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Opinion | A Smarter Way to Make Decisions About Your Kids

Even this limited question is complicated to answer.

A basic issue is that you cannot simply evaluate whether private schools produce better outcomes than public schools by comparing children who go to the two kinds of schools. Private school attendance is associated with many other features of families, which may affect the outcomes for children. So a straightforward comparison is unlikely to yield anything of value.

What to do? The ideal is to look at some type of randomized controlled trial. If researchers could randomly allocate children to schools, they could learn about whether some types of schools deliver better outcomes than others. It turns out this is partly possible, using data from school lotteries, in which schools allocate their classroom spots through a random selection process.

Charter schools have been used to study the effects of school lotteries, but there’s also some evidence relevant to private schools. Lotteries for monetary vouchers that can be used for private schools have been run in a number of cities, including New York and Washington, and studies on children who received the vouchers do seem to find some moderate positive effects, especially for African-American students. An older study in Milwaukee found faster growth in math test scores for students who won a voucher lottery, compared with those who didn’t, and a more recent study in Washington found that students with vouchers had higher high school graduation rates.

The results are not overwhelmingly positive. One issue is that private schools that participate in voucher programs can be of lower quality than average, which is why they have open slots available for voucher programs. For this family, the voucher data may not be that useful.

It might be more helpful to them to look at the features of a school that correlate to better test scores. Among the most consistent findings is the role of class size: A large number of studies have demonstrated that smaller class sizes raise student achievement in both the short and longer term. At least one paper, which attempted to look closely at what makes some charter schools work well, argued that more instructional time, more comprehensive teacher feedback and more tutoring, among other measures, are correlated with success.

Pulling this all together, the family should use the fact-finding portion of this decision making to collect more information about the two schools — their class sizes, their teacher training and their test scores. They should also find out whether the “feel” of the school would work for their child.

The final step here is to plan a time to make a final decision, recognizing that they will need to grapple with questions that go beyond the data. It is impossible to be sure the decision is right; but it is possible to know you made it in the right way. And even a big decision like this isn’t necessarily permanent. “Follow up” means to plan a time, perhaps after the first year, to consider whether a change is needed.

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