More Evidence that Private Schools Do No Better than Public Schools

The Dutch education system provides fertile ground for comparing the results of public and private schools. The Netherlands has the largest private school sector of any country in the world with 72% of secondary school students attending government funded private schools. If private schools produce higher education outcomes than public schools as the advocates of the privatisation of education claim, then The Netherlands is the country where this should be happening. But, apparently this is not the case.

A comprehensive new study has found no difference between the achievement of secondary school students in public and private schools. It analysed the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment in 2006 and 2009 for reading, mathematics and science. It concluded that “there is no statistically significant difference between the achievement of public- and private school students; once they are matched on observable characteristics” [p.28].

The study used four different statistical methods to analyse the results, taking into account the effects of different student characteristics. The results were similar across all methods.

The results from the preferred method showed that academic achievement for private school students in 2006 was not significantly different from the public school counterparts to which they were matched. For 2009, the results showed small negative effects of private school attendance, particularly for reading and science. The analysis was carried out by matching students in both sectors based on observable characteristics. Similar estimates were obtained when additional student characteristics were incorporated into the analysis.

The analysis was complemented by multi-level modelling which found qualitatively identical results. This method also found very large between school variances in student achievement of nearly 70% of all the observed variation. However, despite this, none of the results could be attributed to attendance at public or private schools.

The study also re-analysed an earlier World Bank study based on the 2006 PISA data which found that private school attendance in the Netherlands has a large positive effect on student achievement in reading, mathematics and science. The re-analysis used the same methodology employed in the World Bank study but incorporated both 2006 and 2009 PISA data. It found that the World Bank study was incomplete, highly unstable over time and likely to generate unreliable estimates.

The study was published jointly by the Top Institute for Evidence Based Education Research an inter-university research group in the Netherlands devoted to evidence-based research in education, and the National Centre for the Study of Privatisation in Education at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York.

Public and private schools are funded equally on the same basis. Funding is based on the number of students enrolled and the funding follows the student. Each school receives for each student enrolled a sum equivalent to the per capita cost of public schooling. Neither public nor private schools are allowed to levy compulsory fees, so there is no “topping up” from parent fees in the private sector and therefore no financially induced stratified system of schools as in Australia.

Government-funded schools, both public and private dependent schools, are restricted in their ability to reject students. In general, public schools are required to accept all applicants. Private government-dependent schools are allowed to reject students if they can show that the school’s (religious) identity does not fit well with that of the student.

Dutch public and government funded private schools can be characterized as centrally controlled, but with strongly decentralized management and administration. Teacher salaries are based on nationally determined scales, from which schools have little discretionary power to deviate. However, schools are relatively autonomous in the organization of teaching; especially regarding pedagogy and textbooks. On the other hand, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science imposes numerous standards referring to the quality of education, in particular regarding curriculum and yearly instruction hours.

The results of the new study are similar to those of the OECD’s 2009 PISA study which found that, after accounting for the socio-economic and demographic profiles of students and schools, students in OECD countries who attend private schools have similar performance to public school students. Similar results were found in Australia’s 2009 PISA study.

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