What should I know about public high schools?

My family might move back to California when I complete my junior year in Taiwan. The school I currently go to is a private school and I wanted to know some things that I should know about public high schools. What should I know about when I am choosing a public high school to finish my senior year?

Written Nov 4

I had a similar question when trying to decide for our daughter’s school. Does a school really make a difference?


When comparing schools, there are several factors:

  • Student population
    • Family income
    • Family educational background
    • Socio-economic structure
  • School demographics
    • Funding levels
    • Administrative constraints
    • Pedagogical approach
    • Curriculum approach
    • Teachers

So, how do you find the answers?

It turns out that Harold Wenglinsky was commissioned by the Center on Educational Policy (2007) to address whether private schools are better (academically) than public schools.


The results:

The study found that low-income students from urban public high schools generally did as well academically and on long-term indicators as their peers from private high schools, once key family background characteristics were considered. In particular, the study determined that when family background was taken into account, the following findings emerged:

1. Students attending independent private high schools, most types of parochial high schools, and public high schools of choice performed no better on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history than their counterparts in traditional public high schools.

2. Students who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more likely to attend college than their counterparts at traditional public high schools.

3. Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up with no more job satisfaction at age 26 than young adults who had attended traditional public high schools.

4. Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more engaged in civic activities at age 26 than young adults who had attended traditional public high schools.

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that students who attend private high schools receive neither immediate academic advantages nor longer-term advantages in attending college, finding satisfaction in the job market, or participating in civic life.

This study did identify two exceptions to this general finding. The primary exception is that students who attended independent private high schools had higher SAT scores than public school students, which gave independent school students an advantage in getting into elite colleges.

A second exception is that one special type of private school, Catholic schools run by holy orders (such as Jesuit schools), did have some positive academic effects. There are very few such schools, however; most Catholic schools are run by their diocese, not by an order (Meyer, 2007).

Poverty and Academic Performance

Many studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between poverty and poor academic performance. In fact, family income is a greater predictor of academic performance than any other factor.

What does this mean?

Essentially, the school itself doesn’t really make a difference. The rating of a school is really a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a school is opened in a relatively affluent community, it will most likely be highly ranked. Conversely, a school opened in a low income community will most likely be poor-performing.

So, in my view (supported by research) is that if you want to stack the odds in your favor, you should do the following:

  • Be from an affluent family
  • Study for the SAT by taking prep classes
  • Attend a Jesuit school.

(Okay, my answer is fairly cynical, but does contain much truth. My answer, however, does not address the difference between teachers, and individual effort by the student. These are certainly factors, but beyond the scope of the research, and my discussion).

In other words, given what is available to you, it is more important to identify your goals, and apply yourself diligently toward achieving those goals, than worrying about a particular high school.

Several caveats

My answer does not address several important factors. However, these fall outside of the parameters I have addressed. Here are some examples:

  • Teachers – there is some research that suggests that public school teachers perform better than private school teachers (mostly due to certification requirements. In my opinion, individual teachers can make a significant difference. However, it would be difficult to choose a school based on this criterion).
  • Philosophy – most schools are driven toward a common philosophical approach as a result of imposed requirements such as standardized tests. Some schools have adopted a different approach (e.g. project-based learning; Sudbury school model). While I believe that alternate approaches are significant factors, I do not have research to confirm.
  • Homeschooling – I believe homeschooling is a viable alternative. See some of my other answers for additional discussion.