The recent publication of a scholarly book has reopened the debate surrounding the academic achievement of public vs. private schools.
Public schools achieve the same or better mathematics results as private schools with demographically similar students, concludes The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, published in November by the University of Chicago Press. The authors are Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, a husband-and-wife team of education professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Central to the controversy is their suggestion that vouchers, which provide public funding for private school tuition, are based on the premise that private schools do better—an assumption that is undercut by the book’s overall findings.
The Lubienskis’ analysis draws on data from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, as well as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99.
After accounting for socioeconomic status, race, and other demographic differences among students, the researchers found that public school math achievement equaled or outstripped math achievement at every type of private school in grades 4 and 8 on NAEP. The advantage was as large as 12 score points on a scale of 0 to 500 (or more than one full grade level) when the authors compared public school students with demographically similar 4th graders in conservative Christian schools.
The Lubienskis also used NAEP data to conclude that regular public schools outperformed independently operated, publicly funded charter schools in 4th grade math and equaled them in 8th grade math.
Finally, the Lubienskis used their longitudinal data to find that public school students started kindergarten with lower math achievement than demographically similar private school peers. By the time they reached the 5th grade, however, they were outperforming those same peers in the subject.
On the basis of the data they analyzed, the Lubienskis offer two possible explanations for their findings.
First, public school teachers are more likely to be certified, meaning they are required to continue to take professional-development courses that expose them to the latest research on teaching math.
Second, perhaps as a result of that professional development, their instructional approaches more closely align with recent studies suggesting that test results improve when students know how to reason and communicate mathematical concepts rather than merely learning to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
The Lubienskis conclude that “private, autonomous, choice-based schools are not necessarily more innovative or academically effective but instead often perform at lower levels even as they attract more able students.”
Their book adds to a growing and controversial body of research questioning the conventional wisdom that private schools are superior to their public counterparts.
One source of contention is that private schools serve a different and often socially and economically more privileged set of students. So efforts to compare the two sectors necessarily require researchers to account for demographic differences between the groups.
In Parents for Public School’s recent publication of their National IPPS, Inside Parents for Public Schools, our president Lois Yamauchi wrote an article highlighting our Middle School Tours and Transition Nights!
At one of our recent events, Parents for Public Schools of Hawai‘i asked a group of parents to recall what their middle school experiences were like: “pimples,” “awkwardness,” “being self conscious,” and “getting lost” were some of the responses. One woman talked about being afraid of going to the bathroom, a place where she heard bullies hung out. Another person said, “Middle school was a time when we felt in between, older than in elementary school, but not really grown up.” Given those kinds of memories, it is easy to see why many parents express anxiety as their children transition from elementary to middle school settings. The middle school years may have been a time that parents themselves did not enjoy or that they found more difficult than other school experiences. Many may be unsure about what middle school will be like for their children and how to best meet the needs of adolescents.
In Hawai‘i, families may also hear negative rumors about public education that promote enrollment in private schools. Says PPS of Hawai’i president, Lois Yamauchi, “The Hawai‘i chapter has found that many people who choose private schools over public ones have never visited the public school in their neighborhood, but instead base their decision on hearsay and negative media coverage of public schools.” To work against this, PPS of Hawai‘i launched their Middle School Tours and Transition Nights to encourage families to stay in public schools by providing them with more accurate information about what public middle schools have to offer and by helping to create a friendly bridge between elementary and middle schools.
This school year, PPS of Hawai’i will host seven middle school tours in public middle and intermediate schools on the island of O‘ahu. Five tours have already been held at Kailua Intermediate, King Intermediate, Jarrett, Washington, and Kawananakoa Middle Schools. Additional tours are planned over the next two months. The tours are planned collaboratively with local middle and intermediate schools and are typically two hours long. Family members of potential students (who may bring their fifth or sixth graders along) meet school leaders and staff, hear from students, learn about each school’s vision and programs, and tour the campus to look inside classrooms.
On November 6, fifty-seven parents and other family members met at Kailua Intermediate School and toured the campus, visiting academic and elective classrooms in small groups with staff and PTA members as guides. After the tour, members of the student council answered parents’ questions about homework, the online grade program, honors classes, student activities, and clubs. Feedback from parents who attended was very positive regarding both the program offerings and the staff. Several parents said the tour helped them select the school for their child. One mom proclaimed that the tour had “absolutely changed my perception of the school.” She had been considering switching to a private school for seventh grade but was so impressed by Kailua Intermediate that, after the tour, she was convinced that her daughter would enroll there next year.
PPS of Hawai‘i works with the receiving middle schools to schedule the tours; the Chapter also coordinates the advertising to families which includes developing and delivering flyers to feeder and other elementary school families. The Chapter collects RSVPs through the website and talks with school staff about the format. The school personnel typically organize and run the tours. Chapter members attend the tours, coordinate with schools to provide refreshments for families and help with tour evaluations. During the discussion portion of the event, chapter members talk with families about the Chapter and the importance of the parent voice at the school, district, and state level. This is also an opportunity to invite families to become chapter members.
In addition to the daytime tours, the Chapter holds Middle School Transition Night events for families who may not be able to attend a daytime tour or want more information about what middle school will be like and how they can help their children make a smooth transition. Families have a unique opportunity to interact with principals, school staff, and experts on adolescence, and to talk with each other about their fears and hopes for their children’s middle school experiences. School staffs attend the evening events and answer questions families have about how middle school is different from elementary school. A highlight of the evening events has been a presentation by Dr. Tracy Trevorrow, a licensed clinical psychologist and Parents for Public Schools of Hawai‘i member. Many families who attended last year’s events suggested that Dr. Trevorrow’s presentation on early adolescence, including the behavior and brain changes and how they can support their children through this stage of life, was the most valuable part of the evening. They wanted other resources to consult about adolescence and transition to middle school. In response, the Chapter put Dr. Trevorrow’s presentation slides on our website in addition to other resources for families.
We began our middle school initiative with tours in the Honolulu area where the highest percentage of families send their children to private schools. Families often attend tours of what would be their child’s “home” school, in addition to those at other schools to which their child could commute. Last year, the group received a matching grant from PPS National in support of the tours and evening events. This year the chapter was awarded a grant from The Learning Coalition, a local foundation that provided funds to hire Program Coordinator Sue Emley for the tours and evening events.
Hawai‘i is the only state in the nation that has one statewide public school district. The school system is overseen by a single appointed school board and superintendent of schools and administered by the Hawai‘i State Department of Education. The large district is divided into complexes made up of two or three high schools and feeder middle and elementary schools.
The Middle School Tours and Transition Nights have been a great success for Parents for Public Schools of Hawai‘i. The program developed out of concerns that many families had about public education and has been a great way for the Chapter to reach out to both families and middle schools and to put them in touch with each other. The next major initiative for Parents for Public Schools of Hawai‘i is a statewide 1000 Family Voices listening campaign. The first effort of its kind in Hawai‘i, the Chapter will be engaging families in person at our own and other community events and via social media to find out what concerns families in Hawai’i have about their children’s education. The Chapter’s future programming will be based on these responses.