Education Opinion

The Best Kept Secret About Private Schools

By Walt Gardner — January 12, 2011 2 min read
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When reformers talk about how to improve public schools, one of their favorite solutions is competition. They maintain that forcing schools to vie with each other to attract students will by necessity improve educational quality. They claim that’s how private schools have been able to post their impressive outcomes.

But what they avoid mentioning is that private schools operate under a completely different set of rules. Not only do they admit only those students they deem a good fit, but they also retain the right to remove students for any number of reasons.

To most people, the latter strategy is limited to egregious behavior, such as cheating or bullying. But the truth is that private schools more often engage in counseling out students who for one reason or another are not performing as well as the school determines they should.

Sometimes referred to as pushing out, the process allows private schools to get rid of students whose presence pulls down their college acceptance rate, which in turn undermines their reputation as centers of excellence. It also frees the schools from devoting the time, effort and money required to bring the struggling students up to par. The percentage of students who are pushed out is not available for good reason. If the actual data were public knowledge, the numbers would prove to be an embarrassment.

Once these students are separated from private schools, however, their parents are confronted with the reality of what to do for their education. Some choose to hire expensive tutors in the belief that this kind of one-on-one instruction will be the answer. The cost can be daunting for all but the most affluent families.

But most parents eventually wind up enrolling their offspring in public school. For many students the adjustment is a shock. They suddenly find themselves in classes with students from diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds. They also have to confront new rules that can prove confusing.

Public schools, of course, must enroll all who show up at their door and can expel only for stipulated reasons. As a result, they spend a disproportionate amount of their resources on discipline. It’s not an exaggeration to say that one miscreant can hold hostage an entire class. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that public schools do not - and probably cannot - produce the same results as private schools.

Even the vaunted KIPP schools are not immune to pushing out underperforming students. A study by SRI International in 2008 of five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay area found that 60 percent of their students left in middle school. Predictably, those who were counseled out tended to be the weaker students.

This incredibly high attrition rate is one reason that KIPP has been able to post higher scores than traditional public schools. The performance is further boosted by the fact that those students who leave are not replaced by new enrollees. As a result, the students remaining are in classes with only their most successful contemporaries. This screened environment further enhances their ability to excel.

Reformers often compare the results of private and public schools that serve similar student populations. But what they don’t mention is that even when the students come from similar socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, school outcomes are affected by the practice of pushing out underperformers. Unless this policy is accounted for by researchers, their conclusions need to be viewed with caution.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.