|Public Schools Perform Near Private Ones in Study
(New York Times, Saturday, July 15, 2006.)
By Diana Jean Schemo
WASHINGTON, July 14 - The Education Department reported on Friday
that children in public schools generally performed as well or better
in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private
schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private
school counterparts fared better.
The report, which compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math
scores in 2003 from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530
private schools, found that fourth graders attending public school
did significantly better in math than comparable fourth graders in
private schools. Additionally, it found that students in conservative
Christian schools lagged significantly behind their counterparts in
public schools on eighth-grade math.
The study, carrying the imprimatur of the National Center for
Education Statistics, part of the Education Department, was
contracted to the Educational Testing Service and delivered to the
department last year.
It went through a lengthy peer review and includes an extended
section of caveats about its limitations and calling such a
comparison of public and private schools "of modest utility."
Its release, on a summer Friday, was made without a news conference
or comment from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the
union for millions of teachers, said the findings showed that public
schools were "doing an outstanding job" and that if the results had
been favorable to private schools, "there would have been press
conferences and glowing statements about private schools."
"The administration has been giving public schools a beating since
the beginning" to advance its political agenda, Mr. Weaver said, of
promoting charter schools and taxpayer-financed vouchers for private
schools as alternatives to failing traditional public schools.
A spokesman for the Education Department, Chad Colby, offered no
praise for public schools and said he did not expect the findings to
influence policy. Mr. Colby emphasized the caveat, "An overall
comparison of the two types of schools is of modest utility."
"We're not just for public schools or private schools,'' he said.
"We're for good schools."
The report mirrors and expands on similar findings this year by
Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski, a husband-and-wife team at
the University of Illinois who examined just math scores. The new
study looked at reading scores, too.
The study, along with one of charter schools, was commissioned by the
former head of the national Center for Education Statistics, Robert
Lerner, an appointee of President Bush, at a time preliminary data
suggested that charter schools, which are given public money but are
run by private groups, fared no better at educating children than
traditional public schools.
Proponents of charter schools had said the data did not take into
account the predominance of children in their schools who had already
had problems in neighborhood schools.
The two new studies put test scores in context by studying the
children's backgrounds and taking into account factors like race,
ethnicity, income and parents' educational backgrounds to make the
comparisons more meaningful. The extended study of charter schools
has not been released.
Findings favorable to private schools would likely have given a lift
to administration efforts to offer children in ailing public schools
the option of attending private schools.
An Education Department official who insisted on anonymity because of
the climate surrounding the report, said researchers were "extra
cautious" in reviewing it and were aware of its "political
The official said the warning against drawing unsupported conclusions
was expanded somewhat as the report went through in the review.
The report cautions, for example, against concluding that children do
better because of the type of school as opposed to unknown factors.
It also warns of great variations of performance among private
schools, making a blanket comparison of public and private schools
"of modest utility." And the scores on which its findings are based
reflect only a snapshot of student performance at a point in time and
say nothing about individual student progress in different settings.
Arnold Goldstein of the National Center for Education Statistics said
that the review was meticulous, but that it was not unusual for the
Mr. Goldstein said there was no political pressure to alter the findings.
Students in private schools typically score higher than those in
public schools, a finding confirmed in the study. The report then dug
deeper to compare students of like racial, economic and social
backgrounds. When it did that, the private school advantage
disappeared in all areas except eighth-grade reading.
And in math, 4th graders attending public school were nearly half a
year ahead of comparable students in private school, according to the
The report separated private schools by type and found that among
private school students, those in Lutheran schools performed best,
while those in conservative Christian schools did worst.
In eighth-grade reading, children in conservative Christian schools
scored no better than comparable children in public schools.
In eighth-grade math, children in Lutheran schools scored
significantly better than children in public schools, but those in
conservative Christian schools fared worse.
Joseph McTighe, executive director of the Council for American
Private Education, an umbrella organization that represents 80
percent of private elementary and secondary schools, said the
statistical analysis had little to do with parents' choices on
educating their children.
"In the real world, private school kids outperform public school
kids," Mr. McTighe said. "That's the real world, and the way things
Two weeks ago, the American Federation of Teachers, on its Web log,
predicted that the report would be released on a Friday, suggesting
that the Bush administration saw it as "bad news to be buried at the
bottom of the news cycle."
The deputy director for administration and policy at the Institute of
Education Sciences, Sue Betka, said the report was not released so it
would go unnoticed. Ms. Betka said her office typically gave senior
officials two weeks' notice before releasing reports. "The report was
ready two weeks ago Friday,'' she said, "and so today was the first
day, according to longstanding practice, that it could come out."