Care and Feeding

Is Public or Private School Better for My Child?

A little girl wears a backpack on her back.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tabin/Getty Images Plus and AzmanJaka/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My husband and I are both public school teachers, and we believe deeply in public education. Our daughter is Black/white biracial. She’ll be five and a half in the fall. There’s an amazing, progressive, private school a block away from us that has small class sizes, takes anti-racist education seriously, and has student-centered learning and everything academic you could ask for. However, the lower school especially is extremely not diverse. I know it gets a little better as the grades go up, but every grade is still predominantly white.

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A few blocks in the other direction is a good public school. In Manhattan, where schools are generally segregated, it’s diverse, majority Latinx. Classes will be a lot bigger than at the private school. Instruction will be more traditional.

We always believed we would send our daughter to public school, and it’s very important to us to put our daughter in situations to develop a healthy racial identity and feel affirmed. But the private school provides the exact kind of academic experience we want for her, and we could send her to extracurricular activities with majority people of color…but maybe that wouldn’t be enough. Now that the decision is bearing down on us it suddenly feels like we’re putting diversity above educational opportunity when we decide against the private school. Can you guide us here?

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—Concerned Parents

Dear Concerned Parents,

There are no good answers here. The problem I have with so many private schools is that for all the good work they do, the student population is often lacking in racial and socio-economic diversity. While this is not always the case, of course, I teach and consult in a lot of private schools, and many are populated by white, relatively wealthy children. These schools often talk the talk, but they often fail to walk the walk.

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As a public school teacher myself, I always lean in favor of public education. You probably feel the same. While I wouldn’t want to deny my child any academic opportunities and would try to keep an open mind to private school, I would also keep in mind that:

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1.    One of the greatest academic opportunities that we can offer our children is the chance to work with a diverse population of peers. Nothing can ever replace those powerful and lifechanging experiences for kids.

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2.    It’s important for children to be able to see themselves in their peer group, and ideally in the adults who work with them. A Black student made this clear to me last year when she explained that although our class was very diverse—with students from a variety of racial backgrounds—she was the only Black girl in the class, which wasn’t ever easy for her.

While I can’t say which school is best for your child, I would not discount the educational opportunities afforded to your child by placing her in a rich, diverse environment where she will be surrounded by people who look like her.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I have a weird question about my husband’s job as a teacher. We moved abroad for my job, which covers most of our living expenses thankfully. However, we have two kids under two, and the move has been very stressful. Due to that and some other factors, we are debating if my husband should be a stay at home dad for the next few years. He is licensed in the U.S. and the U.K., has a math degree, and a master’s degree in education, plus 10 years of teaching experience. Will a gap in teaching be held against him when he returns to teaching (he’s worried and I just don’t know)? He’s excited to watch our kids but this is making him hesitate!

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—Stay or Stay Home

Dear Stay or Stay Home,

Stay home! I think he’ll be fine.

Obviously, I can’t predict what the labor market will be like a few years from now. In the past 17 years that I’ve been teaching, there have been years where it’s very easy to land a teaching gig, and years where it’s practically impossible. Right now, there are loads of vacancies, and math teachers are almost always in high demand. I personally would not worry about a gap in employment.

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Best of luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, New York)

My son, Daniel, is a very gifted 9-year-old. This isn’t just a proud parent talking, he’s in every accelerated class his school offers and knocks them out of the park. Despite his good grades, I have concerns about his study habits, which are poor, and his attitude, which can be even worse. While he’ll perform all assignments given to him, he almost never takes notes, preferring instead to rely on his memory, and talks down the need to take notes because that’s for people who can’t remember things. He often covers his homework or other assignments with commentary about how simple the questions are and how they can make things more challenging. He has a barely concealed contempt for almost all of his schoolmates, and even quite a few of his teachers that he considers too slow.

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What can I do to help him discover some more discipline and some more compassion in a school setting? He’s getting away with things now on natural talent alone, but I worry that won’t be enough when things get more complicated.

—Talent’s Not Enough

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Dear Talent’s Not Enough,

I think your worry is justified. The students I sometimes worry about the most are the students who don’t need to work hard in order to achieve excellence. Life will eventually get hard. Learning will become a grind. Students who don’t learn to take notes, study for tests, and understand the importance of applying themselves for long periods of intense concentration often stumble badly.

The best solution for this problem is to make your son uncomfortable by raising the bar and offering him challenges that tax his mental abilities and stamina. The school should be finding ways of doing this—and if they are not, you should bring this to their attention. You can do it yourself by involving your child in activities outside his comfort zone and doing things like raising the level of reading material in the home.

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Your child’s level of compassion will likely improve when he understands what it’s like to need to work hard in order to achieve success.

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” is not simply a platitude. I have witnessed the truth of this adage firsthand many times. You’ll need to convince your son that this is true.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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