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Public schools: Do they outperform private ones?

The conventional wisdom is that private schools are better than public. But a new study casts a bit of doubt on such assumptions.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 2005

The crumbling neighborhood public school down the block or that gilded private school on a hill? There's a tendency to imagine the two this way - and to assume the private school will produce better students.

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But beleaguered public schools have recently received a small, though noteworthy, boost. After accounting for students' socioeconomic background, a new study shows public school children outperforming their private school peers on a federal math exam.

Overall, private school students tend to do markedly better on standardized tests. But the reason, this study suggests, may be that they draw students from wealthier and more educated families, rather than because they're better at bolstering student achievement.

One study is unlikely to settle a long-simmering debate over the merits of public versus private education. But its authors say they hope it will give pause to a current trend in education reform: privatization.

From tax-dollar financed vouchers for private schools to a drive to put public schools in private hands, market-style reforms are all the buzz in education.

Competition, the reasoning goes, is healthy for schools. Those that must produce results to survive have to be better than those that don't face such pressure.

But these findings "really call into question the assumption of some of the more prominent reform efforts," says Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who wrote the study with his wife Sarah Theule Lubienski, also an education professor at the university.

In particular, says Mr. Lubienski, it challenges the assumption that "the private-school model is better and more effective, and can achieve superior results. It really undercuts a lot of those choice-based reforms."

"A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement" appears in the May issue of Phi Delta Kappan, a highly regarded education journal.

Analyzing raw data from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress for 28,000 fourth- and eighth-graders representing more than 1,300 public and private schools, Mrs. Lubienski, whose research focuses on equity issues in math education, was surprised by what she was seeing. When children of similar socioeconomic status were compared, the public school children scored higher. She called in her husband, who studies school choice and privatization, to help interpret the results.

At most, a small difference

When the students were divided into four socioeconomic groups, the difference between public and private school math scores was 6 to 7 points for fourth-graders in each group, and 1 to 9 points for eighth-graders. Not a large difference, says Mrs. Lubienski - more "small to moderate."

The crux of the study isn't so much to suggest that public schools are outpacing private schools as to call into question a common assumption: "It's more: 'Wow, this flies in the face of what we thought - that private schools do better than public.' "

Some, however, are skeptical. Any time studies produce "counterintuitive" results, they should be carefully examined, says Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education (CAPE).