The long awaited NCES report on public – private school student achievement (pdf) is out. The AFTies had been beating the drum that this report was being squelched and Saturday’s Times story credits them and says as much. Maybe, though having been on the other side I’m sympathetic to how long it takes gov’t to release things like this and IES Director Russ Whitehurst is a pretty stand-up guy and is seriously committed to freeing up research from political influence. And it would be a dumb thing to suppress anyway since there really isn’t anything incendiary in it anyway one way or the other. It has zippo in the way of causal claims, is well done, and pretty much confirms what other research has shown: When you account for demographics much of the difference between public and private schools, insofar as standardized tests are concerned, evaporates (Wash. Monthly’s Kevin Drum dissents here*). Besides, the construct here (in terms of the argument that the Admin isn’t playing straight pool) is that the Bush Administration’s education agenda begins and ends with privatization. While they’re certainly not hostile to private schools and private providers of educational services, in fairness there is more to their educational agenda than that.
In any event, even though the report looks at different kinds of private schools to some extent, both the public and the private category are so broad and heterogeneous that just comparing them doesn’t tell us much because within these categories there is so much variation. In fact, rather than being a scathing indictment of vouchers as some are framing it, I think it’s more just a reaffirmation that all schools receiving public money should have to follow some basic rules about transparency and information since being private (or public) is by itself no determinant of quality.
*One thought: Keep an eye on math scores more than reading scores when trying to see what effect schools are having on learning. That’s because reading today is more linked with social capital than math is. In other words, kids learn about reading in a variety of ways but mostly get math in school.