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Public vs. Private: The Math Debate

Public vs. Private: The Math Debate

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Updated on Jul 16, 2009

An engaging, up-to-date math curriculum is essential for your child. But where can she receive the best instruction in the subject? Well, it turns out that students in public schools – not private ones – score higher on standardized math tests. Based on recent findings, the math curricula in public schools may, surprisingly, be better equipped to teach math to students.

Education professors Sarah and Chris Lubienski – a husband-and-wife research and reform team at the University of Illinois – have gathered data over the past several years that challenges the assumption that private schools are superior to public schools. In their most recent study, “Achievement Differences and School Type: The Role of School Climate, Teacher Certification, and Instruction" – published in the November 2008 issue of the American Journal of Education and based on fourth- and eighth-grade results from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam – the Lubienskis found that public school students outperform their private school counterparts. There are many reasons why you would think that private schools would outscore public schools, says Sarah Lubienski.

But there are underlying reasons why this, surprisingly, isn’t the case. The Lubienskis, along with doctoral student Corinna Crane, examined five factors at public schools, some of which correlated to higher scores: certified teachers; forward-thinking math programs that keep up with curricular trends; school size; class size; and parental involvement. Of these five, the report indicates that teacher certification and a reform-friendly curriculum were crucial factors in determining higher achievement.

According to the results, says Lubienski, schools that hired more certified teachers and had a curriculum that shied away from learning by rote tended to do better on standardized math tests. She says public schools had more of both, and set aside money for teacher enrichment and sporadic curriculum improvement. They are hiring teachers who use fresh, updated lesson plans, or are willing to learn new approaches.

Private schools, on the other hand, don’t invest as much in the professional development of teachers or revisions to their curriculum. They are ignoring curricular trends in education, says Lubienski, while parents of private school students seek more basic methodologies to math instruction.

She also says private schools are self-directed, thus aren’t held accountable. Many assume that private institutions are more effective because of their autonomy, says Lubienski. But their study indicates too much freedom may not be effective.

While private schools boast smaller class sizes and have an active parent community – two factors that connect to higher student achievement – the report shows these factors didn’t affect the study’s results as much as teacher certification and a reform-oriented curriculum. A private school may not be interested in implementing a progressive math curriculum; instead, money and effort are often spent on the bare bones of academics, in addition to non-academic pursuits like religious education or other requirements that parents find appealing, such as community service or wearing uniforms. (True to its findings, the study discovered schools with a faculty in which less than half of its teachers were certified, such as traditional Christian schools, had the lowest math test scores on average.)

Unlike reading and writing, success in math is seen as tied less to a child’s home and extracurricular environment and more to a school’s performance. Their results imply that private schools are "doing their own thing,” says Lubienski, and aren't paying attention to trends and changes in the math tests.

In addition to NAEP test results, the professors looked at achievement and background data from more than 270,000 students at more than 10,000 public schools. Still, Lubienski warned that while correlations between teacher certification, curriculum reform, and the positive performance of public schools are strong, hidden and random factors may also have come into play.

Whether your child is enrolled in a public or private school, it's important to stay informed on what she's learning in her math class. Look over her syllabus and tests to get an idea of the curriculum and her teacher's instructional approach – if you'd like to know if she's being well prepared in the subject, checking her work is a fitting place to start.

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