New Study Shows that Public Schools Do Better Than Private Schools in Maths

A new US study has found that public school students out-perform private school students in maths. The higher performance by public schools was attributed to more certified maths teachers and a modern maths curriculum and teaching.

Co-author of the study, Sarah Lubienski, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at Illinois University, said that teacher certification and reform-oriented teaching practices correlated positively with higher achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam for public school students.

“According to our results, schools that hired more certified teachers and had a curriculum that de-emphasized learning by rote tended to do better on standardized math tests,” Lubienski said. “And public schools had more of both.”

In previous research, Professor Lubienski and her husband had found that after holding demographic factors constant, public school students performed just as well if not better than private schools students on standardized math tests. The new research looked at the underlying reasons for the better public school performance.

Lubienski said one reason private schools show poorly in this study could be their lack of accountability to a public body.

“There’s been this assumption that private schools are more effective because they’re autonomous and don’t have all the bureaucracy that public schools have,” Lubienski said. “But one thing this study suggests is that autonomy isn’t necessarily a good thing for schools.”

Another reason could be private schools’ anachronistic approach to math.

“Private schools are increasingly ignoring curricular trends in education, and it shows,” Lubienski said. “They’re not using up-to-date methods, and they’re not hiring teachers who employ up-to-date lesson plans in the classroom. When you do that, you aren’t really taking advantage of the expertise in math education that’s out there.”

Lubienski thinks one of the reasons that private schools don’t adopt a more reform-minded math curriculum is because some parents are more attracted to a “back-to-basics” approach to math instruction. The end result, however, is students who are “prepared for the tests of 40 years ago, and not the tests of today,” she said.

Tests like the NAEP, Lubienski said, have realigned themselves with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards for math instruction, which have moved away from the memorization,” Lubienski said.

“The results do seem to suggest that private schools are doing their own thing, and that they’re less likely to have paid attention to curricular trends and the fact that math instruction and math tests have changed,” she said.

The schools with the smallest percentage of certified teachers – conservative Christian schools, where less than half of teachers were certified – were the schools with the lowest aggregate math test scores.

“Those schools certainly have the prerogative to set different priorities when hiring, but it just doesn’t help them on NAEP,” Lubienski said.

Lubienski also noted that public schools tend to set aside money for teacher development and periodic curriculum improvements.

“Private schools don’t invest as much in the professional development of their teachers and don’t do enough to keep their curriculum current,” she said. “That appears to be less of a priority for them, and they don’t have money designated for that kind of thing in the way public schools do.”

Lubienski hopes that politicians who favor more privatization would realize that the invisible hand of the market doesn’t necessarily apply to education.

“You can give schools greater autonomy, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to use that autonomy to implement an innovative curriculum or improve the academics of the students,” she said.

The results were published in a paper titled “Achievement Differences and School Type: The Role of School Climate, Teacher Certification, and Instruction” in the November 2008 issue of the American Journal of Education. The published findings were based on fourth- and eighth-grade test results from the 2003 NAEP test, including data from both student achievement and comprehensive background information drawn from a nationally representative sample of more than 270,000 students from more than 10,000 schools.

Taken from Science Daily, 3 March 2009

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