Secretary of Education and school choice champion Betsy DeVos, shown here in July, has made a point of highlighting the success of students leaving public school for private ones. However, a major new study says what makes the key difference is the family resources, regardless of private or public school. 
Photo: Olivier Douliery/TNS
Photo: Olivier Douliery/TNS

Study: It’s not private school that makes difference. It’s the family.

In advocating tax dollars for private schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos criticized public schools in America as a dead end. A new major study suggests the private-school edge is an illusion and family factors, rather than school factors, determine student outcomes.

“What the study indicates really clearly is that if kids go to public school or private school, they end up in about the same place — once you consider their family income and background. That is crystal clear,” said author Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education, Novartis US Foundation Professor of Education, professor of psychology, and founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia.

Georgia parents paying $25,000 a year for a private school probably don’t want to believe their children would likely show similar attainment had they attendedf the public high school down the road, but Pianta said the findings highlight the overarching influence of the home environment on student performance.

“If you want to forecast children’s achievement outcomes, the best predictor is family income, regardless of the high school they go to, public or private,” he said. “It is the family factors that carry the day.”

Despite the federal push for vouchers, the study finds no evidence private schools, exclusive of family background or income, are more effective, said Pianta in a telephone interview Wednesday about the study, which is titled “Does attendance in private schools predict student outcomes at age 15?”

Using a federal data set, the study tracked more than a thousand students from birth through age 15 with interviews and home and school visits to determine the extent to which private-school attendance, adjusted for a wide range of family background, child, and schooling factors, affected academic, social, psychological, and attainment outcomes through ninth grade.

At first glance, children in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes. However, by controlling for variation in family income, all the benefits disappear. The conclusion of the study: It isn’t the advantages private schools provide that give children a leg up, but the advantages kids bring to the classroom from their homes.

And those advantages often commence at birth with a strong early foundation and wealth of resources, math camp, museum visits and violin lessons. “Many children are exposed to educational resources at staggeringly higher levels than those coming from much less advantaged homes and from stressed families,” said Pianta. “This gap creates a fundamental challenge to our society and I think the folks on the positive end of the gap may not understand the differences in the resources they have.”

To close the resources gap, Pianta said, "I believe the priority for schools is to utilize community resources and partnerships in a far more systematic manner than they typically do at present. There are tons of these partnerships and one-off programs, but they often are not aligned to the school program per se, are intermittently or irregularly available, and not often tied into the curriculum and learning – so they become something that can be more disruptive to the school day. And, yet, communities have come forth with a lot of offerings. So, the key is creating ways these are sustained, managed and tied to learning goals. To the extent that it’s also exposure to resources early in life that matters even more -- and I think the evidence supports this -- then community leadership for a coherent and focused birth-to-age 8 learning agenda, in which schools play a major role, is huge.”

It’s not that teachers have no impact on a child’s trajectory, said Pianta. “There is no question an individual teacher makes a big difference. Landing in the classroom of a very effective teacher can close an achievement gap by half in one year. But school doesn’t have the more powerful effect that family factors do because it’s highly unlikely students in a public or a private school will end up in that kind of teacher’s classroom year after year after year. But families have their effect year after year.”

His study underscores how deeply family background fortifies children for success. “Yes, we also have to recognize schools play a role in children’s development, and there are countless examples of schools making a difference for poor kids or for well-off kids,” he said. “What I think we don’t fully appreciate oftentimes is that the role of schools — albeit powerful in many instances — reflects an awful lot of effects from the family.”

“As I look back in my career,” Pianta said, “I have been surprised by the small effect schooling has on students, on average, and the very powerful effect that early experiences in the family have in setting a foundation that is then reinforced over the years.”

But this drive among many educated parents to gold plate their child’s every moment is a mistake, says Pianta.

“It would be great if these folks were able to relax and realize their son or daughter is going to be just fine, that, in fact, they will be better off if they learn to adapt with somewhat fewer resources or less preparation,” he said. “It’s quite clear there is some over-engineering of success in a fairly large swath of American child-rearing and education right now, and it’s mostly based on a very narrow definition of success, defined by winning the competition — getting into the best college— or defined by test scores, sort of the same thing. The evidence is that the hyperfocus on those outcomes actually erodes the opportunity for kids to build other, even more essential skills.”

“So, yes, it would be better for a lot of families to realize their kid will get into a good college and perform well and needs a broad range of opportunities and chances to expand their horizons and comfort zone,” he said. “It would also be great to everyone if those families realized that public school is a great place for those opportunities and won’t erode the kids chances at the other forms of success.”

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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