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Public Vs. Private School: Study Says There Is No Difference

Jun 13, 2011

With all of the highly publicized failures of America's public schools, it's easy to assume that students in private schools are receiving a better education. But a study released in 2007 by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) found that students in public urban high schools perform, on average, just as well as those in private high schools.

Public vs. Private Education

It's easy to assume that private schools deliver a better education because so many of their graduates go on to elite colleges and successful careers. But according to the CEP, this may be due more to demographics than academic quality. When students' family backgrounds and income levels are taken into account, there is no effective difference in the quality of a public or private education.

When the report's authors compared students of similar socioeconomic status at private, public and parochial high schools, they found that:

  • Achievement scores on reading, math, science and history were the same;
  • Students were equally likely to attend college whether they had graduated from a public or private school;
  • Young adults at age 26 were equally likely to report being satisfied with their jobs whether they had graduated from a public or private school;
  • Young adults at age 26 were equally likely to engage in civic activity whether they had graduated from a public or private school.

Exceptions

There was, however, one important area in which private school students did excel: SAT scores. Students in private schools performed consistently better on the test than public school students. The study's authors point out that this doesn't imply that private schools are any better at teaching subject matter. They offer two possible explanations for this finding:

  • Private schools are better at teaching test preparation.
  • The admissions process at private schools tends to select students with higher IQ scores, and aptitude tests like the SAT are a better measure of IQ than subject achievement tests.

Regardless of the reason for the difference, the result is that graduates from private schools are somewhat more likely to get accepted into very elite colleges.

The second exception that the study found was limited to a very specific type of private school. Catholic schools that are run by holy orders, such as the Jesuits, did show consistently positive academic effects. However, this is a relatively small percentage of parochial schools, since the majority of Catholic institutions are run by a local diocese rather than a holy order.

Read the full study, 'Are Private High Schools Better Academically Than Public High Schools?' on the CEP website at www.cep-dc.org.

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