We have three kids in public school. We live in a pretty good school district and pay higher taxes than most so that we don’t have to put them into a private school that can often run the same as college tuition, or alternatively, a christian school where there is time spent teaching religion which has no utility in the real world. With 3 kids in school now and a wife as a public school teacher to boot, I thought I’d share some insights on everything from school budgets to standardized testing to public vs private:
Are Private Schools Really Any Better? In short, I think the answer is normally no – if you are in a pretty good public school district. While you may have slightly smaller class sizes and less riff-raff (private schools are selective and don’t have to accept problem kids and low performers, whereas public schools do), the reality is that the caliber of the teachers and curriculum tend to be on par in my estimation. Perhaps there is a single very top-tier private school running $25K/year or more which is better than a local top public school. But your run of the mill Catholic school and mid-tier private schools are no better. While they may have good test score to show for the price, guess what? That’s purely due to selection bias. What is selection bias? Well, like I mentioned before, your public school has to take all kinds. Your top, middle and lower performing kids. Emotional support, troubled kids, etc. take the same standardized tests and end up in the average. Conversely, in private school with an interview process where they’ve weeded out the lower and middle performing students, the whole population is already coming in as high performing! So, in essence, if this same cohort of high IQ, involved-parent population were to be educated and tested in a public school… you’d have the same results. Maybe better. Finally, while this is anecdotal, my wife had offers from both public schools and a private school and the public school was paying way more. I suspect the caliber of teacher is not better at private schools where the pay is often lower (especially Catholic schools) when the top teaching candidates have accepted jobs at higher paying public schools. In essence, I have not seen compelling data that a private school education provides any benefit over a solid public school. I do not dispute that in a depressed area with a lousy public school district, you pretty much have to put your kid into a private school to even have a chance. This focus is on relatively affluent areas with strong public school districts.
Standardized Test Results are Becoming a Farce – Speaking of selection bias, here’s one for you. Many schools are now showing improved results on their standardized testing scores as a result of No Child Left Behind. That must mean schools are teaching their students better, right? Not necessarily. Aside from the cliche answer of “teachers are teaching to the test” you probably thought I’d give, I’m going to take it in a different direction. A key reason you’re seeing rising scores (which of course are an average), is that you’re now allowed to opt out of these tests! Many of these tests have no utility or benefit to the student at all and are used purely to gauge teacher/school performance. Parents are catching on and allowing their kids to opt out. I’ve talked to some parents where close to half the population is opting out! Guess which students take the tests vs. opt out… The higher performing students (or those with the more responsible/compliant parents) tend to take the standardized tests. The lower performing students or those with ambivalent parents are much more likely to opt out. There are exceptions of course. But on an aggregate scale, you have lower performing students opting out which skews the averages only toward higher performing students, thus artificially inflated scores. So while policy makers and educators are patting themselves on the back for improving test scores, it’s the opt-out policy they should really be thanking.
What Are Your Thoughts on Public, Private Schooling and Standardized Tests?
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in whether kids should pursue STEM degrees, determining whether that college degree is worth it, or the #1 thing you need to teach your kid to make them successful in life.