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Public vs Private

Center on Education Policy

July 13, 2008

In October 2007, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) published a study comparing achievement and other education-related outcomes for a sample of low-income students from different types of urban public and private high schools. This focus was chosen because private school choice proposals often target low-income, urban students, on the grounds that they should have the same supposed advantage of a private school education that more affluent students already have. The study was based on a nationally representative database amassed by the federal government that tracked the same students for more than a decade. Most importantly, the study analyzed students' 12th grade achievement by taking into account key background characteristics, including students' achievement before high school, their family's socioeconomic status, and various indicators of parental involvement.

The study found that low-income students from urban public high schools generally did as well academically and on long-term indicators as their peers from private high schools, once key family background characteristics were considered. In particular, the study determined that when family background was taken into account, the following findings emerged:

1. Students attending independent private high schools, most types of parochial high schools, and public high schools of choice performed no better on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history than their counterparts in traditional public high schools.

2. Students who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more likely to attend college than their counterparts at traditional public high schools.

3. Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up with no more job satisfaction at age 26 than young adults who had attended traditional public high schools.

4. Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more engaged in civic activities at age 26 than young adults who had attended traditional public high schools. Together these findings suggest that students who attend private high schools receive neither immediate academic advantages nor longer-term advantages in attending college, finding satisfaction in the job market, or participating in civic life.

This study did identify two exceptions to this general finding. First, students who attended independent private high schools had higher SAT scores than public school students, which gave the independent school students an advantage in getting into elite colleges. This finding suggests that while these schools are no better at teaching the subject matter, they may provide students with test-taking skills that help them further their education, or they may enroll students with higher IQs (aptitude tests like the SAT are a better measure of IQ than achievement tests are).

Second, one special type of private school, Catholic schools run by religious orders (such as Jesuit schools), did demonstrate some advantage over public high schools in achievement across subjects. There are very few such schools, however; most Catholic schools are run by their diocese, not by an order.

The full report, Are Private High Schools Better Academically Than Public High Schools?, is available on the Centers web site at

The study summarized in this article was researched and written by Dr. Harold Wenglinsky..

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