At first, a voucher system for adjusting the perceived disparity between public and private school education might seem like the logical solution. After all, educational statistics constantly and dismally blurt out the nation’s reading, math and science scores. Parents who have never been able to afford a private school for their child often think that “if they just had the money”, their child’s grades and learning and/or behavior would improve. As a parent whose children attended both private and public schools in elementary, high school and college, I can tell you that this just isn’t so. I also can say this because I have worked in both public and private educational settings. But, what do the statistics say? What are the real differences between public and private schools? Are private schools worth the price tag? And, perhaps most importantly in this age of frugality, how can we all give our children the best education possible? 

In 2006, the Institute of Education Sciences published a report titled The National Assessment of Educational Progress. This comprehensive statistical report used a mathematical formula to compare private and public schools. Although the method may be a bit confusing to the average parent, and some of the factors a few years old, many of the variables hold true today, particularly with respect to student and school-level descriptors. Below is a graph of the selected variables.

        Student Level Variables
        School Level Variables
Students with disabilities
English language learners
Computer in the home
Eligibility for free/reduced-price school       lunch
Participation in Title I
Number of books in the home
Number of absences
Teacher experience
Teacher certification
Student absenteeism
Percentage of students excluded
Percentage of students by race/ethnicity
Student mobility
School location
Region of the country
Percentage of students eligible for    free/reduced school lunch
Percentage of students with a disability
Percentage of English language learners
Percentage of students in Title I
School size

In looking at the above graph, it is easy to observe that some of the variables are things for which parents have little or no control in any school – region of the country, student mobility are two. There are also things which might be irrelevant to the quality of a school- eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches, race/ethnicity, or gender.  Researcher Catherine Tamis-LeMonda noted, "Within all ethnic and immigrant groups there are children who are strong academic performers and others who are not.”  So, what are the factors that all parents can consider when helping their children succeed in school that come directly from the above table, things that all parents can control?

Number of books in the home

In order for children to believe that reading is important, they have to see their parents being interested in things that are read. Even parents who are not well educated,  who speak a different language than the majority of parents in their chosen school, or who can not afford to purchase books, can show an avid interest in the printed word. That can mean newspapers, books checked out of the library, magazines, maps, and anything else a child can handle and look through and play with that has words. It can mean looking at ads for food in the grocery store, pointing out the names of common places, restaurants, streets and family members. Talking about books, handling books, thumbing through books and having conversations about even the pictures can promote interest in things literate.

But even before books, the primary means of acquiring words is through talking, A parent who talks with their child every day about anything that happens, about any activity, and who brings that interest in communication to their child increases that child’s awareness and use of talking as a foundation for written language. Then after fourth grade the primary way to gain vocabulary is through reading. Foundationally, promoting literacy through talking, listening, reading and writing, even for the very young, even if it is just handing a little one paper and crayons or even talking about the sand going in a little bucket are good family practices for future school success.

Number of Absences

Adding to number of absences is also punctuality. It is obvious that if a child is not at school or late to school, that child cannot learn well. Absences and difficulty with punctuality can run wild, even in families that have huge incomes. In fact, in some private schools there have been many teacher complaints about children being tired, coming late, or not coming for several days for reasons unrelated to illness. Being where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there is a character trait that we can all teach our children. This promotes responsibility and respect for timelines and authority.

Teacher Experience and Certification

Many parents don’t know it but a private school can be accredited with only a percentage of the teachers credentialed. Happily, most private schools do try to hire fully certified teachers, however the facts remain. Further, a growing percentage of the nation’s teachers now come from other countries, especially in math, science and special education, without having to take an English language proficiency test. Add to this the fact that we are a multi-lingual nation, all of these issues get really sticky, troubling and hard to sort out.

The best way to know a school is to observe, talk to the principal and talk to other parents of children who attend. The best way to really know a child’s teacher is to talk with him or her, ask them what their experience is and watch them the year before your child enters the grade they teach. If necessary, ask the school for the teacher you want based on your observations, your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses and find out that teacher’s certification and experience.

School Size/Class Size

Although neighborhood schools can be huge, a district school a few blocks away may be far smaller and may be the place to enroll your child. Also, school size at the elementary level can be more important than school size at the high school level. For example, smaller elementary schools allow a child to be introduced to school and what is expected within a smaller, more easily monitored environment. However, a larger high school may have more money for athletics, music and other programs that a smaller or private school just can not afford or that you might have to pay extra for.

It has been found that smaller class size is an important consideration. Probably in general, this is true, however consider the following.  My daughter’s first private school kindergarten class had 8 students. Even with such a small group, she and two of her classmates had to repeat kindergarten for their learning issues. My son’s private school kindergarten had 25 children, about the average size for many public schools, but it was all day, something that is still not universally done, and he achieved far more than many of his friends who only went half a day, either in private or public school. I think the key consideration here is what environment will encourage your child’s learning the best, and you will only know when you observe.

Computer in the Home

When my first child entered school, there were no computers in homes. Those were huge things that had their own special rooms in offices in big companies. Today nearly everyone has a computer, but more importantly, computers are everywhere. And that is the key. If your family can not afford a computer, go to where they are- libraries. Take a class if you have to so you can help your little one get use to the keyboard, the printed stuff that is on the screen and have the librarian show you how to help your child. 

If you do have a computer in your house or even if you don’t, learn how it can help your child with reading, math and all the other things he/she will be learning in school. Make sure your child plays games that encourage learning and show your child how to find things he or she wants to learn.

The Biggest Reason Children Succeed in School

Hopefully, by the time you have gotten to the end of this article, you will have noticed the one over-riding principle for promoting success in your child’s education – YOU! The biggest factor in a child’s education and life success is parental involvement. That means making sure all of the physical needs of sleep, hunger, and affection are satisfied.   It means knowing each child’s school and teacher, and providing plenty of time to be involved. It means spending enough time with your child so you know him or her so well that you can choose for them when they are little and help them choose when they are bigger. Did you really need statistics to tell you all of that?

Carol Murphy, MA, CCC-SLP, BCET
Speech-Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant