Digital learning is emerging in private schools

In the United States about 30,000 private schools enroll just over 5 million K–12 students, which is roughly 9% of all students attending school. All grade levels from 1–12 are about equally represented, but kindergarten has about 100,000 more students than any other grade. Most private schools are small, with an average size of 146 students. The average student-to-teacher ratio is about 11:1, which is lower than the average in public schools (about 16:1). Most of these schools (68% of schools enrolling 80% of private school students) have a religious affiliation. Catholic schools alone account for 22% of private schools enrolling 43% of students. Catholic schools also have lower average annual tuition ($4,570) than the average across all private schools ($6,820). Nonsectarian schools are smaller in number and have a much higher average tuition of $15,200. Private schools are regulated by the states in which they operate. State regulations vary but all states have far fewer regulations for private schools than for public schools. Regulations mostly involve health and safety (e.g. related to building codes), and also aim to ensure that private schools are providing an education that fits the requirements of compulsory education laws. Some states also have requirements involving teacher certification or curriculum.

Although little formal and systematic reporting exists about the use of digital learning in private schools overall (with the exception of independent schools, which has some reporting via the OESIS group and the National Association of Independent Schools), key characteristics of digital learning in private schools include the following:

  • Although the first online K–12 school in the United States was a private school (Laurel Springs), private schools generally lag behind public schools in their use of digital learning.
  • Online private schools, and providers of online courses to private school students, are generally smaller and newer than their public school counterparts. Examples include the Global Online Academy and the Online School for Girls. For providers of digital content, tools, and devices who work with both public and private schools and students, the public sector is generally a far larger segment—in fact disproportionately larger—for them than the private sector.
  • The adoption of devices (tablets and laptops) for students is more common than school-wide adoption of digital content or education-specific technology platforms such as learning management systems.

Examples of digital learning from across the private school sector suggest that digital learning varies in important ways that are shaped by elements of the sector. For example:

  • Catholic schools and Jewish schools are using digital learning primarily in an attempt to lower costs. Many of these small schools, with low student/teacher ratios, have high unsustainable costs. Their entry into the use of digital learning is often facilitated by private donors, foundations, and associated non-profit organizations.
  • Independent schools often invest in technology, whether it is digital content, digital devices, or maker’s studios. But these schools already have small class sizes in most cases, and parents are expecting students to experience personalized learning and high levels of attention from teachers. They can’t easily move to digital tools and content to personalize learning because they are expected to already be personalizing learning, and also because of the perception that students should be spending time primarily with the teacher, and not primarily with a computer.
  • Because private schools tend to be small, they usually have more limited course offerings than larger schools, and thus are considering online courses primarily to increase course options for students. This concern has driven the creation of several online and/or blended consortia from groups of private schools.
  • Online school and course offerings exist for the private school sector that are similar to those in the public sector, and sometimes are run by the same organizations as the public options—although as noted above the organizations that are specific to private schools are mostly smaller and newer than their public school counterparts. For example, Connections Education and K12 Inc., which support online charter schools, also manage one or more online private schools as well. The Virtual High School consortium works primarily with public schools, but has private school members as well. The Global Online Academy, Online School for Girls, Virtual Independent School Network (VISnet), and Hybrid Learning Consortium are all examples of private school consortia that are similar to public-school counterparts.

The next post will describe some of these schools and consortia in more detail.