative, assuming that one parent is able to stay home with the child(ren) and is able to bring in resources that make up for his/her weak areas.

All in all, it matters not what choice one makes, as long as the choice is in the best interests of the child. Different options can be made for each child in the family, even. Caring parents make the difference, whatever the choice.

Posted by: Lynne | October 19, 2007 3:56 PM | Report abuse

We were completely set on home schooling, until we realized that older son had disabilities. His earliest evaluations were language delayed / communication handicapped, and we got him into the public school's preschool program for CH.

In the middle of 1st grade we *finally* got a real diagnosis (that is a long story!) - autism. He stayed in the public school's CH program, but we were able to get him additional services.

After his language skills caught up to his chronological age, we had one year in our neighborhood, non-CH, school, with a one-on-one aide, and no other services. That was 4th grade, and it was just barely okay.

The next year the district started a very progressive cutting-edge program for Aspergers and high-functioning autism, and we were part of the first group of families in the program.

We've been so impressed with everything the program has accomplished, and all the progress the kids have made, not just our son. There have been some rough spots, because the program was developing and expanding every year, and there's been some staff turnover, but the parents get together as a group to help each other out, and the staff has always supported and encouraged families to network.

Younger son ended up going to public school as well. He *really* wanted to be like his big brother, and by that time it was just the easiest thing. We love his elementary school, which is the same one older son attended during his first year of the program.

Younger son was identified as "gifted and talented" in 3rd grade, which is when they do the evaluations here. This year he's also in an enriched after school program, and having a ball.

Music is pretty limited in the public schools - Oakland has been under state adminstration since 2003, and a *lot* has been cut - so the boys are taking private lessons. Older son plays piano, and younger son plays guitar.

We don't have a lot of time or energy for much more. Advocating for a disabled kid can be exhausting!

Older son is in drama at school, and there's a lot going on there. One of the families from older son's program is now sending their daughter to private school and working out a settlement to their Federal discrimiation lawsuit, over the mishandling and mistreatment of the girl in last year's drama class, and excluding her from advanced drama. The school district staff are desparately scrambling to fix the problems, and working really hard at saying all the right things to us, since we'll be the next family to file suit if they don't. We're being patient, and waiting to see if they will really walk their talk.

Overall, public school has turned out to be the best choice. We could never have afforded all the special services our disabled son has received over the years. But the trade-off has been the time and energy we've had to put into keeping the school district in compliance with state and federal disabled education laws. If they can get away with it, they will cut corners, deny services, and flat-out lie about what they can do for a child.

They do love having our younger son, though; he raises the class's aggregate test scores, and seems to be pulling his friends along with him.

Posted by: sue | October 19, 2007 4:12 PM | Report abuse


I know you asked Julia, but I thought I would weigh in. I was very self-motivated when I homeschooled - my parents pretty much just let me go and checked in on what I was doing. My younger brother (who is currently a homeschooled junior and has been HS since 1st grade) is a different kettle of fish...they ended up doing a variety of college classes, online classes, and tutors for him. One way to test run how it might work would be to let her choose a topic over a summer and let her explore, then get her to take an assessment test. Then you could see how much "camping" you would need to do.

Posted by: Becky | October 19, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I very much agree with those who have said it depends on each particular family's circumstances.

I attended several wonderful private schools in Boston. My Canadian husband attended a wonderful public school in small-town rural Saskatchewan. We now farm outside that same small town where the only school is one small public one, and because we farm, moving for a good public or even private school isn't an option. And the public school system has certainly changed, though not for the better, in the 30+ years since my husband was there.

We pulled our eldest out in second grade when he was a year ahead of his classmates; the provincial public school system arranges kids by age, not ability, and we had no other choice of school available. Our three kids -- whom I consider bright and motivated rather than gifted and talented -- are now able to work at their own levels and speeds, not at what the education bureaucrat in charge decides is best for Grade 5 or 6.

Our son's class wasn't (the entire school in fact isn't) particularly diverse, because this is the Canadian prairies (outside of Brooks, Alberta, I think this is probably fairly common) -- with home schooling, we're able to spend more time in the larger cities and traveling, where the kids can get a better idea of diversity.

It was lovely to read Katie's comments above. But with respect to a few of her thoughts -- "Home-schooling has its faults. You don't spend as much time with kids your own age, no prom, and no highly competitive sports (community league just isn't the same)" -- I'd like to mention that depending on where you live, with extracurriculars the kids can spend time with others their own age, there is a prom, and my three just came off a banner season on the town's summer swim team where my eldest made it to provincials. Home schooling is definitely what you make of it.

To the commenter who wrote, "Does a history degree in any way make someone qualified to teach math?", no, but it does make for a dandy private school history teacher; several of them instilled a lifelong love of history in me, which I'm grateful to be able to pass along to my own kids. The teachers in the local public system have little knowledge of or passion for the subjects they teach, though they are all highly certificated in classroom management.

Posted by: Eleanor | October 20, 2007 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"The teachers in the local public system have little knowledge of or passion for the subjects they teach, though they are all highly certificated in classroom management."


Posted by: To Eleanor | October 21, 2007 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Let's just say that at the very least, the idea that "diversity" is "beneficial for a child's social development" is NOT proven.

I put my kids in a school with as little "diversity" as possible. Why? I actually want them to LEARN, and to associate primarily with other kids who value learning.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2007 8:46 AM | Report abuse

A worry I would have about private schools is that my (hypothetical) kids would be surrounded by materialistic values -- as a result of being with rich kids all the time. I wouldn't want one of my kids to be constantly needing the newest iPod because everyone else had one. Is this a real concern? I never went to private school (7 public schools in three countries -- weird education but turned out fine, got into Harvard), so I don't know what they are like.

Posted by: nell | October 23, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

"I put my kids in a school with as little "diversity" as possible. Why? I actually want them to LEARN, and to associate primarily with other kids who value learning."

--Your child does not have to be in a school with as little diversity as possible in order to get one of the best education. There are plenty of excellent Fairfax County and Montgomery County schools that excel in academics and are highly diverse. You're subtley trying to come up with a poor excuse for your child to not mix and mingle with people of various races and backgrounds. Your post reeks of racism and/or prejudice.

Posted by: Soguns1 | October 23, 2007 12:58 PM | Report abuse



Parents should choose the school their child goes to according to their own situations but not for the sake of avoiding good old "DIVERSITY"!!!!!!!

Posted by: Fairfax | October 23, 2007 3:39 PM | Report abuse

"A worry I would have about private schools is that my (hypothetical) kids would be surrounded by materialistic values -- as a result of being with rich kids all the time. I wouldn't want one of my kids to be constantly needing the newest iPod because everyone else had one. Is this a real concern? I never went to private school "

I went to two years of public hs and 2 years of private school. The private school was an "elite" prep-school, and most of the girls there were incredibly wealthy. Yet there was far, far less materialism than there was at the public school. Part of this may have been because it was an all-girls school, but I suspect a lot of it was because these girls were just very secure and didn't feel the need to show off. I was a middle-income kid who was there on a scholarship, and never felt like an outcast for having the wrong "stuff" like I did in my public school.

So I think this can be a concern, but it really depends on the culture at the specific school. If your kid goes to public school in McLean or Great Falls, they'll be surrounded by lots of wealthy kids anyway.

Posted by: va | October 23, 2007 3:47 PM | Report abuse

As for diversity, I guess it depends which you value more- ethnic diversity or financial diversity. My private school was MUCH more diverse than my public school, since many of the girls there had parents who worked for the various local embassies. Since it was part-boarding, there were also kids from all over the country. So it was much more racially and ethnically diverse. Economically, not so much, though there were a number of middle and low-income kids there on scholarships (but it was frequently hard to tell who was who).

Posted by: va | October 23, 2007 3:50 PM | Report abuse

"Therefore, when I have children, I will be sending them to private school, no matter what financial sacrifices I have to make."

Just be sure to check out how rigorous the school is...some private schools meet a certain litmus test (religion, socioeconomic group,etc) but they are not necessarily better than the publics.

A friend of mine was made to go to a private religious school, and her parents pulled her out within the first weeks of school when they realized that the school did not offer the same level of rigorous coursework (APs, choice of foreign languages, and more).

Posted by: Kate O. | October 25, 2007 7:06 PM | Report abuse

This has been one of the most helpful list of comments I have ever read. I was homeschooled, which had its own benefits and drawbacks, and I have a very bright preschooler who has gone to a private regular preschool and been homeschooled, and who I think will be attending Montessori starting in kingergarten.

This has been a tough decision for me, coming from a homeschool background. But this particular daughter of mine is one tough cookie. She's extremely bright and it's very difficult to keep her challenged for the whole day, and she's not a natural people person and teaching her those cooperation skills has been difficult to say the least. I am very familiar with what can happen when homeschool parents don't provide an environment that gives opportunities for socialization to a child that needs a little extra help in that area.

That said, my youngest daughter is the complete opposite. She's a natural people person and seeks out friendly interaction with people. However, she will go to the Montessori preschool next year anyway because it's very difficult to give her that calm environment that allows her to learn basic life skills in a focused way - her scatterbrained personality is just not that organized. As a busy mom these kinds of things don't happen on their own and I think that Montessori provides the whole package - the homeschool academics with the socialization kids need.

I've also been to public school which is great for most people. However it's a system that tries to cater to the average child and make them well-rounded. What it doesn't do is allow the non-average child to fit in and excel beyond well-roundedness into developing talents and independence. In fact, I don't think there is such a thing as a 'typical' child. Do we want to raise children to fit into a 'system'? Or shouldn't we find a system that fits our children?

Posted by: Nicole | December 8, 2007 12:17 AM | Report abuse

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