Public Vs Private Secondary Schools

“After teaching in the public school system, I am honestly considering sending my kids to a private school”

I have probably raised a few eyebrows with the comments I have made on our site here at My University Money, as well as those I have made on comment boards around the blogosphere concerning the argument of public vs private schooling.  I have a pretty unique perspective on the situation that is enlightening in some ways, yet limiting in others.  The secondary education experience that I had was not typical or average in anyway.  I grew up in a small rural area, and went to a very tiny K-12 school (around 160 students… yes, these schools do exist).  This meant lots of one-on-one teacher time, and a strong push to take part in many extracurricular activities.  I was also fortunate enough to be in a very strong and competitive (academically) class that set the achievement bar very high for all of us.  While I enjoyed this experience very much, I don’t believe it is at all representative of the vast majority of public high schools in North America right now, and it certainly has no correlation to a private school experience.  Now obviously any discussion about the public vs private school systems has to acknowledge the caveat that there is a massive range of experiences within those two categories.  Obviously lots of what I have to say will be anecdotal, and conclusions will likely be drawn from generalities as opposed to scientifically-collected data.  My experiences in the private school system have been limited to a couple semesters of student teaching, three years of coaching sports, and talking to several friends who attended private schools their entire lives.  I have also been involved with probably 20 or so public schools at this point, all within Manitoba, Canada, but I will say that I am fairly active in reading the most recent educational research and staying informed on events within the global education community.

Whew, that was a long-winded intro, hope you’re still with me!  Ok Ladies and gentleman, let me begin by honestly stating that our public education system is in big trouble.  There are many, many reasons why, but the foremost reason is that while our standards have slipped a little, international standards are going through the roof.  In this globalized world, that is a major issue.  I’m not sure that private schooling is the answer, but I can say with a large degree of authority that there is a huge difference in the level of education I have seen at private institutions versus those of public schools.

It’s Not The Teachers, It’s The Student Body

Public Vs Private

Most people will point out things like “better discipline” and “more qualified teachers,” as the main reasons why private schools see better results.  While these suggestions may have some degree of merit, I would suggest that they are vastly overrated.  There are many relatively well-disciplined schools, and even more well-qualified teachers.  I did much of my student teaching at the most prestigious private school in Manitoba (or at the very least the most expensive!), and the truth is that the teachers weren’t that much smarter than most of the ones I have worked with in the public system.  There was a much higher standard expected of them, and they were able to teach to a very narrow range of students (you have to pass some basic academic tests to get into most private schools).  As a teacher in many places across North America right now, you are expected to teach an incredible range of students.  Students with severe learning disorders, recent immigrants who are barely functional in English, and honours students, are all in the same classroom.  While this may have some great social benefits, there is no doubt that it stunts the academic growth of the top individuals.  Anyone that tells you different is blatantly lying, or has been misinformed.  It is just common sense that if you have two identical teachers, and one is teaching to private school students who all have a fairly high minimal capability level, and one teaches to the massive (I cannot overstate just how large this range is) range of students found in public school classrooms, one is going to appear a lot smarter than the other because the environment allows and encourages them to teach to a much higher level.

 The “Culture of Achievement”

Even with the above differences taken into consideration, there is a valid argument that states that your elite-level students will excel in any environment if you merely encourage their independent learning skills.  This is a good option for public school teachers to embrace out of necessity, but please don’t tell me that it is a substitute for the environment of achievement that exists in private schools.  In fact, that is absolutely, hands down, by far, the greatest difference between public and private schools – A “culture of achievement.”  In public schools there is a tendency for teachers to teach to the middle of their classes.  We continue to educate teachers to “differentiate” instruction to all levels, and while I fully believe teachers should try to make personal connections with all of their students and adapt the curriculum as best they can for different learning abilities, it is just not realistic to believe that a teacher can meet 30 different students at their level in a 60 minute class.  It’s impossible, and the academic-elites that are promoting this view have likely not been in a high school classroom in the last 10 years (at least).  When teachers gear their game plans to the middle of the class in a public high school, and face a lot of pressure to make sure as many students pass as possible, the end result is that the brighter students, and the students that want to work hard, are not challenged at all.  When these students are not challenged they never learn how to climb academic mountains and overcome obstacles.  This is fine for the spoon-fed environment of high school, but then they hit post-secondary education, or a competitive job environments and… well you can see the results on every international test score.

Public Vs Private – How Much Do Peers Affect Your Child’s Education?

The culture of achievement (a term that I made up, so take it for what it’s worth) in private schools is such a huge asset to teachers and parents.  No longer is 50% the sought-after academic standard (as it is in public schools).  Students get used to intense competition against the best and brightest.  They are encouraged to learn how to manage time.  They gain valuable experience in focusing on homework, and multiple extracurricular activities that require extensive commitments and sacrifice.  Deadlines are enforced far more thoroughly (we actually are just coming out of a phase in Manitoba where students didn’t lose any marks for late assignments; there was no penalty of any kind allowed).  While at private school it was not uncommon for me to teach a class that had a chess champion, the 27th ranked junior tennis player in Canada, a student organizing a missions trip to Jamaica, and a national math contest winner, in it at the same time, and they were likely not even the top students!  I have no idea how you quantify the impact that this culture of achievement has on students.  It appears to soak through their pores and influence everything they do.  Obviously they still have the standard teenage issues that all school environments have to some degree, but this passion to excel in the classroom and whatever else you choose to do – the idea that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing RIGHT – is immeasurable in its value.

What Is The Ultimate Goal of Educational Institutions Anyway?

Public schools are being held responsible for fixing every social problem society has.  While they are a useful tool to introduce students to positive social values, I believe the focus of public schooling has been so far removed from its core responsibility – making people smarter – that we are failing our most basic responsibility, and we are definitely seeing the results.  I do not deny that there are a ton of social problems that need help and require fixing in North America.  I just don’t know if a 6-hour school day leaves us enough time to fix all those problems and still teach students to a high level.  Private schools offer an environment that is relatively free of all these problems (or at least has them to a much lesser degree).  I admit that there is something to the idea that students that attend private schools will suffer from “living inside a bubble” because they don’t get exposed to a lot of the “real world.”  While this is true to some extent, I believe the solution on an individual level is pretty simple.  I have thought about the benefits of having a child attend public school until grade 8 or so, then switching over, while at the same time taking part in many activities outside of the school in order to stay away from the “elitism” that I find very unappealing.  I am definitely not saying that students cannot succeed coming from the public school system, or that all private school students are going to be Einstein and are superior to their public school counterparts.  I am simply stating that for parents and students that are committed to having youth reach their full academic potential, private schools offer some undeniable advantages, and that the gap is growing every year.

 You Tell Me How To Fix It!

I am very interested in hearing what everyone has to say about public vs private schooling.  A lot of personal finance blogs talk about investments and rate of return.  I honestly believe that in some cases the investment in a private school education will have an unbelievable rate of return, and one far greater than any other investment.  Am I just a cynical public school teacher?  How do we fix the public school system (trust me, it needs fixing).  Do we go to longer hours or more school days (most schools across North America are at about 180 days right now)?  Is standardized testing the answer?  Are teacher’s unions too strong, and counterproductive to the good of the overall education system?  Have you considered private or home schooling?

About Teacher Man

TM is a self-professed nerd about all things related to personal finance. He can be found writing for My University Money, Young and Thrifty, and Canadian Personal Finance Blog. TM blogs in order to continue his quest for lifelong learning and hopefully to help others along the way.

19 Responses to Public Vs Private Secondary Schools

  1. Andy Hough says:

    I agree with all the points you made about the advantages of private schools. I’m not sure how those advantages could be incorporated in public schools since they do have to teach everybody.

    • Teacher Man says:

      This is why I honestly think it may be a great investment for a lot of people (especially since you don’t have to pick the most expensive ones to get the majority of the benefits).

  2. I have many many opinions on this topic. But related to your article, I have three thoughts.

    1. How much do you think parenting has to do with this? A parent that send their kids to private school most likely has a high opinion of formal education, and high expectation for their kids in that regard. This would breed a higher performance from those kids, even if the education were identical. A public school student may or may not have a parent with a high opinion on education, but I suspect it’s a lower percentage.

    2. My first suggestion for addressing the massive range of capabilities of students (a problem I certainly agree with) is to decouple the relationship of age and grade. At young ages especially, there is absolutely no reason to think all kids are the same (or even close). You occasionally see a kid held back or moved ahead, but it has such an unearned stigma. I think there’s some logic in coupling age with social activities (recess, sports, etc) due to similar physical and maturity levels – but not education.

    3. Change the metrics. It’s common knowledge in the corporate world that you get improvements on things you measure. If you measure graduation rates, you get kids graduating whether they learned anything or not. The goal of education should not be to reach a certain line, it should be to improve knowledge by as much as possible. So rather than measuring graduation rates or standardized scores, measure kids knowledge in many areas at the beginning and end of each school year, and measure the improvement.

    My last thought (I know I said I had 3) is that education should be fun. It should cater to kids curiosity. I had a neighbor kid get in trouble on the first day of school the other day – they even called his parents. His crime: he was standing in line incorrectly. Apparently he was supposed to have his hands behind his back? My thoughts, you’ve just made school a little less fun when you make a rule like.

    • Teacher Man says:

      BNL, I know what you mean about having a lot to say, I could easily write a book on this debate. Trying to keep it to under 1500 words was a challenge for me!

      1)I agree with the idea that if parents are willing to invest in their child’s education they are likely to place a high value on education, which to me makes that type of people all the more attractive to influence my child.

      2) While this sounds very logical I can guarantee that this will never happen because parents would have way too much room to argue at that point. Everyone believes they are an expert in the field and would fight to place their kid, not where it would do them the most good, but where they could brag about it the most.

      3) This is a huge problem. I think standardized tests are a good theory, but then administrators simply water down the tests and say “Look we increased scores, yay for us.” Again, parents obsessed with marks would be a large obstacle for this logical fix that you suggest.

      4) I find private schools are actually able to keep school more fun because kids will naturally behave semi-appropriately. If students have the right “cardinal rules” or manners there is no need for ridiculous rules like that. The problems come when some students are so terribly behaved because they place absolutely no value on education at all, and have no positive role models, that administration then has to overreact in order to save their job in the eyes of school boards.

      I bet we could together and sketch out another 25 points to that list, but between below par teachers, teacher’s unions, society problems, parents, and under funding, it is extremely difficult to make any meaningful change. The system is simply meant to feed itself.

  3. We don’t have kids, but we’ve talked about what we would do for school if we did. Sadly, in the area I live in, most private schools are religious and require children to follow religious guidelines. We are not religious (and are rather antii-organized religion, at that), so that wouldn’t be a good fit for us.
    We do have a number of really good charter schools in the area, but they tend to be very focused. If we had a kid who was really in to the performing arts or wanted to become an aeronautical engineer, we’d be set, but no great option for general learning.
    Eseentially, what we’ve decided is that, if we have kids, they’ll go to public school. They will go to school for the important social aspects of learning to deal with a diverse group of people, where some are like you and some are very much not like you. Like it or not, public schools are still the best place to gain that kind of social IQ. However, we won’t ever count on the public school to actually educate our child. That’s on us. That means reading with the kids, doing math with the kids, encouraging curiosity and other interests. The school system can provide a decent base and a measuring tool. But it will be our jobs as parents to be educators.

    And while that will work for us, I know a lot of people for whom it won’t. A single mom working two jobs struggling to get by doesn’t have the option of being their child’s teacher any more than she does of paying for private school.

    My first fix, for the US, at least, would be to stop making school taxes local. As it is, that in and of itself, creates a huge dichotomy in the quality of education received by kids in the same city, let alone state and nation. If inner city schools had as much money to spend per student as those in the burbs, a lot could be changed.
    Money doesn’t fix everything, but not treating kids as second class citizens because their parents don’t have money, is a good start.

    • Teacher Man says:

      I’m glad that you are at least aware that you will have to do most of the work in terms of actually educating your child. I have seen many parents that are fairly agnostic decided to send their children to religious-based schools simply for the advantage I’ve talked about. I guess they decided that explaining their view on religion to their children was easier than explaining everything else!

  4. krantcents says:

    I am a product of private school education. My children attended private school as well. For the last ten years, I have been a public school teacher. One of the biggest differences between private and public school is parental involvement. Not just with their child’s education, but with the child. When you send your child to private school, there is much more to do and decide than public school. Parents are a very important ingredient, they model behavior, they make education an emphasis and help the teacher be more effective. The average public school classroom in Los Angeles has more than 40-50 students. It is very hard to individualize or even follow up. A lot falls through the cracks by shear numbers alone. Add disciplinary problems, attendance and academic issues, there are a lot of children do not thrive in this environment. The student peers, if not motivated will destroy a good student. What can you do? Just like the parents who send their kids to private school, become involved! Make conscious decisions. My children would have attended the best magnet schools, but I was concerned about the other kids in school that may affect them. My children are successful adults! Was it the private education? Maybe, but it didn’t hurt.

    • Teacher Man says:

      I could not agree more on the parental involvement aspect. The bottom line is that peers have an undeniably massive effect on teenagers. What group do you want your child hanging around with and learning their cultural norms from? Interesting that we are both public school teachers who are seemingly unimpressed with the system.

  5. Although I didn’t attend a private school, I spent 6 years in public magnet programs between middle and high school. The public schools in my neighborhood were terrible. When I was in the 6th grade, I remember one of my 13 year old classmates had a baby. And she wasn’t the only one. I got into a fist fight with some guy in my science class. The teachers never returned any of my assignments so neither I or my mother knew how my grades were determined. It was a mess.

    The magnet schools were a complete change. You could tell the parents were extremely concerned about their children’s education, and the students were absolutely brilliant. You could go to school and actually learn something.

    Unless I live in a neighborhood with really good public schools (and they’re difficult to find when you live in an urban area), I’m homeschooling my brood. Although many people still can’t see outside of the North American bubble they live in, we have to compete globally, and our children will too. As parents, we must prepare them for that.

    Note: I do not have any children…yet.

  6. Barb Friedberg says:

    I’ve always been a proponent of public schools. Yet, in retrospect, I wonder if sending our kid to private school would have been a better move for her!

  7. Funancials says:

    Teacher Man-

    Great points here. I think all school should be privatized. Anything the government has a say in seems to turn to crap. I agree with you about a number of things.

  8. My husband was an 8th grade public school science teacher for 4 years and is in his 2nd year as a public school librarian, and yes, if we have kids, they will either be home-schooled or be in private school. The public school system is simply babysitting now with a billion restrictions on actual teaching in place.

  9. I went to private school until the end of 6th grade, and then to public school through High School graduation. Things may have certainly changed since then, but I found private school extremely limiting. The options weren’t there, the variety of programs weren’t there, and the accelerated classes weren’t there. By the time I graduated from public high school, I had completed a year of college level calculus, college level Biology and Physics and my school had created an independent study Computer Science course where I told them what I wanted to learn and they bought the books for me. The computer science instructor was available to answer questions I had, but I taught myself 3 programming languages by the end of the 12th grade.

    My first year and a half of College was completely review.

    There are good public schools, and bad private schools, and everything in between. We need to look at the good schools (public or private), figure out what they’re doing differently, and then apply that to the schools not doing as well.

    • Teacher Man says:

      Really eh, you found that private school limiting in academics? I don’t have a lot of experience with extremely large public schools in terms of talking about what they offer, but I know that the private schools I’ve seen are way ahead of the game on average than their public counterparts.

  10. What you say has a lot of merit, but I do think that the district you live in plays a big part in the quality of public education. If I was in an underserving urban area I would be a lot more tempted to pursue private education, but the public schools in my area are highly rate…though you raise some good points about public education overall.

    • Teacher Man says:

      There is no doubt that quality is attached to where you live. From my outsider view this is even more true in the USA with their recent education policies regarding funding as a reward for past results. My point is even if you think your local public school is high quality, it is getting harder and harder to find real high quality due to illogical incentives (that often contradict each other) and no accountability within the education field.

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