Government-Funded Survey Reveals Private Schools' Mediocrity; Or, The Triumph of 'Advanced Statistical Techniques'

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January 28, 2006, the New York Times ran an article on a government-funded
survey of school performance
: public schools, private schools,
and tax-funded private charter schools. Two professors at a tax-funded
university conducted a huge survey the largest ever conducted:
340,000 students at 13,000 schools. The study’s directors reported
that private school children did no better at math than public school

The article
began with this headline: “Public-School Students Score Well in
Math in Large-Scale Government Study.” The headline is misleading.
It should have read: “Private School Students Score As Poorly in
Math as Public-School Students in Large-Scale Government Study.”
In every study of foreign students, at every grade level, United
States’ students score next to the bottom in math, just ahead of
Cyprus, despite the highest school budget expenditures per student.
Anyone who doubts this should spend an hour or more reading M. W.
Hodges’s “Grandfather” site on International
Math & Science Test scores


The article

Jan. 27 — A large-scale government-financed study has concluded
that when it comes to math, students in regular public schools do
as well as or significantly better than comparable students in private

Let me translate
this sentence for you. It tells us that comparable students score
the same. Stop the presses! It’s the educational news of the
decade! What she meant to say was that students of the same age
grouping scored comparably on math tests.

Given the competence
revealed so far by this reporter from America’s “Newspaper of Record,”
I wonder about this sentence:

researchers said they compared math scores, not reading ones, because
math was considered a clearer measure of a school’s overall effectiveness.

Put somewhat
differently, when the look-say method of teaching reading, or its
semi-literate cousin, whole-language method, produces poor readers,
decade after decade, it is wise to compare math scores when you
are being paid by the government to compare public school performance
with private-school performance. (Just for the record, I have 12
semester credits in young child development, which I took in 1995.
I know what the education system recommends for teaching reading.)

The survey
involved ten times as many students as any previous survey. This
seems to make the results authoritative. Furthermore, this study
used “advanced statistical techniques.” This implies that previous
studies were conducted by people who did not understand statistics
very well, and so used “obsolescent statistical techniques.” Then
again, perhaps “advanced statistical techniques” is a code phrase
for “cooked-data techniques.”

What were these
techniques? They adjusted “for the effects of income, school and
home circumstances.” I see. They adjusted, among other factors,
for school “circumstances.” Not being trained in “advanced statistical
techniques,” I should have thought that adjusting for “school circumstances”
was precisely what the techniques should not have done. The
goal of the study, officially, was to discover differences or lack
thereof with respect to schools and their circumstances.

The study tested
fourth graders and eighth graders. At this point, let me mention
this consideration. The longer that students stay in school, the
more likely that a survey of their performance will reflect the
input of the schools they have been in. That is, the more years
of schooling that one has in relation to “income” circumstances
and “family” circumstances, the more that we can learn about the
comparative performance of rival school programs. In short, what
matters most is the testing of high school seniors, not fourth graders.

Even so, such
a test would stack the deck against private schools. Why? Because
the student drop-out rate in private high schools is far lower than
the dropout rate in public high schools, even adjusting for the
notorious statistical games played by school districts to conceal
the high rate of high school dropouts — a fact reported by the
same New York Times reporter who wrote this article: “Graduation
Study Suggests That Some States Sharply Underestimate High School
Dropout Rates” (September 16, 2003).

study found that while the raw scores of fourth graders in Roman
Catholic schools, for example, were 14.3 points higher than those
in public schools, when adjustments were made for student backgrounds,
those in Catholic schools scored 3.4 points lower than those in
public schools.

The results
of this latest survey showed, once again, that students in private
schools performed better than their age cohorts in public schools.
Then “advanced statistical techniques” were applied to the raw data.
Presto! The performance advantage offered by private schools disappeared.

Let me decipher
this for you. When you enroll your child in a private school, you
will thereby segregate — the correct word — your child
from the less disciplined, less motivated children in the public
schools, i.e., children who by law must be accepted by the public
schools. Second, competing with a better caliber of student has
no effect on student performance whenever “advanced statistical
techniques” are applied to the test scores. This is what really
counts for your child, right? Not actual student performance, whose
results reflect poorly on the public schools, but massaged data.
Apparently, we are expected to believe that parents are as committed
to massaged data as statisticians hired by the government are.

study also found that charter schools, privately operated and publicly
financed, did significantly worse than public schools in the fourth
grade, once student populations were taken into account.

sending your child into “public schools lite” is a disadvantage
. . . in the fourth grade. But then, a statistically peculiar thing

the eighth grade, it found, students in charters did slightly better
than those in public schools, though the sample size was small and
the difference was not statistically significant.

So, as it turns
out, the longer your child is not in the full-scale public school,
the better he or she is likely to perform in math. That is, the
longer a student remains in school, the worse the child will score
if that school is a full-scale public school. This, I contend, is
why the United States Department of Education did not fund a survey
of high school seniors.

all,” it said, “demographic differences between students in public
and private schools more than account for the relatively high raw
scores of private schools. Indeed, after controlling for these differences,
the presumably advantageous private school effect disappears, and
even reverses in most cases.”

So far, nothing
in the article had suggested that private school students perform
poorly — “reverses” — in relation to public school students. So
far, all that the article has shown is that the longer a child stays
out of the full-scale public schools, the better he will do at math.

Next, a representative
of the labor union monopoly is asked to comment.

Nelson, a lead researcher at the American Federation of Teachers,
said the new study was based on the most current national data available.
The federation, an opponent of vouchers that has criticized the
charter movement, studied some of the same data in 2004 and reported
that charter schools lagged behind traditional public ones.

Again, there
is nothing here about private schools — only tax-funded schools
and government-regulated/funded charter schools.

now, the studies seem to show that charter schools do no better,
and private schools do worse,” Mr. Nelson said. “If private schools
are going to get funding, they need to be held accountable for the

This is a very
good reason for private schools not to seek or accept funding by
the state. They will be “held accountable” for the results, i.e.,
they will be subject to regulation based on — correct me if I’m
wrong — “advanced statistical techniques.”


Finally, the
article gets to private schools.
current study found that self-described conservative Christian schools,
the fastest-growing sector of private schools, fared poorest, with
their students falling as much as one year behind their counterparts
in public schools, once socioeconomic factors like income, ethnicity
and access to books and computers at home were considered.

This is incorrect.
The fastest-growing sector of the private school sector is the home-school
sector. Parents of home-schooled students have pulled them out of
the public schools because they resent the moral environment, the
poor performance, and the regulations of tax-funded education. Home
school parents are what I call the hard corps. They do not allow
their children be tested by government-funded surveyors, with or
without “advanced statistical techniques.”

Those private
schools that are still cooperating with the public school bureaucracy
did allow their students to be tested. That is, those schools that
still respect tax-funded education and want to play ball with the
system allowed their students to be tested, with parental consent.
In other words, soft-core private schools and parents cooperated.
Hard-core schools and parents did not.

Smith Jr., vice president for executive support at the Association
of Christian Schools, which represents 5,400 predominantly conservative
Christian schools in the United States, said that many of the group’s
members did not participate in the national assessment, which he
thought could make it a skewed sample.

No kidding.

report found that among the private schools, Lutheran schools did
better than other private schools. Nevertheless, at the fourth-grade
level, a 10.7-point lead in math scores evaporated into a 4.2-point
lag behind public schools. At the eighth-grade level, a 21-point
lead, roughly the equivalent of two grade levels, disappeared after
adjusting for differences in student backgrounds.

Factor out
the non-performers in the public school classroom, and the Lutheran
schools have performed poorly by comparison. This is reminiscent
of the assessment by former Washington D.C. mayor — and advanced
statistical technician — Marion Barry.

“If you take
out the killings, Washington actually has a very very low crime


If you want
your child to compete against the best students in his or her age
group, you will send your child to a Lutheran school rather than
a tax-funded school. But if you want your child educated in terms
of “advanced statistical techniques,” you will dutifully send your
child into a local public school.

6, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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