Comparative Statistics Needed to Assess Private Schools

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding your Jan. 31 column ["Kindergarten This Year, or Next?"], the greater Washington area is fortunate to have some of the strongest schools in the country -- public, independent and private. I disagree with your assertion that there is no "useful data" to help with decisions about the various non-public-school options.

There are plenty of data for parents looking to make a best match placement for a child, whether the primary goal is strictly academic rigor or a more multifaceted perspective.

What is not available is a quick yardstick, such as aggregate test scores, to indicate what will lead to a child's optimum academic achievement and well-being. To identify the best school, parents should consider all sorts of data, including high-quality teachers, low student-to-teacher ratios, an ethos of academic challenge for all students, a partnership with parents and a climate that nurtures and supports achievement.

Quick-and-easy presumptions and off-the-cuff judgments without familiarity with a particular school is no way to seriously assess what is best for a child.

Elizabeth Downes

Executive director,

Association of Independent

Schools of Greater Washington

Your letter ran Feb. 7 on The Washington Post's Letters to the Editor page, which doesn't have room for reporters to respond. I want to explain what I meant by saying there was no useful data that would help the parent who had written me about comparing a local private school to the public school gifted program her child attended.

All the factors you list as important to deciding which school is best for a child are valid. But very few of them can be described and compared, school to school, with what most parents would consider data.

As you indicate, "an ethos of academic challenge for all students, a partnership with parents and a climate that nurtures and supports achievement" are great, but they are subjective factors that parents can't make any sound judgment about without enrolling their children and seeing what happens. I am sure you are not suggesting that parents identify the best by enrolling their kids in a succession of schools for a few months at a time until they figure out which they like. Unfortunately, that is the only dependable option they have if you don't provide the numbers that will allow them to make some initial comparisons.

Even the two factors you list that lend themselves to data -- high-quality teachers and student-teacher ratios -- are hard, and sometimes impossible, to assess without visiting every school on their list. I asked you to show me where such information on the factors you cited was available on the Web sites of three well-regarded local private schools: Flint Hill in Oakton, Sidwell Friends in the District and the Heights in Potomac. You wouldn't.

"To base your 'challenge' to me on a review of randomly selected schools' Web sites, when I specifically stated . . . that depending on such a short-cut is NOT the way to gather the needed information, actually seems a little disingenuous on your part," you wrote.

I tried anyway. The three subjective factors you mentioned were discussed in some of these Web sites, but I don't think either of us would want to pick a school based on what is essentially advertising copy. Getting to the truth of those issues in the few weeks or months parents have to pick a school is beyond my capabilities, unless the schools release the results of a standard parent satisfaction survey, a suggestion that I suspect most heads of school would reject without a second thought. As for the two factors that might yield data, I found faculty qualifications only on the Heights Web site. Sidwell and the Heights both had student-teacher ratios.

In a follow-up email you wrote, "Helpful assists to parents are available at and," the Web sites of the two independent school association offices in this area. But I could not find any comparative data on any factor on either of those sites.

Janice Schmidt, a parent looking for a private school in Northern Virginia, told me after checking those Web sites: "I am more frustrated than before. The [National Association of Independent Schools] Web site . . . has absolutely nothing of value (that I can discern) as it relates to comparing private schools. . . . Surely there must be some Web site that tracks why a private education at St. Albans is different than, for example, the Potomac School, or are we just supposed to take the schools' word for it?"

The answer to her question is, as far as I can tell, yes. You are supposed to believe whatever the schools tell you. Most private schools choose not to provide any shortcuts and in fact sneer at such devices as fit for buying cars or picking hospitals, but not selecting a school for a child.

The National Association of Independent Schools has sent out warnings to its members not to cooperate with journalists such as me seeking such data. Yet public schools put out reams of such information. And even a few private schools, including the Heights, have been willing to share with me their Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate numbers, which seem an excellent way to assess their "ethos of academic challenge."

Schools are essentially saying to us parents, when they refuse to provide such numbers, that we are incapable of taking a look at a few comparative statistics and making an intelligent decision on how important, or unimportant, they are in our decisions about schools.

(For what it's worth, as I have noted before, all three of my children attended both public and private schools.)

Most parents I know would prefer to get too much information than too little when dealing with such an important matter. But so far, you and most of the schools you represent don't seem to think our preferences matter very much.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or

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