In the Search for a Private School, the Great Data Debate Continues

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

The Feb. 21 column ["Comparative Statistics Needed to Assess Private Schools"] was great. Private schools' holier-than-thou attitudes have always bothered me.

The years I spent at Georgetown Day School before my six years at Alice Deal and Wilson were wonderful. Much of what I am I owe to GDS, and I'm grateful.

My son never had a day of public schooling. He went to private school in Manhattan and GDS here before getting a bachelor's degree at a private college. I think he got a good education at all three schools, and I don't regret the choices my wife and I made.

But for private elementary and secondary schools in New York and the District (and presumably elsewhere), an important marketing tool is social (that is, not public; prestigious; "networking"). A private school's academic quality is marketed primarily as reputation, which gets all mixed up with the social snobbery.

The only data that are available consistently for private schools are the lists of the schools to which graduates gain admission, whether it's the move from elementary to secondary or from secondary to college.

Private schools could easily publish data such as student-faculty ratios, class sizes and teacher qualifications. Teacher qualifications are a minefield, of course; what distinguishes the generally excellent teaching in private schools from the occasionally excellent teaching in public schools is that private school faculty almost never have formal training in education and almost never have the certification so cherished by public school unions and administrators.

Private school teachers usually have subject-matter credentials, often from rigorous undergraduate programs, and they typically continue those intellectual interests throughout their careers rather than divert time and energy into acquiring education credits that have more to do with administrative skills than curricular content.

You left out an important source of information for parents trying to find the right private school, and that is friends, family and acquaintances. If your neighbor's bratty and not-too-bright Tommy goes to school X, that's valuable information, just as it's worth knowing which schools are attended by all the other kids you know, whether they're 5 or 17 or even alumni. In the D.C. private school constellation, I have been able to analyze the academic and social cultures of some schools simply by observing students and graduates.

Ian Gilbert


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