The Private School Myth

Consider this excerpt from a Jonathan Mahler NYT article about Tiger’s return to golf:

On six separate occasions, he (Jay Williamson, 43) has finished the season without a strong-enough record to keep his eligibility for the PGA Tour and been forced to earn it back at the tour’s grueling 108-hole qualifying tournament, known as Q-School. Williamson has never won a PGA Tour event. Nevertheless, thanks to golf’s soaring purses during the Woods era, he has managed to earn more than $5.5 million during his 15-year career. “I certainly don’t live like a king,” he said, “but I do have three kids in private school, and that’s probably a direct result of Tiger.”

Williamson’s quote is symbolic of the American public’s belief that private schools are inherently superior to public ones. As an undergrad, I worked part-time for two years in a public elementary, taught for four years in public high schools in Los Angeles, one year at a private high school in Ethiopia, and attended both public and private universities. As a teacher educator, I visit schools all the time, mostly public ones. If I’m an expert about anything, it’s secondary education. My daughters have spent 30% of their schooling in privates and 70% in publics.

It’s easy to understand why people subscribe to the private school myth, we’re conditioned to believe “you get what you pay for”. But truth be told, that’s not always true and private schools are not inherently superior to public ones. There are good, bad, and mediocre public and private schools. Good publics are better than mediocre privates. Based on my experience, you’ll find a larger proportion of  truly outstanding teachers in publics. There are  lots of solid private school teachers too, but they have the wind at their back in the form of smaller classes and often required, built-in parent/family involvement.

In fifth grade (middle schools in Olympia, WA are 6th-8th grade), daughter one made her first independent decision of consequence when she decided she wanted to attend a local private independent school for the “academically talented”. Me, “But all your friends are going to Wash.” Her, “I’ll make new ones.”

There were a few minor and one major benefit of her private experience. Among the minor benefits, she was given more writing assignments than her public peers and received more detailed feedback on her compositions. The school also did a nice job using small group projects that engaged the students. The major benefit was her five or six closest female friends all cared equally as much about doing well in school. As a result, there was serious positive academic momentum. They spent a lot of time in the evening completing projects over the phone at the exact time a lot of middle school girls are dumbing themselves down in the hope of appearing more attractive.

The downside of her experience, and many private school students’ experiences, was the homogenous nature of the student body. Everyone was high achieving, most students were upper middle class and white or Asian-American. As adults we know that our success and happiness depend as much or more from our people smarts than our book smarts. When will my daughter and her friends learn to interact thoughtfully with young people different than themselves? Isn’t interpersonal intelligence part and parcel of being well educated?

This brings to mind a related myth, that public schools are inherently more diverse than private. While probably true in the aggregate, with tracking, or homogenous ability grouping, we end up with schools-within-schools. In other words, there are multiple Olympia High Schools, one that my daughter and her friends attend that consists largely of Advanced Placement courses and another for everyone else. Some public high schools have three or more schools-within-schools.

The public-private school water is far muddier than most people realize.

3 thoughts on “The Private School Myth

  1. I worked in a private school for ten years, have been in public schools for 15, and worked overseas for 2. I think the biggest benefit and challenge, one that the business world can learn from, is that public schools cannot preselect or fire their students. This makes for a much more challenging student environment. If a coach gets a team of already good athletes, it takes less creativity and work to make them perform than if they get to teach and coach kids who are just learning or struggling with the new skills. Most teachers in public schools do an absolutely heroic job. It is also interesting what “lower level” kids bring to the table. In my language classes, for example, the non AP crowd kids tend to be better speakers and listeners, while the strivers tend to be more reading and writing focused. All kids bring something to the table, and most public schools have a wider diversity.

  2. Prof Byrnes – Kudos to the great, well-rounded article. After homeschooling my four daughters until they reached middle & high school I put them into public school, much to the chagrin & disappointment of numerous friends & relatives. While they did have some struggles (both academically & socially) they all went on to be successful and three of them are now in college. As they muddled through those struggles they watched cousins who were homeschooled or in private school slack off &/or fall below what they could have accomplished. Though there are many debatable reasons for this, much of the problem seemed to lie in the lack of interest or support from their parents. In fact, several laughed about how they didn’t have to really study, either because the school would take their parents money regardless of their success or failure, or because their parents had a liaisse-faire attitude about their homeschooling. Several of those same students today have neither a high school diploma or a GED, not to mention any aspirations of going to college. A few are stuck in dead end jobs that they hate. My girls tribute their success to the strong parent involvement from both me & my husband. Regardless of how one chooses to educate their children, parent involvement can definitely make a difference. When that piece is missing, teachers then have a chance to really shine & inspire students to success. Hopefully they will strive to do that no matter which setting they are in.

  3. Great article. This is an interesting topic that is really close to me personally as 75% of my K-12 schooling was in a private school setting. My high school years were spent at the local public school. I agree with your statement that one cannot simply presume that private schools are better than public schools. There were many benefits that I received having switched to a public high school. For one, the school provided a different set of extra-curricular classes that I would not have had a chance to take at the private school. In hind sight, there were other reasons that my parents wished they would have kept me at the private school. While academics was a thought, it was more for the relationships that I had built, and then quickly lost after the switch. Making the decision between a public and a private school is difficult as many variables need to be considered. Ultimately it comes down to what the parent feels and when appropriate what the child feels is right for them.

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