Are Private High Schools Better Academically Than Public High Schools?

Center on Education Policy
October 2007

On the one hand, this new study by Jack Jennings's Center on Education Policy (conducted for them by Harold Wenglinsky) can be termed part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to delegitimize private schooling and public policies that might lead to more of it. On the other hand, they had to work awfully hard in this analysis to obtain the desired conclusion--and even then they couldn't erase the advantage conferred on (poor) kids by some private schools, specifically Catholic "religious order" schools such as those run by the Jesuits. These came up strong on almost every gauge. To efface any possible advantage on the part of other private schools, however, the analysts had to:

  • Look only at twelfth graders, such that the public-school "control group" consisted entirely of survivors and contained no future dropouts (as studies of earlier grades would inevitably do).
  • Confine the study further to urban kids in the lowest SES quartile, among whom public-school dropout rates are sky-high. Hence looking only at twelfth graders further constricted the control group and skewed the comparison.
  • Control for every imaginable sort of family influence and "cultural capital," including "parental discussion of school work," "parental expectations of their child's educational attainment," and "level of parental involvement in school activities." In other words, they sought to eradicate the effects of the very things that might cause kids to be found in private schools in the first place: concerned parents and schools that attract such families. What does it mean to look for "school effects" if one discounts a non-trivial part of what makes the school successful, namely engaged parents? Is that not a bit like evaluating the effectiveness of different sorts of hospitals after "controlling" for what led patients to select one hospital over another?

Though there's some self-conscious back pedaling on this point near the study's end ("it is possible in this study that private schools promote greater
parental involvement"), perhaps its most sobering feature is its determinism. Like (among others) Messrs. Richard Rothstein and Charles Murray, it ends up saying that most of what shapes educational outcomes has nothing to do with schools. Should poor kids just roll over and die? Or should they and their (engaged) parents seek out the best schools they can find and gain access to, mindful that, if they make astute choices, they might, in fact, be less likely to drop out and more likely to learn? Even to learn more? If you'd like to see for yourself, you can find it here.

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