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Public schools: Do they outperform private ones?

The conventional wisdom is that private schools are better than public. But a new study casts a bit of doubt on such assumptions.

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The crumbling neighborhood public school down the block or that gilded private school on a hill? There's a tendency to imagine the two this way - and to assume the private school will produce better students.

But beleaguered public schools have recently received a small, though noteworthy, boost. After accounting for students' socioeconomic background, a new study shows public school children outperforming their private school peers on a federal math exam.

Overall, private school students tend to do markedly better on standardized tests. But the reason, this study suggests, may be that they draw students from wealthier and more educated families, rather than because they're better at bolstering student achievement.

One study is unlikely to settle a long-simmering debate over the merits of public versus private education. But its authors say they hope it will give pause to a current trend in education reform: privatization.

From tax-dollar financed vouchers for private schools to a drive to put public schools in private hands, market-style reforms are all the buzz in education.

Competition, the reasoning goes, is healthy for schools. Those that must produce results to survive have to be better than those that don't face such pressure.

But these findings "really call into question the assumption of some of the more prominent reform efforts," says Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who wrote the study with his wife Sarah Theule Lubienski, also an education professor at the university.

In particular, says Mr. Lubienski, it challenges the assumption that "the private-school model is better and more effective, and can achieve superior results. It really undercuts a lot of those choice-based reforms."

"A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement" appears in the May issue of Phi Delta Kappan, a highly regarded education journal.

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