When similar students are compared, public school students in fourth and eighth grade score nearly as well in reading and math as private school students, reports a study done for the National Center for Education Statistics. However, private students do better in eighth-grade reading and public students do better in fourth-grade math.
Overall, children in Lutheran schools did the best, while children in conservative Christian schools did the worst, when compared to children of similar race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, English fluency and disability status.
A version of the study released in January focused only on math scores.
The report’s caveats sections downplays the results, calling them “of modest utility.” Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, repeated the “modest utility” phrase in discussing the findings.
Why do conservative Christian schools underperform public schools? I suspect it’s because parents are choosing those schools for religious values, not primarily for academics. In addition, these schools tend to be run on a shoestring.
Update: On Political Animal, Kevin Drum critiques the study, observing that public school students tend to do OK in elementary school but falter in secondary school.
Update II: In a Wall Street Journal story (registration required), Paul Peterson questions whether the study accurately counted the number of private-school students from non-English-speaking homes or with disabilities.
Paul Peterson, a Harvard University government professor who has long supported voucher programs, said that some of the study’s adjustments for student characteristics were invalid. In particular, Prof. Peterson said that public-school students were more likely than private schoolers to be counted as speaking English as a second language or in need of special education.
In examining the same data, Prof. Peterson said, he found that “when we rely on the student’s own report of whether the family is speaking English at home or not, the private sector advantage becomes clear.”
I wonder how accurate the family income statistics are since they’re tied to the federal school lunch program.