When our daughter was born, my wife and I were assuming that when she came to be of school age we’d enrol her in public school. We live in a city where the schools are probably better than most places, on average anyway, and one thing we didn’t want was for our daughter to grow up to be any kind of snob or classist. My wife and I both went to public schools, and parents usually think that what was good enough for them is good enough for their kids. We soon changed our opinion.
Consider the state of our public schools. The ones that I went to—this was in a smallish town in Ontario in the 1970s and ‘80s—were relatively good schools by the standards of the time. Some of my teachers were quite good and I learned a lot from some of them, but my overall impression through all those years was that the educational system as a whole could and should be better. Looking back, I still think that impression was accurate. Today, of course, the standards of public education are said, by the governments who run them anyway, to be higher. They’ve been “raising standards” for a few decades now, so they say. I don’t think so. A large majority of my students are among the more successful of the public school graduates in Ontario, and I’m well aware of what they know and what they don’t know, what their work ethic is, and what they’ve read and what they haven’t. I certainly don’t want to insult any of them—they can’t be faulted for not knowing what they were not taught—but the trend I’ve observed over the years is that while the entering average at my university remains sky high, the primary cause of this is grade inflation.
There’s a prejudice that many people have long had about private schools in general, and it’s one that I used to believe too: private schools are for the rich and the snobbish; they produce young elitists who are out of touch with the great majority of their fellow human beings. Over the last several years that our daughter has been in a private school my observation has been quite the opposite. The parents I’ve met—and it’s a high number—appear to have two things in common, and it’s not that they’re rich or snobbish: it’s that they care rather a lot about their kids’ education and they don’t have much confidence in the public school system. I don’t need to convince you of the importance of education, but the second point: why the lack of confidence in public schools and how do they compare in some concrete ways to their private competitors?
Ask any teacher whether class size matters. Our daughter’s third grade class has ten students in it. Last year her class had eight. That’s about average in her school. If she were in a public school in our city, that number would be around thirty. Then there’s classroom environment. How does a child of any age learn in a classroom that’s crowded, chaotic, and loud, in which serious behavioral problems are on the rise while teachers lack the authority to do anything about it? What recourse do students or parents have when they’re negatively impacted by other kids’ behavior or by unsatisfactory teaching? Try going to your principal or school board to voice your concerns. How often do you meet with any of these people, or even your child’s teacher? Quite apart from class size is the size of the institution as a whole. Public schools continue to get larger in order to meet not educational but fiscal needs; it’s accountants who are driving the trend toward ever larger schools, not educators. Private schools are typically smaller and of more “human scale,” where students of different ages and backgrounds are more likely to mix than in large institutions where a kind of age segregation has long been the norm. When our daughter was in first grade, her best friend was in grade five. This isn’t unusual in her school. What’s usual there is for children from the Montessori preschool through to grade eight to mix and socialize, either in the playground, on school trips, or in any number of settings. The relatively small size of the institution also fosters a strong community atmosphere where parents regularly volunteer and labor-management relations don’t deteriorate in the usual manner of public institutions.
Consider next how the public system is governed and funded. In a private school like the one our daughter attends, if a parent wants to “voice a concern,” they’re free to do so—to meet formally or informally with a teacher, principal or vice principal, or the board of directors or owner who oversees the operation. If they want a policy reconsidered, for instance, they’re free to express their view and they’re guaranteed a hearing. Have you ever tried to get a policy reconsidered in a public school? If so, what was your experience like? How about the funding? Underfunded schools rarely get good results, no matter how dedicated the teachers might be. In a private institution, revenue is based on tuition, and tuition amounts are decided by the board or owner, not the state.
Now consider quality of teaching. It’s not easy to get the best out of teachers who are overwhelmed and stressed out. When a teacher has ten students, they can actually teach, spend time with the individual student and see to their educational needs. They can do a far better job of tailoring the curriculum to their particular group of students, adjusting the pace, and keeping control of the classroom. I’m not claiming that private school teachers in general are simply better educators than their public system counterparts. My claim is that the quality of teaching tends to be better because conditions in a private setting typically allow teachers to exercise some freedom and some professional judgment, and to hold onto the idealism that so many in that profession have.
In private schools, enrolment is selective, behavioral standards are typically higher and far more enforceable, curriculum may be enriched and diversified, enrichment programs are common, and a higher overall standard of education can be set. The bottom line is that students learn more; there’s a high probability that their intellectual and personal growth will exceed what’s possible in a public institution. I’m very skeptical of standardized tests, but for what it’s worth, studies have found that private school students significantly outperform their public school counterparts on a range of subjects. Their future prospects are simply better. Private school alumni are more likely to find themselves in positions of leadership in later careers, likely because more has been expected of them. Most parents want their kids to have it better than they did. Usually that hope takes economic form: they want their kids to grow up to become more affluent. I don’t think very much about that. What I think about is how much knowledge she’s going to have, what kind of human being she’s going to become, and whether she’s going to do some good in the world. What socio-economic class she ends up in isn’t at the top of my list.
I work for a public institution, and while it’s a very good one it’s still a public institution. There’s a way of thinking that tends to prevail in pretty much any institution, educational or otherwise, that’s owned and funded by the state, and it’s a logic that ultimately serves not the students themselves but the politicians and governments who control those institutions. It’s a way of thinking that’s utilitarian, bureaucratic, overtly political, impersonal, and sometimes inhuman. It caters to mass needs and knows nothing of the individual. This can happen to private schools as well, but it’s far less likely to.