Ask Kazzy #3
Pierre and I discussed in your Wal-Mart thread about how we felt unsophisticated compared to the kid’s who went to private school for K-12. This is despite us both being very accomplished educationally (at least in terms of formal education/degrees obtained). Other classmates from my very good public high school said they felt unprepared for college work compared to their private school counterparts. This is despite the fact we all ended up in the same schools that are considered selective/elite.
From what I can tell, certain private schools on the elite end give their students a certain level of confidence both directly and indirectly.
Do you think that public schools can breed this kind of confidence in their students? Why or Why not?
As an educator at a private school, do you agree with my assessment on why private school kids have an edge? Why or why not? What are your theories?
This is a really fascinating question. In many ways, ND’s experiences mirror my own. At the risk of bragging, I was an “elite” student in my public high school. I finished ranked in the Top 10 and scored a 1420 on the old version of the SAT. I took AP classes in Math and History, acing the BC Calc exam. I figured I would measure up nicely against my would-be classmates at Boston College. Until I got there. A number of them were eligible for “sophomore standing”, meaning they had enough AP credits to access higher level courses their freshmen year. Many of them took a half dozen AP, some in subjects such as philosophy, economics, and political science, courses I assume were offered only at the college level; my high school had no such offerings at any level. More importantly, while we might have entered college with a similar level of confidence/arrogance, they were on such a higher level that mine was quickly dashed. “Man… I thought I was smart! Clearly not! Not like these kids!” It was an unsettling situation, one I fortunately survived because I still had a sufficient amount of confidence/arrogance to survive.
To ND’s questions, I’m going to address them in reverse order, first discussing how it is independent schools go about instilling such confidence and self-assurance in their students and to what extent this is possible in public schools.
What we must first examine is the nature of independent schools, specifically elite preparatory schools (both day and boarding). Facts are facts: Most independent schools have vastly more money to spend per student than their public counterparts. Per the National Association of Independent Schools*, member schools spent an average of $20,118 in day schools, $27,145 in day/boarding schools, and $47,727 in boarding schools per student. Public schools, on the other hand, spent an average of just $10,591 per student as of 2009 (the most recent year for which the National Center for Education Statistics has data), once state administrative costs are filtered out. In essence, at least twice as much money per student is being spent in independent schools than in public schools. And what this analysis does not account for is the disproportionate amount of spending on special education that public schools are required to fund (e.g., a school of 100 students would have $1,059,100 to spend total, but if 5 of those students require full time aids, each costing $40,000/year, the school would be left with just $859,100 for the remaining 95 students, meaning an average of just $9,043; please note that none of this should be construed as a criticism or objection to special education funding, but rather just a recognition of the reality that public schools face). So the difference is even more stark.
And while some of this difference goes towards things like state-of-the-art athletic fields and computer rooms, my belief is that the biggest difference is made in the student:teacher ratio: NAIS member schools have an average student:teacher ratio of 9, compared to approximately 14 for public schools. If these numbers seem low, it is because they included all teaching personnel, including specialists. But suffice it to say, class sizes are much lower in private schools than in public schools.
This has numerous effects. When you have twice as much funding and 50% more teaching staff, you’re going to have a vastly different learning environment. Add in that independent schools can be selective in their admissions, a luxury that public schools do not have, and you have the perfect mix for fostering the sort of differences that New Dealer’s question gets at.
Independent schools can offer small classes of 10 or fewer academically elite students tackling subject matters such as economics, philosophy, and political science. The public school across town has to balance the needs of special education students, lower performing students, students on non-college tracks, average students, elite students… and all on half the per-student funds. And beyond the academic benefits that smaller class sizes offer are the social-emotional benefits, which I think get at the heart of New Dealer’s question. At the risk of painting with broad strokes, independent school students are more likely to be seen as individuals who are empowered to take agency with their education, where public school students are more likely to be seen as cogs in a machine. This is not a criticism of public schools per se, but rather an acknowledgement of the different realities that the two approaches face. Administrators are far more likely to know students by name in independent schools and to have relationships with them that extend beyond discipline or academic counseling. Many public school systems operate on a “squeaky wheel” principle as a matter of necessity; most independent schools make a point that students have an active, positive relationship with their teachers and administrators.
So, that is my theory on why we see not only a difference in academic achievement, but in the confidence and approach to education between public and private school students.
What do we do about it? Well, the easy answer is to offer more funding to public schools. But that is much easier said than done and is no guarantee that the money will actually go where it is intended. Ignoring this and other massive reform efforts, I think a shift in mentality would make the biggest difference. Far too often I hear teachers speak about students as impediments to their success. “If only I didn’t have so-and-so in my class, I could really get stuff done.” I find this thinking problematic. While I do not doubt that certain students make our work harder, the fact is that we are there for the students, in service of them. As soon as we begin to see ourselves in service of something else… test scores, curriculum benchmarks, union requirements… we lose focus on the students and reduce them to those faceless cogs in the machine. Students aren’t impediments to success; they are the means by which we achieve it. By freeing teachers to focus on their students, individually and collectively, instead of attempting to meet a bunch of external expectations, many of which are largely unrelated to student success and achievement, would go a long way towards addressing the gap.
In summary, independent schools, via greater funding and working with a student population that tends to be more academically elite, better supported at home, and more motivated, are able to offer an educational experience that empowers students with confidence and agency in a way that public schools can’t/won’t/don’t. Public schools can address this, in part, by allowing teachers to see and work with students as individuals and give them the necessary attention and support to feel a similar sense of empowerment. This is much, much easier said than done.
It should be noted that despite all the criticism heaped upon our public system, as a whole, it still does a remarkable job. Given the challenges it faces, of which I’ve only scratched the surface, the fact that they churn out so many students capable of working on par with their independent school peers, not to mention all the other ones who may not achieve that level of success but otherwise become productive members of society… is really quite impressive.
* Unfortunately, I cannot link to the NAIS data as it is behind a membership wall. I can probably download the PDFs to share if people are really interested in the data. There might also be certain data available publicly though I tend to go right to the protected stuff. If you are really interested in seeing it, which there are boatloads of and all of it fascinating, let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.