A common misconception about independent schools is that they are artificial environments in which students lack exposure to the “real world.” This argument comes from those outside of the independent school world that believe that we must expose students to the ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic diversity of their communities in order to provide a real world experience. Though I do not doubt that attending a large public school will expose students to a great range of attitudes, behaviors, and local experiences, it does not follow that this exposure is necessarily healthy. In fact, there is substantial evidence that shows that independent schools actually better prepare students for the real world than public schools do. But, it is important to define what we mean by the ‘real world.’
When we understand the real world to be the world beyond the city limits and the nation’s borders, it is very clear that independent schools outpace all other schools. When we understand the real world to be the world in which the right brain will reign supreme, it is clear that independent schools provide a superior approach. When we understand the real world to be a world in which critical thought and creativity is honored and teachers are not encouraged to teach to standardized tests, it is clear that independent schools excel.
In fact, the lack of real world experience found in local public schools is astounding. Local public schools only represent the local community and the diversity, or lack thereof, found in that community. These schools also represent the greatest variance in academic abilities, parental involvement, student behavior, and student motivation; variances that tend to serve as hindrances to learning, not advantages. Within the typical public school, students regularly cluster into interest groups isolated from the others. In spite of the ethnic and cultural diversity often present, these schools rarely represent the diversity of the real world.
Only the exceptional non-independent school regularly engages its students in global activities such as international travel and international school partnerships, activities that are the norm for independent schools. On the other hand, virtually every student in independent schools is involved annually in student service projects occurring throughout the world. We only prepare our students for the real world when they have the ability to function in a global economy and understand the various cultures of the world. The real world does not exist within the walls of a school, regardless of the diversity present therein.
The difficulty for many of our public school colleagues is not of their doing; it is the unfortunate fact that most American communities do not value public education highly enough to ensure appropriate funding. Additionally, public school teachers are required to teach to a much wider variance of academic abilities, thus making it more difficult to address the needs of all students in the class. Teaching to such a wide variance of academic abilities is even more difficult when the class size exceeds 25 students, a regular occurrence for public schools. Additionally, unlike their independent school counterparts, public school teachers have less enforcement ability to ensure good student behavior.
It is common for friends of independent school parents to shame them for sheltering their children from real world experience. This argument implies that parents should neglect their child’s developmental interests for the good of the public school. The suggestion that taking the best students from the public school creates an unhealthy brain drain for the public school is only sensible if one believes that parents should use their children to fix the troubles found in many public schools. This notion that a child should be used as leaven to improve the public school is, in my opinion, an immoral position.
Parents should provide the best education possible for their children. For the truly conscientious parent, sending their children to the local public school merely to show support for public education should not be an option. Support for the local public schools should be expressed in ways other than using ones child to raise the mean academic achievement level.
This discussion is not intended as an attack on public education, for indeed we all hope that America’s public schools will succeed. It also is not intended to be a treatise on public school teachers, for indeed there are many outstanding teachers in public schools. It is, however, an argument against the notion that students attending independent schools are not being exposed to the real world. The facts just do not support this notion. In fact, independent schools represent the real world best.
Tip: It is in the interest of all independent schools to include phrases addressing the global nature of your program as you market your school. Although we in independent schools have always understood this value, it is clear that we have not always made the argument effectively. It is time to dispel the myth.