As you begin to pursue the idea of sending your child to private school, you will need to come to grips with differing approaches to teaching. What it really comes down to is whether you want to send your child to a school that uses a traditional approach to teaching or one that uses a nontraditional approach.

In the public-school world, a traditional school is a regular public school and a nontraditional school is a charter school. That’s not what I am discussing here with respect to private schools. The concept of a private school as an independent, largely self-financing corporate entity does not change. I am going to focus on what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught.

The early years

Your child’s age is a major factor when it comes to choosing an educational approach. For example, if you send him to a Montessori school as a toddler, you are exposing him to a nontraditional approach to education. It is an excellent approach and highly regarded, but nontraditional nonetheless.

Start your child off in a Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia school and you will lay solid foundations for learning in later life. But visit a traditional private primary school and you will see a quite different approach to early education.

The first obvious difference will be the dress code. Uniforms are required at many traditional religious schools. The curricula will follow traditional blocks of science, math, language arts, and social studies. (Add religion if the school is a faith-based private school.) Another difference is that class sizes will more than likely be larger than in a typical nontraditional school (typically 10 to 15 per class).

The real differences take place in the classroom and the way the teachers teach. (No judgments here; I'm merely highlighting differences so you can make informed school choice decisions.) The traditional approaches believe that everybody should be engaged in the same activity at the same time. The nontraditional approaches claim to allow children more flexibility to do work on their own and at their own pace.

Beyond the dress code ->


Classes in a traditional school progress from one teacher to another as students advance through grade levels. Ms. Smith teaches kindergarten. Ms. Jones is the first-grade teacher, and so on. In a nontraditional school, though, your child will probably have the same teacher for two or three years.

What about educational outcomes? That depends to a large extent on you. Whether the school is traditional or nontraditional, your partnership with that school is critical. You have the responsibility to fill in the missing bits. You need to put ideas and concepts into context so that your child understands them and learns how to apply them in everyday life. You know how your child learns better than anyone else. That's why you are such an important partner in his education and integral to his success.

Beyond dress code, the real differences take place in the classroom.

The high school years

So, what happens if your child attends a nontraditional high school? You know, one that does not believe in SAT preparation or Advanced Placement courses, among other traditional college-prep academic staples. What if, as author and lecturer Alfie Kohn succinctly puts it, he has spent his primary school years in a progressive school “where he has had to construct his own understanding of ideas and concepts?” Will he be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into college?

Your child will do just fine with college admissions provided that you and he pay attention to the basics—Does he offer what the college is looking for? Has he completed and turned in his applications on time? You may ask, "Don't traditional schools do a better job of the college prep essentials such as SATs and AP courses?" Some do. Some don't. "Don't traditional schools serve as feeder schools to the best universities and colleges?" That might have been the case decades ago. But in the 21st century, diversity rules in the college admissions office just as it does in private school admissions offices. Admissions officers look for characteristics and experiences that make an applicant stand out as being able to contribute something meaningful to the makeup of his class.

The savvy parent will hire an educational consultant to identify colleges with the best fit for her child. (Harvard, for example, while a marvelous institution, might not be the best fit for your child.)

There is a lot to think about for sure. Visit both traditional and nontraditional schools. Compare them. Decide which approach works best for your child.

Robert Kennedy is an educational consultant and frequent contributor to Raising Teens. This article is reprinted with permission from


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