PUBLIC vs. PRIVATE….The Department of Education has released a new report on the quality of education offered by public schools vs. private schools. The release was timed for Friday and, according to the New York Times, “was made with without a news conference or comment from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.”

If this suggests to you that public schools came out OK in this new study, you’d be right. Basically, it was a review of NAEP scores in math and reading that was controlled for things like gender, race, English proficiency, poverty level, etc. Here are the average scores for public schools compared to private schools:

  • 4th grade reading: +1.1 points.

  • 4th grade math: +4.1 points.

  • 8th grade reading: -5.7 points.

  • 8th grade math: +0.6 points.

This obviously suggests that private schools haven’t discovered a magic bullet for educational reform, despite what their supporters might sometimes claim. Still, I don’t think this report is exactly cause for breaking out champagne among public school champions.

First, there’s that 8th grade reading score, which is a whopping 5.7 points (about half a grade level) below that of private schools. That’s a big difference.

Second, these scores confirm a widely-reported and disturbing trend: public schools seem to do OK at the elementary level, but student scores start to drop significantly in secondary school. In this study, the delta between public and private schools dropped 6.8 points in reading and 3.5 points in math between 4th and 8th grades. If the study had been extended to 11th grade, I suspect that decline would have continued.

I don’t have any answers here except for a guess: namely that the pedagogy wars don’t really matter much. Phonics vs. whole word? New math vs. old? Open classrooms vs. strict discipline? Without disparaging the people who work hard trying to figure this stuff out, it seems as if practically any of these approaches can succeed or fail depending on how well they’re implemented.

But what does seem to show up over and over again is the effect of concentrated poverty. Nearly everything I’ve read suggests that when the number of kids in poverty reaches about 50% in a school, teaching becomes nearly impossible ? and that this matters much more in secondary school than in elementary school.

Unfortunately, nobody has any good answers for this, so instead we mostly fuss around on the edges. Any suggestions?

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