Private and Independent Schools

Citation metadata

Editor: Paula S. Fass
Date: 2004
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 695

Private and Independent Schools

There are private schools in most countries of the world, although many of them are religious schools. Most have curricula that parallel those of state-controlled schools, and are under some form of government regulation, although their private status allows them greater flexibility in programs and personnel. Unlike most public schools, the parents of private-school students must pay for their schooling, a fact that makes them less accessible to low-income families. Families tend to choose private schools based on their belief that their children will obtain a better education or be educated in a better or safer environment than in public schools, or because the private school has a more sympathetic educational philosophy.

In colonial America, there was much blurring between private and public education, with many variations. In general, however, most schooling was designed to provide students with a minimum of essential skills, often under APPRENTICESHIP arrangements. Secondary education was uncommon, although some towns had Latin GRAMMAR SCHOOLS. From the Revolution to the Civil War, the country saw a rise in the presence of academies that provided secondary education, often associated with the religious fervor of the Great Awakening. The curriculum varied, with both classical and more modern and practical curricula available. There was originally little age grading, and there were few schools for girls. Initially, all were day schools without boarding facilities; if students were not staying with their own families, they boarded with families in the town. Schools such as Phillips Academy in Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy (founded in 1778 and 1781, respectively) did not build dormitories until the late 1820s. However, once students began to live within the school, the schools began to plan activities for every moment, partly as they had assumed the role of in loco parentis, and partly to keep their charges from any potential harm.

Private schools for girls had a separate history. Since education beyond the rudiments was seen as unnecessary for most girls, it was varied and sporadic during the colonial era and the early Republic. Much of what was available took the form of finishing schools, which emphasized social graces as much as learning. Three pioneering women, Catharine Beecher, Mary Lyon, and Emma Willard, provided curricula that differed greatly from this pattern during the 1820s and 1830s. The schools they founded were boarding schools that emphasized science, mathematics, history, and literature. The older conception of education designed to provide "feminine" virtues did not disappear, however, and was important in the founding of new schools for girls in the mid-nineteenth century. However, as WOMEN'S COLLEGES increased in numbers and more colleges became coeducational, the curriculum of even these schools became primarily academic.

Day schools have an extremely varied history, particularly among primary schools, which are generally smaller and less costly to operate than secondary schools and therefore can be established more simply. In colonial times and the early Republic these schools often provided basic education, with the idea that the family and the church would provide the rest. Later, more private schools emphasized secondary education, as tax-supported public schools offered primary education for large segments of the society. One special type, the country day school, emerged for many of the same reasons that boarding schools were placed in rural settings: avoidance of the perceived physical and spiritual hazards of the city. These schools had curricula much like the boarding schools, but the students returned to their families each evening. Although the day schools followed the main trends in American education, their private status allowed them to follow a wide range of philosophies: the Waldorf schools, for example, emphasized the arts and manual skills as paths to the development of the child, while Ethical Culture schools favored an experimental approach to education.

However, as was true for most schools, one of the key influences from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century was the Progressive school movement, which broadened the programs of the school to reflect the needs of a citizen in a complex society and included concern for vocations, health, and family life. The emotional development of the child was considered to be very important. Private day schools today include a bewildering variety of orientations and purposes, from community schools to Montessori schools to nongraded schools, among many others. One consequence, of course, is that families who can afford it have a great variety of choices in the education of their children.

Page 696  |  Top of Article

The history of private schools is entwined with current research controversies about the effects and social consequences of schooling. These controversies concern the effectiveness of schools on the learning of students, the social effects of private education (and the consequences for the social perspectives of their students), and the role of private schools in the formation and continuance of social and economic elites. First, because private schools charge tuition, they tend to limit their enrollments to students whose parents can afford them. This fact leads to schools that emphasize high achievement on standardized tests of vocabulary, reading, and mathematics as a measure of their value. However, international comparisons suggest that private schools' academic results are due more to family expectations and encouragement than to the special educational power of the schools.

A second concern is the overall effect of schools whose students come chiefly from the more affluent segments of society. The concern is that schooling where students from a narrow strata of society interact will lead to a similarly narrow range of social and economic options. Beginning with E. Digby Baltzell and C. Wright Mills, a series of writers have contended that elite boarding schools provide an environment that prepares students not only for college but for the vicissitudes of corporate and political life. Based on the fact that disproportionate numbers of CEOs and high government officials attended these schools, they argue that one of their key purposes is "preparing for power." Concentrated in the northeastern part of the United States, such schools offer rigorous academic programs, often using college-level texts. The days and nights are carefully scheduled, with an emphasis on SPORTS, mandatory study hours, and a wide range of extracurricular activities, particularly music. High culture is emphasized in campus art collections and guest speakers. Classes are usually small and emphasize discussion and writing. The schools claim that they develop "character," which is reflected in class discussions and school codes of conduct. Almost all activities are done in groups in the presence of others with great efforts to treat all students the same.

However, many researchers have noted the psychological costs of these "total environments" to the students' need for privacy and uncontrolled self-expression. Analyses of the student cultures in these schools further suggests high levels of competitiveness. Despite the stressful aspects of student life, these schools are unusually successful in placing their students in prestigious colleges. More importantly, these schools have been seen as models for other schools by some researchers, who note a community and culture of learning that values academic achievement, sets goals for students, and provides personal attention. Arthur Powell believes their practices provide lessons that other schools may use to good effect with average students. Other researchers have argued that these schools are successful because of their academic content, and the fact that some wealthy families send their children to the school is secondary.

Comparisons with European schools are difficult because of the wide variety of educational systems. However, British educational history is roughly analogous to that of the United States, with most private schools being boarding or day schools, along with a large number of church-related schools and a historically "elite" set of schools. In recent years, both countries have witnessed a proliferation of private day schools. The British elite boarding schools have been described as being "total" environments with strong student cultures. These schools are also seen as providing the basis for elitist values among their students, who later implement these values in positions of power.


Baird, Leonard L. 1977. The Elite Schools: A Profile of Prestigious Independent Schools. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Baltzell, E. Digby. 1971 [1957]. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Cookson, Peter W., and Caroline H. Persell. 1985. Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools. New York: Basic Books.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1977. Traditions of American Education. New York: Basic Books.

Krausharr, Otto. 1972. American Nonpublic Schools: Patterns of Diversity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Powell, Arthur G. 1996. Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walford, Geoffrey, ed. 1991. Private Schooling: Tradition, Change, and Diversity. London: Chapman Publishing.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3402800337