Parents make difference

A recent study indicates that low-income students who attend public high schools generally do just as well as private school students with similar backgrounds. The study also offers insights into what really contributes to a child's educational success.

The study, part of a federal research effort, looked at 1,000 low-income students from cities around the nation. Researchers went to great lengths to make sure that the playing field was level when comparing the performance of private vs. public school students.

Some studies in the past have adjusted data to take family income into consideration. But this study also made allowances for other factors that might affect performance, such as eighth-grade test scores, parental expectations, whether parents discuss school with their children and whether parents participate in school activities.

When all those factors were accounted for, low-income public school students performed as well as those in private schools. That, of course, flies in the face of claims by those who want to offer private school vouchers to public school students.

The pro-voucher campaign is based on the assumption that low-income students from failing schools automatically would benefit from attending private schools. This study indicates that a lot more is involved in student success.

For example, family income, parental discussion, parental expectations, parental involvement and earlier eighth-grade scores also positively affected 12th-grade reading scores. The type of school a student attended had no real effect.

These results are important not only because of what they tell us about the quality of education at public vs. private schools but also because of what they tell us generally about what makes a successful student. Researchers probably could have gleaned much of the same information by asking teachers.

Teachers could have told them that parents can be the key to a child's success. Students whose parents demand that they work hard on their studies and expect them to succeed are more likely to do well at school than those who parents aren't actively involved with them.

Private schools are not the magic bullet for students from low-income families. The hopeful note from this research, however, is that parents who stay involved with their children's education from an early age can make a positive difference no matter what the family income is.

That may be bad news for voucher advocates. But it is good news for any parents prepared to take on the challenge of helping their children succeed at school.

Private schools are no panacea regarding efforts to help low-income students succeed.