StatsCan released a report on Tuesday which says that the reason for the higher performance overall of private school students has much more to do with their socioeconomic status than with the schools themselves. I asked Cardus Education's program director, Beth Green, about these findings.

What’s your reaction to the StatsCan report?

My reaction is that it's in keeping with a lot of other education research studies, which show that cultural capital is important. The students who are attending private schools have an advantage because their parents tend to be more highly educated. That means more books at home. It often means more parental involvement in the nature of education—and the relationship between home, school, and family really matters.

Is all of that attributable to those factors or is there a school effect involved?

I think that there is a school effect. The StatsCan report misses some important information that’s part of that equation, which is what happens in the classroom. They didn’t look at the nature of teaching and learning, which is really important for leveraging cultural capital. It works in tandem with the background at home.

If you have a look at the outcomes from the Cardus Education Survey, which interviews the graduates of independent religious schools, it shows that religious schools do well at working in partnership with homes and families. A lot of parents are choosing to send their children there because they want the kind of cultural capital and relationship that the school invests in. We’re able in that survey to isolate the school effect. And it does show that graduates of private schools, as a whole, compared to the public school sector, look back more favourably on their education and consider it more crucial to adult life, which confirms the StatsCan report. But in addition, the survey gives us a bit more colour and it says that Catholic schools in particular excel at preparing students to attend selective universities, for professional, managerial positions, and science-related careers—that’s isolated to the school effect. Students reflect that they were prepared well by Evangelical Protestant schools for vocational calling—they tend to go into human service careers, and they’re well-socialized in relation to their religious beliefs.

So then, are private schools just better overall?

Private schools are better than public schools at leveraging the cultural capital, and they’re receiving students who come with more advantages in the first place. So the question is, can they contribute to the public good by helping public schools to develop those relationships between home, family, and school, which I would argue work together to account for the improved effect?

You could argue that the parents of any child that goes to a private school must be more invested in their child’s education. They make it a priority, but they can also afford to do that, on some level. Would you argue that if more lower-income families could afford those education options, that change things?

I would be really interested to see whether it would. One way we could get at that would be: at the moment the StatsCan study doesn’t differentiate between types of independent schools. One of the things we know from the research associated with independent religious schools in Canada is that there are lots of families who make considerable sacrifices to educate their children privately at religious schools, or are part of schemes where there are system for low-income families to access that kind of education. I guess it’s a similar premise to the Alberta model or the charter school movement in the U.S. is based on; that if you give access to lower-income families who want to invest in this way, educational outcomes can be improved.

What else was missing from this study to gives us a more complete picture of Canada’s educational system?

The key is the classroom interaction and the nature of pedagogy. Also, the independent schools are not just sort of one elite block—there’s variety there. Consider the variances within the realm of independent schools, as Deani Van Pelt and Patricia and Derek Allison have in their 2007 report.

Still, I don’t want to criticize the study, because it confirms a lot of what we know: it’s worth investing in that home-school relationship, and we need to think about how we best build cultural capital.