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Six Secrets to Private Schools' Success, and How Public Schools Can Steal Them

Public education has a lot to learn from independent schools

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Where school reform is concerned, it’s easy to imagine that the divide between well-resourced independent schools and their often more economically challenged public counterparts would be impossible to bridge. True, the many benefits inherent to private education—selective enrollment, smaller classes, greater resources, greater autonomy—may make it seem as though considering independent schools’ opportunities for transformation alongside those of their public counterparts is the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges.

—Getty

Yet a number of the ways in which many (admittedly privileged) independent schools achieve their impressive learning outcomes—such as high standardized-test scores, strong graduation rates, and distinguished college admissions—are actually well within reach of public schools. Indeed, there are six things independent schools routinely do that are less often attempted in public education, but well worth exploring.

1. Public-private partnerships:

In recent years, private schools have sought out public school partnerships, the best of which grew not from altruism but from a genuine interest in broadening their staffs’ perspectives. Public schools must not be shy about making the overture to private schools and presenting their own questions. Many of private schools’ successful management decisions and structures are driven by priorities, culture, and habit and can be replicated in any school.

For instance, for several years during my tenure as the head of an independent school in New York City, a partnership with a neighboring public middle school not only helped teachers from both schools collaborate on an innovative science curriculum, but also inspired them to frame curricular challenges and resources differently.

2. Sabbaticals:

An established sabbatical-leave program offers teachers extended professional development. Private schools frequently find ways to support a regular competition for semester or full-year leaves. Public schools could pool funds to make similar opportunities available, even if on a limited basis. In addition, visiting programs (like those at universities) could allow professors and educators on sabbatical from other institutions—private schools, institutions of higher education, even industries with interests in K–12 preparation—to spend time in public schools. The resulting relationships would allow an exchange of ideas among those who prepare teachers, the teachers themselves, those who will hire the next generation of the workforce, and young people.

3. A focus on content and shared culture:

"Many of private schools’ successful management decisions and structures are driven by priorities, culture, and habit and can be replicated in any school."

Freed from state teacher-certification regulations and the constraints of salary scales, many independent schools hire teachers with terminal degrees in the subjects they teach. They often don’t require education degrees except where legislation demands it, which for private schools is usually only in early-childhood programs. As a result, novice teachers are content experts, while experienced teachers impart lessons on school culture, classroom management, and effective interaction with parents and administration. As state teacher-prep regulations evolve, public school talent managers should put more pressure on colleges and universities to require deep content knowledge for admission to any teacher-prep program.

4. Flexible scheduling:

Again, private schools often allow their own experienced teacher-leaders to transmit to novices their schools’ unique values, rather than rely on graduate schools’ notions of best practices. To do this, public schools must give teachers time to work together: Time for collaboration on curricula and lesson plans is always at a premium, but scheduling significant time for a seasoned teacher to observe, mentor, and even co-teach with a newer recruit can be hard, even for private schools. Still, schools investing in this flexibility can reap vast rewards in teacher retention and curricular coordination, both correlated with improved student outcomes.

5. Building community through activities:

When school communities fully leverage the strengths of their adult staff members, students reap the benefits. Taking their cue from boarding schools, private day schools frequently offer an array of co-curricular activities for students—sports, arts, and extended learning, such as robotics or studio time—led by classroom teachers who are compensated for this extra time. Public schools would struggle to schedule such programming entirely after school and on weekends, when teachers reasonably need time for their own lives. Public schools might challenge themselves to carve out an activity period within the school day to allow for this kind of learning, which deeply connects students to trusted adults who teach holistically, supporting them as both young people and content learners.

6. Teacher-centered professional development:

Private schools often pay for teachers to attend workshops and purchase materials of their choice. Innovation is grassroots, and these teachers spread their discoveries in a “each one teach one” model. Well-intentioned school leaders may think to provide egalitarian, communitywide professional development for the staff. However, the most effective and best-disseminated professional development is that which individual teachers call for. In my experience, public schools would be better served reallocating PD funds creatively, even as small microgrants, to allow innovation to take root. For example, rather than send an entire teaching staff to a pro forma workshop, schools might allow teachers to compete for that same pool of funds by writing competitive proposals to attend conferences or develop service-learning projects, after which they could share what they learn with their colleagues.

In the end, there are fewer essential differences between public and private schools than one might expect. They are all ultimately teaching and learning communities. The best public school administrators already know how to create small pockets of flexibility for key initiatives like these, which are everyday practice at private schools. It is time for our districts and school boards to take note and help create more such opportunities.

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