From a previous blog (publication date November 2018) because we need a reminder that public schools outperform every other option once we control for all the variables:

In their 2014 book, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools*, authors Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski have this bold conclusion:

Despite what many reformers, policymakers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service relative to schools in the independent sector … while this challenges the very basis of the current movement to remake public education based on choice, competition, and autonomy, our analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning(emphasis mine.)

Wow. Perhaps this is why the current Secretary of Education, along with leading ‘reformers,’ no longer considers the quality of the school important, only that the parents had a choice for their children.

How did the authors reach this conclusion? Their book has seven chapters, each of which carefully builds their argument:

1. Chapter One: Conflicting Models for Public Education. Here the authors describe the differing models we have for organizing education: Politics, in which the principle is local, democratic controlof schools, as has existed for much of our nation’s history; Science, in which the principle is a quasi-monopoly over education by experts (graduates of educational institutions, that is, teaching colleges) who are presumed to understand theories and evidence of how children learn and are deemed best at providing education; Markets, in which the principle is competition among schools as providers of education and consumer choice.

There is a tension between these models and the Lubienskis note that “Americans have never settled on a single model … which suggests one of the primary reasons for dissatisfaction with education in this country.” Further, they state the basis for the fierceness of the debate surrounding the future of public education, “Any one model cannot predominate without invalidating important values  and upsetting important constituencies associated with the other two competing models.”

Finally, they set up their research and report by framing the question about the choices available today and the models from which they originate: [Does] “the higher achievement in private schools reflect greater private school effectiveness or simply the more advantaged family backgrounds of the students who attend these schools”?

It is not an easy question to answer as there are many variables to consider. In the remainder of the book, the Lubienskis sort through them, identify their effect on the data (which is results of NAEP in fourth and eighth grades and ECLS-K, a longitudinal source that tracks progress from kindergarten to fifth grade.)

2. Chapter Two: The Theory of Markets for Schooling. Here the authors describe the economic theories espoused by Milton Friedman, followed and built upon by many others, for the superiority of the market model. They note many criticisms and weaknesses of the model. We begin to understand that the authors are questioning the assumptions underlying the market theory, which they will see if the data supports.

3. Chapter Three: The Private School Effect. The authors review the generally-perceived advantages of private school of greater autonomy and higher test performance, but then deliver the surprising conclusion of studies that show that achievement gaps between students of differing backgrounds are the same among all sectors, public, parochial, private, and charter! It seems that these persistent gaps are not the result of school inputs into instruction, but are related to family background and peers.

4. Chapter Four: Achievement in Public, Charter, and Private Schools. The authors use the NAEP data to isolate the numerous variables affecting the data to see which ones are irrelevant and which ones actually affect student learning. Carefully working through school characteristics, including climate issues and students’ attitudes toward school (NAEP includes extensive survey questions to gather data about the students taking their test), then adjusting for socio-economic demographics, the Lubienskis are able to demonstrate that public schools actually outperform all others, including private schools and charter schools.

5. Chapter Five: The Effectiveness of Public and Private Schools. The authors mention the rebuttal to their NAEP findings, which is a theoretical argument since no one has ever presented evidence to support it, that the NAEP is a one-time or cross-sectional test, in which students newly enrolled in other sectors are the worst performing students whose parents searched for an alternative. The school sector has not had the time to work its magic.

To answer that, the Lubienskis turn to a longitudinal study (these are studies that follow a student throughout their years to see what happens over a long period of time), the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Again, they find that adjusting for the many variables that exist in the data, including socio-economic status and the peer effect, that is, what effect does being among more advantaged peers have on a less advantaged child, public schools produce better outcomes than the alternatives. The most influential factor remains family background. The longitudinal study confirms the findings of the NAEP.

6. Chapter Six: Understanding Patterns of School Performance. Having established the better performance of public schools from the data, the Lubienskis now dig into the causes. They look at school size, class size, and school climate and find that the differences among sectors are mostly due to socio-economic demographics. Then they consider teacher certification and professional development. Here they uncover a link between these items and improved achievement when the profesional development is centered on content and student thinking.

They move on to consider the reforms in instructional practices. They find that non-public school sectors, including charters, use the instructional autonomy to avoid the best practices identified by organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and that is a reason why public schools do better. That is, public schools, with far less autonomy, implement the best practices and achieve better results. Other sectors use their freedom to retain outdated practices, such as worksheet drills.

7. Chapter Seven: Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education. The Lubienskis wrap up with a discussion as to why parents would not choose the most economic sector available–the free public school. They note the weakness with economic models in that people do not always act rationally or they have other values that cannot be measured in monetary values. Families may choose a school for safety reasons, not achievement reasons, for example.

They briefly recap the many motivations of the chief actors in school reform, and then turn to three assumptions about education that their results show the evidence does not support: One, public schools are failing (they are not); Two, consumer choice is better (it is not, families do not have access to all the information they need to evaluate their choices effectively); Three, Competition Spurs Improvement (it does not, it spurs competitors to seek advantages through deceptive marketing, political influence, and excluding undesired, low performing students.)

Public schools really are the best schools and, if we want better outcomes for all children, our society needs to begin providing the resources for the schools and the social supports for the families that are needed to overcome their difficulties. It really boils down to a one word explanation: poverty.

*Available from the University of Chicago press,

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