What's Being Taught?
American private high schools generally prepare their graduates for academic work after graduation. With that in mind let's take a look at the various academic options which you will find in American private schools.
Because private schools are indeed private or independent, as opposed to being state schools, they can set their own curricula and the qualifications of their faculty. Most private high schools meet or exceed the course requirements mandated by the state education department for the state in which the school is located. For example, here are the State of Minnesota's graduation requirements:
Minnesota students are required to complete three kinds of requirements by the time they graduate. Students must:
- Satisfactorily complete the state course credit requirements under Minnesota Statutes, section 120B.024.
- Satisfactorily complete all state academic standards or local academic standards where state standards do not apply.
- Meet graduation assessment requirements.
Students complete the academic standards by taking a core course of study that equips them with the knowledge and skills they need for success in postsecondary education, highly skilled work, and civic life. In order to graduate, your child’s high school coursework must include at least the minimum state course credit requirements. A course credit is equivalent to a student successfully completing an academic year of study or mastering the subject matter, as determined by the local school district. Students must complete a minimum of 21.5 course credits as follows:
- 4 credits of language arts
- 3 credits of mathematics, including algebra, geometry, statistics and probability sufficient to satisfy the standards. Students in the graduating class of 2015 and beyond must complete an algebra II credit or its equivalent as part of the 3-credit requirement. In addition to the high school credits, students in the graduating class of 2015 and beyond must also complete an algebra I credit by the end of eighth grade.
- 3 credits of science, including a biology credit. In addition, students in the graduating class of 2015 and beyond must complete a chemistry, physics, or Career and Technical Education (CTE) credit as part of the 3-credit requirement. (The CTE credit must meet the standards underlying the chemistry or physics credit.)
- 3½ credits of social studies, including U.S. history, geography, government and citizenship, world history and economics.
- 1 credit in the arts
- 7 elective credits
Quoted from Minnesota Department of Education Graduation Requirements
Most private high schools in Minnesota will exceed these graduation requirements. The same is true of private high schools in the other states. Remember: one of the reasons why we send our children to private school is for the academic work involved. One of my daughters attended a very good small regional high school where they read one Shakespeare play a year. When she went off to boarding school, she read three Shakespeare plays in her first year. I think it is fair to say that private schools offer more academic work for the subjects in their curricula than most public high schools do. Why? For one thing the classes are smaller. It is much easier to get through more material when you have only 15 students as opposed to 30. Furthermore the students cannot hide in a small classroom. Every student comes under the teacher's watchful eye. All the time. But the real reason that you can teach more in a private high school classroom is that your students are there because they want to learn. There is absolutely no stigma to being smart or wanting to learn when you attend a private high school.
You will find a wide range of standards and achievement within the private school community. Fortunately for parents and other interested parties, most schools are very proud of where their graduates have been accepted. If a list is not available in the school's catalog or on its web site, ask the admissions staff for a list of universities and colleges where their last class was accepted. Make sure that these colleges fit in with your plans. Once again remember that there are hundreds of wonderful colleges out there which you may not have heard of. The Ivies are fine institutions of learning but are they the best fit for your child? You chose a private high school which was the best fit for your child. The same rule of thumb applies to choosing colleges.
Find out if a school has been accredited by a recognized regional or national accrediting body. This is usually a solid indication that a school meets certain minimum standards as the accreditation process is rigorous and covers all aspects of the school’s operations, not just academics. Accreditation must be renewed, typically every five years. A private high school which undergoes the accreditation process and all that is involved is constantly improving itself and its academic standards. Most parents find that a highly desirable attribute.
The five accrediting organizations are:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Southern Association of Schools and Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Advanced Placement Courses and the International Baccalaureate
Schools which are serious about preparing their students for college level work will offer AP or Advanced Placement courses or participate in the IB or International Baccalaureate program. Schools which offer either of these programs must have highly qualified, well-trained and experienced faculty to achieve good results. When you evaluate schools on your short list, review the number of faculty who hold advanced degrees in their subject. Don’t be fooled by advanced degrees. If the degree is for something other than the subject being taught, it is not relevant. For example, a French teacher with a masters in instructional technology does not have as impressive credentials as a French teacher with a masters in French language and literature.
Schools which offer AP and IB coursework have invested heavily in their physical plant as well. Classrooms are generally well-equipped with state of the art educational technology including high speed Internet access. Science laboratories, arts facilities and libraries often rival those found at many colleges and universities. Because parents have made such a serious financial commitment in choosing a private school education for their children, they demand and expect only the best. Generally they get it in the American private school market.
Finding out what is being taught is an important part of your due diligence in choosing the best school for your child. Allocate enough time to really examine the academics for every school on your short list. Don't forget to visit the schools and ask any questions you have about what is being taught.
Questions? You may contact me via Twitter. @privateschl