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article imageStudy Says Public Schools As Good As Private Schools In Raising Math Scores

By Bob Ewing     May 23, 2008 in World
Students in public schools learn as much or more math between kindergarten and fifth grade as similar students in private schools.
A multi-year, longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois has shown that students in public schools learn as much or more math between kindergarten and fifth grade as similar students in private schools.
“These data provide strong, longitudinal evidence that public schools are at least as effective as private schools in boosting student achievement,” say the authors, education professor Christopher Lubienski, doctoral student Corinna Crane and education professor Sarah Theule Lubienski.
The study appears in the May issue of Phi Delta Kappan.
The new study is the first published study that shows that public schools are at least as effective as private schools at promoting student learning over time.
“We think this effectively ends the debate about whether private schools are more effective than publics,” said Christopher Lubienski, whose research has dealt with all aspects of alternative education.
Many current reforms, such as No Child Left Behind, charter schools and vouchers for private schools, are based on that assumption.
A previous study by the Lubienskis, which challenged the then-common wisdom supported by well-regarded but dated research that private schools were superior, was the starting point for the discussion as that study challenged the then-common wisdom – supported by well-regarded but dated research – that private schools were superior.
The 2005 study found that public school students tested higher in math than their private school peers from similar social and economic backgrounds.
In early 2006, a more-extensive study built on those findings, and also raised similar questions about charter schools and also raised similar questions about charter schools.
Both studies were based on fourth- and eighth-grade test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
In 2006, similar findings in U.S. Department of Education studies comparing public schools with privates and with charters, which looked at NAEP test data on both math and reading added further support.
Critics of these previous studies, however, have cited the lack of longitudinal data showing the possible effect over time of different types of schooling. The studies of NAEP data were only snapshots, they said, showing student achievement at a single point in time. The studies did not address the possibility that some students may have entered private school at a lower level of achievement.
One of the purposes of the new study was to address this issue. The data for the new study came from the database produced by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (or ECLS-K); administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education.
The most recent data available for the U. of I. study was gathered in 2004, in the spring of the students’ fifth-grade year. The sample used for the study included 9,791 students in 1,531 schools (1,273 public, 140 Catholic and 118 other private schools).
The sample included only students who had stayed in the same type of school – though not necessarily the same school – throughout the years covered in order to better determine the effects of attending different types of schools.
As in the previous studies, the researchers used a statistical technique known as hierarchical linear modeling to control for demographic differences between students, as well as schools. Among the demographic variables included in looking at students were measures of socioeconomic status; race and ethnicity; gender; disability; and whether the child spoke a language other than English at home.
The average socioeconomic level of its students, its racial or ethnic composition, and its location (urban or rural) were among the variables included in looking at schools.
The NAEP data had included similar information, but its quality and controls on its collection were not as strong as for ECLS-K.
“It’s one reason this study feels more definitive than the NAEP studies,” she said.
After controlling for demographic differences among students and schools, the researchers’ found that public school students began kindergarten with math scores roughly equal to those of their Catholic school peers. By fifth grade, however, they had made significantly greater gains, equal to almost an extra half year of schooling.
Part of the explanation might lie in the fact that Catholic schools have fewer certified teachers and employ fewer reform-oriented mathematics teaching practices – something they found in research for another study, accepted for publication in the American Journal of Education.
Public school students also “rivaled the performance of students in other (non-Catholic) private schools,” the researchers wrote. After adjusting for demographics and initial kindergarten scores, they found that achievement gains between kindergarten and fifth grade were roughly equal.
The number of private schools in the study did not allow for drawing conclusions about other subcategories of private schools, such as Lutheran, conservative Christian or secular. In their earlier NAEP research, they found that Lutheran schools, for instance, performed on par with publics, while conservative Christian schools performed lower than all other school types.
“It is worth noting,” the researchers write in analyzing their results, “how little variation school type really accounts for in students’ growth in achievement … Specifically, while all of the variables in our model together explained 62 percent of the achievement differences between schools, school type alone accounted for less than 5 percent of these differences, with demographic considerations accounting for a much greater share.”
Sarah Lubienski said, “school type alone doesn’t explain very much of why these scores vary … in truth, whether the school is public or private doesn’t seem to make that much difference.”
The researchers state that they “personally see private schools as an integral part of the American system of education” and “there are many valid reasons why parents choose private schools and why policymakers may push for school choice.”
They wrote, “Claims that simply switching students from one type of school to another will result in higher scores appear to be unfounded.”
The researchers suggest “moving away from a simple focus on school type and instead examining what happens within schools.”
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