Putting Private Education to the Test (was Re: Heresy: why Isupport school vouchers)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Tue Aug 3 03:31:12 MDT 1999

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
July 11, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 4; Page 5; Column 1; Week in Review Desk
HEADLINE: Ideas & Trends;
Putting Private Education to the Test


FOR many parents in urban America, agonizing over whether to send their
children to public or private schools has become a ritual fraught with
concerns about money and fears that a public-school education is a sentence
to a life of second-class opportunities.

Many parents think private schools do a better job, an assumption that has
grown into a powerful movement for tax vouchers to help children leave the
public schools.

But hard evidence comparing the performance of public and nonpublic schools
has proved elusive. This month, however, New York State released test
scores on a new fourth-grade reading and writing test that provided a rare
basis for side-by-side comparison, and the results were surprising: There
were only modest differences in the performance of private schools --
mainly Catholic ones -- and public schools.

The comparison is far from perfect. For one thing, the test was new and
controversial. Some schools drilled students for months, even during
holidays, while others did little to prepare. The test was optional for
private schools, and many of them opted out -- including nearly all the
elite ones in New York City -- making generalizations about private school
performance especially dangerous.

Still, there was general agreement among educators that the results present
a challenge to the conventional wisdom about public and private education.

Statewide, 53 percent of private-school students passed the test, compared
to 48 percent of public-school students. In New York City the gap was
wider: 44 percent of private school students passed, as against 33 percent
of those in public school.

But when students with learning or behavioral problems are excluded, the
scores rise for public schools. (The public schools have far more of these
special education students: 50,519 fourth-graders statewide compared with a
mere 647 in private school, according to the state statistics.) Excluding
special education, 55 percent of students private schools statewide passed
the test, and 52 percent of those in public school. In New York City, 45
percent of students in private school passed the test, and 37 percent of
those in public school.

The new test was administered to 29,000 fourth-graders in 1,024 private
schools, 74 percent of private schools statewide. Ninety-nine percent of
the Catholic schools, 686 of them, administered the test. The next highest
participation was among Jewish schools -- 104 of them, or 61 percent, gave
the test. Sixty nondenominational schools, or 34 percent, participated.

Public-school advocates say the scores show that public schools have been
unfairly maligned. "The parochial schools didn't shine at all," said
Seymour C. Fliegel, a senior fellow at the Center for Educational
Innovation, a research group that supports public schools in New York City.

Even some voucher advocates acknowledge that the test shows that private
schools are no panacea. "The private schools really ought to be doing a
whole lot better than they're doing by taking advantage of their freedom to
do things differently, and by delivering a superior product," said Chester
E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan Administration official now at the Manhattan

MR. FINN suggests that the dirty little secret behind the new data is that
almost everyone in the education world, whether in public or private
school, is the captive of the same fads, philosophies and materials
disseminated by teaching colleges and textbook companies.

"The curriculum of a fourth-grade math class in a private school is often
very close to the curriculum of a fourth-grade math class in a public
school, complete with all the same vulnerabilities, the same goofiness,
often the same textbook and the same teacher beliefs about what's
important," Mr. Finn said.

There have been some previous studies comparing public and Catholic
schools, notably one by the sociologist James S. Coleman in 1981 and
another by a New York State commission in 1994. Both concluded that
Catholic schools do better, but questions were raised about their

The new test, administered for the first time this year, required students
to read long passages of fiction and nonfiction, and to write essays about
what they had read. It was preceded by months of feverish cramming and
hand-wringing from both teachers and parents, who feared it was too
difficult, and perhaps even inappropriate for 9-year-olds. It was scored in
four levels, roughly corresponding to minimally skilled, below standard,
proficient and superior, although the state did not endorse any labels.

The results gave ammunition to people who think Catholic schools serve
disadvantaged students better than public schools. The private schools,
both religious and independent, had just half as many students at the
bottom level, or 8 percent, compared to 16 percent for public schools,
excluding special education. Joseph P. Viteritti, research director of the
Wagner School at New York University, said this proved that "fewer kids
fall between the cracks" in private school. But another explanation, said
Mr. Fliegel, is that the most disadvantaged students may be the least able
or motivated to go to private schools.

AT the high end, though, public schools did at least as well as private
ones. Statewide, 5 percent of private school students and 5.6 percent of
public school students, excluding those in special education, scored in the
top category; in New York City, the numbers are 3 percent for private and
3.5 percent for public.

Some individual Catholic schools excelled. At St. Jerome's in the South
Bronx, 29 percent of the students passed the test, ahead of all but one
surrounding public school. Nearby Catholic schools did much worse, with St.
Pius V, for instance, having only 11 percent passing. St. Jerome's is one
of New York City's poorest parishes, where income averages $5,000 per
person, said the Rev. John O. Grange, the parish priest. Some students are
the children of poor, illiterate Mexican immigrants, on scholarship. But
Father Grange said most of the students are slightly better off than those
in nearby public schools. Tuition is $2,000 per child.

But in middle-class neighborhoods, public schools tended to outscore
Catholic schools. In affluent Bayside, Queens, for instance, 81 percent of
public-school students passed the test, compared with 60 percent in
Catholic schools.

Among the independent schools that took the test, variations in performance
discourage sweeping conclusions.

The Trinity School on the Upper West Side was one of the top performers in
the state, with 98 percent passing, 30 percent in the top level, and just 2
percent below standard.. At Manhattan Country School on the East Side, more
children scored in the middle, with 94 percent passing, but only 0.3
percent at the top and 6 percent below standard. At the Cathedral School in
Morningside Heights, only six students took the test, indicating the danger
of making too much of statistics at all.

The bottom line, said Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings
Institution, is that no one type of school is inherently better or worse.
"You can't really make a blanket statement," Dr. Ravitch said. "A parent
can only make a judgment about what's good for their own child."

GRAPHIC: Photo: At Messmer High, a Milwaukee Catholic school, half the
students pay with vouchers.
(Todd Buchanan for The New York Times)

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