Education Opinion

The Private School Advantage

By Walt Gardner — December 14, 2016 2 min read
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Comparing private schools with public schools is absurd, and yet it continues. I was reminded once again after reading that the satisfaction level of private school parents is higher than among parents whose children are in charter schools and in chosen district schools (“Two National Surveys Find Charter-School Parents More Satisfied Than Those with Children in District-Operated Schools,” EducationNext, Dec. 13). Specifically, 46 percent of private school parents and 32 percent of charter school parents were “very satisfied” with the quality of their children’s teachers. In contrast, only 23 percent of traditional public school parents said they were as satisfied. The latter parents were more satisfied only with the school’s location and with the extracurricular activities.

Well, why shouldn’t they be more satisfied? Consider the low student-teacher ratios (“11 Bay Area private schools among 100 best in nation,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 29)? In eleven San Francisco Bay area private schools, they ranged from a low of 5:1 to 8:1. That’s like having a private tutor for their children. When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, my average class size was 34. I was often given a class with 42 students and told to do my best.

I don’t care how gifted a teacher is. I maintain that it is impossible to be effective with such a high student-teacher ratio. If that was not enough, traditional public school students are not Talmudic scholars. They too often lack high motivation and bring huge deficits to the classroom. What they need is individualized instruction, which they cannot possibly get.

Not only do elite private schools have small class sizes, but they enroll students whose parents typically are extremely affluent. They have to be in order to afford the sky-high tuition charged. The tight correlation between zip codes and SAT scores reflects the importance of family background in student performance.

Catholic schools tend to be an anomaly. Their classes are quite large, and they enroll students from diverse backgrounds. Yet they frequently manage to post impressive outcomes. Their success is likely the result of an environment that stresses moral values and strict discipline. Many parents who are not Catholic choose Catholic schools precisely for those two reasons.

My point is that traditional public schools are being asked to do more and more without the freedom that private, religious and charter schools enjoy. It’s little wonder that they cannot compete. But I expect the comparisons to intensify if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as education secretary.

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.