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Are Private Schools Better?

I know from watching Trading Places that swanky private schools teach people how to talk about tennis in a posh, clenched-jaw accent, and how to shun friends who fall on bad luck.  But do graduates of private institutions have a claim to academic and intellectual superiority?

This is a contentious issue, and you can probably find a study to support whatever side you choose.  But from my brief review, it looks like the short answer is “no.”

First, private schools don’t necessarily make kids smarter, but smarter kids might be more likely to go to private school.  In this case “smarter” isn’t referring to native IQ alone, but to circumstances and opportunities that are correlated to higher scores on aptitude tests.  Things like having highly educated parents, having a higher household income, and living in a nicer neighborhood.  As you can imagine, private schools, which require parents to pay for admission, are likely to have a higher proportion of kids set up to achieve.

Second, private schools may have some obvious advantages over public schools (e.g., small class size) but they also have weaknesses, which can result in private schools making a poorer showing on standardized tests.  They don’t necessarily keep up with the most up-to-date techniques and may have fewer certified teachers.  They tend to invest in professional development for teachers at a lower rate.  And religious schools have to factor in how well a teacher conveys the school’s philosophical stance, so they may pass up teachers who are more qualified in their subject, but who don’t have the right beliefs.

Third, private schools may be thought of as shi-shi, but sometimes they don’t have the same resources as public schools, especially when it comes to special education (for both gifted and special needs students) and extracurricular activities.

Now, private schools do have better SAT scores and college admission rates.  Even when we control for socio-economic status.  Do they teach more critical thinking, rather than barf-it-back memorization, as hypothesized in this article?  That would certainly dovetail with the smaller class size typical of private schools. It may also be that a more homogeneous, wealthy student body allows teachers to cover basic skills quicker, and move on to higher-level skills.  Or maybe private schools coach more for the SAT, and have more social connections with ivy league schools.

One thing is sure – the differences between individual schools is more significant than the general differences between public and private.  Students will achieve more at a well-run public school that works on continuing education for its teachers than students at a private school whose first priority is teaching religious beliefs, rather than hiring certified teachers.  (N.B., in one study Catholic schools run by religious orders* outperformed all other schools, so I don’t have  in for religious schools in general.  But conservative Christian schools may have as low as a 50% certification rate among teachers.)

For instance, to be in the gifted program at my daughter’s public school, a child has to score in the 90th percentile on both an aptitude test and a skills test.  Guess what percentage of students are in the gifted program?

Half.  Half the kids at our school score better than 90% of students their age country-wide.  Add in our income, my husband’s engineering degree, my law degree, our involvement in our kids’ education, our voracious reading habits, and so on, and my kids will have a very good chance at an excellent education and entry into a good college, without us forking over tens of thousands of dollars along the way!  It’s sure good enough for me.

(It should be noted that at least one private school offers an extraordinary education, beyond anything that can be achieved at standard schools, but also involves a non-trivial risk of death, poisoning, possession by evil wizards, and other dangers.)

*My guess is their secret to success is their teachers literally have no lives outside of school!

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