School Choice & Charters

Public Schools on Par With, Outperform Private Schools in Some Areas, Federal Study Says

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 18, 2006 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has released a study that reflects findings similar to what two education researchers found earlier this year: When scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are adjusted for socioeconomics, race, and other characteristics, public school students do as well or better in some categories—such as 4th grade math—as students in private schools.

Grover “Russ” J. Whitehurst, the director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, said the study, which was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, represents the first time the department has applied techniques for controlling student background variables to NAEP test data in a comparison of private and public schools.

He noted that an NCES study released in December made across-the-board comparisons of the NAEP scores of students at private and public schools. That earlier study, “Student Achievement in Private Schools: Results from NAEP 2000-2005,” found that students in grades 4, 8, and 12 at private schools had higher average scores in reading, mathematics, science, and writing than their counterparts in public schools.

But the scores of private and public school students look much different when student and school characteristics are controlled, according to the new NCES study, “Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling,” which looked at NAEP scores in reading and math for 4th and 8th graders. It found that public school students in those grades perform as well or better than students at private schools, with the exception of 8th grade reading, where private school children do better than their public school counterparts.

The results of the new NCES study are similar to those found by Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They looked only at NAEP math scores and controlled for factors such as socioeconomic status, race, and school location.

Methodology Questioned

But Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University, does not believe that either study has produced credible results. His criticism is that both the Lubienskis and the NCES relied on reporting by school administrators to control for student and school characteristics.

The problem, he explains, is that administrators at public and private schools classify students very differently. “Public schools must by law classify people according to whether they are English-language learners, need an individualized education program, are eligible for a free lunch, and whether they are disadvantaged under Title I” of the No Child Left Behind Act, he said. “Private school managers have no legal obligation to do any of that, and many object to that,” he said, so the students may not in fact be labeled the same way, thus skewing the comparison.

Mr. Peterson said the Lubienski study spurred him to conduct a study of his own in which he compares the performance of private and public school students on NAEP while adjusting for certain student characteristics, such as socioeconomic status. But instead of relying primarily on data reported by school administrators, he uses statistics reported by students themselves, which he believes are more accurate. Mr. Peterson said he doesn’t yet have results to report, but plans to release them in September.

In articles published by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times last weekend, representatives of teachers’ unions used the findings of the recent NCES study and its assessment of public schools to buttress their opinion that public dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for vouchers to send students to private schools. Then on July 18, columnist John Tierney of The New York Times accused the union leaders of being “unrivaled masters of spin” in what he contended was their treating of the report as “a public-school triumph.”

Mr. Whitehurst noted that from the federal government’s perspective, the NCES report “was viewed as a technical analysis rather than something that would generate as much attention as it has.”

He added that the report will be useful for researchers but has little use for parents who are trying to make a decision about their children’s education.

“Parents are not making a choice between the average public and private school,” he said. “They are making a choice about the school their children are attending and the other possible schools their children might attend.”

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