Are private schools worth it?

The recently published book, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools poses a very valid question, “are private schools worth it?” Independent schools, a distinct category of private schools, have been posing this question for some time given that we promote the “value add” of our education – rigorous academics that are directed toward the development of independent, creative, and collaborative leaders.  We have also committed millions of dollars in order to diversify our campuses over the past few decades. Here at Seattle Girls’ School, you will find one of the most diverse student populations in the city with nearly half of our students identifying as girls of color. We demonstrate an ongoing commitment to socioeconomic diversity by ensuring that at least 30% of our students receive need-based financial aid, and we have awarded over $5 million dollars in aid in just 13 years of existence.

The book’s authors, Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, summarize their research by asking this fundamental question: Do private school students score better than public school students because they are from more affluent families, or because the schools are actually providing a better “academic product?” While much past research has suggested that there is a “private school effect,” the Lubienski’s control for background factors, and conclude that there is actually a “public school effect.” Researchers at the Educational Testing Service, Notre Dame, and Stanford support their analysis of the data.

At this point, I am reminded of the quote attributed to Mark Twain. “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” As a teacher and life-long student of mathematics, I have come to appreciate the beauty of numerical analysis as well as its limitations. There is a very key point made by the authors that is not highlighted in the recent interview in The Atlantic. The interviewer does point out that most of the schools in the study are religious schools, but what about private schools that serve purely academic purposes? Are they also underperforming? The authors respond that, “actually, that was not a category in any of the data that we worked with. There’s this category of ‘other private’ that doesn’t fit into Lutheran, Catholic, conservative Christian, et cetera, but that’s really a catch all-category. A very small sample. So we weren’t able to study that.”

As a part of that “very small sample,” we independent schools take great offense!

First, we have a great deal to say to any school – private or public – that would reduce the outcome of their educational program to student performance on a standardized test. We independent schools do seek such data. In fact, the standardized test of choice among “indie schools” is the CTP IV or ERBs geared for college-bound high achievers. Our students generally score so well on other traditional tests that we needed a more rigorous spread or “bell curve” to provide relevant data to our families. However, we then go on to contextualize these “snapshot exams” with rich narrative descriptions from classroom teachers, student self-assessments, and outcomes oriented evaluations that ask students to stand and deliver – often in front of expert audiences. Yes, this type of data collection requires time, expertise, and typically a smaller and more personalized school community.

Second, independent schools understand and deliver the “value add” of 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, and adaptability; skills considered vital to working and living in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing global society.  Yes, these skills can be taught and assessed and independent schools are at the forefront of doing both.

Thirdly, the authors contend that there is “danger in private school autonomy.”  They equate professional certification and accountability through state standards and tests to excellence in education.  In over 30 years in education, that has not been my experience. I have found that excellence is more likely to result from hiring a teacher who is both certified and an expert in her field. I myself was certified 25 years ago through an alternative process that recognized that an engineering degree could be an indicator of future success in teaching math and science. At Seattle Girls’ School, we tell prospective families that we are informed by standards but not driven by them. We retain the right to use professional judgment, content expertise, and the very latest research – some of which is actually happening in our school and at peer schools – to inform teaching and learning.

Finally, our independent schools rely on one of the most significant and growth-oriented forms of accountability – the accreditation process. Accreditation assures parents and the general public that the school is focused on providing a safe and enriching learning environment while maintaining an efficient and effective operation. Accreditation provides school leadership with an independent, non-governmental validation that the school they oversee is effectively delivering a quality educational experience to its students. Accreditation eases the transition students face as they move from one accredited school to another by accepting the incoming student’s credits and academic record. Accreditation provides education leaders at all levels with deserved recognition for going above and beyond the minimum to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to quality. Accreditation provides educators with valuable information about effective practices in other schools through participation on peer review teams

I hope that all educational stakeholders take a good look at the more than 1700 INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS serving over half a million students. We have learned a great deal over our collective histories, and we have much to share with both public and other private schools. Independent schools, after-all, are private schools with a public purpose.

Learn more about the nation’s independent schools at

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