Thursday, July 20, 2006
So Dark the Con of NCLB
The press release reads in part:
Year after year, some schools fail to live up to the important standards that ensure our students get the education they deserve. President Bush and I believe that families in communities where schools fall short deserve choices when it comes to their children's education.
Today, we are one step closer to ensuring that parents can make choices that strengthen their children's future and give them a great start in life, regardless of their resources or the communities they live in. The President's America's Opportunity Scholarships program will help low-income students in under-performing schools transfer to the private school of their choice or sign up for intensive tutoring after school or during the summer.
The insinuation, of course, is that private schools are superior to public schools and will therefore help our children to succeed. This has been considered common wisdom for a number of years based upon a study done in the early 1980s. Unfortunately for the GOP and supporters of the voucher program, it's not true.
In last Saturday's edition of the NewYork Times, it was reported that a study by Spellings' own Department of Education showed that public schools perform as well as or nearly as well as private schools in the key areas of reading and math.
The Education Department reported on Friday that children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private school counterparts fared better.
The report, which compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores in 2003 from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools, found that fourth graders attending public school did significantly better in math than comparable fourth graders in private schools. Additionally, it found that students in conservative Christian schools lagged significantly behind their counterparts in public schools on 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.
Quoting from the report's executive summary (PDF):
Results From Grade 4
In the first set of analyses, all private schools were compared to all public schools. The average private school mean reading score was 14.7 points higher than the average public school mean reading score, corresponding to an effect size of .41 (the ratio of the absolute value of the estimated difference to the standard deviation of the NAEP fourth-grade reading score distribution). After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was near zero and not significant.
In the first set of analyses, all private schools were again compared to all public schools. The average private school mean mathematics score was 7.8 points higher than the average public school mean mathematics score, corresponding to an effect size of .29. After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was -4.5 and significantly different from zero. (Note that a negative difference implies that the average school mean was higher for public schools.)
Results From Grade 8
In the first set of analyses, all private schools were compared to all public schools. The average private school mean reading score was 18.1 points higher than the average public school mean reading score, corresponding to an effect size of .58. After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was 7.3 points and significantly different from zero.
In the first set of analyses, all private schools were again compared to all public schools. The average private school mean mathematics score was 12.3 points higher than the average public school mean mathematics score, corresponding to an effect size of .38. After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was nearly zero and not significant.
Spellings and others dismissed the significance of this report noting that the report itself listed several caveats and warned that the findings were of "modest utility" (due in part to a small sample size and the researchers inability to control for certain socioeconomic variables)
Unfortunately for Spellings, though, this is not the only study comparing public and private schools. In 2005, Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, associate professors from the University of Illinois, published a study in the educational journal Phi Delta Kappan titled A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement (sorry, no link - if you're interested in reading the article it can be found in Phi Delta Kappan v86 n9 May 2005, p696). The study compared the achievement of mathematics students in grades four and eight while controlling for socioeconomic status (SES). To do this, Lubienski and Lubienski considered a number of SES variables including poverty level, computer access at home, internet access at home, extent to which students' studies are discussed at home, and parents' education level. What they found is that when compared across the board, public school students actually fared better than their private school counterparts when compared within their own SES quartile.
As the figures show, within each SES quartile, the public school mean is actually higher than that of the corresponding private school mean at both grades 4 and 8. Specifically, public school fourth-grade means were 6 to 7 points higher than private school means within each SES quartile, and eighth-grade differences favoring public schools ranged from 1 to 9 points.
So why the misconception that private schools perform better than our public schools? Well, as you can see from the two graphs above, students from the High SES quartile tend to score higher than the others. Private schools are far more likely to consist of students from that High SES category than public schools. In fact, this particular study found that less than 40% of public schools were of high SES while over 80% of private schools were of high SES.
So what does this mean for NCLB? Well, considering that school vouchers - or school choice, as the Republicans like to call it - are a major part of the NCLB act, this renders a large portion of the act moot. What would be the advantage of sending our children to a private school if the research shows that such a change will not increase their level of achievement? Seeing as how such a change will be unable to effect a student's socioeconomic status, there appears to be no evidence that it will produce the promised result. In other words, the promise of NCLB is based upon a myth.
Such is the con of NCLB.