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Public Schools Outperform Private Schools in Math

Professional Development Helps Math Teachers

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Public Schools Outperform Private Schools in Math

Christopher Furlong

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A 2009 study conducted by professors at the University of Illinois found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, public schools outscore private school when it comes to math. Despite their small class sizes, a national sample of private schools did not measure up to public schools with regard to standardized math assessments. The study was published as Achievement Differences and School Type: The Role of School Climate, Teacher Certification, and Instruction in the November 2008 issue of the American Journal of Education.

The study, conducted by Professor Sarah Lubienski, her husband Chris Lubienski, and Corinna Crane, and her team, looked at the results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. They found that among a representative sample of more 270,000 students from 10,000 schools, fourth- and eighth-grade public school students outperformed private school students on these tests.

The researchers looked at five factors to explain the results: school size, parental involvement, class size, teachers’ certification, and instructional methods. They found that parental involvement and school size did not account for the results to any significant degree. While class size was correlated with higher achievement and private schools tend to have smaller class sizes, the public school students still outperformed the private school students.

So what explains the results? According to Lubienski and her team, teacher certification in public schools and more progressive teaching practices in public schools account for the higher performance of students on these tests. Lubienski found that certified teachers and those who did not emphasize rote learning in math tended to help their students achieve higher test scores. The researchers stated that rote learning, favored by some parents and private schools, tends to depress students’ math scores.

How Can Private Schools Improve their Math Programs?

The University of Illinois study pointed to the importance of continual professional development for teachers so that they are exposed to the most recent, research-driven approaches to teaching. The researchers found that teachers who used the most up-to-date methods of instruction helped their students perform better on math assessments, but some private schools are not able or do not make these opportunities available to their teachers.

The authors of the University of Illinois study also found that teachers who emphasize rote learning in math do not always achieve the best results, though some parents favor what the researchers call “back to basics” approaches to teaching math. However, there are many innovative resources that teachers can use to teach math and make the material relevant to students. In addition, many private schools use the Harkness table methodology for teaching, including math. This method, originated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, gathers small groups of students around an oval-shaped table to facilitate discussion. In math class, they are often given a problem and work it out, in the process deriving theorems or laws to help solve the problem. The laws make more sense to them because they help derive them.

In the absence of such explanations, students at private schools often feel left in the dark when it comes to understanding the symbols and language of math. As a result, many students suffer needlessly from math anxiety and get lost in the rules of math without truly understanding the material. If teachers realize that students are truly unfamiliar with the language of math and that it makes them anxious, teachers can get at the root of the problem rather than having students commit math material to memory. While some rote learning is necessary in math, true learning and math achievement also come from understanding the meaning behind the numbers.

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