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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Schools can't be panacea for all our problems

It's time to address causes of poverty and stop overselling private school

Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2007 - 2:00 am

By Paul Thomas

The Center on Education Policy has released its October 2007 research
report, "Are Private High Schools Better Academically Than Public High
Schools?" The answer drawn from data collected over 12 years concerning
low-income urban students in both public and private high schools suggests

This study by a nonpartisan center is significant since the researchers
considered a much wider range of factors when comparing public and private
schools than other studies addressing a similar question, although the U. S.
Department of Education reached this conclusion in a study released July
2006. The four major assertions made by the CEP study include (available at

a.. "Students attending independent private high schools, most types of
parochial high schools, and public high schools of choice performed no
better on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history than
their counterparts in traditional public high schools."

a.. "Students who had attended any type of private high school ended up no
more likely to attend college than their counterparts at traditional public
high schools."

a.. "Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up
with no more job satisfaction at age 26 than young adults who had attended
traditional public high schools."

a.. "Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up
no more engaged in civic activities at age 26 than young adults who had
attended traditional public high schools."
These findings reveal that academic achievement and some variables in life
after school are essentially the same whether a low-income student attends
public or private schools, but that other factors in the students' home
lives do seem to influence heavily both academic achievement and life beyond
school. The common perception that private schools far outperform
traditional public schools is no more than Urban Legend.

That false perception probably grows from the likelihood that private
schools attract a population of students, both affluent and low-income, that
have the family characteristics that correlate highly with strong student
achievement; thus, private schools may tend to house those students
disproportionately when compared to public schools, but the schools
themselves do not cause those differences.

The two exceptions in the study did identify higher SAT scores from private
schooling, which led to private school students having an advantage when
applying to elite colleges, and higher achievement in a very few Catholic
private schools (ones "run by holy orders").

From this study, we must begin to reconsider some of our public discourse
about schools, about accountability and about school reform. First, these
conclusions and others that show little to no difference between public and
private schooling when other factors are held constant should silence the
call for vouchers, school choice and privatization as avenues to addressing
weaknesses in our school system and low student achievement. It may be
perfectly valid to consider school choice, vouchers and privatizing schools
for other reasons, but not to improve schools.

Next, these findings, along with other research addressing the negative
impacts of poverty (see, should help
us shift our primary focus of blaming schools for failing to address
problems that are not caused by the schools, but brought into the schools
from the larger society, to looking for ways to address that poverty in the
homes of students.

While we must continue to reform our schools and seek ways to prepare better
our students for their lives after school, we must also stop expecting
schools to perform miracles. Schools are but one social mechanism to address
the ill effects of poverty on the lives of children, but we spend most of
our time and money acting as if they are the only mechanism.

The reality of schools is that we are daily asking far too much of schools
and far too little of the students who show up each day in our classrooms.

It is too much to ask schools to be the panacea for the failures of our free
and wealthy society.

It is too little to ask our students to complete worksheets -- worksheets
designed to prepare children for tests. And why so many tests? Because no
one trusts the schools and teachers who are being asked to save the children
while also being blamed for problems they did not cause.

As the CEP report states, "This suggests that the private school advantage
is a chimera; it merely shows that private schools contain a larger
proportion of children whose parents have characteristics that contribute to
learning than do public schools." Thus we must shift our focus away from the
coincidences of schooling and address the causes of poverty in our larger

a.. The Greenville News 305 S. Main St., PO Box 1688, Greenville, SC 29602
Phone (864) 298-4100, (800) 800-5116 Subscription services (800) 736-7136

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