Sunday, July 16, 2006

Break Down: Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling

A new report from NCES entitled Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling garnered some press already and is sure to pick up more. Caveats abound, like the lack of prior achievement measures, patterns of self selection, small sample size for private schools, and observationally collected data rather than randomly collected data. Taken together the report's findings make some noise.

I'm not sounding an alarm, arguably the NY Times has beat me to it anyway. I will however say that this study illustrates the things we take for granted constantly without any solid evidence, say for instance: private school students learn more and get a better education than public school students. For as long as there have been distinctions between private schools and public schools, researchers have sought an answer to the question: which schools do better by their students? This study sheds some light, but demonstrates futility in generalization in education.

The findings break down like this: Students in private schools usually score higher than those in public schools. The report then dug deeper to examine race and class effects. When the report analyzed these covariates the private school advantage disappeared in all areas except eighth-grade reading. In other words private schools aren't doing much to change or improve the achievement of students that underperforming, just like their public school peers. In fact the study suggests that in math, 4th and 8th grade, public school student perform better when race and class are accounted for.

A strange Lutheran, Catholic, Evangelical Christian denominational component was tossed into this study for good measure. To the NYTimes's delight, conservative Christian schools fared most poorly. I'll leave speculation on why a trend like conservative Christianity has negatively impacted achievement on math and reading to a heated after-dinner conversation.

Anyhow, it's tough to get mad at NEA President Reg Weaver for latching onto this study some. His comment about public schools doing an "outstanding job" on the one hand makes me want to roll my eyes (talk about a gross generalization), but on the other hand it's hard to not feel warmly about a piece of good news in an industry that rarely gets much good news. To me, this study suggests the extreme difficulty in improving the chances of underprivileged students, no matter where they attend school. At least as measured by our ever popular achievement proxy, the annual NAEP.


Anonymous Northerner said...

Julian Sanchez has a pretty good reason why the study as a whole doesn't prove what you think it proves:

Also, while controlling for income makes a lot of intuitive sense, it's going to skew the results in another way. Consider: In Bergen County, New Jersey where I grew up, the public schools (which I attended) are actually pretty damn good. In D.C., where I live now, they're notoriously crappy. A relatively affluent family in Bergen County is probably going to be satisfied with the public schools. A similarly affluent family in D.C. is going to be a lot more likely to pony up the bucks to send Junior to Sidwell Friends, because the marginal improvement for the cost is much greater, which in the absence of vouchers leaves the less affluent kids, on average, in the crappier public schools. But that means comparisons within income classes are going to involve comparing private school kids at Sidwell with public school kids in Jersey. And they might get roughly equivalent educations, but that doesn't entail that the kid in D.C. wouldn't have been any worse off staying in the D.C. public system.

9:28 AM  

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