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

On 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 children.

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 began:

WASHINGTON, 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 schools.

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:

The 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).

The 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.

The 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.

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

In 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.

“Over 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.

Howard 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.

“Right 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 results.”

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.

The 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.

Taylor 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.

The 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 rate.”


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.

February 6, 2006

Gary 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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