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Education Study Finds Worst Performance in Conservative Christian Schools
Published on Saturday, July 15, 2006 by the New York Times
Little Separates Public, Private Schools -- Report
Study Finds Worst Performance in Conservative Christian Schools
by Diana Jean Schemo
 

WASHINGTON - The federal Education Department reported Friday that, in reading and math, children attending public schools generally do as well as or better than comparable children in private schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private-school children did better.

The report, which compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools in 2003, also found that conservative Christian schools lagged significantly behind public schools when it came to 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, 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 said 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 President Bush's political agenda, 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, said he did not expect the findings to influence policy. Colby emphasized repeatedly that "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 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 Bush, at a time preliminary data suggested that charter schools, which are given public money but are run by private groups, were doing 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 their neighborhood schools.

The two new studies put test scores in context by examining the backgrounds of children in the schools 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 boost to administration efforts to offer children in ailing public schools the option of attending private schools. An Education Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the climate surrounding the report said researchers were "extra cautious" in reviewing the study and were aware of the "political sensitivity" of the issue. The official said the section warning against drawing unsupported conclusions from data was expanded somewhat as the report went through the review process.

The report cautions, for example, against concluding that children do better because of the type of school they're in, as opposed to some unknown factors that might influence performance. It also warned that there was great variation of performance among private schools, making a blanket comparison of public and private schools "of modest utility."

Friday's report examined fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores for students attending public, private and religious schools. Students in private schools typically score higher than those in public schools, a finding confirmed in Friday's 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.

The report separated private schools by type, and found that among private-school students, those in Lutheran schools did best, while those in conservative Christian schools did worst. For example, in eighth-grade reading, children in conservative Christian schools did no better than comparable children in public schools.

In eighth-grade math, children in Lutheran schools did significantly better than children in public schools, but those in conservative Christian schools fared worse.

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."

© 2006 New York Times

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