A recent Toronto Star series,produced by investigative reporters Robert Cribb and Jennifer Yang, created a sensation by conveying the strong impression that private schools inflate student marks and some privately-owned Toronto high schools operate as virtual “credit mills.” http://www.thestar.com/printarticle/1054778 The second expose was a gripping undercover story, once again highlighting the perennial problem of so-called VISA schools operating beyond the irreproachable scrutiny of Ontario’s Ministry of Education inspectorate. Since 2009, the Toronto Star also reported that the Ontario MOE had received dozens of complaints about “private schools,” including many about the greatest ‘credit mill’ of them all, Scarborough’s notorious “Toronto Collegiate Institute.” http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/article/1055379–star-investigation-slacking-off-gets-high-marks-at-this-high-school
Slacking-off can earn students high marks at the TCI Summer School, but so what? Most struggling high school students have known for years that the easiest route to re-gaining a Mathematics or Science high school credit is by attending Summer School anywhere. The Toronto Collegiate Institute is, by most accounts, only the most blatant example of the practice, common in both public and private education. For the most part, simply “putting in the hours” guarantees you a credit and a touched-up mark.
News stories like the Toronto Star series attempt to blacken the reputation of not only ‘fly-by-night’ private schools, but also to sully the reputation of Canadian private schools, including some of Canada’s outstanding independent schools. http://www.cais.ca/ Indeed, someone with only a passing acquaintance with Canadian private school world or an ideological axe to grind, might easily be taken-in by such clap-trap.
Students who attend private schools tend to perform “significantly better “ on international achievement tests, so stories about the so-called soft standards in such schools should be taken with a grain of salt. A new August 2011 report, commissioned by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), confirms this while painting a more complicated picture, factoring in a socio-economic analysis of the results. Given the OECD’s mandate, the detailed analysis focused as much on the perceived educational value of private schools as on reporting the actual student performance results. http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/6/43/48482894.pdf
In the August 2011 study reported in PISA in Focus, private school students at 14-years-of-age were compared with the much larger public school cohort using results from the 2009 Program of International Standards and Assessment (PISA). Based upon straight results, private school students in 36 OECD countries, including Canada, scored 30 points higher in PISA reading scores, essentially equivalent to three-quarters of a year’s worth of formal schooling. The private school performance edge, according to the OECD researchers, was attributable to three key factors: the competitive school environment, greater teacher autonomy in deciding curriculum and allocating resources, and the ability to attract higher performing socially-advantaged students.
The OECD study bore deeper into the results for reading performance. Comparing socially-advantaged students from public schools with their private school counterparts, the OECD study claimed, effectively narrowed the advantage or removed it entirely in 13 of the 16 countries showing significant differences in raw results. Some three-quarters of the 30 point advantage disappeared when OECD compared the two socio-economically advantaged groups of students. The study of PISA reading results compared public and private schools, across the range of countries, in relation to four key criteria: higher (positive) socio-cultural-economic status; disciplinary climate; material resources for instruction; and shortage in supply of teachers.
The PISA in Focus report provided a valuable picture of the state of private education across the 36 OECD countries. The percentage of students attending private schools was reported, showing a great variation among the countries. Those with the highest percentages were Macao-China ((95%), Hong Kong-China (92%) and Dubai-UAE (69%) and the lowest were the former Eastern Bloc countries. The United States (7%) and Canada (6%) were well below the OECD average of 15% private school enrolment. It also demonstrated that all private schools are not alike, making a clear distinction between private independent schools (like those in Dubai and Canada) and private government-dependent schools ( such as most in Macao, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Chile).
The OECD study, like many applying SES factors, is inclined to explain away the sharp variations in actual results. The report’s contention that public schools with comparable student populations offer the same advantages is problematic because it’s difficult for parents to determine which public schools are better than others. While private schools and socially advantaged public schools do benefit the students attending them, the OECD study claims that private schools, perhaps because of their smaller numbers, do not “raise the level of the school system as a whole.”
The sweeping conclusions reached by the OECD report authors will certainly be challenged by great numbers of students, parents, and staff. Why? Because their appraisal will be based upon more than SES benchmarked comparative test results, and they are likely far more familiar with the true advantages– for better or worse — of a private school education.
What was behind the sensationalist Toronto Star story painting all private schools with the same tarred brush? Why do private school students, worldwide, tend to perform better on student achievement assessments? If some socially-advantaged “public schools” do produce better student results, why do public school promoters continue to insist that all schools provide a good education? What is it about private schools that explains why their students tend to perform “significantly better” when assessed on a level playing field?