At a time when public schools are the target of unrelenting criticism, the results of a new study come as welcome news ("Are Private Schools Worth It?" The Atlantic, Oct. 18). Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, found that when controlling for demographic factors, public schools are doing a better job academically than private schools.
That finding will no doubt come as a surprise to those who believe private schools are intrinsically superior. But achievement is higher because students in private schools come from more affluent families than students in public schools, rather than because of better practices. This distinction is crucial. The national average of public schools is pulled down by the number of such schools serving poor students. If these schools were eliminated, schools in the affluent suburbs would hold their own against the best private schools.
It's important to remember too that private schools are neither required to hire certified teachers nor administer state tests. They also have wide latitude in deciding which students to admit and which to push out. In short, they operate entirely differently. Therefore, I'll go a step farther. Even when socioeconomic factors are controlled, I don't think it's fair to compare private schools with public schools.
I also hasten to note that most of the schools in the Lubienskis' study were religious schools. These hardly constitute the totality of private schools in this country. So before drawing any definitive conclusions, we need to know how other private schools compare. Perhaps a study by Luis Benveniste, Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein provides an answer. They concluded that "the social, cultural, and economic backgrounds of the parents and the community in which the school was located seemed to be the main determinant of variation, much more so than a school's public or private character or, within the latter group, whether it was religious or secular" (All Else Equal, RoutledgeFalmer, 2003).