Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Would your child be better off in a private school (even if it didn’t cost you a dime)? Some surprising findings say “no.”

From Po:

It’s always been a fascinating question: do private schools actually teach better, or are their scores higher simply because they recruit/select/admit smarter kids?

Most people would guess that the higher test scores of private schools come from a bit of both – they admit smarter students, and then those students rub off on each other (guided by great teachers) to excel.

A recent Harris poll confirmed this general opinion. People think private schools are better than public schools at teaching reading and writing and math. Meanwhile, they think public schools are better at teaching social skills and how to get along with people from different backgrounds.

There were some interesting wrinkles to that poll data, though.

Wrinkle #1: The nation’s opinion is that a high-quality public school is every bit as good as private school – just that many public schools aren’t good.

Wrinkle #2: People think their local public schools are better than the rest of the country’s. And they seem to think this just about everywhere in the country. So it’s sort of like Lake Wobegon, where every kid is above average. Everyone thinks their schools are above average.

Now, these conventional wisdoms have been put to the test in comprehensive studies. The results are pretty provocative, directly contradicting our presumptions.

Consider these three contentious conclusions:

1. When you adjust the study body for racial and socioeconomic characteristics, private school students don’t perform better in reading and math than public school students.

2. Public charter schools are supposed to outperform regular public schools, but they don’t – they actually perform worse.

3. Private schools, which are smaller and more protected, are not better for students’ mental health. In fact, small schools of any sort are not better for student mental health.

When I read the studies, I was willing to accept #2 pretty quickly. Many charter/magnet schools are for gifted and talented students, but many others are for immigrant children or for at-risk students. These schools, when aggregated together, might not show any superiority (even if it’s inherently there).

#3 also surprised me. I think of small schools as places where teachers know the names of every student, so a child’s depression or problems won’t be ignored. I would expect that the teenage suicide rate, for instance, would be lower at small schools. But this wasn’t true. However, while this surprised me, I didn’t find myself balking at accepting the study’s conclusions.

But conclusion #1 didn’t sound right to me. I have read the study, which comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, and I have tried to contact the study’s Project Officer, Bill Tirre – but he’s never called me back. Something about it just doesn’t sound right to me.

There are about 5.2 million children in private elementary schools and private high schools in the United States. Of those, 2.3 million are in Catholic schools, and another 1.8 million are in other religious schools. Only 600,000 students are in non-sectarian academic private schools.

The study tested 4th graders and 8th graders on reading and math, drawing from both public schools and private schools. At both grade levels, the private schools tested much better. But when they adjusted for race and ethnicity and socioeconomic factors like whether those students qualified for free lunches and spoke English as a first language – the private schools’ superiority largely disappeared. 4th grade public students actually tested better post-adjustment. And 8th grade private students tested better on reading. On the whole, you couldn’t say whether private or public was better, if they both had to teach the same students.

But here’s what’s fishy. First, the 66-page study refused to cough up how they made their adjustment for race and class. They present a table for the way they handicapped the scores for disabled students, but not for other factors. That they omitted these tables is suspicious.

The data is also not as convincing as they want it to be. In fourth grade, the private schools tested 14 points higher on a 100-point reading test. If public schools did just as well as private schools, you’d expect that gap to stay steady, maybe even narrow. But in fact the gap widens. By 8th grade, the private school students are testing 18 points higher. That’s about the difference between an “A-” grade and a “C” grade.

The same is true for their math abilities. In 4th grade, private school students score 7 points higher on average. The gap widens by 8th grade, when they score 12 points higher.

So I don’t know what to think. If you had a kid on the verge of trouble, where would you rather send him? Is my bias towards thinking private schools are a little better just a myth?

For what it’s worth, keep in mind that most private schools are religious schools. 80% of the private schools are religious-themed. These schools might not be weeding out students, accepting anyone from their church or parish.


Anonymous Joan Jaeckel said...

Hi Po, Not all private or charter schools are created equal. The whole point of independent schools is difference. So you can't judge them as a lump. You have to look at the educational philosophy, not just the category (public vs private) or test scores, if you want to evaluate a school. Interesting to know that only 600,000 students are in non-sectarian academic private schools in the U.S. Of those, maybe 25,000 are students in independent schools working out of the "Waldorf" educational philosophy figuring 150 U.S. Waldorf schools with an average of 150 students. That's where we sent our kids. It was the philosophy we were after, not that they were private. Would have loved to send our kids to a public school of the public school had offered the option. Part of the Waldorf educational philosophy is to keep the students away from any kind of standardized "learning" including standardized tests for the sake of learing how to think for themselves. The result? 90% + of Waldorf kids go to college (MIT even seeks them out because of their independent and creative mindset). A few years back, in the UK, a K-12 Waldorf student got the country's only perfect score on their equivalet of the SAT even though he had never taken a test in his life. Here in LA the public Waldorf charter school I helped to start in Culver City (where they have to take the tests) has 1st and 2nd graders reading and math scores outdistancing by outlandish margins all schools in the LAUSD district even though teachers could give a fig less about the tests and don't prepare students for them in any way whatsoever. Their secret? Keep to the oral storytelling/listening/speaking tradition in kindergarten, then learn to write and THEN learn to read what you wrote. It's brain-compatible and works for all kids regardless of home circumstances. Thanks for bringing up the question. Joan

10:21 PM  

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