December 12, 2013

Are Independent Schools Worth the Investment?

Teacher Tyler Voorhees with his 2nd graders
Last month a new book was published that poses a very valid question, “Are private schools worth it?”
Independent school leaders, myself included, constantly reflect on this question, and are passionate in our responses. We often engage both current and prospective parents in discussion around it. I talk frequently about the value proposition of a Friends’ School education – strong academics and character development that are directed toward the development of independent, creative, and collaborative leaders. 
The book is The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. Its authors, Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, represent their research by asking this fundamental question: “Do private school students score better on standardized tests than public school students because they are from more affluent families, or because the schools are actually providing a better academic product?
It is well documented that students at private schools perform better than students in public education. Friends’ School’s 4th and 5th graders routinely outperform their BVSD counterparts. Drawing on two recent, large-scale, and nationally representative databases, the Lubienskis show that any benefit seen in private school performance is more than explained by demographics. They speculate that private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions, but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis contend that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones.
At this point, I am reminded of the quote popularized by Mark Twain about the three kinds of lies: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” As a math teacher, I have come to appreciate the beauty and the limitations of numerical analysis.
The Lubienskis’ study is flawed in that most of the schools in the study are religious schools. What about private schools like Friends’, who are accredited members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which requires us to meet rigorous standards? Are they also underperforming? The authors respond that, “actually, that was not a category in any of the data that we worked with. There’s this category of ‘other private’ that doesn’t fit into Lutheran, Catholic, conservative Christian, etc., but that’s really a catch all-category. A very small sample. So we weren’t able to study that.”
5th grade Teacher Candidate Trevor McGill with Brooks
As a part of that “very small sample,” we independent schools are constantly surprising critics such as these by disproving their statistics. I can think of several important arguments that set a Friends’ School education apart and make us worth the investment.
Firstly, no school – private or public – should minimalize the outcome of their educational program to student performance on a standardized test.
While independent schools do seek such data, it is far from the sole factor that we base our students’ success on. In fact, the standardized test of choice among independent schools is the ERB, which is geared for “college-bound high achievers”. At Friends’, our 3rd, 4th and 5th graders take the ERB test in February. We go on to contextualize these snapshot exams with even richer narrative descriptions from classroom teachers, portfolio assessment, student self-assessments, and outcomes-oriented evaluations. This type of data collection requires time and expertise, and can only be done well in a smaller and more personalized school community.
Secondly, independent schools understand and deliver the value proposition of what are known as “21st century skills”: creativity, collaboration, resilience, critical thinking, communication, social responsibility, and adaptability. These skills are considered vital to working and living in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing global society.  Independent schools like Friends’ believe these are just as important as academics and data, and teach these skills actively and intentionally.
 Teacher Diane Bramble hard at work in 3rd grade with Quinn
Thirdly, small class-size and dedicated, caring teachers have been proven, time and time again, to be a huge factor in student success.  Kids do well when they feel heard, when they know they are known, and when they have at least one adult in their lives who believes in them and helps them to understand truly the kind of learner they are. Our student:teacher ratio of 9:1 or less cannot be matched in public education.
Fourthly, the book’s authors contend that there is “danger in private school autonomy.”  They equate professional certification and accountability through state standards, found in the public system, with excellence in education.  In over 23 years in education, that has not been my sole experience. I have found that excellence is just as likely to result from hiring teachers who are passionate, who are dedicated to seeing the best in their students, and who go the extra mile. Our Friends’ School teachers are all of that and they are licensed and held accountable. They are supported each year by our endowment fund to pursue excellent professional development.
At Friends’ School, we tell prospective families that we are informed by state standards, but not driven by them. We retain the right to use professional judgment, content expertise, and the very latest research – some of which is actually happening in our school and at peer schools – to inform teaching and learning.
Finally, our independent schools rely on one of the most significant and growth-oriented forms of accountability – the accreditation process. Friends’ is one of only four schools in Boulder County who are accredited by the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS).
Accreditation assures parents that the school is focused on providing a safe and enriching learning environment while maintaining an efficient and effective operation. Accreditation provides school leadership with an independent, non-governmental validation that the school they oversee is effectively delivering a quality educational experience to its students. Accreditation provides education leaders at all levels with deserved recognition for going above and beyond the minimum to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to quality. Accreditation provides educators with valuable information about effective practices in other
5th grader Zoe
schools through participation on peer review teams.
Independent schools describe themselves as “private schools with a public purpose” (NAIS annual conference 2011). At Friends’ we live that mission every day, by training teachers, with our public school partners. To date, we have graduated over 200 teachers, through our licensure Teacher Preparation Program, who are making a difference for thousands of students, in both the public and private sectors.
I hope that all educational stakeholders take a good look at the more than 1,700 independent schools of NAIS who serve over half a million students. We have learned a great deal over our collective histories, and we have much to share with both public and other private schools.
We are well worth the investment.

This essay was written in association with my friend and colleague Rafael del Castillo, Head of School at Seattle Girls’ School in Seattle, WA. 


Elizabeth Henna said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the value proposition of schools like Friends'. I just wanted to point out, though, that there are many religious schools which are members of NAIS and are therefore held to the same standards of accountability through the accreditation process. I am sure you know that personally but thought it was a little unclear in the post.

Anonymous said...

Your review of the Lubienskis' book makes many fine points, but in the end each family has to make the choice after a close examination of each private school. But, anyone can see that the Lubienskis overstate. Your school seems to place a high value on teacher training, which is where the Lubienskis say most private schools fail. Please take a look at my blog post this week. Though it focuses on schools in the DC Metro area, I could not help but hold your school up as an example of a private school that might challenge some of the Lubienskis' conclusions.

Steve de Beer said...

Thank you both for these last two comments. In fact, there is no accreditation requirement for NAIS membership. State and regional independent school associations, such as ACIS here in Colorado, have a strict accreditation process. Not all NAIS schools do. I do not make this point clearly in my article. Accredited members are held to rigorous standards. Non-accredited members of NAIS are not.

Yes, at Friends' we hold teacher education, and ongoing professional development, in the highest regard. Thank you for highlighting our school in your post.