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Why Are Academic Prospects Brighter for Private High School Students?

Why Are Academic Prospects Brighter for Private High School Students?

by Marc Frenette and Ping Ching Winnie Chan
Social Analysis and Modelling Division

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This article in the Economic Insights series examines academic outcomes of public and private high school students and the factors associated with the differences across sectors. A longer, more detailed study is also available.Note 1 The article is part of a series examining the academic outcomes of youth.

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Introduction

In Canada, about 6% of 15-year-olds attend a private school.Note 2 Although some provincial governments subsidize a portion of the costs, parents must still pay for their child to attend.

Differences in the academic outcomes of children who attend public and private schools continue to attract public attention. A central issue is the extent to which better outcomes among private school students are attributable to students’ socio-economic characteristics or to differences in school resources and practices.

This article examines a survey sample of 7,142 15-year-olds who were registered in Grade 10 in public and private high schoolsNote 3 and subsequently followed until age 23. The follow-up period facilitates analysis of a broad range of academic outcomes, including test scores at age 15 and educational attainment by age 23. The study focuses on: (1) the gaps in academic outcomes by school sector; (2) differences in factors associated with academic outcomes (socio-economic characteristics, province of school attendance, school resources and practices, and peer characteristics) by school sector; and (3) the proportion of the gaps in academic outcomes that are associated with these factors.

Private school students have higher test scores and educational attainment

On average, students who attended private high schools scored higher on academic tests at age 15, and achieved higher levels of educational attainment by age 23, than did those who attended public high schools.Note 4

On average, Canadian students outperformed students in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science.Note 5 However, the difference between Canadian students attending private and public high schools was substantial. Specifically, private school students scored 43 to 47 points (8% to 9%) higher than public school students on average on the three tests.Note 6

Chart 1 Mean test scores by type of high school attended

Description for Chart 1

The higher achievement of private high school students extended to educational attainment (Chart 2). By age 23, those who had attended a private high school were on average more likely to have graduated from high school, attended and graduated from a postsecondary institution, attended and graduated from a university, and begun graduate or professional studies (university programs leading to a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree).The difference in high school graduation rates was small (about 3 percentage points), but differences in postsecondary enrolment and graduation rates were substantial. For example, 35% of private school students had graduated from a university program by age 23, compared with 21% of public school students. Moreover, private school alumni were almost three times as likely to have started graduate or professional studies: 13% versus 5%.

Chart 2 Educational attainment by type of high school attended

Description for Chart 2

These differences in academic achievement do not take into account the possibility that the socio-economic background and peersNote 7 of students who attend private and public schools may differ.  As well, private and public schools may have different resources or practices, or follow different curricula if they are concentrated in specific provinces. The remainder of this article examines these factors and their role in the differences between private and public sector educational outcomes.

Parents of private high school students have more education, higher incomes

Private high schools generally charge tuition fees, which may or may not be partially subsidized by provincial governments. Not surprisingly, students who attend private high schools tend to come from more affluent families. “Equivalent” total income was 25% higher among the parents of private school students, compared with those of public school students: $44,600 versus $35,600.Note 8,Note 9

Furthermore, previous research has shown that parents’ education is even more important than income in understanding a child’s educational attainment.Note 10 Public high school students were almost twice as likely as their private high school counterparts to have parents whose education did not extend beyond high school graduation (34% versus 18%—Chart 3). Conversely, private school students were two and a half times as likely to have a parent who completed a graduate or professional degree (25% versus 10%). More broadly, the peers of private school students tended to have more highly educated parents. Specifically, 52% of the peers of private school students had a university-educated parent, compared with 28% of their public school counterparts.

Chart 3 Highest level of parental education by type of high school attended

Description for Chart 3

Few differences in school resources and practices

Information on school characteristics were collected from school principals. Few differences in resources and practices were reported by those in public and private high schools (Table 1). For example, the student-teacher ratio was slightly higher in private than in public schools, at 18 versus 17 students per teacher, and the number of computers per student was similar as well (about 0.2 per student in both). The average annual number of instructional hours was moderately higher in public schools (968 versus 945). Teacher qualifications, the availability of special tutoring, and teacher feedback were also generally similar in both sectors.

Table 1
School resources and practices by type of high school attended
Table summary
This table displays the results of School resources and practices by type of high school attended Public high school and Private high school, calculated using mean units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Public high school Private high school
mean
Sectarian 0.318 0.806
Semestered 0.692 0.255
Enrolment 1,079.9 712.8
Student–teacher ratio 17.0 17.8
Total annual instructional hours 967.6 945.1
Number of computers per student 0.191 0.200
Percentage of teachers with an undergraduate degree 93.0 87.1
Percentage of English/French teachers with undergraduate degree in English/French language and literature 81.9 81.3
Percentage of certified teachers 96.7 97.1
Percentage of teachers participated in training in last three months 59.3 52.3
Special tutoring available from staff members 0.796 0.798
Low expectations from teachers  
Does not hinder learning at all 0.528 0.716
Hinder learning a little 0.383 0.279
Hinder learning some or a lot 0.089 0.005
Teacher feedback  
Less than three times per year 0.014 0.000
Three times per year 0.035 0.057
Four or more times per year 0.950 0.943

The most notable differences between public and private high schools were in total enrolment, academic term structure (semestered versus full-year courses), and being religiously affiliated (“sectarian”). Specifically, average enrolment in public schools was substantially larger than in private schools (1,080 versus 713). Private schools were far more likely to be sectarian (81% versus 32%), but far less likely to offer a semestered system (25% versus 69%).

According to responses from school principals, an area that favoured private schools was teachers’ expectations. In the private sector, 72% of principals believed that low teacher expectations of students did not hinder learning at all, while 53% of principals in the public sector expressed this view.

The curricula followed by public and private school students may have also differed. This is because school curricula vary by province, and private schools tend to be concentrated in certain provinces. For example, 56% of private school students attended school in Quebec, compared with 16% of public school students. Conversely, 12% of private school students attended school in Ontario, compared with 48% of public school students.

Socio-economic characteristics, peers and province of school attendance associated with differences in academic outcomes

Differences in socio-economic characteristics, school resources and practices, peers, and province of school attendance could potentially influence academic outcomes among private and public school students.Note 11 

In fact, two factors—socio-economic characteristics and peers—consistently accounted for much of the differences in the academic outcomes of these groups (Table 2). The province of school attendance accounted for a substantial portion of the differences in academic outcomes at the high school level (test scores and graduation rates), but generally not at the postsecondary level. School resources and practices played little or no role in accounting for the differences in any of the academic outcomes.

For example, about 85% of the difference in average reading scores was accounted for by differences in socio-economic characteristics (27%), peers (28%), and province of school attendance (29%). Likewise, about 91% of the difference in university attendance was accounted for by socio-economic characteristics (55%) and peers (36%).

Table 2
Proportion of the total gap in academic outcomes accounted for by differences in characteristics
Table summary
This table displays the results of Proportion of the total gap in academic outcomes accounted for by differences in characteristics. The information is grouped by Outcome variable (appearing as row headers), Province of school attendance, Socio-economic, School resources and practices, Peers, Unobserved factors and Total, calculated using proportion units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Outcome variable Province of school attendance Socio-economic School resources and practices Peers Unobserved factors Total
proportion
Reading score 0.293 0.271 -0.007 0.283 0.160 1.000
Mathematics score 0.523 0.270 -0.084 0.324 -0.032 1.000
Science score 0.255 0.286 0.130 0.170 0.159 1.000
High school graduation 0.722 0.527 -0.137 0.224 -0.337 1.000
Postsecondary attendance 0.084 0.409 -0.238 0.290 0.456 1.000
University attendance -0.009 0.547 0.123 0.364 -0.025 1.000
Postsecondary graduation 0.320 0.203 -0.090 0.133 0.434 1.000
University graduation -0.010 0.421 0.054 0.270 0.265 1.000
Graduate or professional studies 0.165 0.248 0.056 0.177 0.354 1.000

Conclusion

Three conclusions emerge from this study.

First, on average, students who attended private high schools scored higher on academic tests at age 15, and had higher levels of educational attainment by age 23, than did students who attended public high schools.

Second, the characteristics of public and private high school students were different. Compared with public high school students, those in private schools generally came from families with a higher socio-economic status (as measured by parental income and education), and were more likely to be surrounded by peers whose parents had attended university. As well, public and private schools were concentrated in different provinces, and thus, may have followed different curricula. However, few differences in resources and practices across school sectors were observed.

Finally, two factors accounted for a substantial portion of the differences between the public and private sectors in all of the academic outcomes examined: socio-economic characteristics and peers. The province of school attendance accounted for a substantial portion of the differences in academic outcomes at the high school level (test scores and graduation rates), but less at the postsecondary level. School resources and practices played little to no role in the differences in each academic outcome observed.

References

Bussière, P., F. Cartwright, R.K. Crocker, X. Ma, J. Oderkirk, and Y. Zhang. 2001. Measuring up: The Performance of Canada’s Youth in Reading, Mathematics and Science: OECD PISA study: first results for Canadians aged 15. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 81-590-XPE. Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada, Council of Ministers of Education, Canada and Statistics Canada.

Frenette, M. 2007. Why Are Youth from Lower-income Less Likely to Attend University? Evidence from Academic Abilities, Parental Influences, and Financial Constraints. Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, no. 295. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11F0019M. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Frenette, M., and P.C.W. Chan. 2014. Academic Outcomes of Public and Private High School Students: What Lies Behind the Differences? Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, no. 367. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11F0019M. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). 2011. “Private schools: Who benefits?” PISA in Focus 7. Paris: OECD. Bulletin.

Data sources, methods and definitions

Data sources

This study is based on data from the Youth in Transition Survey, Cohort A (YITS-A) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) designed PISA, which was administered throughout OECD countries. In Canada, the YITS-A was developed by Statistics Canada to add contextual background information on students and their parents to the PISA data.

The target population consisted of students born in 1984. The YITS-A–PISA sample was derived from a two-stage, stratified random sampling design administered in the 10 provinces. In the first stage, a provincially stratified random sample of schools in which students born in 1984 were enrolled was taken in April or May of 2000. The list of schools was provided by each provincial Ministry of Education and included private schools. In each school, a random sample of students born in 1984 was taken (whether or not they were in Grade 10).

The analytical sample consists of students in Grade 10 in 2000 (the usual grade for students born in 1984). They were sampled in the Spring of 2000 so that students who were held back or skipped a grade would not be included in the sample. Because very few students in the sample attended private schools in the Atlantic provinces, the analytical sample is limited to students who lived in the other provinces. The final sample consists of 560 private high school students and 6,582 public high school students.

This study examined several academic outcomes, including scores from written tests of reading, mathematics, and science, administered to 15-year-olds by the OECD. The tests lasted two hours and focused primarily on reading. All students took the reading test, after which about half of them were randomly assigned to take the mathematics test, and the other half, the science test. The PISA assessment focused on the application of knowledge that students are expected to acquire in the classroom to real-world problems. Exam results were standardized to have an average of 500 and a standard deviation of 100 across OECD countries.

This study follows students until age 23, allowing for the measurement of several additional educational outcomes, including high school graduation, postsecondary attendance and graduation, university attendance and graduation, and graduate or professional studies. To account for sample attrition between the surveys administered at ages 15 and 23, sample survey weights were applied to all estimates in this article. All the estimates were weighted by the students in the sample attending either a public or private high school.

To account for differences between the academic outcomes of students in public and private schools, four broad areas were examined:

  • socio-economic characteristics (parental income and education, number of parents in the home, immigrant status of parents, number of books and computers in the home, sex of the student, immigrant status of the student, membership in a visible minority group, presence of a disability, and urban versus rural residence)
  • province of school attendance (may account for different curricula in each province)
  • school resources and practices (sectarian status, semestered, total enrolment, student–teacher ratio, total annual instructional hours, number of computers per student, percentage of teachers with an undergraduate degree, percentage of English/French teachers with an undergraduate degree in English/French language and literature, percentage of teachers who are certified, percentage of teachers who participated in training in the last three months, special tutoring available from staff, extent to which teacher expectations hinder learning, and frequency of teacher feedback)
  • peers (percentage of same-age school peers whose parents have a postsecondary certificate or degree)

This information was collected when students were aged 15.

Methods

This analysis presents means and proportions by school sector (public and private), as well as Blinder-Oaxaca decompositions. The objective of the decompositions is to estimate the contribution of the four broad factors (socio-economic characteristics, province of school attendance, school resources and practices, and peers) in accounting for the differences in academic outcomes. The total gap in each outcome (between public high school and private high school students) is decomposed into the proportion accounted for by each factor (the differences in mean levels of these factors, multiplied by the coefficient associated with the factor in a pooled regression model where the dependent variable is the outcome in question).

Definitions

Private school: A school whose affairs are under the control of a private entity. Funding source is not a consideration in determining the school sector. In order to grant provincially recognized high school diplomas, the private school must follow the provincial curriculum.

Public school: A school whose affairs are under the control of a public entity. The funding source is not a consideration in determining the school sector. In order to grant provincially recognized high school diplomas, the public school must follow the provincial curriculum.

PISA tests: 15-year-old students took a two-hour written test in reading, and either a mathematics or science test. All students took the reading test, after which half of them were randomly assigned to take a mathematics test, and the other half, a science test. The PISA assessment focused on students’ application of knowledge that they are expected to acquire in school to real-world problems. Exam results were standardized to have an average of 500 and a standard deviation of 100 across OECD countries.

Notes

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