Rankings or Comparisons?

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Choosing the right private school for your child involves comparing schools as opposed to ranking them.
You and I are conditioned to expect to be able to comparison shop for everything we buy. When we search for an item on Amazon the website presents us with other options. We can read reviews by other purchasers. These factors together with our own understanding of value and price point help us make the decisions which drive our purchase. So, why can't we do the same with private schools? Why isn't there some way of ranking schools? Wouldn't rankings make our task of selecting the right private school for our child a whole lot easier?
For starters, choosing a private school is not like buying a set of towels or sheets online. We have confidence buying towels and sheets online from a trusted vendor using a secure credit card because we know what we are buying. Choosing a private school is much more complicated. Why? Because in the first place it is a major decision. We won't be able to return it and get our money back if we don't like it, which is what we do when we buy merchandise which turns out to be unsatisfactory. And the amount of money involved in the transaction is large. Furthermore we are talking about a decision which will have a serious impact on us and our child for several years.

This brief video lays out the process for you.

Major decisions have many more factors and variables involved than minor decisions such as purchasing those towels and sheets. We still have to do a lot of comparisons. We will want to look at statistics, for example.
  • How many students does the school have?
  • How many grades does it offer?
  • What is the student to teacher ratio?
  • How many academic courses does it offer?
  • How competitive is it?
  • What sports programs does it offer?
  • Is it coed or single sex?
  • Is it a progressive or traditional school?
These are just a few of the questions which you will want to ask about private schools before you apply to them or for that matter decide to visit them.
I trust that you are beginning to see where I am going with this discussion about ranking private schools. Each private school is unique. It does its own thing. That means that you and I have to sift through the rich resources offered by sites such as Private School Review and Boarding School Review to decide exactly which of the hundreds of private schools we are reviewing suit our needs and requirements best. Use my Checklist for Comparing Schools to keep your data and findings reasonably organized.
Once more I can hear you thinking "Well, isn't comparing the same as ranking?" Not really. Rankings as far as I am concerned is something which somebody else has done using their criteria and their methodology. That's fine. But it is their ranking, not mine. Comparison is what you and I as parents need to do as we circle in on a couple of schools which seem to meet our requirements. The criteria which we have selected are characteristics which we feel are absolutely essential for the sound education of our child as well as her happiness. Of the dozens of characteristics which might be a part of somebody else's ranking report, the only things which matter to you and me are the items which we have put on our list.

In this video Lee Marshall and Peter Baron talk about finding the right private school.

Somebody else's rankings don't matter when we are making a major decision such as selecting a private school for our child. This decision is similar to other major decisions such as the purchase of a house or changing jobs. Choosing a private school requires a careful comparison of available data and information concerning the characteristics of schools which matter to us. Choosing a private schools also requires consultation with friends and family as well as with trusted professionals such as CPAs and lawyers. As I mentioned before, the decision which you make will impact you, your family and your child for several years to come. It is very important to get it right. Rankings will not help you here. Careful due diligence will give you the information you need to compare schools on your short list. This is why the answer to the question "Wouldn't rankings make our task of selecting the right private school for our child a whole lot easier?" is a lawyerly "Not really." It's not that I am side-stepping the question. It is simply a matter of the question not being relevant.
To help you with this comparison Boarding School Review has a page which compares the Top 20 Schools by Category.   Again, we are not ranking schools. We are simply highlighting facts which you need in order to decide which school or schools meet your needs and requirements.
Lists of Top Schools
Forbes created a list of what it called America's Best Prep Schools back in 2010.  It is interesting reading but four years later in 2014, exactly how useful is this list? Private schools are dynamic. Market conditions change. Teachers and heads of school come and go. Trustees make decisions which impact the future of the school. And so on. By all means explore schools on this or any Top Schools list. But I recommend that you then compare those schools using your own personally-developed criteria, not some writer's criteria. What do you need in a school? What does your child need?
Use the detailed checklist which cover curriculum and instruction and administration and faculty to drill further into all the criteria which matter to you. Once again remember that your relationship with the school you finally settle on is going to last hopefully for several years. Choosing the right school for your child is most definitely not like buy towels or sheets online.

Patrick Bassett, retired President of the National Association of Independent Schools, gives us an overview of independent schools.

As you can also see those articles which claim to tell you the easiest way to evaluate private schools miss the point of how serious a decision choosing the right private school for your child really is. But choosing the right school is not an easy process. There are few shortcuts apart from hiring a consultant to do all the work for you. Even if you do hire a consultant, you will have to review her recommendations in detail and discuss them with all involved. Without a doubt she will save you time in the early information gathering stages of choosing a school. That's what a consultant does. They are experts in that field.
In conclusion I have always felt strongly that you and I really cannot rank private schools. There simply are far too many variables in play. Make careful comparisons. Try as best you can to compare apples to apples. Choosing a private school for your child this way will produce a good and lasting result.

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