Public vs. Private: The Truth About Schools

Okay, so I’m going to admit right up front, some of you are going to really hate this post. When it comes to making choices about where our kids go to school, parents have a lot of misconceptions that drive their decisions. Schooling is SO important for the future of our society and the quality of life many of our young people will face. Will they be ready for the challenge?

First, let me preface this with a disclaimer so that anyone reading this article will understand my background. I am—and have been for the past 16 years—a public school educator. My opinions on this matter however are not based on my experience as a teacher, but rather based on what I have observed from those around me. My experience in public education is merely a window into schools and what really happens in classrooms. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m defending public education simply because I’m a public school teacher. And to add to that, I’m also not stating that public schools ARE the best choice for your child, simply that I have unique perspective and want to dispel some common misunderstandings.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the reason you’re reading this post. Should you put your child in public schools, or private?

This is a tough decision. Probably tougher than you realize. Most parents who choose private school do so because their is a widely held perception that private schools offer a better education—at least that’s the excuse that most parents use. To really make the best choice, you need to take a step back and do a little introspection. What is the REAL reason you are considering private schools? Come on… you can admit it. Don’t be ashamed; you know what it is:

“I don’t want my child around those kids!”

You can substitute whatever adjective you would like for “those.” I’m sorry parents, but this is the cold hard truth. Many of you are shaking your heads, appalled that I would make such a heinous accusation, but if you really look deep inside yourself, you’ll see I’m not all that far from the mark. (On a side not, I’m not in any way implying bigotry or racism. When I say “those” kids, there are a host of other subgroups that fall into that category that have nothing to do with race or culture.)

Does this make private schools bad? Of course not. But understanding WHY you are making a choice will help you understand the choice itself.

“Okay,” you say. “So I’m proud to admit that I want my child away from those kids! I mean, isn’t that the right of every parent? Shouldn’t I be able to control my child’s environment? And besides the prestigious private school in my area has a 100% graduation rate! Their curriculum has one a host of awards no one has heard of! And their test scores are through the roof! How can public school possibly compare to that?”

(Yes, I’ve seen the same sales pitch.)

If you’re still with me, you’re willing to look past the perceptions and gaze a bit deeper into the realities of schooling. I will address each of these issues and share with you some insights you probably haven’t considered.

First, let’s talk about parental rights. Parental rights is an important part of the education argument since ultimately, it is all about parent’s choice. Believe it or not, parents have the ultimate say in whatever happens with their child regardless of what school they choose. This is important for several reasons we’ll get into in a bit and can be the most powerful incentive for driving education forward or the most destructive force known to man. And outcomes aren’t always based on informed decision-making.

So yes, to answer your question, yes. You have the right to choose the educational environment for your child. In no way am I disputing that right, nor am I suggesting change. My focus in this article isn’t on the rights of parents, it’s on the choices. The better part of the question was, “Shouldn’t I be able to control my child’s environment?”

Here is where things begin to get sticky. Do you really want control of your child’s environment? Would having ultimate control mean that your child will be better educated? Does a private school guarantee the environment you seek? Does public, for that matter? These are important questions and ones most parents don’t even think to ask. They’ve already made up their minds before they’re even aware the questions exist.

Lost yet?

Let’s see if I can clear the waters for you a bit. It goes back to your motivation for wanting to send your child to private school in the first place. Why do you want your child there? Even if you still maintain that children in private schools are somehow different, better than their public school counterparts, you still haven’t quite gotten to the root of the decision. If that’s truly and deeply your only reason, then this article will offer you no further assistance other than to point out that even this is a myth.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness.

There you have it, the first fundamental tenet to choosing a school. “If I spend a bunch of money, I know my kid’s going to do alright.” Because we all know that “you get what you pay for,” right? Talk to a few of those who invested in Enron. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve conversed with who invested in a private school only to have it close and lost all of their money. “But this school has been around since the dawn of time,” you say. And that’s good, but it still doesn’t mean there’s no risk. There’s risk in everything. I’m simply dispelling myths. Money doesn’t make for a better school.

And why should you have to pay for a school when so many are offered for free (well, minus the taxes you already pay). That’s one thing that’s always fascinated me, that parents will invest in a school when they’re already paying for one. “But it’s not the one I chose!” you scream. “I would much rather take my taxes and pay for a school I like.” Perhaps.

But I’m far from finished.

Private Schools Create Graduates, Period.

I know, I know. I felt the explosions from a few of you. You’re probably already yelling at the screen. “How can you say that! My other children went to private school and are doing quite well for themselves! Isn’t that the point? To graduate?” Well, yes… but graduation alone doesn’t secure one’s future. On top of that, the reason private schools can boast 100% graduation rates isn’t because all of their students graduate. In fact, without any hard numbers, I’d be willing to guarantee that private schools have lower graduation rates than the worst public schools.

Now hold on a minute, just give me a chance to explain.

Private schools pre-screen.

They’ve already eliminated 70% of potential students before those students have even walked through the door. 

A private school isn’t going to accept a students who doesn’t fit their pre-determined profile. While many will boast that they accept “all” students, don’t be fooled. Their acceptance is limited by the pre-determined percentages. Just enough to make them “look” inclusive.

Don’t believe me?

Try taking your dyslexic child who’s failing reading and see if they’ll welcome him/her with open arms. Or perhaps your rambunctious teen who can’t stay focused long enough to finish a commercial. Most of these schools are going to deny these children right out of the gate, or enter into contracts with parents to provide “outside support” to ensure they are successful under their guidelines. Parents so desperate to get their kids into these institutions will pay large sums of money to meet the school’s expectations. This, of course, is on top of the already large sums of money the school is charging them in the first place.

What’s worse?

If these children continue to struggle, there is no plan in place to assist them, no protections to ensure they receive a quality education. They are simply expelled, banished, ejected, with nothing more than a “Thank you for your money.”

Harsh? Mabye. Truth. Most definitely.

There are of course exceptions to every rule and I’m not implying that every private school has these exacting practices. There are specialized schools and smaller schools that have learned the error of their ways. But these are things I feel all parents should be aware when choosing their child’s education. Private schools are not funded by the state and as such aren’t bound by the accountability rules everyone is so fond of for public schools. There are no guarantees that teachers are certified, no rigorous assessment of curriculum and instruction, no specialized supports for students who struggle. How can you boast 100% graduation rates when you’ve eliminated anyone who can’t graduate on their own?

Public schools are left holding the bag. They can’t turn away students no matter how severe their educational, emotional, and physical needs. They must adapt to every situation regardless of how many bodies are in one room, whether or not there are enough books for each students, and even despite a large percentage who come unprepared, unmotivated, and neglected.

Public schools are required to give a free and appropriate education to all.

Public School Teachers Work Harder Than You Think

Okay, so here’s where I will be a bit biased in my opinions, not because I have some duty toward public school teachers, or because I have any affiliations with public school organizations, but because I have worked side-by-side with these people for the past fifteen years. In no other profession that I have witnessed have I seen the level of dedication and commitment as I have seen in public schools. I know that people say that and I know that, for the most part, no one would argue that teachers work hard. But I’m here to tell you no matter how hard you think that public school teachers work, it’s so much harder than you think.

I can’t tell you about a single business man in the clothing industry that would stay late afterwork to care for a shirt, spend tireless hours ensuring that shirt has the best materials possible, painstakingly making sure that each person that handles that shirt understands that shirt’s individual needs, feels the pain the shirt goes through when it struggles to perform as well as the other shirts, understands its heartache when it fails to succeed. It’s not that people in other professions don’t work hard, because I can assure you they do, it’s just that most people don’t truly understand the depth of the burden placed on our public school teachers.

Goods and services have no intrinsic meaning; a child, on the other hand, means the world. There’s a whole lot more at stake when shaping a child’s future, and most teachers get that. Are there a few oddballs, slackers, there-for-the-paycheck kind of people? Sure. There are in any profession. But I dare to say you’ll find fewer of those in education, their motivation far deeper than financial stability.

Can you say the same for private schools? Sure. Are there teachers who care? Of course. But those teachers don’t sit in on the meetings where parents are rejected because their child isn’t “good enough” to be a part of their school.

By now you’re probably feeling as though I’m telling you that you’re crazy for even considering private education. In actuality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The intention is to give you some thought as to WHY you’re choosing private education, to determine if it’s truly going to accomplish your goals.

Homogenous Settings Produce Inferior Results

What exactly does that mean? Stay with me and all will be clear.

In study after study after study, researchers are finding a resounding truth about homogenous settings: those in which students are grouped based on common qualities. When you consider private education, the majority of these schools are the most homogenous groups possible. Students with special needs, learning disabilities, economic disadvantages, and all the others who typically struggle with school are almost immediately disqualified from even being considered. Taking a step further, many private schools are religious in nature, whittling the population down further to those with a particular ideology. Even more restrictive they become when private schools remain a choice for families over multiple generations, the students among those they’ve grown up with since birth. You’ve now created an exclusive club more than a school.

How is this a problem, you ask?

Consider this: Ask any business person what they find the most troubling about applicants seeking a job.

The top of the list? Those who can effectively work in teams and troubleshoot ideas.

Businesses spend more money on training employees on how to get along than they do on anything else. Part of having been educated in such an exclusive environment means a lack of exposure to different ideas, viewpoints, and cultures, creating graduates who lack the understanding of a global marketplace. Much has been handed to them by affluent parents and few have had the necessity to build the skills needed to think outside the box. These are skills that are learned through trial and error. Remove the trial, error is all that’s left.

So you see there are far more things to consider when choosing an educational institution. Sheltering kids doesn’t keep them out of trouble, but rather inhibits the experiences necessary to build the skill-sets needed in today’s market. Even the brightest of graduates can marvel with their gifts of academic success, but fall flat on their face when confronted with inter-personal problems.

There’s so much more than what I’ve tried to convey in this post, but I hope you get a sense for its purpose. It’s not to say that private schools suck, or that public schools are amazing, there’s room to grow on both sides of the fence. But perhaps public schools aren’t as bad as you’ve heard, and the grass at the prep school may not be as green as it looks.

Comparing public schools to private schools is like comparing the difference between name brand and off-brand clothing. Sure, name brand clothing looks nice, but without a label, can you really tell the difference?

I’m not implying that education is as simple as making clothes, but the analogy holds true. You don’t get quality clothing because of the cost; you get quality clothing because of the materials and manufacturing processes. The same is true for schools. Private schools may sound wonderful. They may look like the ideal environment, but I assure you, pretty walls and marbled columns don’t define the breadth and scope of what it takes to be a good school. Look deeper into the school’s culture, environment, the demeanor of its staff. There is where you’ll find a school’s true heart. If a school is there for your child, you’ll know it simply by walking through the halls.

I hope this provides a small sliver of insight into the vast expanse that is educational opportunities. This post is not meant to be negative or dejecting of private institutions. It’s meant simply to part the veil. Ultimately, the final choice lies with the one person who knows your child the best. You.

If you have specific questions that you would like to have answered that are related to this topic, feel free to ask them in the comments section below. For more information about the author, please visit: J.M.Cataffo’s Author Website

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