Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Private vs. Public School

My oldest daughter is 5 years old and her birthday is in December so she missed the cut-off to go to kindergarten this year. At first, I was disappointed that she would be 'left behind' for the year, but I soon realized this meant an extra year to be with her and one more year for her to be a kid.

Meanwhile, one of my goals this year was to understand the education system. I grew up in Canada where almost everyone I knew went to public schools. The school system from elementary, to junior high to high school, even including the universities in Canada are all about the same quality. There isn't the same diversity in quality of schools as there is in the US. Since moving here, I have heard all about 'magnet schools', the 'gifted track', and schools with 'bad test scores'. Until recently, I found all of these terms quite intimidating and insisted that I would blindly send my kids to public schools because I didn't want to complicate life. Trying to keep life simple is an over-arching goal I am striving for. Sometimes in contradiction, I have also been trying to make educated decisions, particularly those that affect my children.

Well...in the name of getting 'educated' about the school system, I now find myself drowning in the debate of whether to send my kids to public or private school. I have researched dozens of schools online, called at least a dozen and visited a handful of schools in the area. This search has taken hours of my time and at the end of it all, I have a host of new emotions - irritated, excited, frustrated, inspired, and very, very confused.

Here are some of the highlights of my search:
- Some schools you can triage over the phone. I called one school, which is a Montessori school, and explained that I was looking for a school for my 5 year old. The lady who answered spent the next few minutes explaining why my child was now past the ability to learn in Montessori style and why all other preschools were inadequate. Montessori was the better way to learn she said but it was too late for my daughter....thanks.

- My husband and I went to one of the elite private schools in the area and spent one hour on what I thought was a tour and what turned out to be an interview. We were amazed by the grounds and the facility but not so inspired by the way the lady was sizing us up the whole time. This was early on in the process, I didn't realize that they were vetting us as well and I knew we really blew it when my husband asked after the schools finances - she answered "I'll have the development team get back to you on that...." as she rolled her eyes. Knowing that it would cost us at least 1 Million dollars if we sent all 3 of our kids to her school, I thought this was a very reasonable question...but clearly she wasn't impressed.

Here's what we've decided. While the public school system in our area is generally speaking one of the best in the country, our particular school has one of the lowest scores in the county so we won't be sending our children there. If we move in the next few years (which we might) then we will gladly reconsider as there are many advantages to the public school system.

In the meantime, I will try to send my daughter to a private school. I say 'try' because unfortunately she needs to take an IQ test. Unfortunately, because these tests are not good at predicting future cognitive ability - they only test a child's current skills which means that 70% of future gifted children would be missed when tested at the age of 5...(this fact is courtesy of Nurture Shock - a book I HIGHLY recommend).

So if she passes the IQ test, behaves well on her trial 'day at the school' and the administrators like our application, then she will go to a private school that is affordable (more than Catholic, less than the elite), on the smaller side in numbers and not a Montessori :).

We would like to send her there for at least kindergarten, maybe Grade 1 and then we'll have to see...I'm not convinced that long-term private school is the right path - there are social, financial and academic implications that I still need to think through.

Would love to hear any other thoughts on this debate that I'm sure many have considered.


  1. My husband and I (both doctors) went to public schools from K-12 and then private for college and med school. The cost of private school is crazy, and with 3 kids (we also have 3), it would be over the top. We plan to do public schools through high school. We prefer to save the money so they can have their college and hopefully grad school, etc paid for and not start their young adult lives in debt. We are also in an area with outstanding public schools, including the elementary school to which we are assigned (mine are 2-6 yrs in age). The middle school is good in general, just ok for our area. The high school is not considered good in our county. We have struggled with what we will do when middle or high school
    comes around. I personally think that the older one gets, the more the quality of the school matters. If you consider what you will spend on even a couple years of private school for 1 or 2 kids (money that is gone forever), it would probably be cheaper to move within your area to a district with better schools. Yes, you might take a hit selling your house, but you will also be buying low. The other thing I would say is don't get caught up in the craziness of this. In counties with good schools, even the "worst" scoring schools are still good. You should make sure you also tour the public elementary school to make a fair comparison--scores are just one small piece of the puzzle!!

  2. I agree w/ Tempeh. Both my husband and I are doctors and are products of public schools (mine wasn't a very good one). However, I think grade school had very little impact on me. High school is where I remember having good teachers and teachers that challenged me and made me interested in learning things further.
    Now that we have 4 children, we are unlikely to send any of our children to private schools. We too live in a great elementary school district, a middling junior high, and a not-so-great high school. Because of this, we have already decided that when the eldest is in junior high, we will start looking for a new house in the neighboring school district (which is one of the better ones in the state).
    Of note, I went to a private university, and truthfully saw very little difference in how I learned vs. how the private school kids learned.

  3. I'm not a doctor (of medicine) but do have a PhD. My husband and I both went to public schools through high school, then private school for college, then elite public university for grad school. Our son is in 1st grade at our local public elementary. Our state scores well on the national level but our particular city is only average for the state.

    I highly recommend visiting the school. For elementary school especially, there are things other than academics that really matter to us. Our school has such a caring environment. The kids are taught consistently from all adults in the school to be kind, to respect each other, to value learning. My kid is smart and he's going to learn the elementary school material wherever he is. But to get those values reinforced from somewhere outside of the family is really important to us. The school is also very diverse in terms of race and social economic status, which I love. The values piece of all this would be hard to understand without spending some time in the school while it is in session.

  4. I went to private school most of my life, (several of them, in fact), and I think what's probably most important is the fit between your child and the school. If it's a good fit, your children will find teachers who take an interest in them and challenge them. If not, you might be sent repeatedly to the child shrink.

    I don't think public vs. private matters all that much. Many of my public school friends had what I consider to be a comparable to superior education than I had in private school. It's mostly about the fit. My parents did tell me that if I'd had a sibling there is no way they'd have been able to afford private school for both of us, so there is always that wrinkle as well.

  5. My son is in second grade. He has attended public school so far. It was partially a choice and partially because finances did not work to cover private school tuition.

    When interviewing for residency, this was something I took into account. There were cities where it seemed every resident and attending had their children in private school We ended up going to a program in a city known for excellent public schools. We then went and toured several schools and looked for homes close to our favorites. We are incredibly happy with our choice.

    I think there is a perception that children from private schools are more successful than those who receive a public education. But I attended public schools for elementary, high school, college, and medical school, and think I received an excellent education. Ultimately, I think it is more of a factor of parental involvement and interest than system.

  6. I grew up in a racially diverse small Montessori classroom (best friends were Vietnamese, Chinese-American, and African-American) and was culture shocked into an all-Caucasian private school class in the 8th grade (remember, I'm in the South). Did well academically but struggled socially, in the beginning, eventually making friends toward the end. I went to a small private college. My husband grew up in the public school and college system. We are both doctors.

    I started my kids, now 6 and 4, in the Montessori system at 3, knowing I wanted for them the same thing I had. It was the same, and different. My older daughter thrived. My younger son did not. We abruptly switched them to a small, much less expensive private school in town that DOESN'T IQ test kids in (we have schools that do in the area and I, too, am more in line with Nurture Shock on that one) at the beginning of the summer. They are both thriving in an extremely nurturing environment, which at this point, is way more important than academics to me.

    I am finally almost partner and getting more time off - plan to visit two more schools in February, one local public (I have heard enough stories that I am reluctant) and a local much more expensive private. I am reluctant to shell shock my kids into a financially affluent environment at such a young age, but am keeping my mind open. I like where they are - it is racially diverse, caring, and my first grader is academically challenged but not to the point of tremendous anxiety. The place feels right, for them. So we'll see.

  7. I'm not a mother, but I am a student and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that the student (or the parent in the case of a young child) has the ability to make the most, or the worst of their education. I have gone to public schools my entire life (not necessarily the best schools), but I did well enough to get into a good college and I am currently applying to medical school. I am ahead of most the students in my science classes even though a large majority of them attended private schools from elementary to high school. I agree with Tempeh that the money should be saved for college and grad school, your kids will greatly appreciate it later; I know I do.

  8. Hello,
    I am a high school student in a private school (catholic) and i have been attending private school all of my life. Although i do not have much to compare, i have quite a few friends in public school and i can definitely see a difference in the schools. The first thing to consider is the fact that no matter if your child is a brilliant, straight a student, or a slacker, c student (not saying all c students are slackers, please don't take offense to this), your child will get individual attention. The teachers at my school want you to do your best and will work with you very closely to make sure you are achiving your highest potential. Also, we have a higher grading scale, 93 is an A instead of the typical 90. We are put to a higher standard in both our studies and our morals. (aka no pregnancies, drugs, alcohol, ect--although they have been known to happen, our school does NOT take those issues lightly). Lastly, the graduation statistic is shockingly high in my school, somewhere around 99%, where the public high schools are around 50%.

    Granted, this is only one school in the total opposite part of the country, but i think those topics are still something to consider (especially for the high school debate). Just don't write off private schools quite yet, there are better ones out there, and i know that they have been extremely beneficial for me.

  9. Thank you all for your comments. You have all certainly enforced my instinct that public school is likely the best option. We are definitely thinking about moving into a better area (need to get our from being under water in our current house :) I will likely send my daughter to private for kindergarten at least (which also offers a full-day curriculum instead of half-day in public schools) and is not too much more than preschool.

    Interesting point in the last comment - I really do believe the people you socialize with can make a difference in your child's life. My husband went to a magnet school and went on to MIT and he really enjoyed the competition and the friends he made from both of those environments are ones he has kept...all of whom are not just very successful, but very interesting individuals. Given some of the social pressures today, I wonder if the private school environment would be better...

  10. I work with kids from a low income school. A majority of them do not read on grade level. (In fact, I have a few 3rd graders who are reading on a kindergarten level.) It would be easy to blame it on the public school that they all attend. All the kids that struggling have another thing in common, parents who don't value education. The teachers can only do so much in the classroom.

    I went to a public school from Preschool though 12th grade. I then decided to attend a smaller private Christian liberal arts college. I did just as well as the students who went to private school. The only people I saw struggle a bit were home school students (not academically but socially).

  11. Husband and I have struggled with this decision, as our son will start Kindergarten in August. Your story is so familiar - some schools are so snooty, and some make us feel like clods for not having our son enrolled in calculus classes already.

    In the end, you will make the right decision for your child.

    Best wishes!

  12. Lowest scores? Based on what--No Child Left Behind? The biggest indicator for a child's academic success is the level of parental involvement. When looking for a pre-K or kindgergarten program for your child, look for one that encourages lots of hands on learning and creativity. Young children are hands on learners! A program with NAEYC accredition is a bonus! Good luck--I'm sorry that you have had a bad experience!

  13. The most important thing to remember is no decision is ever permanent. I once heard a friend debating between public, private and home (outloud, but primarily debating herself) and she said "It's so scary, I mean, this is my child's whole life!"
    Alarmed I reminded her that while it is wise to finish a semester and or year in one school ... NO educational decision needs be permanent. If the public school isn't a good fit, try a private school, if the private school doesn't work, there are others ... you can homeschool ... you can move ... you can apply for the district you prefer to allow your child to go there.

    Nothing can't be undone ... nothing. Whatever choice you make, make it because it seems to be the best fit ...and if that fit somehow becomes uncomfortable, find one that does work.

  14. I too grew up in Canada and am now living in the US. My son, who is only 16 months, still has a long way to go before he starts school, but I fear the same as you do. I just don't know where to begin when it comes to an education in the US. I too plan to send my son to a private school ('to be safe'), likely a Catholic one (since we are Catholic), and will likely keep him there until grade 7 or so. I may choose a good public school for high school. I will see. OR better yet, I can convince my Texan husband to move to Vancouver, where I'm from.
    My colleagues, all female family physicians, send there kids to private schools in Houston. I think the education system is just not as standardized here as it is in Canada. I wish you luck in your decision.

  15. Thanks to everyone who commented on this topic - I enjoyed reading all of them. Yesterday in the Post there was an article about Kindergarten going half-day for almost all schools in the County...I do think it would be a shame to have a ripe 5-year old in daycare for half a day every day (since I will be working)...so for this reason, at least, it may still make sense to do private kindergarten. Regardless, I will revisit this decision after this year and go through the process again. Interestingly, another article in the same paper discussed how good the area's public high schools are in comparison to others around the country...again, thanks for all the comments. It's wonderful to have a source of such rich opinions.

  16. I live in a county with fine public schools, except that we live on the 'wrong' side of the county where the schools don't score at quite such stellar levels.

    However they are wonderfully diverse and compared to schools in neighboring jurisdictions nothing to turn up your nose at.

    I look at the break-outs of the scores on your local elementary school. Most likely it scores lower because it contains a more diverse population. Usually scores are broke out by race and that will let you see how your particular sub-group does. Let's assume you are Asian.

    If you are Asian and Asian kids do fine in your local elementary school, but a large group of foreign immigrants are pulling the school average down I would go ahead and try the school.

    However, if you are Asian and the Asians in your school are the reason for the low average then I would go for a private school. The children your child is likely to identify most with would not be setting a high bar for him/her to judge against.

    Middle and high schools are a different story because they encompass more neighborhoods, if you save your money now you can bail when the time comes.

  17. Several other posters have tangentially mentioned homeschooling, so I'll chime in. My husband and I have homeschooled our son since K (we start 2nd semester of 8th grade tomorrow!), and although it hasn't exactly been relaxing, I would say it has been worth it. Someone raised the socialization issue; I would say a bigger problem is staying home enough to homeschool! Son is involved in sports, academic co-op classes, piano lessons- typical activities. He's not a freakish homeschooled genius (and will NOT be winning any spelling bees-lol), but an advantage (and there are many) of hs'ing is being able to teach to mastery.
    As far as my practice, I am technically part-time, though am on-call usually 4d on, 3d off and 1-2 wkends per month. I see pts about 2-3d per week, but can schedule them in a very flexible manner.
    Obviously, homeschooling isn't for everyone, but it can be done, so I throw this out there for people to consider.


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