Are independent schools worth the investment?

Late last year a book was published that poses a very valid question, “Are private schools worth it?”

Independent school leaders constantly reflect on this question. We engage parents in discussion about the value proposition of private schools — strong academics and character education that lead to the development of independent, creative and collaborative leaders.
The authors of “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools,” Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, represent their research by asking this question: “Do private school students score better on standardized tests than public school students because they are from more affluent families, or because the schools are actually providing a better academic product?”

It is well documented that students at private schools perform better than students in public education. The Lubienskis speculate that private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions, but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis contend that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones.

The Lubienskis’ study is flawed in that most of the private schools in their study are religious schools. What about private schools that are accredited members of organizations such as the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS), which requires them to meet rigorous standards? The authors respond that, “actually, that was not a category in any of the data that we worked with. There’s this category of ‘other private’ that doesn’t fit into Christian (schools), but that’s really a very small sample. So we weren’t able to study that.”
As a part of that “very small sample,” we independent schools are constantly surprising critics by disproving their statistics. There are several important arguments that set an independent education apart and make it worth the investment.

First, no school – private or public – should minimalize the outcome of their educational program to student performance on standardized tests.

While independent schools do seek such data, it is far from the sole factor on which we base our students’ success. Private schools contextualize tests with rich narrative descriptions from teachers, portfolio assessment, student self-assessments and outcomes-oriented evaluations. This type of data collection requires time and expertise, and is done well in smaller, more personalized school communities.

Second, independent schools understand and deliver the value proposition of 21st century skills: creativity, collaboration, resilience, critical thinking, communication, social responsibility and adaptability. These skills are considered vital to working and living in a complex and rapidly changing global society. Independent schools believe these are just as important as academics and data, and teach these skills actively and intentionally.

Third, small class-size and dedicated, caring teachers have been proven to be a huge factor in student success. Kids do well when they feel heard, when they are known, when they understand the kind of learner they are, and when they have adults in their lives who believe in them. At my school, our student to teacher ratio of never more than 9:1 cannot be matched in public education.

Fourth, the authors contend that there is “danger in private school autonomy.” They equate professional certification and accountability through state standards, found in the public system, with excellence in education. In more than 23 years in education, that has not been my sole experience. I have found that excellence is just as likely to result from hiring teachers who are passionate, dedicated to seeing the best in their students, and go the extra mile. Independent school teachers are all of that and they are held accountable. They are supported financially each year to pursue excellent professional development.

Finally, our independent schools rely on one of the most significant and growth-oriented forms of accountability: accreditation. There are four schools in Boulder County that are fully accredited by ACIS: Alexander Dawson, Boulder Country Day, Friends’ and Shining Mountain Waldorf.

Accreditation assures parents that the school is focused on providing a safe and enriching learning environment while maintaining an effective operation. Accreditation provides an independent validation that the school is delivering a quality educational experience to its students. It provides our schools with deserved recognition for demonstrating our ongoing commitment to quality.

In the end, each family has to make its own choice after a considering all the school options. The independent schools of Boulder County are well worth the look.

Steve de Beer is the head of school at Friends’ School, a preschool through 5th grade nonsectarian independent school in Boulder. This article was written in association with Rafael del Castillo, head of school at Seattle Girls’ School in Seattle, Washington.


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