Deciding whether to send a child to private school or public school is a difficult decision. Does the research prove whether public schools or private schools provide a better education? Overwhelmingly, the statistics side with private education, which is determined by surveying the public and standardized exam results. Hmmm… when is the last time you had a pleasant conversation with a statistic? Standardized exams do not know whether a student suffers exam-anxiety or if he/she forgot to eat a healthy bowl of Wheaties for breakfast, how creative he/she is or whether the student’s social skills are solid. And the majority of opinions are tarnished by only having experience with one or the other.
I find it difficult to provide an informed opinion about an institution’s educational quality without first-hand knowledge of each side to compare. Although I’ve taught in both private and public schools, I’ve come to the conclusion my experience counts for squat when considering whether private school is a better choice than public school. Why? Because asking if private school is really better than public school is the wrong question. The question to consider: Is private school really better for an individual student and his/her educational needs? While the data provides insight, the data has no, zip, zero, personal knowledge of my child. Actually, the numbers aren’t on a first-name basis with your child or any other child either.
Considerations in Choosing a Private School versus a Public School
While statistics and public opinion favor private education, what needs to be considered before deciding if “private” is a better choice? Before doling out the cash for private education, consider your personal situation and values: local school district report card, individual/special needs, athletics/clubs, advanced coursework, religious affiliation, your own school experiences, educational beliefs/theory, travel time and cost, and your child’s personality and work ethic. However, if you find your public school district doesn’t offer what works for you and your child, or if you solely value the numbers, private schools may take the blue ribbon.
What really matters is the child and his/her personality and aptitude. Some children will thrive regardless of the environment, and there are many public school systems with excellent scores on standardized state exams, which are worth checking out before spending the money on a private school. With public schools making up 75% of our nations educational facilities, the margin for error is far greater than that of private schools when it comes to numerical data.
Educational Studies & Statistics on School Performance
According to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for the 2007-2008 academic year, 132,656 schools served the American student body. Of those, 98,916 were public while only 33,740 schools were private institutions. (2009) The Council for American Private Education (CAPE) records 11% of all American students, on average, as attending private schools. Therefore, the other 88% of students are enrolled in public schools. Quite a large gap, huh? (2009)
In 2003, CAPE used average SAT scores to demonstrate the positive impact of private schooling. The national average for SAT verbal was 507, math was 519. Public schools average verbal 504 and math 516. Broken down futher, religiously-affiliated private schools average SAT verbal 535 and math 530. Independent private schools boast the highest averages with verbal at 550 and math 573. Also, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in standardized writing exams show 4th graders in private schools average 13 points higher than students enrolled in public schools, by 8th grade scores are 18 points above public school students, and by 12th grade private school students jump 22 points higher than those attending public schools. Sounds great, but again, remember the total number of students enrolled in each group before giving your final answer.
Even public officials in Washington, DC side with private education by offering a voucher system. Although the House vote was close (205-203), the bill passed providing 2000 low-income DC students up to $7500 for tuition and fees to private schools. (CAPE Net, 2010)
Better Educational Theory & Practice Make “Better” Schools
But it’s not just general private institutions that are “better”, teachers, theory, and practice make a greater impact. Montessori schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin were studied for long-term effect. Findings show students who attended Montessori schools through the fifth grade and then attended public schools through 12th grade significantly outperformed their peers in math and science on standardized exams. While the effects of intervention programs disappear within two years, the principles of Montessori schooling endured five to seven years after entering the public school system. (Cape Net, 2010) As a former Montessori student, I have to share: my math scores were sub-par; to this day when I add 2 + 2 my answer is 7.
Teacher Certification & AP/Advanced Coursework
One of the most controversial private school topics is teacher certification. Private schools do not require a teaching certificate to teach in the classroom, yet time and time again, private schools get higher marks for outperforming on standardized exams, offering more demanding graduation requirements, and are more likely to have advanced level coursework. (CAPE Net, 2010) So, what’s with this NCLB-thingy? With 35% of private elementary teachers and 41% of secondary teachers without standard teaching certification, I’m perplexed by private school’s staggering success. How do I interpret the conflicting data? Either teaching certification is a bunch of hooey, or the under-funded NCLB Act is a bunch of hooey. Or maybe neither… Or maybe both…
Even in the lowest socioeconomic groups, students enrolled in private schools are more likely to pass advanced placement courses and apply to colleges and universities. Of those enrolled in private schools, 24.4% are more likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to only 6.6% of peers enrolled in public schools. Advanced Placement science exams see 81% of private school students versus public schools at 60%. For math the difference is 70% sitting for AP’s from private schools and only 39% of public school students, while foreign language AP exams taken show 55% passing for private and a mere 28% achieve from public schools. Overall private school students were more likely to sit for the exams as well with 24.2% of students while only 9.4% of public school students sat for AP testing. With private institutions only accounting for 7.5% of all US high school students, the numbers make quite a difference when it comes to AP coursework. Private schools account for 20% of all students taking AP exams, and 22% of these score high enough on exams to count for college credit. (CAPE Net, 2010)
Public Perception of Private versus Public Education
What does the public think of private schools? Overall, public opinion sides with private education offering a “better” education. Public perception of private education finds 52% of individuals surveyed feel private schools offer a “better” education versus public schools. Private schools were also better at maintaining order and discipline according to 74% of those polled versus only 9% siding with public facilities. Also, private schools are perceived as doing a better job teaching academic skills by 53% of the population, but both private and public education are equal, at 38%, in teaching tolerance. (CAPE Net, 2010) I guess tolerance is not as valuable as other values valued by CAPE’s claim of value-based education.
The public also views private institutions as offering the safest and most secure schools for students. According to NCES reports on school conditions, 36% of educators claim student misbehavior, tardiness, and class cutting interfere with teaching while only 21% of private school teachers state the same. 40% of city teachers, 32% of suburban teachers, 34% in towns, and 31% in rural communities break down these numbers, demonstrating location as a factor in school safety as well as the public or private title. (2009)
Effects of Single-Gender Schools
While considering public or private, religious or independent, gender is another factor affecting the quality of education. For girls, the research highlights benefits to single-gender schools. Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, a 1992 report released by the American Association of University Women found that in co-ed classrooms, girls were routinely called upon less than boys. Failing at Fairness: How Schools Shortchange Girls, based on 10 years of research by Professors Myra and David Sadker supports this claim as well. A 2005 study for the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) by the Goodman Research Group of Cambridge, Massachusetts surveyed more than 1000 graduates of all-girls’ schools during their freshman year of college. The survey was to determine how well their schools prepared them for college and beyond. The survey found 95% of students from single-gender high schools were either very or extremely satisfied with their schools’ strong academic curriculum. Also, 93% felt prepared for college and that there schools provided a very or extremely satisfactory level for individualized attention. A staggering 99% of girls felt equally or more prepared to interact with faculty compared to their peers, and 97% felt equally or more prepared to speak in public compared to those who attended co-ed schools. (NCGS, 2005) The key word here is “compared.” How, exactly, can a non-experience be compared to an experience?
Current educational buzz words, fair and equal, would agree that it isn’t fair to say private schools are better than public schools due to unequal footing.
Factors Contributing to Private School Success
Now, it’s important to take a few moments to consider why private schools consistently out-perform public schools. First, private schools are not funded by the government and therefore need not provide the same programs as their public counterparts. Finding a private school with the resources to cater to the plethora of special needs takes a lot of searching. Most private schools require an entrance/placement exam in order to be accepted. For the 2007-2008 academic year private school’s average tuition for all levels was $8,549, with elementary schools’ average cost at $6,733 per year, secondary schools $10,549, and k-12 schools tuition averaged $10,045. (CAPE Net, 2010) As for disciplinary problems, private school policies are not nearly as lenient as their public counterparts. Basically, public schools don’t have the ability or authority to pick and choose their student body the same way private schools do. Another factor in academic success is parental involvement. The more involved parents become in their children’s academics and school lives, the more likely academic success is attainable. Private school parents are far more involved than public school parents. (CAPE Net, 2010) Also, statistics show simply taking a calculus class factors highly into student achievement. I’m pretty sure public schools offer calculus. I know I remember avoiding it.
Other factors to consider, many private schools have religious affiliations that contradict your own beliefs, and coursework in religion is part of the school’s graduation requirement and yearly curriculum. Maybe you attended private school and felt stifled by your uniform or Sister Mary Katharine’s no nonsense classroom policies and don’t want to subject your child to the same treatment.
Overall, academic success does not solely contribute to a successful life. An old boss and successful business owner once told me he was an average C student and provided some food for thought: A students work for B students in companies owned by C students. Of course this isn’t a researched finding, but taking an informal poll, I found his ABC principle to speak the truth. Why might this be? While an A student may pass his/her college years with books and papers, B and C students are more likely to have higher numbers of clubs, activities, athletics, and other social organizations listed on their resumes. Social skills, schmoozing, empathy: these concepts can’t be learned in books or tested by standardized exams; however, these skills are highly valued by society.
In truth, numbers may not lie, but labeling private schools as “better” will never be a proven as fact. The real question is: Which is better for the child as an individual? If the child loathes going to school each day, regardless of public or private, the desire for learning will eventually be snubbed out of him/her. If a child values self-expression above all else, tying him/her up in a uniform may encourage rebellion. While some students may need a push to get moving on their studies and require extra attention from teachers, others thrive with little extrinsic motivation. When it comes to being the best school, considering the child first is the only way to determine whether a private school or a public one make for a “better” choice. And no matter how hard I tried to find it, no data existed to support which type of school was better for your child.
Statistics and experts may propose theories and questions, offer concrete answers through studying select groups, but when it comes to education, the numbers don’t always provide the correct answer. Private schools are not within the control of our government, and in some cases, may limit students’ rights. Most private educational institutions rely on individual reputation. When it comes to education, consider this: a caterpillar turns into a butterfly because that’s what it does, but you would be hard-pressed to turn a caterpillar into a bee. Do your own research before enrolling your child in any school. Find the programs, activities, and teaching styles that best suit the needs of your child, family, and values. When you find the school that is a perfect match for you and your child, you’ll be able to answer whether private schools are the better option.
The Council for American Private Education. (2010). Private School Facts. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from http://www.capenet.org/facts.html
The Council for American Private Education. (2003). Academic Performance 2003. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from http://www.capenet.org/Outlook/Out9-03.html#Story5
The Council for American Private Education. (2010). Benefits. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from http://www.capenet.org/benefits.html
National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. (2010). Research: About Girls’ Schools. Retrieved July 19, 2010, from http://www.ncgs.org/aboutgirlsschools/theresearch/2-consistentdata/
US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Special Analysis 2002 Private Schools: A Brief Portrait. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2002.analyses/private/sa03a.asp
US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). Fast Facts: How Many Educational Institutions Exist in the US. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=84
US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: Indicator 12: Teachers’ Reports on School Conditions. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators2009/ind_12.asp