Skip navigation

Private school students do fare better — but it’s mainly because of their parents: study

Joseph Brean 

March 31, 2015

 National Post

From Grade 10 math tests through to graduate school, private school students fare better academically than their peers in public schools, according to new research by Statistics Canada.

But the gap, experts suggest, is not due to better teaching or more resources in private schools as much as to the advantages private school students gain from having parents who tend to be wealthier and more highly educated.

“Time and time again, studies constantly show that the parents’ education ends up being strongly correlated with the child’s educational success,” said Marc Frenette, a Statistics Canada research economist who co-wrote the report with Winnie Chan.

Whatever the reasons, the educational achievement gap is wide and clear. The roughly 6% of Canadian teenagers who attend private schools — from the grandest boarding school for the global elite to the most modest independent religious school — gain advantages that only increase as the students continue into higher and graduate education.

On standardized reading, math and science tests administered in Grade 10, for example, private school students outperformed public school students by 8 or 9%.

‘Time and time again, studies constantly show that the parents’ education ends up being strongly correlated with the child’s educational success’

By following a cohort of 7,142 students born in 1984, the researchers were also able to show that, by age 23, 35% of the private school students had graduated from university, compared with 21% for the public students.

Private school students were also more likely to pursue graduate or professional degrees, like medicine, law or dentistry, by 13% to 5%.

A private school, in this research, was defined as one that controls its own affairs, like hiring for example, as opposed to being under the authority of a wider school board. The designation is independent of financing, and so includes many religious schools. In fact, a large majority of about 80% of private schools in the study are “sectarian,” or religiously affiliated.

Earlier research out of the University of British Columbia in 2012 came to an opposite conclusion, that public school graduates perform better at university math and physics courses in part because university is more like a public school, with less individual attention.

The Statscan researchers took a broader sociological look, and by gathering demographic data on students, their peers and their parents, were able to point to specific socioeconomic factors as key drivers of the achievement gap, such as parental affluence and especially parental education.

“That’s the main one actually. Many studies point to that as being the main driver of student success,” said Mr. Frenette.

He said he is not sure how exactly that plays out — whether by reading more to children, helping with homework or just a greater general emphasis on education.

The Statscan research showed parents of private school students had incomes 25% higher. It also found 10% of public school students had a parent who completed a graduate or professional degree, compared with 25% of private school students. Much, however, remains unexplained.

“We can only observe what we can observe,” Mr. Frenette said. “We do have measures of socioeconomic factors such as parental income, parental education and a whole host of others, but we don’t have things like natural-born ability, for example. Similarly, for the school factors, we have a lot, but we don’t have everything. We have things like student-teacher ratios, we have instructional hours, we have teacher qualifications, computer resources, tutoring, feedback from teachers to parents and so forth. But we don’t have things like what’s going on specifically in the classroom, how are teachers teaching.”

In Canada, about one out of 20 15-year-olds attends a private school, with lower rates in the Maritimes, and higher rates in Quebec and British Columbia.

Deani Van Pelt, a researcher with the Fraser Institute and director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education, has researched why people choose private schools, and said a weakness of the Statscan report is that it lumps all private schools together, with no distinction between religious or not, or entirely independent or not.

Her work has shown, for example, that the income of parents who chose religiously defined schools was lower than those who chose academically defined ones. It also showed that it is not simply socioeconomic factors that cause parents to choose private schools, but often a desire for strong community and character formation. Many, for example, came to private schools after a negative experience in public ones.

Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, said many of these findings are in line with what is already known about educational patterns.

“The one interesting finding that I think is notable is the one about teacher and principal expectation of students,” she said, describing a difference in attitude between public and private schools, even though they generally teach the same curricula and hire from the same pool of student teachers. In the research, nearly 10% of public school principals said low teacher expectations of students hindered learning, compared with just 0.5% of private school principals.

Private schools “expect more of their staff,” Ms. Wilson said, speculating this could be because staff are not unionized and ineffective ones can be quickly removed.

Parents also have higher expectations, she said. “If you are paying for something, you value it. There’s a vested interest in making sure the children are successful.”

 

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: