Public vs. Private: The School Debate, Part 1

This weekend I was asked, “How did you decide to put your kids in private school? Is private better than public?” As a public school teacher and a private school mother, here is my take:

First, there are some great public schools and some not-so-great public schools and some great private schools and some not-so-great private schools. Don’t envision a huge balance scale with public on one side and private on the other. You have to go school by school.

When deciding what school to send your child to, consider these criteria:

Academic Rigor – Does the school challenge children academically, encourage students to reach high standards of learning, and meet each child’s learning needs? For a public school, look up that school’s test scores and school report card on your state education website. Check graduation rates and college attendance rates. For a private school, it should have similar testing information on its own website, and if it doesn’t, send an email to the headmaster asking for that info. (Keep in mind, though, that achievement tests are not the only evidence of good teaching and student learning.)

Extra-Curricular Opportunities – Are there programs, materials, clubs, or classes outside of the core subjects that help children develop holistically? For example, the public (elementary) school I work in has a computer lab, hands-on science kits, and a butterfly garden. The private school my children attend has a computer lab, science lab, and Spanish classes that students attend weekly. The school offers many clubs, monthly field trips, sports teams, and after-school dance/music classes.

Positive Environment – You want a school that feels warm and inviting from the moment you enter. Go visit the schools you are considering and be on the lookout for teachers and staff that are NOT giving you “the tour.” Are they friendly, not only with you, but with the students and with each other? Is the principal visible and available? Ask to sit in on a class. What are teacher-student interactions like? Realize that all teachers have moments in which they lose their cool, but generally teachers should be positive and caring (and you can be firm and caring at the same time) rather than demeaning and angry. Likewise, look for students who seem eager and happy, and who show kindness and respect to the teacher and to other students. For me, putting my children in a private religious school gives me peace that they will be loved and cared for, even when being disciplined.

Quality Instruction – This is different from academic rigor because it focuses more on the effectiveness of day-to-day teaching and learning. You want teachers who provide students with open-ended projects, questions, and activities, not just worksheets. Worksheets are not necessarily bad, but they should not be used all the time because they typically only offer students one right answer, and thus discourage divergent and critical thinking. You want teachers who involve as many sensory experiences as possible in lessons (e.g., math manipulatives, science experiments, music, reader’s theatre). You also want a teacher who is willing to work with your child’s abilities. If your kid is in second grade but reads at a third grade level, will the teacher challenge him? If your kid is great at reading but struggles in math, how will the teacher support and improve that weakness?

For parents who are on the fence between public and private education, I hope this helps. Keep on the lookout for Part 2 . . . .


  1. Yeah I’m so happy to have this post! T has just started pre-school and I’ve just started the search for elementary schools. I’m finding it extremely difficult to know what questions to ask and who to ask them to. I’ve pulled the report cards but there’s no guide (at least as far as I can tell) to explain what it means.

    As far as Quality Instruction goes – who do you direct your questions to? Do public schools let you sit in on classes?

    I love this series and am looking forward to the next installment!

  2. kksorrell says:

    Well, public schools are reluctant, but yes, parents can sit in on classes! You want teachers who teach engaging, interesting lessons, not just all paper-pencil stuff. Most kids learn through moving and getting their body involved. Most schools do that in Pre-K and K, but not in the upper grades. They also should be challenged to use higher skills – not just recall skills, but analyzing, evaluating, defending, creating, problem solving, etc.

  3. This is a great post Karissa. This is a hard topic to write about without offending people on either side of the fence, but your post is balanced and really a great starting point for parents considering either option. Well done.

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