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Are Private Schools Really Better?

Working-class David Thompson outpaces private St. George's in math scores. Yet aided by widely touted school "report cards," education's public-private partnerships are growing.

Judith Ince 16 Jul
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The prospect of a growing private sector role in health care has been widely and thoroughly debated. Yet the recent and substantial growth of private grade schools has not.

We hear mainly that private schools produce better academic results, while the public system is failing. Last month, the venerable Vancouver private school St. George's again topped the Fraser Institute's annual report cardon schools.

But a math professor's research shows that publicly funded "independent" schools like St. George's shouldn't crow about their academic excellence. And he has 30 years of data to prove that they aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Back in the 1970s when George Bluman started teaching math to UBC undergraduates, he became concerned about the level of students' abilities in first year courses. So he decided to do something about it. "The initial object was to improve things, and to lobby for provincial exams," he said.

Since 1974 he has tracked how well students from schools across the province have done in first-year courses in his annual School-by-School Study.  Five years later, he added results from the Euclid competition, which draws 2,500 students from public schools all over the province.

Public schools consistently outperform

Bluman's results are startling for anyone familiar with the Fraser Institute's rankings. "Consistently the public schools have done better than the independent schools, and that goes way back. Every year they've done better for 20, 25 years. It's a bit complex, but in fact the gap has widened over the years … in the old days the independent schools had a higher fraction doing well in the math test relative to the public schools, but now it's the other way around. Public schools are at the top end, the very top end."

He said the Fraser Institute has approached him with the hope of using his data. However, he said he believed it was important to keep it in the academic domain, where he could control how the data is used. Bluman, like all researchers, works to minimize the effects of any potential confounding influence, like the teachers. In fact, when he first began to look at how students from various schools performed at university and in the Euclid competition, "The [British Columbia] Teachers' Federation attacked me like the communist publications used to attack people in the '50s…. They don't like comparisons."

Bud Patel, the director of school and community relations at St. George's, said parents preferred his school to those in the public system because "the school system has been financially affected, obviously, by cuts." Similarly, Gordon Allan, the associate director of admissions at the school, said "You see a number of [public] schools cutting back on extra-curricular programs because of underfunding and so forth. A school like our is in the position of being able to offer that full spectrum of support activities."

Cuts in the public system have not meant, however, that the government has slowed the flow of money to schools like St. George's. In 1977 the then-Social Credit government offered substantial funding to independent schools, and in 1989, the amount skyrocketed. Addressing the house on March 30 that year, the Minister of Finance, Mel Couvelier, unveiled the generous funding that has continued since then. "Grants to independent schools will rise by over 17 percent to $57 million. Independent schools meeting specific criteria will receive per-pupil grants equal to 50 percent of public schools' per-pupil operating costs. Funding for special education in independent schools will also increase," he told the house.

U.S. rhetoric spills into Canada

Every year, more people followed the money trail, and new schools were built. At the same time, the public has been swamped with "the rhetoric of school failure that has spilled over from the United States … and the rhetoric also of private sector efficiencies," said Charles Ungerleider, a UBC education professor.

In 1976, before the big infusions of public cash, 152 independent schools educated four per cent of the province's students. Now 337 private schools teach 10 per cent of B.C. children. Last year, the province funded private schools to the tune of $170 million, which is projected to rise to $200 million by 2006.

"I think the parallel to health care is very obvious," said Heather-jane Robertson, the vice-president of the board of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives . "People understand that depriving health care of enough resources is the primary means of inciting an appetite for a second tier. And so the pattern is identical: you criticize the public service, then you starve it."

But despite the Spartan diet of the public schools, Bluman's research shows that they have kept their lead over private schools. David Thompson secondary in east Vancouver ranks 148th on the Fraser Institute's report card, but it routinely outshines St. George's and other private schools in Bluman's School-by-School studies. This, despite a staggering difference in the student teacher ratio: 19:1 compared to St. George's 7:1. The provincial School Performance Report for David Thompson shows that 34 per cent of its families earn less than $30,000 a year. No such data exists for St. George's, but the parents of its 120 boarders pay $35,000 a year, while day-student tuition rings in at $12,000.

At David Thompson, a tiny fraction of students speak English as their mother tongue -- only 15 per cent -- while one in five have special needs. But private schools like St. George's take only those who successfully pass entrance exams, effectively ruling out students with language or other difficulties.

Nevertheless, Allan said, a handful of students receive extra "language support" and some have "time management" issues. "It could be that they need to sit at the front of the classroom…[But] if it's a student who is severely learning disabled and they need special intervention, and special support, we just don't have the staff to be able to deal with those."

Demographics skew results

It's just these kinds of demographic disparities that Bluman says make the Fraser Institute report so problematic. "The public school has to take all students," he said. "You have to look at the patterns very carefully."

Nevertheless, he said it's difficult to tease out the exact reasons why a school with every imaginable privilege has been unable to keep up with students at a school with many potential challenges. For one thing, private school data is hard to come by, Bluman said. "The enigma to me is that even though they were funding the independent schools, they would have full data on the public schools on their website, but they didn't have the information on the independent schools. I found it rather strange."

The Ministry of Education posts thousands of pages of information on public school performance. School Satisfaction Surveys are available for every public school in the province. These measure attitudes of students, parents, and teachers on topics ranging from whether students try hard at school, to whether their teachers are caring. School Performance Reports catalogue demographic features of schools, including the education and marital status of the parents, as well as the numbers of gifted, ESL, and special needs students.

Comparable reports are not available for independent schools. Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) results of private school students are online, together with student headcounts, and the number of male, female and aboriginal students in the school. According to the education ministry's website, it does not produce performance reports for independent schools. As a result, the public has no data to see how teachers in those institutions assess their institution's handling of many issues: disciplinary practices, opportunities for professional development, or school climate.

Public accountability lacking

Nor does the public have access to how students at private schools assess their education. Unlike students at David Thompson, St. George's pupils don't fill out a lengthy questionnaire in the Satisfaction Survey. The public can't know how its students would answer any of its 23 questions -- including number 12, "At school, do you respect people who are different from you (for example, think, look, or act different?). Or number 20, "Are you satisfied that school is preparing you for a job in the future?"

A Ministry communications officer, Corinna Filion said, "Independent schools do not do satisfaction surveys because parents have made a conscious choice to pay a fee and enrol their student in that school." Although the ministry regularly evaluates private schools, they are only available to members of the public willing to pursue a time-consuming freedom of information request.

Natasha Post, another ministry of education communications officer, said the data collected for public schools is not comparable to what's tracked in private schools. "It's like comparing apples and oranges," she said.

Erika Shaker, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said logic suggests private schools should be required to make public the same information required of public schools.  "Why should we not demand the same of private schools, especially when public dollars are at stake?"

Teachers make a difference

Back at David Thompson, Brian Copeland, the head of the math department, attributed his students' success to "family and community support for excellence and hard work. So many students are encouraged by their families to really work hard and excel, and even though they are naturally talented, not just take a basic approach to mathematics, but to challenge themselves."

The principal, Ian McKay, attributed the success to the school's accelerated math programs as well as the opportunities for enrichment that teachers give their students in and out of class. He said "superb teaching" by Copeland and his team is the primary reason why David Thompson's kids outsmart their private school peers in math.

George Bluman agrees. After decades of teaching thousands of students, Bluman figures "teachers make a big difference."

And Bluman has one explanation for the performance record of private institutions. "They are not able to attract as good teachers in the independent schools as in the public schools."

Judith Ince contributes regularly to The Tyee on education issues.

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