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

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


You make some very good points, particularly the value of comparing notes with other parents. I don't, however, think we have enough research to conclude that the quality of private school teaching is better than that in public schools. That has not been my experience, but again we lack the data to decide which of us is right.

Dear Extra Credit:

Thank you for your Feb. 21 column, which puts words to the frustration that my husband and I are having in trying to compare private, independent schools in the D.C. area for our two children, who will be entering kindergarten and first grade, respectively, next year. We moved to this area in August after many years in Central Europe and, most recently, four years in Moscow, and we had assumed that the lauded Montgomery County Public Schools would be fine for our children. Unfortunately, although the teachers and administrators at our son's school are extremely nice and capable, his school is just not equipped for a kindergartner who is reading and doing math at the third-grade level. So, we have had to look at private school options. It has been nearly impossible to find any useful data that would allow us to make any sort of comparison among the hundreds of private schools in the area.

Each one says that it offers small classes and individualized attention and that it has a nurturing environment with many opportunities for development inside and outside the classroom. Among the schools that post student-teacher ratios on their Web sites (which is far less than a quarter, I'd say), they are generally between 10:1 and 14:1 (not counting interns and student teachers) in the primary grades.

Ultimately, we chose four schools to apply to, in a most unscientific way: Two are the most well-known K-12 schools in the D.C. area, one is close to our neighborhood and is where a friend's children attended 12 years ago, and the last is a school with an impressive Web site, very nice grounds and a good academic reputation. We visited one additional school that we chose not to apply to because we did not want the religious elements that it offered (which were mentioned in a very misleading way on the Web site, which claimed it had a nonsectarian "chapel" service each morning, when in fact it offers a prayer that ends "in Jesus's name," which does not sound "nonsectarian" to me).

Just this morning, we visited one more school that has rolling admission and that came to my attention because I'd driven by it several times and it has an interesting advertisement in several family-oriented magazines. This is a ridiculous way to choose a school, but I see no alternative short of (as you astutely point out) enrolling the children and then pulling them out if we don't like the school and enrolling them somewhere else. Given that my husband and I both have full-time-plus jobs, it isn't feasible to visit more than six to eight schools, since this must be done during business hours.

K. Reed


Your well-informed view buttresses what I have been hearing from parents for many years. But we might be wrong. The private schools' insistence that the kind of data we seek can only distort our selection process might have support among some people who have tried to pick the right school for their child. I would love to hear from any parents who think comparative statistics have no place in making these decisions.

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 e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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