Why do many parents choose private schools? Not because of teacher quality…

As attacks on public schools and their teachers become more and more frequent, politicians from both sides of the political spectrum perpetuate the myth that America’s public schools are failing. Such politicians and policymakers advocate “school choice” and tout the benefits of private schools vouchers in an effort to “rescue” children from “poorly-performing schools” populated with “bad” teachers.

Though many polls suggest that an overwhelming percentage of parents are happy with their neighborhood public schools, some parents believe that private schools are a better alternative to a public education. Aside from the fact that many families choose parochial schools to reinforce their religious beliefs and values, the most common explanation parents give for choosing private over public is that private schools offer a “better education” or “better opportunities” for children.

But what does this generic response really mean? WHY do people perceive that private schools are superior to their public counterparts?

Here’s a hint: it generally has nothing to do with teacher quality.

This about.com article provides general, introductory insight into such a claim and lists the following “Reasons to Go to Private School”:

1) Individual attention—this article claims private schools boast smaller class sizes, and goes on to say that “discipline is not usually a problem in private schools. There are two reasons why: most students are in private school because they want to learn and, secondly, the codes of conduct by which most private schools operate, are enforced.”

2) Parental involvement—“Private schools expect parents to be actively involved in their child’s education. The concept of a three way partnership is an important part of the way most private schools work.”

3) Academic issues—“Most private schools do not have to teach to a test. As a result, they can afford to focus on teaching your child how to think, as opposed to teaching her what to think. That’s an important concept to understand. In many public schools poor test scores can mean less money for the school, negative publicity and even the chance that a teacher could be reviewed unfavorably.”

4) A balanced program–that includes “academics, sports and extracurricular activities.” (It’s no secret that public schools are becoming less and less balanced, as many have been forced to cut extracurricular activities and art/music/elective courses that aren’t subject to standardized testing.)

5) Religious teaching

How interesting that nowhere in this article does its author list “teacher quality” as a reason children should go to private schools; in fact, there’s research to suggest that “the quality of private school teachers has…been declining substantially” in recent decades. And since some private schools don’t require their teachers to be licensed (one author even claimed, in 2005, that “a person can teach in one of Milwaukee’s 125 publicly funded private schools without even a high school diploma”), parents can’t always be certain of a private school teacher’s training or credentials. (This is not to say that wonderful teachers don’t exist in private schools, because they certainly do.) But perhaps most important is that the benefits of private schools listed above are factors that extend well beyond what a classroom teacher is able to control.

Moreover, a study by Center on Education Policy found “no evidence that private schools actually increase student performance.” Private schools do, the study says, have a higher percentage of students who want to do well academically–and whose parents support those ambitions–which creates the illusion that the schools, and not the children who populate them, are responsible for the students’ successes. Many other researchers have arrived at the same conclusions, yet school choice proponents are unwilling to acknowledge that problems in society (absentee parents, poverty, substance abuse, etc.) translate to problems in public schools.

When it really comes down to it, do parents believe that private schools offer a “better education” or “better opportunities” because of their teaching staffs—or because private schools enjoy freedom from the crippling restriction to which public schools are subject and because of the “favorable” demographics of the student/parent populations in private schools? All signs point to the latter explanation, but nobody really wants to admit as much. Either way, teachers aren’t to blame here.

So public school educators continue to be the subjects of witch-hunts and are blamed for the failings of society to which many of their private school teacher counterparts are immune. Are there bad teachers? Absolutely. But the farce that they exist (and make up a significant portion of the staff) solely in public schools–and are the reason for failures in those schools–is ludicrous.

To be simple and redundant: public schools and their teachers teachers do not cause failures of society that drive parents to pursue private education options for their children, nor do public school teachers have the means, power, or resources to fix many of these failures. Until policymakers (many of whom send their own children to private schools) acknowledge this and give teachers the credit and authority they deserve, the restrictions, funding/program/personnel cuts, and regulations to which public schools are subject will continue to cripple the institution and drive privileged children to private options.

But maybe that’s the point.

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