Are charter schools better than traditional public schools? Are private schools better still? As a researcher, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked these simple questions—and had to avoid simple answers. I’ve studied the questions myself using massive national databases. I’ve worked closely with others who have examined them using the educational equivalent of randomized clinical trials. The answer, frustrating as it may be for parents and policymakers, is: it depends. It depends on the particular school and it depends on the child. Thirty years of research points to no other consistent answer.
The answer is not, however, idiosyncratic. Great schools, regardless of the sector they inhabit, share well-established attributes. They have clear and focused missions. They have high academic expectations for all of their students. They take a coherent approach to their work. Teachers embrace what the school is all about. Leaders inspire while insisting on results. Students are enveloped in a culture that promotes engagement, efficacy, and excellence—academic, athletic, and artistic.
Schools with these attributes are found in every sector. But the attributes are far easier to develop in some sectors than others. Traditional public schools, particularly in large school systems—like those serving major cities or entire counties—have difficulty developing clear missions, fostering teamwork, building strong cultures, and attracting strong leaders. So much of what the school does is decided by a board of education and district office making rules for a hundred or more schools.
Some private schools are overseen by systems as well—Catholic diocese, for example—but they are generally less controlling than their public counterparts. Independent private schools, like those represented by NAIS, are subject to no system at all. Each has its own governing board. Charter schools try to replicate that model in the public sector, each school with its own board, though they are subject to accountability standards that vary state by state.
Research makes clear that independence is a powerful advantage. Schools are more likely to bring together like-minded educators, commit to an agreed course, and produce results that students need and parents want if schools are free to chart their own course. There are no guarantees. If an independent or charter school is overseen by a board that cannot agree, the school may struggle. If the public bodies that authorize charter schools or accredit private schools do not enforce high standards, schools may disappoint. A well-governed—and typically smaller—public school system may give schools the autonomy they need to flourish.
Since this school year began, I have been traveling the country visiting independent schools and meeting with independent school leaders in small groups. Our schools are a diverse lot. I recently began my day with morning chapel at Grace Episcopal Day School
, in Kensington, Maryland, where all 90 of the school’s students assembled to reflect on the gifts in their young lives.
I was moved by the 200 elementary students at The San Francisco School
—every one of them— singing folks songs on the floor of the cafeteria at midday, a daily practice that began some fifty years ago.
The tradition of achievement was palpable as I toured the campus of the 150 year old Ravenscroft School
in Raleigh, serving 1,200 students.
Just down the road I visited the Duke School
, thoroughly and rigorously progressive.
Along the foggy, sparsely populated coast south of San Francisco, I saw the finishing touches being applied to a new “Innovation Lab” at Sea Crest School
that will help prepare students for the 21st Century—something families obviously desire. The school has grown to 270 students from only a handful at inception 17 years ago.
No less focused on the future is the venerable Hamlin School
, founded for girls 150 years ago and now offering a thoroughly modern curriculum; a coding class was emblematic.
At Brooklyn’s Packer Collegiate Institute
, yesterday’s girl’s school is today’s co-ed bastion of excellence. The balance of tradition and progressivism, arts and science, academics and exploration are remarkable, all the way from kindergarten through high school.
In Colorado, the schools are as varied
as the weather (where I experienced 25 degrees and snow on the way to the sun-drenched airport, which was a balmy 65). I have not had the pleasure of seeing these schools in person yet, but I listened to 40 school heads describe a panoply of school types, from Mountain to Montessori, Watershed to Waldorf.
The missions of the Colorado independent schools are all crystal clear, as are those of every school I’ve observed myself. The schools I’ve visited thus far evidence other attributes of strong schools, as well. Cultures are powerful, students are engaged, and educators are working with enthusiasm and dedication to make a difference for their kids. I didn’t ask school leaders about their test scores or their college lists. These schools plainly have what it takes to deliver for their students—completely.
Parents have an enormous amount to say about whether schools develop into the kinds of institutions that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. If parents are truly discerning, asking if a school has an environment that will captivate their children, that will make them feel connected and supported, that will motivate them as well as challenge them, and that has the obvious commitment of its educators to those purposes—schools will do what it takes to earn parental support. Public schools have often lacked this kind of relationship with families. They are often designed to be all things to all students, and parents send their children to the school to which they are assigned. Charter schools have changed that for a growing share of public school parents. Independent schools have always been about choice.
When parents choose, not every quality school is going to be right for every child. As schools become mission driven, each will inevitably serve some students better than others. That is just fine, given a range of schools serving a range of students from which parents may choose. When public, charter, and private schools are pitted against one another, however, with the suggestion that one type is better than the other, parents ultimately lose. They lose choices.
Independent schools, and more recently charter schools, have the undeniable advantage of autonomy—the freedom to select their own course and pursue it relentlessly. Parents should ultimately get to know schools individually, and then choose, not a sector, but what’s best for each individual child. Independent schools will do very nicely in the process.