Updated on 08.28.14

Why Johnny Can Read

Trent Hamm

Simpson's Paradox and the Greatly Exaggerated Death of American Public Education

Going To School - Jules Bastien-Lepage (1882) - Oil on canvasEarlier this week, I read an article that really made me reconsider my tentative decision to send my child to private school. More Parents Uproot Their Lives In Search of a Perfect Education tells the story of the O’Gorman family, who basically sacrificed the home their children had grown up in and their lifelong social environment in order to enroll their children in a private school in another state. Why? They felt that the educational options near them were not good enough for their child and they were willing to drop $50,000 a year on that assumption.

In the past, I’ve been a big believer in private school for my child, as I bought into the general idea that not only are America’s public schools vastly inferior to private schools, but they were also far worse than public schools in other countries as well. This fact is consistently pounded into our head by not only the mainstream media, but also by the government itself via the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What’s the basis for this criticism of America’s schools?

One big piece of this criticism comes from documentation produced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In particular, in July 2006, they released a report entitled Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling (link goes to pdf of the report).

Right off the bat in this report, when discussing fourth grade reading, the report says “the average private school mean reading score was 14.7 points higher than the average public school reading score.” Wow, that’s a talking point right there, isn’t it? From just that sentence alone, media reports condemning the public schools in America flew forth, probably helping the O’Gorman family to make their $50,000 decision.

But the next sentence is quite interesting: “After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was near zero and not significant.” What does that mean? It merely means if they divide the fourth graders up into smaller pieces of pie (such as divisions based on race, income level, and so forth) and compared equivalent pie pieces between private schools and public schools, there was no statistical difference between private schools and public schools.

How can this possibly be? This is the result of a statistical phenomenon known as Simpson’s paradox.

Simpson’s paradox says that the successes of several groups appear to be reversed when the statistics are combined

Let me show you how this works. Let’s say that we wanted to compare private school students and public school students based solely on the income levels of their parents. Of the 50,000 public school students tested, 49,000 had parents that made less than $200,000 a year, while only 1,000 had parents that made more than $200,000. On the other hand, of the 50,000 private school students tested, only 1,000 had parents that made less than $200,000 a year, while 49,000 had parents that made more than $200,000 a year.

Now, according to this report, all of the students whose parents made more than $200,000 a year, regardless of whether the school was private or public, did roughly the same on these tests – let’s say these students averaged a 90 on the test, while the poorer students averaged a 70 on the test. If you look at just the private schools, their students averaged an 89.6 on the tests, while the public school students averaged a 70.4 on the tests even though all of the poor children did the same and the rich children did the same regardless of their schooling.

This paper fell completely into Simpson’s paradox

It actually reports that public education and private education in America are roughly equal, even though private school students score higher. Why? Demographics. Private school test scores are better because the demographics of their students are tilted highly towards groups that do well no matter whether they’re schooled in public or private schools.

If you’re paying for private school, you’re not paying for a great education – you’re paying for demographics

The report actually says that on average, your student won’t do better on standardized tests in private school compared to public school; the only thing that makes a difference is their race, their income level, and their parents’ involvement in their education.

You know all of those doomsday stories about how America’s schools are falling behind those of other nations? Those reports are similarly flawed because of Simpson’s paradox.

Take South Korea, for example. Their test scores in math and science dominate America and I do admire their strong education system. But read that article more closely: only 60% of their students of high school age actually attend high school; the “bottom” 40% are actually funneled into separate vocational schools. Thus, when standardized tests compare 12th graders in Korea and 12th graders in the United States, if you individual compare demographic groups, the United States does at least as well as Korea, but if you combine all students as a whole, South Korea appears to dominate the United States. That’s because their high schools, much like private schools in the United States, are full of students whose personal demographics are universally geared towards greater educational success regardless of the schools.

This same phenomenon is true in many countries; the United States is relatively rare in that they place all students in the same high schools and they have compulsory attendance requirements. Most of the nations that exceed the United States in average scores have high schools that are demographically skewed in some fashion.

The best investment you can make in your child’s education is by being involved.

Your involvement is a factor you can control – your race and (to a degree) your other demographics can’t be changed. Instead of dropping $50,000 on getting your kid into that ultimate private school, tone down your career a bit and get involved: find out what your child is interested in, be involved and interested in their homework, and let them know that they really are important to you. Love is the one investment in your child that can really pay off.

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  1. plonkee says:

    I’d add that if you’re talking about the education of your own child, then the average statistics don’t matter one little bit, you should be doing what you feel is right for them.

  2. Luke says:

    Very interesting stuff Trent…Well done.

    Could you just clarify the statement about South Korea and that if you use “all demographics, South Korea appears to dominate the United States”

    I can’t wrap my brain around that for some reason…Are the 40% in vocational schools part of “all demographics”?

  3. janewilk says:

    I have a 4th grader in private school – and she’s always been in private school and probably will be all the way through 12th grade. The thing is -are “good” test scores what you’re looking for from your kid? The only test scores that will ever be important to me are her PSAT/SAT/GREs, because they’ll determine if/where she gets in to college. I’m pretty sure that standardized testing scores are not very reflective of whatever actual learning is going on in the classroom. Bottom line: I want my kid to love to learn, period. That’s not going to happen in the (highly rated) public school system she would go to.

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Luke: no, they’re not. The comparison of American seniors and South Korean seniors only includes those in high school; vocational school is not considered in S. Korea for such statistics.

  5. Nathan says:

    I think the problem comes down to more than simply demographics, but I do agree essentially with the thesis of the article, that public schools are not inherently worse than private schools. Education if what you make of it, and I believe that, even granting certain benefits of each type of schooling, this is resoundingly true. That said, there are significant advantages, at least in general, to private schools. The first is exclusivity. They can expel kids, they can deny students attend, they don’t necessarily feel the same pressure to pass kids who don’t deserve it. These are all, in principle, great advantages. I support each of them 100%. On the flipside, they do feel pressure from parents paying tens of thousands of dollars a year, how could they not? Fortunately the advantages remain in tact overall, because the pressure they feel is certainly less than public schools feel. How many 9th graders can’t read at a 9th grade level? I don’t know exactly, but I know the answer is more than “a few” and that highlights the glaring flaws in public schools. If you don’t meet standards, you shouldn’t progress. Doesn’t seem to me to be much negotiation here. The exclusivity of private schools, or even public schools that you need to test into (there are a few that exist in certain areas in the US) are extremely desirable traits.

    Now the reason I feel that there is an underlying factor that’s not being represented in the argument of demographics is because if you actually go through the report so see what variables they accounted for, there are many more besides simply race an income. While the example highlighting poor students to test scores was correct in illustrating the paradox, I think it misrepresents the actual study that was done. If you look at the student variables included, they included non demographic factors such as computer in home, books in home, number of absenses, etc. While you could make the case that these have some tie to demographics, I might buy it, but obviously kids who miss a lot of school are going to perform similarly, just as kids with families with no books are going to lag behind those who do.

    The school factors taken into consideration should also be taken as note, because the very factors they include are reasons why people pay for private schools. Student absenteeism, teacher experience, teacher certification, school size, etc. These are all obvious factors to the private school system. The report in essence is saying “lets take away every advantage, and see how they perform.” Of course they will perform the same, the study ensure that with their mathematical model.

    These all highlight more factors than simply demographics, but I do think that they highlight something else that people seem to miss. Take an active roll in your education, and you will do well. But there are many more factors to include when deciding which system to go through. It seems entirely pointless to run an experiment that say “well if you factor in for teacher experience and certification then they perform more equally” or “if you assume that kids are all missing the same amount of school they perform equally” because they are essentially ignoring that those are the reasons people pay for private schooling. There are larger issues at hand than simply race and economic status, which didn’t seem clear in the initial “conclusion” you drew.

  6. Mitch says:

    The key point is that the label (public, private, parochial, etc.) does not tell you all that much about the school. You need to do your own research and not just assume that all Catholic schools are good, all public schools are bad, etc.

    If you look at the models they develop in the report, they are trying to come up with a formula that will explain the differences in the test scores. Obviously, no matter how you group the schools there will still be differences within each group. Their technique, though, is to keep adding variables and see if they account for more of the differences. Yes, knowing about the school characteristics does make a difference, but the really huge improvement in accuracy is knowing about the students (family income, etc.).

    The most difficult thing is that we cannot run an experiment to randomly assign children to different schools and so forth, so we are stuck with correlational methodologies. This gives us “chicken and egg” problems: e.g. are certain schools so good because rich kids go there, or do rich kids go/move there because the schools are so good? Public schools have to take children with learning disabilities and so forth; does that bring their scores down just to have students who are behind averaged in, or does it also make private schools teach better because of not having to devote resources to being compliant?

    To the side: South Dakotans are very proud of their public school system and the state seems to have very motivated students, and although I have relatives in private schools it is more for the religious education and to join a particular athletic team. I believe Minnesota and Montana are somewhat similar, so it would not surprise me if high engagement is also the norm in Iowa.

  7. Erin says:


    Whether or not your daughter develops a love for learning is going to come from you, her parent, and your perception of learning. Because you already have the perception that one should love learning for learning’s sake, and you are passing that message on to her, she will develop that love regardless of the educational setting, public or private. This public school educator applauds your approach. And you are correct…standardized tests DO NOT reflect all the learning a child has accomplished in a classroom, nor is it a reflection of how smart a child is or how successful he/she will be in the future. THIS is a message that all need to hear, especially the children. Learning is what you make of it, not what some arbitrary score tells you it is.

  8. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Mitch: the entire upper Midwest (the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) have very strong public school systems (I’m not familiar with Montana, but it borders this group, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it was strong, too). I would be happy to have my child schooled in any of these states.

  9. Jenn says:

    I’d also like to remind people who think otherwise that no amount of money is going to make your kid smarter. In the same vein, kids learn at a certain pace and while the pace can be accelerated slightly by better schools, learning is inherently time-consuming.

    While I can believe that private schools in America, on AVERAGE, might not be any better than public schools statistically, I think that’s tremendously oversimplifying, as Mitch pointed out. And the single example of Korean high school (affected by the same oversimplification) doesn’t do a thing to convince me that American education isn’t severely lacking in technique. If you’re interested in what I mean here I recommend taking a look at “The Learning Gap” by Harold Stevenson.

    Sometimes I think public education in America succeeds in spite of itself.

  10. James says:


    Do you think the upper midwest area really has a better school system or do they just, as a whole, have different (“better”) demographics?

  11. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Both – I think they’re heavily related.

  12. Nathan says:


    I agree that we can’t obviously do studies placing kids in various schools just to see how it turns out, and I also agree that this presents a chicken and egg problem. But the study doesn’t really do anything to show that demographics are the only difference. Family income, etc, are all very important, but the study also includes things like computers and books in house. Those are complete demographic neutral, and while it would be extremely useful to see how the gap was narrowed as you slowly introduce variables, they don’t do that. Everything’s lumped into one, and that is why the report is essentially useless in that regard. It doesn’t pinpoint anything.

    Also, if you read the report through the 8th grade, there are still significant differences even accounting for all the variables. Private schools were way ahead on reading comprehension no matter what variables you include. This is also significant. Does it mean that 4th grade might be to early to let the private school children “break away” and that there is more of an exponential curve as far as them furthering the gap with age? Only more studies are needed, that much can be agreed on. While the initial point of this blog entry was that there isn’t an inherent statistical difference between private and public schools (which is debatable) the whole explanation of demographics being the cause broke away from the actual report, and that was not represented in the article.

  13. Excellent article, Trent. One thing that I’d add is that, in all cases, the single biggest determining factor regarding the level of education is the student himself. There are shitty students in private schools, just as there are shitty students in public schools. For the most part, a student must be naturally gifted or, ideally, highly motivated in order to succeed. I suspect that one of the things that class imparts is a higher degree of motivation. (And I know that by stating that I’m setting myself up for all sorts of criticism. I have no data to back up this argument — it’s based purely on experience, and is a generalization not an absolute.)

    I think that it’s a shame to pull a bright kid out of poorly-performing public school. It hurts the kid and it hurts the school.

    But then, what do I know? I’m childless and intend to remain that way!

  14. Mitch says:


    Nice. I am not completely clear on what you mean by the 4th graders “breaking away,” but I definitely agree that further research is warranted, including some longitudinal research. This is why triangulation is so important, despite its buzzword connotation. NB I have not read the references–I really should be working on my first IRB submission this weekend instead, doesn’t it sound like fun?

    I think you are taking a much more narrow view of demographics than I am. You usually start with age and gender. Then depending on what you’re doing (cultural anthropology, consumer research, etc.) you throw in race, incomes, daily caloric intake, educational attainment, home ownership/value, and on and on.

    I also think that while there is a statistically significant different in test scores, the effect is small and easily overwhelmed by within-group differences; that, in a nutshell, is my point. Bimodal distributions often get publicized this way, e.g. “women are not very mathematical and men are not very verbal,” although in the middle of the distribution the difference is negligible. This site testifies to the fallacy of the latter assertion, for example, as a counterexample to the hysteria (pardon the pun) surrounding the latter part of the conjunction.

  15. Mitch says:

    Whoops, that last sentence would’ve made more sense had I been uninterrupted. Dommage.

    Acerbity alert:
    J.D., me too (childless). I have had 26 years to develop very complex thoughts and feelings about schools and families (this is no support group, so I’ll skip the details). I have no doubt, however, that Trent will be the kind of parent who will actually take his kid to the library and be available and be savvy about opportunities for enrichment and all that. I think that counts for a lot more than whether the national [insert measure of central tendency] of a public schools differs from that of private schools.

  16. Doug Alder says:

    Possibly the biggest lifetime advantage of private schooling is networking. Your child is building a network of friends and associates who generally come from the same socio-economic background.

  17. Mitch says:

    In St. Louis (metro), one of the first questions that gets asked after an introduction is what high schools the parties went to. Some of the cities have important public school districts (Ladue, Clayton), and there’s also a venerable Catholic school tradition. I’m not a native, but apparently it’s a connection even among those who attended decades apart, and one occasionally hears tales of small networking-style favors being done by strangers merely because of a shared alma mater.

  18. Will says:

    Your last paragraph is so true! I homeschooled all three of our children until high school. Yes a sacrifice in terms of income and sometimes sanity. Yes, they were/are normal teenagers with all that comes with that age. They are as good as it gets academically in high school and college, well adjusted and well liked and respected by their peers. But most importantly for any child, public, private, or homeschooled, they need to always know they are loved, respected and challenged by their parents.

  19. Nelson says:

    Demographics is right. You have to consider the area your public school system is in.

    My wife is a public school teacher and happens to work in our neighborhood (2 blocks away). In our area it is not uncommon for there to be close to 40 kids per classroom.

    Curriculum is based mostly on “meeting the standards” and less on preparing your child for the real world. Schools get money based on the standards.

    Additionally, the school board submits to parent pressure most of the time since parents vote for or against them. This is why you have kids that get sent to the next grade even though they aren’t academically ready or non-english speaking students given breaks, etc.

    I can’t tell you how frustrated my wife is during parent teacher conferences because so few of the parents actually take the time to attend. I believe parents are the number one reason a child will be good in school. If a parent doesn’t enforce homework or enforce good behavior with regards to the classroom, the child will probably do poorly AND the attention that the child requires from the teacher takes away from the eager and well behaved students.

    Finally public schools have little in the form of arts and/or sports as compared to private schools in my area (Los Angeles)

    Private school for my son was a no-brainer.

  20. MossySF says:

    Let’s first remove the emotional aspect from the argument and analyze the purpose of going to school. There’s lot of side benefits but in the end, the primary purpose is to learn skills to earn money when you start working.

    Let’s take the article’s example of the parents spending $50K a year (+ inflation) from grades 1-12 and college. If instead you put that money in a Vanguard variable annuity and setup a trust arrangement where the money becomes available at age 30, their kid would have a pre-tax lumpsum of over 6M dollars. At a 4% withdraw rate, that would be 240K/year in interest (before tax) to supplement their regular income. Pro-rated for inflation, that’s about 100K/year in today’s dollars.

    So the question parents have to HONESTLY ask themselves is whether going to private schools and private colleges will increase their salary by a guaranteed 100K by age 30 above what they would make getting a cheaper education.

  21. James says:

    Trent: We need to remember both in general and in terms of this study that correlation is not the same as causality, which is a point Mitch brought up.

    Mitch: (sidenote) I went to a St. Louis private (Catholic) high school, and there is definitely a pretty high interest in where someone went to high school, and at least on the private side of things, I can very much see networking and favors being done solely on the basis of that high school

  22. Mitch says:

    Thanks for the STL confirmation, James; you’re a “supra genius.” (8

  23. jake says:

    I agree that education of a child is correlated to how much time a parent spends with them, and gets involved.

    My public school experience has been a great one, but you have to understand that the neighborhood that I attend school the income was averaging $100,000+.

    The kids had tutors after school, and they also had parents who put tremendous pressure on the teachers regarding over all school academics.

    My graduating class 10 got accepted to Harvard, 12 got accepted to Standford, 2 to Princeton, 21 to berekeley, 1 to yale, and the rest went to public Universitys within the state.

  24. jake says:

    Sorry press enter and couldnt finish.

    I wanted to conclude that not all public schools are bad and like Trent mention it comes down to demographics.

    My school the parents were very high wage earners. Parents were spending a lot of money in SAT training and donating to improve schools academics like having school administered practice PSATS and SATS.

    Also parents of these students went to ivy league schools and were alumni’s of most of all the highly rated universities. This added to the high adminisions rate for our school into these private universities.

    The more involved a parent is I believe the better off the child is academically.

  25. Daniel Sweet says:

    Everyone – teachers, teachers unions, school boards, statisticians – agrees that the greater the parental involvement in ANY type of education, the better the student does academically.

    I feel bad for parents who can’t / don’t think they can be more involved in their students lives, but that doesn’t change the fact that their lack of involvement *necessarily* hurts the child’s education.

    The real reasons to take a child out of the public schools system in 2007 and beyond has very little to do with academics. Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of reasons – but none of them are academic.

    For example:

    * You want your child to have a more well-rounded (music, art, etc.) education.

    * You are opposed to having your child beaten / stabbed / shot. This is on the rise in even the best public schools.

    * You don’t like the values that public schools are teaching (intentionally and unintentionally).

    * You want your child to think (for him/herself), which is explicitly *not* the goal of a public school education.

    * You want your child to gain an appreciation for knowledge and achievement instead of self-esteem and “nobody standing out”.

    * You want more of a “say” in your child’s education. Public schools, because they serve literally everyone in the community, cannot accommodate parents’ wishes or preferences.

    Just a few example – none of them academic.


  26. db says:

    I agree with Daniel’s post on the real reasons to take a child out of public schools, although I’d still question the curriculum as well. I’m highly suspicious of the effect that “No Child Left Behind” and teaching to the test has had on the curriculum. I’m childless but I was interested in becoming a teacher and chose not to, because I didn’t think I would enjoying being a teacher in the current public school environment.

    The situation has to vary from school to school though. I think the only answer is before you enroll your child in a public or private school, that you insist on getting a solid overview of what their academic curriculum is and what the overall climate and culture of the school is.

    Also, the impetus behind education is not simply to train the future little workers of America — that line of thinking intellectually impoverishes both the individual and the entire culture. There is an intrinsic value to acquiring a certain level of well-rounded education that extends beyond vocational training.

  27. David says:

    I’m not surprised, Trent, that most of the comments have ignored your concluding paragraph, since it’s the hardest to grasp.

    I hope that future articles will explore what it means to “invest” in “involvement”? What does that mean in the personal finance paradigm? Do some activities return a better ROI than others? How does one effectively set up a parental time budget? Does reading to your child 40 minutes a day twice as effective as reading 20 minutes a day, or is it better to read for 20, and then give them airplane rides (i.e. unstructured fun) for the other 20?

    In other messages you have used a utilitarian cost-value model to make decisions : if I have an hour of discretionable time, how do I weigh between say, selling something on Ebay ($20) versus taking my children to the park and flying a kite.

  28. Shadox says:

    Demographics may be a big part of a child’s chances for success, however, isn’t there an advantage in having your kid go to a private school where he will meet with other like-minded individuals with equally high chances for future success?

    In life it is often more about who you know than what you know. Wouldn’t you prefer your child to develop a network of what are likely to be highly successful friends?

  29. Stim says:

    I think even more important than being involved with your children is to give them some say in their academic choices.

    I started out in public school. My parents were incredibly involved. In elementary school I was a straight A student, but that dramatically changed in middle school. Due to school politics and the social atmosphere, my grades started slipping and my report cards starting listing more D’s and F’s than A’s and B’s. I nearly dropped out in high school.

    I didn’t drop out though and I ended up at a top university because my parents let me have some say in my education. Public school wasn’t working. Sending me to the private school of my parents choice would have ended just as dismally. I told my parents I had found a boarding school that catered to my interests (art) and they could have said no. But they didn’t.

    Money and statistics should never be the only factors in deciding something as important as an education. Had my parents told me too bad, I wouldn’t have even made it to community college. Instead I had an incredibly positive and unique experience, graduated in the top 5% of my class, and was the only student to get into every college I applied for. Throwing your kid in any old environment based purely on cost efficiency and demographical data is not going to guarantee success. You have to allow your child some input on decisions that directly effect them. While it may not be appropriate for kindergarten, the older they get the more they will know what they need. And what your child needs is the most important factor of all.

  30. NineBirds says:

    I would say in most cases the public and private schools are going to produce the equivalent results (though you may not get as many amenities such as pools and multiple foreign language classes and whatnot out of public schools). But that does depend on the public school system. In places like Baltimore or Detroit, if you want your kid to not just learn well, but learn anything period, you have to use a private school. The public schools are failing and are not an option.

    BUT–these are outliers. Public schools are what you make of them. I graduated from high school with a Russian minor and over fifty credits at a local university by taking advantage of a dual-enrollment policy in Michigan that allowed students to take college classes for free in place of public school classes if the public school could not offer them alternatives. And there was a local public magnet school that offered math and science courses that went far and beyond anything any local private school offered. It isn’t about how much money you pay, it’s about parents knowing what options are available to their kids and taking advantage of them. You may be surprised how rich your public school education can be!

  31. MossySF says:

    Let’s bring this argument back to the focus of this website: personal finance. Sure if your kid goes to a private school or an elistist suburbia public school, they may be able to better develop a network of friends who *APPEAR* to be highly successful. But fact is that these friends will invariably be the high maintainance, high spender types — paycheck-to-paycheckers but with high incomes.

    In comparison, having your kid associate with a bunch of poor minorities may produce better fiscal and self-starter attitudes. So if you’ve read the Millionaire Next Door, you probably remember offhand the majority of new millionaries and business owners are 1st/2nd generation immigrants. There was also a recent study where 40% of tech startups had one or more major immigrant founder. So I’d much rather my child develop a network of poor immigrants where some percentage will become superstars and the rest hard-working money-savers.

  32. Nathan says:

    Mossy, thats a pretty narrow viewed approach. Saying that these, as you put it “successful” friends who graduated from schools that perform higher statistically will, as a fact, be high maintainance paycheck to paycheck spenders seems for lack of better word, ignorant.

    It seems that everyone has come to the conclusion that parental involvement is a huge factor in successful learning, and I would very much agree. I lack the data to back this up, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that parents who are paying perhaps tens of thousands of dollars a year for their child to attend a school will take a much more active interest in the education they get.

    Caring about an education is completely independent of demographics. And people who care will be more intelligent and test higher, whether they are at a public school in downtown Chicago or a private prep school in LA.

    As Mitch pointed out, there are obviously different definitions of demographics being used here, but I hardly can imagine a definition that included every variable the study included. I can only suggest people actually read the study to see what they included and the complete results that were found. Because it is a lot more complicated than the simple “all schools being equal, demographics are only/major difference” conclusion initially stated.

  33. Dale says:

    A friend of mine was a great proponent of public schools, but when her daughter was 5 she went to inspect her local public school in Dallas and found it violent, unhappy, and undisciplined. So she put her daughter into private school, but they got a scholarship for having an hispanic last name, so it didn’t cost them that much.

    My daughter went to public schools in Dallas where the core neighborhood was mostly lawyers, architects, doctors, etc. These people were able to keep the level of education fairly high until high school, when some of them put their kids into private schools. But that was mainly the ones who couldn’t get into Advanced Placement classes. For kids in AP, it was basically like being in a private school inside of a public school.

    Still, there were a lot of wealthy parents who kept their kids in public school throughout, and no doubt saved a small fortune in doing so. And in staying, they also brought up the level for anyone else who cared to participate.

    The idea that maintaining a love of learning would not be possible in a public school is strange to me. My daughter hasn’t had a problem with that.

  34. Pasi Jokinen says:

    This piece doesn’t take into account the PISA -study‚ that did clearly show that the United States students are below OECD avarage in the 15 year olds in math, science and literacy. The study shows that South Korea is well ahead of the United States in mandatory school also.

    This isn’t to show that private schooling would somehow be better. Infact, the excellent results for in PISA Finland have been attributed to two things: excellent teachers and common primary schools. Common schools raise the avarage and contract the distribution from both ends (less of bad and excellent student).

  35. kathaclysm says:

    When I attended highschool, my parents gave me several options. I could go to the public school in my own district. My mom taught school in a different district, and I could attend there. Or I could go to a local private (catholic) high school. I chose to stick to the school in my district because I knew that the private school, and my mom’s district, were much more competitive. I have always been at the bottom of the top of the class, and I think I chose wisely to be a big fish in a little pond. In a larger or more competitive school I would have lost myself in the crowd, and parents should be taking something like that into consideration as well.

  36. mo says:

    A caution to the many parents posting here about involvement in their kids’ education:

    Be careful with your involvement. In particular, the method and how it’s applied.

    My parents slaughtered me emotionally throughout elementary / high school to achieve good grades. Ultimately, I went on to a state university and later, a private (ivy) grad school.


    What really came out of all their pressure and “interest”?

    I have *no* relationship with my parents. I keep in (email) contact more out of social stigma than any real concern for them.

    So, keep in mind if a fancy school is really all you want for your kids. Make sure their plain and simple support. I would say the most important thing is *positive* reinforcement. Congratulating effort rather than results. Just my $.02

  37. Armen says:

    I think you have completely misread the source which you are quoting from and are basing this whole story on. You quote, “After adjusting for selected student characteristics, the difference in means was near zero and not significant.” but interpret that to mean the difference in reading ability is zero.

    However, reading ability was never a topic in that sentence. What that sentence is saying is, in terms of socioeconomic background or status, the difference between the students studies (and their families) was negligible.

    So where does your article go after that?

  38. fartron says:

    The article makes fairly clear that most of the comparisons made between US public education and its competitors, be it private education, or the public education in other countries, are often skewed by demographics. Rich kids do better on tests than poor kids, wherever they go to school.

    This is meant to, somehow, restore confidence in the public schooling system, as it is not failing the kids who don’t need it. Instead it skewers the notion that private schools are any better; they are merely better at isolating children by class. Korean schools, it goes on, do the reverse by pulling the children at the bottom of the economic/testing ladder into vocational schools — a pragmatic but not very progressive solution that addresses the reality of class immobility but does nothing to combat it.

    Public education is in conception one of the most progressive elements of the modern state, but in contemporary practice has been an abject failure at this progressive goal.

    If you, as this article does, ignore the children most in need of public education, then yes, public schools don’t score nearly so badly.

  39. Electronic Whiteboard says:

    Nicely put and very clear. These facts have been known to public school teachers but diving into the actual facts takes more than the 20 seconds that news station can dedicate to such a boring topic (Anna Nicole is still on).
    The poster above (armen) makes some interesting points above how the schools fail in regards to the progressive goals that were set, but he doesn’t say wny. There are many different reasons, but just saying that the system is failing doesn’t help anyone.

  40. Jesse says:

    there’s something about Private Schools that Public Schools can’t do, and that is to make learning fun.

    I myself am a high school senior, and I’ve fallen through every part of the educational system, and am currently attending an alternative school.

    the sad truth is that public school is the most uninspiring, dream-crushing, heart-wrenching, emotionally draining place I could ever go to.

    and I do have something to contrast with: when I was in 5th grade, I was labelled as “gifted”. at the time, I didn’t like it, cause it meant I was a nerd, but I went on a field trip with a couple other kids with the same label, and we got to see a Private School Campus. all I can say is that it was amazing. if I had my choice, I would go there hands down. it had everything, and it looked fun. very fun. my 2 sentences just can’t do justice to how badly I wanted to go there.

    you can’t put a price on the sanity and emotional well-being of a person. you just can’t.

  41. JV says:


    Try actually reading the study, or at least the Executive Summary, instead of cherry picking sentences and parsing them context-free.

    From the next page:

    “For grade 4 *reading* and grade 8 mathematics,
    the average difference in adjusted school mean scores
    was no longer significant. For grade 4 mathematics,
    the difference was significant, and the adjusted school
    mean was higher for public schools. Only for grade 8
    reading was the difference still significant with a higher
    school mean for private schools.”

  42. John says:

    Not to derail the conversation, but one word about standardized tests. Personally, I think they get a bad rap. I look at the SAT/ACT this way: you basically get to schedule it; you get to take it more than once; by the time you’ve taken it, you’ve probably taken a dozen or more standardized tests in your life; you know the format; you can practice with old versions of the tests; you can study; you can take advantage of a whole industry centered around improving your test score. In my estimation its a perfect indicator of a willingness to commit to something that *you know* will benefit you for the rest of your life. If you think it’s all about “learning how to take a type of test”, and yet you fail to learn how to take that type of test, what does that say?

  43. B. says:

    Seriously. After living in Denmark and going to high school there, I knew there must be more to the America-is-bad-at-education story. I looked into it and found the same thing you did. In the high school I went to in Denmark, they did seperate the students into different career paths starting in junior high.

    Not as relevant to your story: There is also a big difference between individual school. I grew up in Utah and starting in 5th grade, we would tutor the kindergartners and 1rst graders who were having trouble learning to read. When I moved to Northern CA, I worked in a 5th grade class room tutoring 5th graders how to read! I was shocked, and the teacher could barely believe my story that the 5th graders I grew up with were tutoring other people to read.

  44. Armen says:

    JV, that’s fine and I don’t disagree with what you’ve written. You’re right in that I did not read the study myself. However, based on what you quoted there, my argument just changes to: the author of the article should be the one providing that context. If he is going to decry the findings of the study in an article, he should be the one to lay out the logic on “why”. I shouldn’t have to dig to make sure that what he’s said actually has some root in reality.

  45. Daniel Sweet says:

    Since we’ve all beaten up on each other, let me take the lead from the last few people and perhaps push us in a new direction.

    American public school is modeled after the German Classical Education model. That is, a well-rounded education that focuses on more than the very basics that children will need to become reasonably qualified workers in factories (at the time).

    However, much like the other school systems mentioned, the Germans had (and still have) a 2-track system: higher-level educational and vocational. At an early age, children are tested to see which would be better for them.

    The various levels of degrees that we have today stem from the higher-level educational track. However, we’ve lost most of the designations that Germany still has for the vocational (Master Craftsman used to mean something very specific, for instance).

    In America, we decided that, since any child could become anything, nobody should be “forced” to go down a “blue collar” track, so we kept everyone in the schools and everyone’s education suffered (but, supposedly, for the greater good).

    Are we at the point where we should be reinstating the system whereby parents and students can choose to get an intense vocational education provided by the state instead of pursuing higher learning? Would that make the schools better? Would that be doing anyone a disservice?


  46. Elizabeth B says:

    There are actually studies where the correlation element is removed:
    “Eight “random-assign ment” studies of five school voucher and tuition scholarship programs compared the performance of students who were awarded scholarships to attend private school through a lottery system to the performance of their peers who entered the lot tery but did not receive a scholarship and therefore remained in public school.

    According to education researcher Jay Greene, all but one of these studies found that students using scholarships to attend private schools per formed significantly better academically, and every study found some positive academic effect. For example, the Milwaukee school voucher program has been subject to two randomized-experiment studies that have found that students who received vouchers through a lottery made academic gains when compared to their peers who remained in public school. Similar studies of private school choice programs in cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina; New York City; and Washington, D.C., reached similar conclusions.” You can read the full article with a link to the book cited here: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg1970.cfm

    Finally, I’d add that the most important thing for getting your money’s worth is reading. Literacy is more highly correlated with earnings than IQ. I’ve charted this data on my website: http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Phonics/profitable.html where I have free lesson for improve your reading and spelling abilities.

  47. Guy says:

    This is good and food for thought, but you have to read it carefully. Note that it is talking about results of standardized tests (not always the best indication of a complete education). There are many reasons for choosing private schools. This article points out the statistical paradox when comparing schools, but really should be read with regards to statistics and not a broad statement like “public schools are just as good as private school.”

  48. I just finished skimming “Why Johnny Can’t Read: Simpson’s Paradox and the Greatly Exaggerated Death of American Public Education” and have a few comments. In a number of school districts, children from low income neighborhoods or families are essentially offered extended baby-sitting rather than an education. A friend of mine was adopted into a wealthy California family, but attended school with the children of migrant workers. There was apparently little or no effort on the part of the teacher to actually teach, to introduce the children to the marvelous complexity of the world. Likewise, in a small town in Hawaii, there is no discipline in the local schools, no attempt to control truancy, and apparently little attempt to teach. My son (now 27 years old) had most of his schooling in the Los Angeles Unified School District (of which I am a graduate), and wasn’t presented with any sort of educational challenge until a move into the small desert of Little Rock, California, put him in advanced classes which were really advanced.

    I have been told that nursing students in one college in San Bernardino, California, have a problem in performing simple, elementary math, the sort which would be required of them on the job, and which I was taught at least by the time I was 13 or 14. A University of Arizona student working as a cashier at a Phoenix gasoline station was incapable of determining either the amount owed or the change required without the aid of the computer. But educated ignorance is not new. A close friend, also a graduate of the Los Angeles Unified School District, at roughly the period I attended, believed that stars were merely burning balls of gas, somewhat like gas fires, and was completely unaware of the fact that they are actually massive fusion explosions.

    Bob Griffin
    Database Administrator

  49. Michael Pelletier says:

    Plonkee: “…you should be doing what you feel is right for them.”

    In Germany, that’s illegal. For the poor in America, that’s impossible. So much for that idea.

  50. Michael Pelletier says:

    Robert Griffin: “I have been told that nursing students in one college in San Bernardino, California, have a problem in performing simple, elementary math, the sort which would be required of them on the job, and which I was taught at least by the time I was 13 or 14.”

    But hey, as long as our government schools are doing okay compared to a selected demographic slice of South Korean students, everything is just hunky-dory in American public schools, and there’s no need for concern, investigation, or reform.

    It’s okay, don’t worry, be happy, you can go back to sleep now. Or maybe the nurse will give you an overdose of midazolam because she can’t convert between pounds and kilograms, and you’ll sleep for a long, long time.

  51. MV says:

    Dan, your analysis is spot on. The primary reason a person should select a private school over public one should not be the expectation that the private school will necessarily make their child a better reader or more proficient at math. Public schools simply do not reward independent thinking, but strive for homogeneity and reward conformity. Many also do not offer enough arts, sports and vocational programs to keep the less academically oriented students fully engaged and occupied. The concept that has permeated the public school system over the past 20 years – that “any child can become anything” – is not only false on its face but a recipe for failure and disappointment. One need only look at the phenomenal growth of private sector companies such as ITT and Micro Skills to see that the huge gap left by the elimination of vocational training programs from our public schools.

  52. sylvie says:

    i’ve been disappointed at the atmosphere in public schools. With so much emphasis on “school choice”…basically, if you live in a school district that is struggling, you get a choice of failing school A versus failing school B. There isn’t REALLY a choice, is there?

    And then there’s the standardized testing that actually only teaches them how to take a test but not actually use any of the information they are learning.

  53. Anne says:

    This is not an issue that can be easily fixed, but lets look at some facts. Schools in the US are among the few that mainstream all students. Most other countries have special schools for learning disabled students and are never included in the results of testing. Also students by 10th grade are given a test then put either into an academic or vocational school so this also messes up results. The biggest indicator of how well a child will do is a parents attitude and support of the school system.

  54. William says:

    I see no discussion of the control of the children from violence from other children in a private school setting. I, for one, feel that it may well be worth the private school tuition to keep my daughter from being sexually/racially/physically attacked by her “peers” who are obvious gang members/psychopaths. Many have made the comparison of public schools to prisons. I must agree with this – and the inmates are running the asylum. A public school student can assault the teacher both verbally and physically with little or no repercussion from the school. Not to mention the disruption of the learning environment. Many put a high premium on personal safety. No having your child being mugged, raped, assaulted, stabbed or shot is a significant cost consideration. In hindsight – How many parents of murdered/assaulted children would reconsider paying $50K/year to have stopped it from happening to their children.

  55. AM says:

    I’m confused by many of your statements. In the area of New York where I grew up, “private school” almost exclusively means Catholic school. These schools offere far LESS extracurricular activities than the public schools, because they have far less money to spend. Our public schools are highly rated and very effective; most parents in my area send their children to private schools because they think a religious education will make them better people. Then again, I’m talking about high schools that cost $10,000 a year, not $50,000.

    I’m curious: where does this belief that public schools crush individual thought and stress conformity come from? In my experience (Catholic school K-12, now a public high school teacher), private school is much more likely to do that.

  56. js says:

    Having went to Los Angeles area public schools, I have a very very low opinion of public schools. I had a teacher that didn’t know whether the Korean or Vietnam war came first. I had a photography teacher that gave up trying to teach 3 weeks into the class and let us doing nothing for the entire class period all year. I had an “economics” teacher who just read us snippets of the news all day (and he did the same thing for “sociology”). But whatever, that’s just anecdotes.

    We also had on average some of the lowest SAT scores in the nation, absolutely scraping the bottom of the barrel. Me personally, I did good in english and bad in math. But whatever, that’s just standardized tests.

    If I had kids, I would not send my children to many of the public schools in the L.A. area. It’s very hard for me to think anything good about public schools after my experience, but I’ve come to recognize that public schools in some parts of the country are good. CA isn’t really one of them though.

  57. Laura says:

    As an educator and a parent, I’ve worked with many of these issues on a daily basis. I recently received my student’s standardized test scores. My class scored in the mid 90th percentile in reading and math, but when I analyzed those that didn’t score in the proficient or advanced range, it all came down to the level of their parent’s education and involvement. As an educator I am constantly looking for ways to reach my struggling students while enriching the experiences of all students. It breaks my heart when I have poured myself into a student all year, and my work is not supported by the parents when the child is out of school. Parents are the most important teachers a child will ever have, no matter what I do at school.

  58. Bobbi says:

    I have to agree with AM above in that my experiences in the classroom as a student and a teacher would have the greater opportunities by far going to the public schools rather than private. Because our schools had more students there was more course selection. And more athletic/arts opportunities.

    I also want to comment on the person above who listed reasons to consider private school. I think a big part of this argument is that public school is a big category. A large urban school is a very different environment than a small rural school, but both may fall into the public category.


    * You want your child to have a more well-rounded (music, art, etc.) education. I ALREADY STATED MY EXPERIENCES THAT PUT THIS AS A PLUS FOR THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.


    * You don’t like the values that public schools are teaching (intentionally and unintentionally).

    * You want your child to think (for him/herself), which is explicitly *not* the goal of a public school education. EXACTLY HOW IS THAT OUR GOAL?

    * You want your child to gain an appreciation for knowledge and achievement instead of self-esteem and “nobody standing out”. MY STUDENTS DO LEARN TO LOVE LEARNING. WHILE THEY MAY NOT ARRIVE AS THE BEST MATH STUDENT, THEY LEAVE KNOWING THAT THEY ARE CAPABLE OF ACHIEVING ANYTHING IF THEY CONTINUE TO WORK HARD.

    * You want more of a “say” in your child’s education. Public schools, because they serve literally everyone in the community, cannot accommodate parents’ wishes or preferences.


  59. Marcy says:

    I think an education is what the student makes of in. The teacher is also an important element. When too many students fail, the teacher should be questioned. However, the enviroments must also be considered. I attended private schools because of the crime, drugs, etc. I feel that I got a good education. On college placement tests (I was lucky enough to skip the ACT/SCT) I scored much higher than the national average. It was a scary thought. I think overall, the majority of students do not recieve a good education. I also know many people, personally, that graduated high school, who can’t read/write. You also have to look at the kinds of students who are attending a certain school. I never had to deal with drugz or crime, we never had a single student who got pregnant. Later on, I met others my age, who talked about peers who were getting pregnant, dropping out, how they would sneak away to smoke, dope, etc. I also had a friend who was a good student, didn’t get in trouble, and so on. Her parents ended up sending her to public school after some time, and she had a complete change. She got arested for vandalism, skipped class, practically failed, and became sexually active. Parents have a lot to do with it, but they can only do so much. Just like anything else, the environment is an important factor. If the public schools are a good option, great. If not, the extra $ might just be an investment in your child’s future.

  60. Aaron says:

    I saw we stop comparing our education system to other countries to determine if it’s at where it needs to be at, and just ask the simple question – Is it teaching our kids what they need to know?

    In my opinion, no absolutely not. The curriculum is horrible, and the teachers that actually want to make a difference are held back by it. In one of my classes one of my best teachers said “I want to teach you how to do that, and I feel you are ready for it, but they say I can’t because then the colleges won’t have anything to teach”

    What is that? They throttle students education because they want them to pay for it in college. Public schools receive funding to do this. The goal of school is not to “prepare students for the real world” but to send students to pay for college.

    In school, I never once learned anything practical about money or finance. Even though most of what I have taught myself can easily be learned and taught. How many people know what money is? I learned that in a hour on YouTube, yet it was never once mentioned in any of my classes ever.

    I took classes that by name and description, where in sync with my education goals and abilities. I took all of the most advanced classes I could. What did I get? The EXACT SAME CLASS!! taken 3 times a year, every year. I never learned anything new. Every class had a different name, got me credit, but was the same thing.

    Look at how they teach history. It’s the same periods over and over again. Egyptian, Civil War, Industrial, French Revolution, World War II, Kennedy. Again, and again, and again. Yet most people don’t learn anything with it. How many people will say our government is a Democracy? When it’s really a Federal presidential constitutional republic, which is entirely different. I got out, not having a clue how politics worked.

    They don’t even formally teach you any of the widely know best ways to learn or memorize things . What did I get out of the public education system? ABC’s, 123’s, and my heart broken.

    Our education system is not fine at all.

  61. Maria says:

    I attended private school grades 5-12 and it didn’t cost $50K per year. I’m not sure if any of the local private schools charge nearly that much – especially the private Christian schools, which cost about 8-10K per year. There are scholarships, so poorer students can attend as well.

    In defense of public schools, like the article said about the students of lesser academic abilities being funneled off to vocational schools, this is the way it is in other countries we are constantly being compared to – China, for instance. The American test scores include everyone, even the special education students. I don’t remember there being any special education classes at my school. Also, I believe the Chinese children go to school six days per week.

    Still, to say public education is *free* is a gross misstatement of the facts. In my state it costs taxpayers around $7,000 or $8,000 per student – and my state has one of the lowest cost per student rates in the country. The wasteful, incompetent board of education here can find money to spend on pet projects, but at some schools the buildings are in a state of decay to the point of being unsafe. Yet, the ten years we’ve lived here our property taxes have consistently risen. The test scores in most of our schools are miserable – except the ones in the more desirable areas.

    As far as private schools having less extracurricular activities, I don’t see what that has to do with receiving a poor education. One activity during the school year is fine, but how does it benefit a student to be involved in as many as they can schedule? It doesn’t. Also, I would venture to say that MOST public schools have old computers, old equipment, old buildings, and very little money for “extracurricular activities.”

    Bobbi said that schools have to accommodate students. I just want to say that her school is an exception. Most school systems now – especially in California, Maine, and Massachusetts – are telling parents they have no say in what their children are being taught. None.

    In conclusion, there’s no excuse for even one child going through any school – public, private, whatever – without learning how to read. How can you learn anything for yourself if you don’t know how to read? With resources available in most homes via the internet, or for free at the Library, it makes no sense that every child can’t at least learn how to read.

  62. Eric says:

    By way of background — or bias, as the case may be — I am public schooled from California, and my 16 y/o twins in New Mexico are too, now in 10th grade. I went to middle income class schools through 5th grade and lower income schools afterwards until college; my kids have been in upper income neighborhood schools throughout.

    A challenging learning experience has never been in short supply for two reasons: all of us tested ‘gifted’ at an early age and were shunted into parallel learning programs that were and are simply terrific. Secondly, although they peter out by high school, but then students can jump classes to fit interests and abilities similar to what a college offers. Like me, my son will combine local public college and high school from his junior year to continue math studies now that he has completed the high school offerings. I should mention that our local high school core curriculum is crap, but we have learned (admittedly somewhat belatedly) to enroll our kids in summer and online classes to finish off the junk quickly and leave the school year for Advanced Placement classes and electives the kids are interested in.

    The point: public schools can be ‘gamed’ to fit the demands of good students and involved (read: pushy) parents.

    No Child Left Behind (NCLB) however, is almost reason in itself to leave public schooling. Upwards of three weeks every school year is dedicated to this moronic exercise in bean counting. Schools have deemphasized physical fitness to the point that most students in high school do not take any gym classes. ‘Academic time constraints’ is the classic excuse, but the real answer is that idiotic testing is the time sucker. All I ask is that the testing stop when standards have been met. If a child tests at 5th grade proficiency in the first grade, give them a pass until the 6th grade ! Alas, I’ve yet to convince the schools, and my kids have so far resisted my suggestion to 0 and 99 on alternative years.

  63. Amy says:

    Always look at the whole curriculum when looking into a private school though. At my Catholic high school, many of the students who had previously attended public school were more advanced in math than those coming from Catholic schools because the Catholic elementary/middle schools did not have the resources to offer things like algebra. In the public schools in my area this was to my knowledge the standard 8th grade math course. I can’t say as much about reading standards, but I think that the math standards are sometimes higher at a good public school.

  64. Haydee says:

    I am confuse about your comment when you stated that race is one of the factors that contribute to a school success or failiar.

  65. Jodie R. says:

    Amen. I’m a public school teacher, and what you said is so, so true!!! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Test scores might be higher in private schools, but that’s only because the type of kid who attends a private school is usually from a higher socio-economic background than those in public schools.

  66. leslie says:

    janewilk: I love to learn and I went to a public school. And you know what? I remember loving to learn before I even started school. My mom was always buying me books and my dad was always taking me on trips to museums or historical landmarks. I loved it! I was a voracious reader and just loved soaking up information in general.

    College wasn’t even thought about in my family, and I’m sure my parents would have laughed at you if you suggested they sign me up for a private school. I attended a lower-income, rural public school. As someone mentioned above, as long as the parent (yes, sorry parents, but your children’s education is -your- responsibility) is active/pushy, I think a child can get just as much out of a public school as a private one.

    Maybe I was fortunate to have some amazing teachers in the small public school system I was a part of. I remember in 5th grade, there were a few of us who were excellent spellers so the teacher made a special spelling test just for the four of us so we could feel challenged. She didn’t have to go out of her way to do that.

    Unfortunately, I have no experience with attending a private school so I can make no judgments. I have, however, attended both a private and a public college and did not like the personality traits and attitudes of over 50% of the other students at the private college. I think that attending closed-campus, private schools causes one to lose touch of reality.

  67. Jeff Schwandt says:

    Someone may have touched on this; I don’t have time to read through the other 66 comments (sorry).

    I believe a child’s home life is the biggest factor that influences their personal success at school. Children that are abused or neglected at home are not as likely to be able to learn at school. Neglect can be in the form of basic lacks of housing, clothing and food.

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