5 Major Differences Between Public and Private Schools

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Education is an important part of raising children and preparing them to live successful lives. For many families, finding the right school environment isn't as easy as enrolling at the local public school. With the information available today about learning differences and 21st-century skills, not all schools can adequately meet the needs of every student. Determining if the local school is meeting your child's needs or if it's time to switch schools can be challenging.

As public schools face budget cuts that lead to larger class sizes and fewer resources, many private schools continue to flourish. However, a private school can be expensive. To decide if it's worth the investment, examine these major differences between public and private schools. 

Class Size

Class size is one of the major differences between public schools and private schools. The class size in urban public schools can be as large as 25 to 30 students (or more), while most private schools keep their class sizes closer to an average of 10 to 15 students, depending on the school.

Some private schools publicize a student-to-teacher ratio, in addition to, or sometimes in place of, an average classroom size. The student-to-teacher ratio is not the same as the average classroom size, as the ratio often includes part-time teachers who may serve as tutors or substitutes, and sometimes the ratio even includes non-teaching faculty (administrators, coaches, and even dorm parents) who are part of students' daily lives outside the classroom.

Many private schools with small class sizes offer electives, meaning that your child will receive personalized attention and the ability to contribute to classroom discussions that foster learning. For example, some schools have a Harkness Table, an oval-shaped table that began at Philips Exeter Academy to allow all the people at the table to look at each other during discussions.

Smaller class sizes also mean that teachers can give students longer and more complicated assignments, as the teachers don’t have as many papers to grade. For example, students at many academically challenging college-preparatory private schools write 10- to 15-page papers as juniors and seniors.

Teacher Preparation

While public school teachers always need to be certified, private school teachers often don’t need formal certification. Nevertheless, many are experts in their fields or have master’s or even doctoral degrees. While it is very difficult to remove public school teachers, private school teachers generally have contracts that are renewable each year.

Preparation for College or Post-High School Life

Many public schools do a good job of preparing students for college, but some do not. A recent study found that even A-rated public schools in New York City have remediation rates of over 50 percent for their graduates who attend the City University of New York. Most college-preparatory private schools do a thorough job of preparing their graduates to succeed in college; however, this too varies based on the individual school.

Student Attitudes

Because private schools often have selective admissions processes, they are able to choose students who are highly motivated. Many private school students want to learn, and your child will be surrounded by classmates who regard academic achievement as desirable. For students who aren't challenged enough at their current schools, finding a school full of highly motivated students can be a major improvement in their learning experience.

Meaningful Academics and Activities

Because private schools don’t have to follow state laws about what to teach, they can offer unique and specialized programs. Parochial schools can offer religion classes, while special-education schools may provide remedial and counseling programs to help their students.

Privates schools also often offer highly advanced programs in the sciences or arts. Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles invested more than $6 million in developing one of the top private school advanced science programs.

The immersive environment also means that many private school students attend school for more hours in the day than do public school students, because private schools offer afterschool programs and a longer schedule. This means less time to get in trouble and more time to get involved in activities.