Private versus public
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Learn more on what to look for when touring schools in these videos:
Video: A guide to private schools
Video: How to find a middle school
By GreatSchools Staff
Private schools, by their very definition, are selective. They are not obligated to accept every child, so getting admitted may involve in-depth applications with multiple interviews, essays, and testing. Because private schools define the identity of their communities, they often pick and choose between candidates based not only on their scholastic achievement but also their ethnicity and religious background — as well as the special attributes (or assets) of their parents.
Teachers, curriculum, and class size
While most people assume that teachers at private schools are as qualified as those at public ones, it's important to note that all teachers in a public school are usually state certified or, at a minimum, working toward certification. Certification ensures that a teacher has gone through the training required by the state, which includes student teaching and course work. Teachers in private schools may not be required to have certification. Instead, they often have subject-area expertise and an undergraduate or graduate degree in the subject they teach.
There's a similar discrepancy between curriculum development in private and public schools. Public schools must follow state guidelines that set out specific standards and assessment procedures. In theory, this creates a certain amount of quality control. Private schools, on the other hand, can choose whatever curriculum and assessment model they wish. This freedom to design their own curriculum or avoid standardized tests can result in higher standards for students — or lower.
Many states recognize the value of small classes and have provided funding to keep class sizes small in grades K-3. As students advance to higher grades, class size tends to get bigger in public schools, especially in large school districts and urban schools.
While many private schools provide small classes with low student-to-teacher ratios, there is no guarantee that such schools will keep their class size below a certain level. Some private schools — Catholic ones, in particular — traditionally have larger classes than public schools.
Due to special education laws, public schools must educate all children and provide the necessary programs to meet their special needs. This means that all school districts have special education programs and teachers who are trained to work with special-needs students.
Private schools do not have to accept children with special needs, and many choose not to (although there are a small number of private schools designed for special-needs children). As a result, most private schools do not have special education programs or teachers trained to work with that student population. Some private schools will try to help all the students they admit, but extra resources may come at an additional cost. Other private schools practice something called "counseling out" — recommending that children with learning disabilities look elsewhere for a school.
How do you know what's right for your child?
Don't rely on hearsay and rumor when it comes to deciding between private and public. Visit the schools and ask the teachers lots of questions. Read school profiles on GreatSchools. At the end of the day, the best school for your child is a highly personal decision based on your family; your values; and, most important, the special needs, idiosyncrasies, and interests of your kid. Let the debate rage on, but don't forget about the one person for whom this decision is far more than sandbox banter.
Private school students typically score higher than public school students on standardized tests, but a 2006 study (pdf) by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which took into account students' backgrounds, told a different story.
Public school students in fourth and eighth grade scored almost as well or better than their private school peers in reading and math, except that private school students excelled in eighth-grade reading.
A Harvard University study (pdf) challenged the results, using the same data but different methods. Researchers found that private schools came out ahead in 11 of 12 comparisons of students.
Earlier in 2006, an analysis of math scores by two University of Illinois researchers found similar results to the NCES study. "Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement" (pdf) states that "after accounting for the fact that private schools serve more advantaged populations, public schools perform remarkably well, often outscoring private and charter schools."
But as this dissenting view from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's Education Gadfly newsletter shows, the debate over which kind of school does a better job is far from settled.