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.
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Without having seen the Lubienskis' research, he points out that raw scores have typically shown the country's 6 million private school students, who make up 11.5 percent of US schoolchildren, outperforming public school students.Skip to next paragraph
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But others say the results are not that surprising.
"We would conclude, on the basis of perhaps 15 years of research, that there's nothing magic about privatization," says Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.
For the most part, he says, the academic benefits of attending a public or a private school have been relatively small, when compared in studies.
Certainly the stubborn gap between the academic achievement of white and minority students across the board is greater than the gap between public and private school performances.
That's a salient point for those who oppose the idea of privatization as a cure for the ills of US public education. Unless private schools have a measurably better track record than public schools, it's hard to argue that privatizing education will necessarily boost performance for all students.
"The bigger picture here," says Professor Levin, "and I don't care which good study you look at - the [differences in public and private school] results are tiny."
By way of example, Levin cites a comprehensive 2002 study that examined public and private schools in Latin America.
There, raw test scores favored private schools. But once student socioeconomic status was taken into account, that advantage shrank - as the Lubienskis had found. After the study factored in what is called "peer effect" - the influence of other students and school environment - the overall difference across 10 countries was zero; achievement at public and private schools was equal.
In the end, says Levin, ideology often trumps research and drives the debate, with proponents on either side highlighting only data that support their case.
Chances are, the Lubienskis' study won't have much impact on the choices that parents make.
"When parents make decisions about schools," says Mr. McTighe of CAPE, "they don't compare these constructed statistical abstracts. They look at a particular school in a particular neighborhood and ask: Is that school the right match for my child?"
Often, intangibles - a safe environment and caring staff or a culture that embraces and reflects a family's values - influence the decision as much as test scores.
And public opinion about the quality of schools is nuanced.
According to a 1999 Public Agenda poll, 52 percent of parents said private schools generally provide a better education. Only 19 percent thought a public education was better.
Yet many parents still hold public schools in high regard. The annual Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitude Toward the Public Schools has, since 1983, consistently reported parents giving public schools high marks - in the "A" and "B" range. The closer a parent is to the school, the better the grade.
If nothing else, the Lubienskis' findings are "a nice thing for the public schools to hear," says Kathy Christie of the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver. "It's most validating in that way."