Academic Tradeoffs Accompany Private School Education

Private schools commonly lure prospective families with the promise of exemplary education.  Their proof is in the elite high schools and colleges that their alumni attend.  Parents who can afford the $30,000-$40,000/year tuition are easily seduced.  The hefty price tag, they reason, is simply an investment in their child’s educational future.

What many parents fail to recognize is the academic sacrifice attending such an institution entails.  Large budgets lead to dozens of field trips, lavishly celebrated holidays, and renowned visiting speakers.  In addition, each class is immersed in dynamic projects that – when completed – are shared with the broader school community.  The result is an academic roster that is frequently interrupted.  Alternative schedules are the norm, and core instructional time is often an afterthought.

No branch of student learning suffers more from this than math.

Standard 50-60 minute math blocks seem mundane (and maybe trivial) compared to museum field trips, virtually visiting Chinese pen pals, listening to a Holocaust survivor share their story, or seeing a Declaration of Independence movie that the fourth graders created.  As a result, academic instruction defers to more dynamic school events.  On a case-by-case basis, the choice is usually understandable.  The compilation of enriching experiences, however, results in an enormous loss of instructional periods.  Over time, this stunts many students’ mathematical progress.

Private schools typically provide 120-130 math instructional hours/year, 30-40 fewer than most public schools.  From kindergarten through fifth grade, this equates to nearly two instructional years.  In reality, the lost time is significantly higher.  Mathematics is unlike other core subjects because consecutive instructional days are crucial to retaining foundational skills and learning concepts that build on them.  A canceled Wednesday math class often results in more than one lost instructional period, because teachers invariably spend much of Thursday’s class time reviewing Tuesday’s lesson.

Some private school administrators cite individual student success as proof that they’re providing adequate instructional time and exemplary education.  What they neglect to mention is that for every advanced mathematician in their enrollment, they have an equal number of students who are fledgling behind grade level.

The unique nature of learning math, combined with reduced instructional time magnifies the Bell Curve, perpetuating the false belief that succeeding in the subject is not possible for everyone.  Some students process content quickly and thus learn concepts in less time than their classmates.  To achieve mastery, the former needs less instruction and practice than the latter, but doesn’t necessarily possess more mathematical talent.  They simply have a stronger memory and thus better absorb missed and truncated lessons than their peers.  As a result, the advanced student can thrive in a fragmented structure, realizing their mathematical potential while taking advantage of the educational enrichment their school offers.  The struggling student benefits from the same dynamic experiences, but does so at the expense of their mathematical learning.

Wise parents understand that private school recruiting pamphlets only speak a partial truth.  Therefore, they take a discerning approach to selecting their child’s school.  Paddling down whitewater rapids is an unforgettable experience, but also a few days without classwork.  Dazzling holiday concerts are charming, but require weeks of daily practice.  Considering all this, some parents conclude that their children are so high achieving that they can absorb consistent scheduling disruptions.  Others feel that enriching experiences outweigh lost instructional time, and choose to pay exorbitant tuition, even if it means their child falls short of their mathematical potential.

I don’t think parents should have to make this decision.

Private schools have a responsibility to provide their students dynamic educational experiences without sacrificing the integrity of core subject learning.  The best administrators understand that achieving both is possible, but not without strategic scheduling.  Therefore, they allot two instructional hours/day that cannot be interrupted.  One is devoted to Math, the other to Language Arts.  With very few exceptions, all assemblies, parties, field trips, etc. are scheduled outside those sacred hours.  In doing so, they ensure all of their students an exemplary, multi-dimensional education.