Friday, March 27, 2009

Disspelling a Myth - Public Schools do Better in Math than Private

A study coming out of my alma mater, University of Illinois, concludes that public school students perform better in math on standardized tests than students from private schools. Check out a Science News article outlining the results.

This is a comprehensive study that used data from 270,000 4th and 8th grade students from 10,000 schools, so the results are significant with little in the way of statistical uncertainties. The researchers looked at five factors to see which correlated more positively to achievement. Those factors are parental involvement, school size, class size, teacher certification and instructional practices.

School size and parental involvement did not correlate significantly with achievement. However, small class sizes do correlate positively with achievement, and small class sizes are more prevalent in private schools. Certainly, the general public perception of private vs public schools is that everything private tends to be better, with the possible exceptions of the elite, wealthy public schools (such as a New Trier or Stevenson in the Chicago area) or magnet schools in urban areas, such as Walter Payton Prep in Chicago. But typically the strerotype is private is better in general.

So if small class size is more typical of private schools, how can public schools end up doing better than private in mathematics? It lies in the quality of the teachers and in the trend to adopt research-based, modern curriculum. Many private schools apparently still adopt traditional "back to basics" methods of learning mathematics, built around rote memorization and 'drill and kill' problems. Newer curricula are built around understanding concepts, problem solving and applications of math. Private schools also do not require or are mandated to have certified teachers, and tend to offer smaller salaries that are not competitive for top teachers. The research suggests these are the two driving forces that lead to better achievement, at least in mathematics.

Like anything else, though, there are outstanding private and public schools, and there are other schools that are in dire straits. This is an interesting study that not only concludes something that goes against common perceptions, but I think it more importantly gives insights into factors that make for better learning experiences for students. The evidence that curriculum and teacher certification and expertise are significant drivers for learning supports efforts among school districts for robust and focused staff development programs and collaborative efforts between universities and school systems for continual development and improvement of data-driven/research-based curricula. One other piece of this puzzle is, in my opinion, using cognitive science research in larger capacities with the development of curriculum as well as in-class practices, where we provide more ideal environments for students that are literally targeted at students' brains, and how our brains make the inner connections that lead to learning. This includes understanding differences between male and female brains and how they are 'wired,' where genders learn differently. There is still much to do, and hopefully both public (where 90% of our children go) and private schools use such research to better educate our children.


RAR said...

I have no way of evaluating whether private or public schools do a better job of teaching math; but, my opinion is that, for the most part, math education in this country is a disaster and I believe that the primary culprit is the quality of teachers (whether certified or not) at the secondary level.

Why should this be the case? Well it is also my opinion that it is the result of University Education Departments and Teacher Colleges that produce teachers who major in education instead of the subject they teach and have no mastery of the subject matter. This is an especially critical problem for teaching math and physics.

As a math and physics major in college, I frequently tutored students from the school of education who were taking the courses in math and physics required to be certified to teach the subject. These were our future teachers struggling in the most basic of math courses, i.e., low level Algebra, Trig, and Calculus courses for teachers. It has been my experience that to be a truly effective teacher you must have mastered your subject matter and be able to provide non-obvious insite to students to facilitate the learning process. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, I believe that most of the teachers produced by the education establishment are unable to facilitate the learning experience with this insite and subject mastery.

I can just hear it now in math classrooms all over the nation: "Students, this is really tough and many of will not get it!". And, sure enough, many, or maybe most, wont get it.

vonny said...

Thank you for your comments. I am a physics teacher in high school, and am fortunate to be at a school with an outstanding math department. In turn, we have a larger number of students who are capable of taking advanced mathematics (30-40 kids every year take multivariable calculus and linear algebra) and hundreds of kids taking one of the AP calculus courses, and still others taking AP statistics. This carries over into more students taking calculus-based physics. This is not typical of most public high schools, and the reason we are able to do this has something to do with the fact we are able to pay more for teachers than most public high schools.

I agree there is a large amount of inequity and enormous fluctuations in the quality of math programs. I also taught 3.5 years in an inner city Chicago public high school, and there really was no comparison between that school and where I am at now. We had some very good math teachers in the city, but with a 95% poverty rate and gang troubles, math was not a priority for most of those students, and a higher percentage dropped out than went to college.

I just want to make a point that public schools vary tremendously, and conditions depend on an enormous number of variables that ultimately affect the education of children. It is complicated, to be sure. And I do not dispute that if we ever want true reform in education, much of it begins with how teachers are trained and groomed prior to going into a classroom. It is true that some percentage of math and science teachers actually do not have a degree on that subject. My experience when taking certification courses was one that took away faith in the present system.

There is much to be done nationally, and we'll see if we ever get to a point where we include teacher colleges into the reform mix.