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
"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
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