private school versus public school

Public or Private School? What is Better?

Comparing Private School with Public School Education

As my daughter nears middle school, my husband and I have started to wonder…public or private school?   Private school is not something we ever contemplated for our children.  We live in a great public school system and both of us graduated proudly from public school systems in California which were not as good as the school system we currently attend.

I attended an Ivy League college and my recollection, confirmed by others with a similar mediocre high school experience as mine, is that:

— It took me two years to catch up with classmates who went to good high schools.

–There are good public high schools and good private high schools and there are also mediocre private schools.  I only knew three other people from a Catholic high school who were going to college with me and they felt their high school was even worse than mine.

–What were some of the marked differences from the prep school/top public high school  kids and me ?  Foreign languages really stood out.   Despite meeting my foreign language requirement in high school, I tested into beginning French which was basically a remedial class with a dozen of us from bad public high schools and even worse accents.  Good high school = foreign language fluency, as in conversational or being able to read magazines in a foreign language.  Some kids had opportunity to study abroad in high school; not at my school!

Breadth of classes.  My friend from the Catholic High School was envious of a kid from Palo Alto High School (a great public high school) who had Asian History at her school.  I couldn’t believe that my friend from Stuyvesant High School (a magnet school in NYC that routinely sends two dozen kids to Harvard) had economics; micro AND macro!  And my freshman dorm pre-med friend who studied with the nuns in Cleveland really learned how to think, as in problem solve.  He tested into the advanced pre-med chemistry class.  I did not; at my high school, it was more about regurgitation than really understanding how to apply your knowledge…and no AP Chem class either!

I remember bitterly complaining with other like-kind kids and vowing that my kids will never have to play catch up when they go to college!  So my advice would be not so much public or private but how good is the school?

A great public school can outperform a mediocre private school.  There is a list below from the Wall Street Journal about which schools successfully send the most kids off to top schools but if these schools are not an option, dig deep to find out:  1) Is there a study aboard program?  2) How many honor and AP classes are offered?  Look for a wide range of class offerings.  3) How many kids are fluent in one or more foreign languages?  What does the curriculum include?  Language labs?  Small class size?  Native speakers as instructors?  4) What are examples of kids being taught to problem solve versus regurgitate?  5) Finally, where the pedal hits the medal … what is your college placement record?  And the corollary, are you double counting the smart kids that got into multiple top colleges?  What schools are the kids actually ATTENDING?

OK, maybe college placement is getting a little ahead of ourselves.  I do think that it’s not necessarily Ivy League or Bust, but more about the right fit.  The same goes for public versus private school.

My O.B. who lives in the same city as me but at a different elementary school, puts public education into perspective.  She describes her oldest daughter as smart but not a genius, social to a fault, not academically inclined without being pushed, and not disruptive.  In short, to a teacher with 20 plus students, she’s invisible.  Couple that with two working parents who don’t have the time to be omnipresent volunteers at school meant that her daughter was getting no attention.  She switched her to private school by 2nd grade (but she was glad to have 3 years of free public education).  When her daughter got interested in boys, she switched her again to an all-girl school.  In contrast, she says two other doctors at her practice also attend the same elementary school and are having a great experience.  But the kicker…her partners have spouses that are  stay-at-home moms and volunteer like crazy at their school.

My experience at public elementary school has been mixed and entirely dependent on the luck of the draw.  My middle daughter is having an amazing experience.  My oldest has had great years, medium years, and one god-awful year which, luckily, is not this year.  All in all, public school, with or without volunteering like crazy, has been a pretty good experience.

But, as middle school approaches, our parental anxieties start to heighten.  To be an informed consumer, I started to research private schools in our areas and, more importantly, studies on how children perform in public versus private school settings.  I found some very interesting and surprising results!

New York TimesPublic Schools Perform Near Private Ones

But this is contradicted by a NAEP Study:

However, according to Science Daily:  Public Schools Outperform Private Schools in Math Instruction 

An article in the Christian Science Monitor found that “After accounting for students’ socioeconomic background, a new study shows public school children outperforming their private school peers on a federal math exam … When children of similar socioeconomic status were compared, the public school children scored higher.”

According to a University of Illinois study:  students in public schools learn as much or more math between kindergarten and fifth grade as similar students in private schools.  In their previous 2005 study, they found that public school students tested higher in math than their private school peers from similar social and economic backgrounds.  Their conclusion:   “school type alone doesn’t explain very much of why these scores vary … in truth, whether the school is public or private doesn’t seem to make that much difference.”

According to a CEP study (Center on Education Policy), private school students and public school students perform equally on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history.  The one difference that CEP found between private schools and public schools involves SAT scores. According to the study, private school students have the edge on the SAT. The CEP notes that this could be because private schools tend to offer more test prep resources than do public schools.

In the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual National Compensation Survey,  public school teachers are paid 61% more per hour than private school teachers, on average nationwide.

Here’s a balanced article:  Public Versus Private.  Which is Right for Your Child?

Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s 2007 list of Top High Schools by placement at top colleges.

Not that this is necessarily the end goal, but here’s an interesting article by the Wall Street Journal on How To Get Into Harvard.

Our conclusion, though by no means complete, goes something like this:  it is going to cost about $105k to put one child through private middle school.  If that money gets parked in their 529B college fund, it will (hopefully) increase to equal about 2 years of graduate school.  So…wouldn’t it be more impactful on their lives to have graduate school paid for so they are not in debt?  Wouldn’t that be worth going to public middle school?  That is the million, or rather $105k, question we currently ponder.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. KAG

    Excellent article, discussion and links to studies. Tend to agree that an important part of the analysis depends on the type and what type of environment do they need to thrive. Thanks, Mia.

    • To KAG,
      I’m glad you liked the post. I do think that this decision should be made on a child by child basis. I have known parents who will do public for one of their children, private for another and even boarding school for the third. And each choice was right though the driving kids around part was probably insane.

  2. Kim

    Really interesting discussion. As an alum of a top university, I do entrance admissions interviews and that has given me a unique window into the area high schools (public, private, and parochial). I know where I want my son (now 3) to go to high school (parochial) because it excels at academics and at character development. I know that a highly rated public school seems to churn out high scoring achievers that don’t have much self-awareness – they are taking 4-8 AP courses and yet can’t recall a “cool” chemistry/physics/engineering lab they did in the past year.

    We try to remind ourselves (as two working, advanced degree parents) that by and large, achievement in our children in schools is affected much more greatly by the context the child lives in (family, socioeconomic) than the quality of the teacher. Teachers at “failing” schools are great but can do little if their students are malnourished, threatened at home by violence (in home or in the neighborhood), and aren’t getting enough sleep.

    • To Kim,
      Sounds like the Race To Nowhere. I don’t know the right answer except to say that we have to let kids discover what truly excites them and trust that the road less traveled will go to interesting places. Getting into college is just one step in a marathon; it is not the be all, end all. I went to Harvard for undergrad and UCLA for business school. Some of my friends who never went to Ivy League schools are more successful, happier, and more well adjusted than my Ivy League classmates. Who knew? Certainly that was not the gospel I grew up hearing.

  3. LOVE THIS POST and thanks for the links. I graduated from a decidedly mediocre public school in Los Angeles. The alternative “good” public schools were either inaccessible due to LAUSD’s arcane rules or miles and miles away which didn’t seem ideal during my busy high school years. There were some excellent teachers, but it was largely a crummy mess and I definitely noticed some personal deficits when I got to Stanford. That said, the best educational experience I ever had (including Stanford) was a small junior high program–public, but also individualized and highly accelerated.

    Anyway, great item.
    jengod recently posted…Well I’ll Be DarnedMy Profile

    • To JenGod,
      I know the feeling of arriving at college only to be two years behind! Glad you found the post useful. My oldest just went to public middle school and I’m happy to say that it has been an excellent experience so far, on every front. And I’m really impressed with the teachers and what she’s learning. The biggest strengths of a school are also a weakness. A large public middle school can seem intimidating but the plus side is lots of choices both for friends, classes and activities. Her middle school offers lots of foreign languages: Chinese,Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Latin. I think a large pool of girls is also great for her after coming from a small public elementary school. Fingers crossed, this seems to have been a good choice.

  4. Mary Fran McAuliffe

    I enjoyed this article. I am a mother of both private high school and public high school students. It really does depend on your student’s needs and wants as they approach autonomy in their educational path. Make the best decision for your student and your family!

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