Private Performance
The New York Times gets excited.


Chester E. Finn Jr.

Predictably, Diana Jean Schemo and the New York Times found front-page, above-the-fold space on Saturday to cover on a new National Center for Education Statistics report, drawn from 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress data, that finds private schools only slightly more effective than public when analysts control for income, race, parent education, and such. (The exception is eighth-grade reading where the private-school advantage is marked.)

You can be sure that if the government study had found a wide margin favoring private schools, it would have been covered alongside the shipping news, if at all. But that says more about Schemo and her editors than about American education.

I’ve long gotten into trouble with private-school audiences by noting that a good portion of their test-score edge is caused by their choice of students, and students’ choice of schools, rather than by the superior educational effectiveness of private schools. Private schools, in my experience, are prey to the same daffy constructivist ideas, the same curricular correctness, many of the same mediocre textbooks and much of the same educationist zeitgeist as their public-school counterparts. They are free to be different but they aren’t really that different — except that they’re all schools of choice and they nearly all charge tuitions, which means their students tend to be relatively more prosperous and from homes where parents care enough both to make a purposeful choice and to shell out money for it. Erase the “selection effect” and private schools may not be academic high flyers. That’s more or less what the NCES study shows. (Note, though, that it also has some methodological problems, as Harvard’s Paul Peterson explained in the Wall Street Journal on the same day.

Yet social science is not the real world and the real world never erases the selection effect. Private schools do have higher test scores and that is one reason picky parents who can swing it choose them for their kids — and zillions more tell survey researchers they would do likewise if they could afford it. (It’s those zillions more who would take advantage of vouchers if available.)

But test scores and other signs of academic prowess are just part of why parents make such choices. Private schools have other advantages, too. They are generally smaller, more intimate — and nearly always safe and well disciplined. Many of them attend to character development, values and moral formation as well as cognitive skills and knowledge. Many add religious instruction and prayer to the mix. What’s more, private schools are typically welcoming and responsive places from the parent’s standpoint, keenly aware that they must please as well as educate their clients. Some of them confer social status and a readymade peer group that suits the parents’ sense of who their children are (or wish they were). In part because they’re free to hire the best teachers available, certified or not, their instructional staff is often knowledgeable as well as caring. Sometimes they offer small classes, plenty of college counseling and nifty extracurricular activities.

All of those and more factors go into the durable appeal of private schools. An appeal that will surely trump any number of government studies.

To repeat, that doesn’t mean they’re more effective than public schools in a “value added” sense when measured on external tests of academic achievement. (We actually know little about this. Few private schools administer state tests or release their results on the normed tests that many use; and private-school participation in NAEP is spotty.) For this they should be ashamed — as they should of their lack of interest in growing, adding more campuses, serving more kids, and pressing for the public dollars that would make that more possible. Thirty years ago, private schools in general and Catholic schools in particular were in the forefront of the quest for federal tuition tax credits and other aid schemes. Today they’re far more reticent, sometimes even declining to participate in a voucher program after others enact it. (That’s occurring in Ohio today, for example.)

In sum, I have lots of beefs with private schools, their organizations, and their leaders. But they’re going to remain popular among those who are able to attend them and the basis of that popularity is legitimate, even if not always visible in NAEP results. That more Americans don’t have this option is a national disgrace. The heck with the New York Times.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.