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The Great Debate: Are Private Schools Really Academically Better Than Public Schools?

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Essay title: The Great Debate: Are Private Schools Really Academically Better Than Public Schools?

The Great Debate: Are Private Schools Really Academically Better Than Public Schools?


Education is a major topic of controversy in this country. People often wonder if private school is worth the money it costs and if public schools have what it takes to produce well educated, disciplined young adults. There comes a time in every parents life when they must decide what is best for their child and what school will prepare them for the best possible future. It is a topic that is constantly up for debate. Whether it be scholars, government officials, educators, parents or even students themselves discussing the issue, there is no concrete answer to the question: Are private schools academically better than public schools? It seems that the answer is a personal one.

Literature Review

James S. Coleman, a sociologist, is a big advocate for private education. In 1981, he made his first announcement of a national study which showed that private high schools were better disciplined than their public counterparts and their students did better academically with whom they had been matched by race, socioeconomic status and parental education. These findings withstood harsh criticism and a final report titled High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared was published.

Critics of Coleman say that public and private schools operate under a different set of rules and therefore make his studies a comparison of apples and oranges. Coleman (1981) believes that private schools are superior to public schools because of certain characteristics that seem to be found in private schools more than in public ones. These characteristics include: more homework, stronger discipline, fewer behavior problems, less cutting of class and more order in the classroom

No other study has generated more controversy than High School and Beyond which was performed by the National Center for Education Statistics. The first reports from this study indicated that private schools were far more effective than public schools. But a re-analysis of the data indicated that the differences were considerably smaller than originally shown. Even a third analysis was done on the data limited to Catholic schools and public schools which found that Catholic schools were neither better nor worse than their public counterparts. The researchers agreed that the data was flawed and waited two years to perform a re-assessment using the original test data for a control. It was then determined that two years was not quite long enough to determine if the data is flawed so information from the National Longitudinal Study was assessed and it was found that Catholic schools were again no better nor worse than public schools. This assessment did not endure and it was determined that long term effects of High School and Beyond needed to be studied. One observer wondered if any parent would change their minds about what they believed regarding private and public schools even with the concluding data.

Ellis Page (1981), a researcher and former president of the American Educational Research Association, says that James Coleman’s report, Public and Private Schools, is just plain wrong. Using the same data Coleman used, Page came to quite different conclusions. He found that the higher achievement levels found by Coleman “virtually disappeared” in his study according to Education Daily. Like Coleman, Page used data collected for High School and Beyond but believes Coleman’s error to be his failure to control properly for measures of basic mental ability in the students. Page does agree with Coleman the private schools generally do require more homework but states that private schools tend to enroll abler and more fortunate students and this largely accounts for their superiority on test scores.

Other research conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress disputes the belief that private school students tend to perform better than public school students. The study shows that across grades, differences in test scores between students in private and public schools decrease with age and by the time one reaches the 12th grade, there is no difference in test scores. (Phi Delta Kappan, 1998)

Although there is much research to be considered there does not seem to be any research that is without bias. Understandibly, it is difficult to determine what research is correct. Therefore, the question as to whether private schools are better academically

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