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 just enrolling at the local public school. With the information we have today about learning differences and 21st-century skills, not all schools can adequately meet the needs of every student. So how do you determine if the local school is meeting your child's needs or if it's time to switch schools?

A common comparison is that of public schools and private schools. As many 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. Is it worth the investment?

Here are some major questions that you should be asking yourself about the differences between public and private schools. 

How Large Are the Class Sizes?

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 25-30 students (or more), while most private schools keep their class sizes closer to an average of 10-15 students, depending on the school. It's important to note that some schools will 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, dorm parents) who are part of students' daily lives outside the classroom.

There are electives at some private schools with even fewer students, meaning that your child will receive personalized attention and the ability to contribute to classroom discussions that foster learning. 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 10-15 page papers as juniors and seniors.

How Are the Teachers Prepared?

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.

How Well Does the School Prepare Students for College or Post-High School Life?

While many public schools do a good job of preparing students for college, many do not. For example, a recent study found that even A-rated public schools in New York City have remediation rates of over 50% 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.

What Attitude Do the Students Have When It Comes to School?

In part, 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 students 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.

Does the School Offer Other Services and Activities That Are Meaningful for My Child?

Because private schools don’t have to follow state laws about what to teach, they can offer unique and specialized programs. For example, parochial schools can offer religion classes, while special-education schools can offer remedial and counseling programs to help their students. Schools often offer highly advanced programs in the sciences or arts. For example, 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 simply attend school for more hours in the day than do public school students because private schools offer after-school programs and a longer schedule. This means less time to get in trouble and more time to get involved in activities.