Since a high-quality K-12 education sets students up for success in so many ways, it’s not surprising that parents and caregivers are eager to find the best possible schools for their children. Independent schools offer a unique opportunity that prioritizes students’ academic, social, and emotional development.
There are currently more than 2,000 accredited independent schools in the United States, according to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). But what exactly are independent schools, and what advantages can they offer students and families?
What Are Independent Schools?
All independent schools are private schools — but not all private schools are independent schools. Like all private schools, independent schools do not receive government funding. They are free to set their own curriculums and standards instead of following government mandates.
Independent schools, however, differ from many private schools in how they operate. They are non-profit, mission-driven institutions governed by a board of trustees and funded by tuition and charitable contributions.
Private schools, on the other hand, can be for-profit institutions and may be funded by individuals, religious entities, or organizations.
What Sets Independent Schools Apart?
By their nature, independent schools can vary significantly in their philosophies, curricula, and teaching approaches. Nevertheless, as a group, they offer a number of significant benefits compared to public schools and other types of private schools.
1. Independent schools are mission-driven and community-focused.
Independent schools set their missions and values, meaning that students, faculty, and families share a common purpose and set of beliefs. Schools reflect these values in everything from dress codes to traditions, which they use to foster a cohesive community. They also typically offer families more robust opportunities to engage in their students’ education than public schools.
That community focus goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to diversity and inclusion. For instance, NAIS member schools adhere to the association’s “Principles of Good Practice for Equity and Justice,” which prioritize equity and justice and hold schools accountable. In 2022-2023, students of color comprised 33.2% of independent school enrollment, while 5.7% were from other countries.
2. High standards encourage students to grow.
At independent schools, personal development takes place within the community context. Students and adults alike are held to high standards of behavior, with the expectation that they will positively influence those around them.
The specific standards each school emphasizes can vary based on their mission, allowing families to select a school that aligns with their values. For example, some students may thrive in a school that emphasizes academic rigor, while others may prefer an environment that places greater significance on creative expression or volunteerism.
3. Academic and extracurriculars are more flexible and specialized.
Since independent schools set their own curricular and extracurricular priorities, they can focus their resources on specific areas, like theater, music, or STEM. That means students can access opportunities not typically available in traditional public schools, which can include everything from advanced instruction in a foreign language to farming programs. For students with specific interests and goals, this presents an opportunity to lean into those pursuits and connect with peers who share their passions.
Many independent schools offer extensive support for students with learning differences, gifted students, and other populations who can benefit from specialized instruction. They are also better positioned to quickly flex and adapt their curricula and teaching methods in response to changing circumstances or student needs. This may be one reason why independent school students showed significantly less COVID-19-related learning loss than their public school peers.
White Paper: The Impact of COVID-19 Disruptions on Student Learning
We examine the impact of pandemic-related disruptions in independent schools by comparing two-year CTP test score growth from 2017-2019 (pre-COVID) to growth from 2019-2021.
4. Curriculums emphasize the whole child.
Because independent schools are not beholden to government mandates, they can focus on each student as an individual beyond just academics and test scores. That freedom, paired with lower student-faculty ratios, allows independent schools to prioritize the development of social and emotional skills, recognizing that what happens inside and outside of the classroom matters.
Social and emotional development helps students learn and apply life skills such as managing their emotions, developing and maintaining positive relationships, making good decisions, and cultivating a growth mindset.
5. Smaller class sizes mean more personal attention.
Research shows that smaller class sizes improve student learning outcomes, often by a significant margin. Yet many public schools struggle to hire, retain, and pay for enough teachers to keep class sizes low. The average student-teacher ratio in the United States is about 15:1, though this varies significantly by state – for example, California’s ratio is 22:1.
Independent schools, by comparison, had a median ratio of 8.4 students to teacher in 2022-23, according to NAIS, which allows educators to better understand and support each student.
6. Educators bring diverse experiences to the classroom.
Independent schools set their own hiring standards, meaning they can select teachers based on the sum of their experiences and education rather than whether or not they’ve taken a state certification exam. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified. While they don’t need state certification, independent school teachers must be experts in their subject, and many hold advanced degrees or significant professional experience in their field.
In the 2022-2023 school year, 50% of teachers in NAIS member schools had master’s degrees, and 10% held doctoral degrees. For many educators, independent schools’ curricular freedom and flexibility offer an attractive opportunity to engage more deeply in their area of expertise.
In many independent schools, teachers also take on additional roles, like coaching sports or leading extracurricular programs, which allow them to build stronger mentoring relationships with students. Therefore, schools often prioritize candidates eager to engage in the community inside and outside the classroom.
7. Financial aid and support are common.
An independent school education is an investment for a lifetime. Independent schools recognize the educational value of a school community that includes students with a variety of economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This commitment fosters a community of belonging which often starts with a commitment to provide financial support to those families demonstrating financial need.
Usually, admission decisions are made independently from the financial aid process. Most schools use a third party to determine financial need and require the submission of tax documents to verify income. While every school’s budget is different, in general, independent schools support thousands of families each year with need-based financial aid, ranging from a small portion of tuition to almost full tuition. Some schools offer merit-based scholarships in addition to financial aid.
Whether an independent school is right for your child and family is a highly personal decision — and while one school may be an excellent fit, another might not be a match. Since these schools each offer a unique educational philosophy and set of offerings, it’s wise to explore several institutions and consider their merits.
Ultimately, the aim is simple — to find the school that offers the educational approach and opportunities that align best with your child’s and family’s needs and priorities.
See how ERB assessment data can bring clarity and guidance into the admissions and academic assessment process, supporting you and your student through their entire education journey.