Blank Slate: Private School Leaders Step Up!

I’ve noted on several occasions on Twitter (@schlfinance101) and on my blog that I am actually a supporter of high quality private independent schools. In the 1990s, I was a middle school science teacher at The Fieldston School in Riverdale, NY.  That experience sticks with me to this day as I write about public education policy issues. In fact, Fieldston helped provide the financial support for the pursuit of my doctoral studies at Columbia University, and for that I thank them. Yes, they helped pay for the meaningless advanced degree that eventually led me to leave (so perhaps it was worth it for them?).  Being at a school that supported my own academic/intellectual endeavors was important for me, and I expect I’m not alone in that regard. In high school, I summered at Phillips Exeter Academy after my sophomore year. I attended an expensive, competitive small liberal arts college (Lafayette, in PA – more on that at a later point in time).  I’ve spent much of my time around private education, in particular, the more elite tiers of private education. I have no shame in those affiliations (generally speaking), and on some occasions, I’m actually proud of it.

I have a genuine appreciation for what these institutions can offer.  I am by no stretch of the imagination a private- school-basher (as some would characterize anyone who dares point out that good private schools often spend much more per child than nearby public schools).  Anything but. I am a realist. I am an analyst. I have written extensively about private school spending and characteristics in this report:

That said, this blog post is intended to START a conversation. This blog post is an invitation and is specifically an invitation to headmasters, deans and other administrators and board members at leading private independent schools around the country.  You can e-mail me officially, by name and school affiliation, or you can, if you choose to, remain anonymous, as long as you are willing to allow me to at least list your “title” and a brief descriptor of the school you represent (for example: Head of Upper School, Highly Selective Independent Day School in Northeastern City).  There are two issues I invite you to address:

  1. What is your perspective on the importance of class size, either from the perspective of “effectiveness” (on student outcomes) or marketing? Do you feel that class size is important? Why? What drives your decisions about class size in your school? Feel free to stray outside these narrow questions.
  2. What are your thoughts on the recruitment, selection, retention, evaluation and compensation of teachers? (yeah… that’s a lot, but feel free to focus on one or two). What is your ideal approach to teacher evaluation?  What is the current approach in your school, and what are the strengths/weaknesses? Have you changed that approach over time? Who are the key players in the evaluation process and what are their roles? How are evaluations used (dismissal?).   How is compensation structured? Is it performance based and if so, by what types of measures?  Feel free to elaborate on other related issues not listed here.

You may use the comment section below, or you may e-mail me at  If you post in the comments below, you must provide me with a valid e-mail for determining that you are, in fact, who you claim. Comments are held for approval. If you wish to remain anonymous, send an e-mail to the above address and provide me with the relevant – Title – School Descriptor – for how you wish to be identified (that is, not identified). Identify specifically which information in your e-mail you wish for me to post (more importantly, if there’s anything you want to say, but don’t want posted).


Bruce D. Baker


Ron Reynolds of The California Association of Private School Organizations Responds, with a focus on CLASS SIZE:


Dr. Baker,

Sorry this took me so long, but work beckons…

In the interest of full disclosure, I am neither the headmaster, dean, administrator, or board member of “a leading private independent school,” nor do my views necessarily reflect or represent those of any such persons.  I am the executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, a statewide association of private school administrative units and service agencies affiliated with the Council for American Private Education.  The views that follow are my own.

Setting aside the question of what criteria designate a “leading” private independent school, independent schools, whether “leading” or otherwise, comprise a relatively small, if remarkable segment of the nation’s private school universe.  Such schools (which I regard as schools affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools) account for roughly 5 percent of all private schools in the United States, and 11 percent of all private school students enrolled in any of grades K-12.

Journalists frequently write of independent schools as if they were representative of the entire private school universe.  While misleading, the tendency is, to some extent, understandable, given that the National Association of Independent Schools collects and maintains an impressive array of data that is largely inaccessible, or nonexistent for the broader U.S. private school universe.

You, Professor Baker, are no stranger to this problem.  As Willie Sutton did with banks, so did you resort to using private school tax returns as your principal source of information for the paper referenced in your invitation (“Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications”) because that’s where the data are.  While the use of figures contained in IRS Form 990 reflects an admirable degree of ingenuity, such creativity comes at the cost of generalizability – a lacuna which you, admirably, observed.  One piece of information I believe you failed to mention, however, is that private schools operating on a for-profit basis appear to be completely excluded from your analysis.  Such schools do not comprise an insignificant sub-group.  In the state of California, for example, for every independent school there are more than five private schools operating on a for-profit basis (though independent schools, in the aggregate, enroll a greater number of students).

You, of course, are in no way responsible for the absence of such data, and I, to the extent that I am a representative of the broader private school community owe you and others a mea culpa.  Regrettably, the lack of such data also complicates determinations of class size.  In order to address the issue of class size from a broadly inclusive private school perspective, it is necessary to use student-to-teacher ratios as a proxy measure.  I am cognizant that such a proxy presents certain problems, just as you recognized that the use of IRS Form 990 data was less than ideal.

With the preceding caveat in mind, NCES data place the student-teacher ratio for all U.S. public schools in 2007-08 at 15.7.  Some readers will reflexively respond to this datum by saying, or thinking that such a figure is misleading.  After all, not all teachers included in the computation of the ratio are assigned to (regular) classrooms.  A great many, for example, work with children presenting various types of special needs.

While such a qualification undoubtedly possesses merit, it must also be noted that the reduction in class size attributable to the inclusion of special education teachers comes at a considerable cost.  The federal government, for example, currently allocates $11.3 billion (the vast majority of which flows to public schools) through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to support the provision of special education and related services.  I’m not sure whether you, Professor Baker, included such funding in your computation of public school expenditures, but $11.3 billion would provide roughly enough tuition to nearly double the current national Catholic school enrollment.

All of the above is offered by way of cautionary preface to the qualification that any comparative discussion of class size is subject to various contextual and methodological considerations that can prove problematic.  That having been said…

While smaller class sizes, relative to public schools, has long been a hallmark of American private education, significant variability can be inferred to exist within the private school universe.  For example, the (FTE) student-teacher ratio for all California private schools in 2009-10 was 12.5.  Among independent schools, the figure was 9.4.  In for-profit private schools the ratio was 7.8, while among the state’s Catholic schools it was 18.7 – eclipsing the national public school ratio cited above, but falling short of California’s public school student-teacher ratio of 20.8.  (These ratios have been computed using California Department of Education data for 2009-10.)

Magnitude of enrollment appear to be positively correlated with student-teacher ratios.  (Yeah, I know.  D’uh!  But independent schools may present an exception to this observation which, if true, invites comment.)  Among all California private schools with a total enrollment in excess of 100 students, the student-teacher ratio was 13.9, while the ratio was 14.5 for schools with enrollments of more than 250, and 14.8 for schools with enrollments exceeding 500.

Religious orientation would also appear to be a significant factor.  Fully fifty percent of California’s total private school enrollment is located in religious schools with total enrollments exceeding 250.  In these schools, the student-teacher ratio is 16.1 – a figure that is higher than the NCES national public school figure cited above.  Obviously, the generally lower levels of tuition charged by schools whose religious mission includes making their educational program available to every family seeking access tends to reduce financial barriers to enrollment and contribute to presumptively larger class sizes.  Which points to the expectation that an inverse relationship exists between tuition and class size.  (Alas!  If only comprehensive tuition data were available.)

Independent schools, in which tuition is generally higher than that associated with most religious schools (though it must be noted that some religious schools are also classified as independent schools) serve to underscore the preceding observation.  Among California independent schools with enrollments in excess of 500 students, the overall student-teacher ratio is 9.9, fully a third lower than the figure for the remainder of all California private schools with similarly robust enrollments.

At this point, I envision you, Professor Baker, muttering: Now you know why I focused on independent schools in the first place!  So, allow me to tell you, at long last, what I think it is that is being offered/purchased for the money.

The premium paid by private school parents is part of a complex value proposition in which inducements to participation must outweigh associated sacrifices.  Several components of this value proposition involve class size.  As I see it, these components include the provision of an augmented curricular program, and increased access to instructional staff by both students and parents.

You, Professor Baker, taught at The Fieldston School.  A check of that school’s website reveals that Fieldston offers its lower school students a wood shop program, provides dance and visual arts classes to its middle school students, and affords its high school students the opportunity to study Greek, Latin, and/or Mandarin Chinese, in addition to French and Spanish.  Along with its additional courses, the school offers a specialized, pervasive approach to instruction that is expressed as follows:  “At every grade we teach common beliefs such as understanding multiple perspectives, seeing the world beyond the self, creativity and imagination, developing habits of justice, fairness, and empathy, respect for all people and points of view, and a critical approach to decision-making.”

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to assume that most independent schools offer a more robust variety of classes across the curriculum, and particularly in the arts and humanities, than is generally the case in both public schools and other private schools.  The provision of an augmented curriculum is driven by a combination of factors that include various visions of what is entailed by a robust humanistic education that endeavors to shape the whole person, market demand, and resources.

Your research found that Jewish day schools tended to spend more, per pupil, than other categories of private schools.  These schools generally offer not only a full complement of secular studies courses, but instruction in Hebrew language, bible, rabbinic literature, Jewish history, customs and holidays, and Israel studies.

To some extent, then, I would argue that smaller class size in private schools is a by-product of a more robust prescribed curriculum, coupled with a great number of elective offerings.

I also believe that in exchange for the tuition premium paid by parents there exists an expectation of greater access – both by students and parents – to the instructional staff.  While many in the private school community often view teachers in religiously-oriented schools as members of a family – a voluntary community that coalesces around a shared faith and common core of values, the same is often true of independent school faculty members who identify deeply with the culture and vision associated with their particular school.

In both independent and religious private schools, the expectation of enhanced teacher availability, responsiveness, and commitment is often deeply engrained in the culture of the institution.  Private school parents often possess teachers’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and frequently contact them after school hours.  Teachers are expected to provide more robust and time consuming forms of student evaluation, ranging from extended homework assignment feedback, to participation in more frequent student and parent conferences, to in-depth written assessments of student portfolios and/or journals, participation in child study meetings, and extensive written documentation of student growth and academic progress.   Smaller class size is thus, to some extent, a by-product of enhanced labor-intensive expectations held by parents, those involved in school governance, and teachers, themselves.



Dr. Ron Reynolds

Executive Director

California Association of Private School Organizations

15500 Erwin St., #303

Van Nuys, CA 91411-1017


My personal response on few points above:


Yes, a major issue in making comparisons between public and private schools is that private schools – because they are less regulated – are simply more varied. This point is, as Ron Reynolds notes, missed by most. As my report discusses, some private schools significantly outspend publics and some spend much less. Some have much smaller classes, and some much larger. Some pay their teachers much less, and some comparable (few private schools pay their teachers much more – the additional money is more often leveraged to broader/deeper curriculum).

Also, it is often the case that the biggest differences in private school class size are not so much a function of smaller elementary grade classes (they are smaller, but not usually half the size), but rather a function of private schools offering a diverse array of elective courses at the secondary level.

Now, from a personal perspective, I agree that the expectation of parental involvement/interaction is greater in the private school setting, especially in a private independent school like Fieldston. However, I would argue that there are some significant counterbalancing factors. For example, at Fieldston, my teaching time consisted of 16 45 minute periods per week – 4 sections meeting 4 times weekly each. Each section typically had fewer than 20 students. On top of that I had 10 to 12 advisees – from among my total student load of less than 80. Maintaining contact with the parents of 12 students, actively, and being responsive to the needier parents from among the 80 students is much less of a task than most public (or Catholic school) teachers would face if expectations were similar. It was far fewer students than I would have had if I was teaching middle school science in a public school with 6 classes, meeting every day of the week, and 25 kids per class. And there was a lot more time in my day to make contacts.  These may be important structural issues to explore. But they all come back to pupil to teacher ratio.

Graph of pupil to teacher ratios over time:



Dr. Baker,
“What is your perspective on the importance of class size, either from the perspective of “effectiveness” (on student outcomes) or marketing? Do you feel that class size is important? Why? What drives your decisions about class size in your school? Feel free to stray outside these narrow questions.
STAR Prep Academy is a small school by design and we cap all classes at ten students.  We do this for the following reasons: 1) We believe quite strongly in differentiation.  With a smaller class we can use information about student interests and abilities to differentiate instruction within the class.  With a larger group, teachers have difficulty working on diverse projects that match student needs.  Furthermore, smaller class sizes reduce paperwork, total student load, time spent passing out papers, etc.  Many schools use small class size as a marketing tool, but if they do not actually utilize those small class sizes, it is just a number.
“What are your thoughts on the recruitment, selection, retention, evaluation and compensation of teachers? (yeah… that’s a lot, but feel free to focus on one or two). What is your ideal approach to teacher evaluation?  What is the current approach in your school, and what are the strengths/weaknesses? Have you changed that approach over time? Who are the key players in the evaluation process and what are their roles? How are evaluations used (dismissal?).   How is compensation structured? Is it performance based and if so, by what types of measures?  Feel free to elaborate on other related issues not listed here.”
Teacher evaluation should be done in an developmental manner, allowing veteran teachers an opportunity to share their knowledge base and guide their own development, while new teachers receive more formative guidelines.  While we do not currently use evaluations for compensation, we do consider this as a key component in the future.  We would also add adjunct duties, participation in outside events and other criteria to the compensation model.  Annual raises, outside of COLA do not seem to be appropriate within our environment.
Zahir Robb
Head of School
STAR Prep Academy
10101 Jefferson Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 842-8808