U.S. | Books & Ideas

Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

December 05, 2013
The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools
Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski
University of Chicago Press, $50 (cloth)

 

Would it surprise you to learn that students attending traditional, district-run public schools outperform their peers in charter schools and private schools?

That is the bold claim at the heart of Christopher and Sarah Lubienski’s new book, The Public School Advantage. The author’s extensive analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative datasets produced results that run counter to both “common wisdom and the research consensus.” Conventional wisdom—spread by leading educational reformers, politicians of all stripes, and the editorial pages of major newspapers—assumes that charters are academically superior.And for twenty-five years, researchers have largely agreed that private school students, too, fare better academically than do their public school counterparts. This finding even has a name: the “private school effect.”

Private school students do, in fact, score better on tests, but the authors wanted to figure out if this advantage is a genuine marker of superior education in private schools or simply an artifact of the more privileged backgrounds of the students who attend them. To answer this question, the Lubienskis decided to analyze math achievement scores. Math, they explain, is an especially good indicator of school effectiveness because it is a subject “learned primarily in school, as compared with other subjects, such as reading, which tend to be more heavily influenced by students’ experiences at home.” The authors examined two main datasets—a longitudinal study of more than 20,000 students who started kindergarten in the fall of 1998; and the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which surveyed more than 300,000 fourth and eighth graders. (Known as the “nation’s report card,” the NAEP is widely regarded as the gold standard in student-achievement research.)

Using sophisticated analytical tools with names that only a statistician could love—hierarchical linear modeling, multivariate regression—the authors conclude that the private-school effect is a myth. After accounting for the demographic differences among different school sector populations, traditional public school students performed just as well in math as did their private school peers. In grade four, public school students actually outpaced their demographically similar peers in private schools. Furthermore, the Lubienskis discover that even though private school children arrive in kindergarten a little bit more academically prepared than their public school peers, public school students make up the difference over the course of elementary school. Call it the public school effect.

Echoing the results of other major research studies, the Lubienskis report that traditional public schools also hold a slight edge over charters, which are roughly comparable demographically, although charters enroll a larger proportion of African American students. It remains an open question, however, whether charters offer a superior education to specific student populations. While the authors find no evidence that charters provide a better education for particular student groups, this year’s study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes suggests that students in poverty, especially poor African American students, and English language learners may enjoy more learning gains in charters.

The Lubienskis leverage their findings to take on the basic assumptions of market-driven educational reform. While they are initially hesitant to dismiss reforms inspired by the private sector, their conviction grows over the course of the book, such that by the last chapter they state flatly that market-based educational reform is “increasingly a belief system rather than a policy theory.”

There is no better spokesperson for the bedrock beliefs of market-based educational reformers than Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor. Public education is “essentially a government-run monopoly,” Klein wrote in The Atlantic, stating concisely the position of today’s market-oriented reformers:

Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

Lamenting the lack of accountability in the public education system, Klein called for a “full-scale transition” to a “competitive marketplace” in which business practices and principles would govern public schools.

We are living in an era in which the solution is always markets, but competition among schools does not always lead to improved education.

The Lubienskis maintain that we are living in an era in which the allure of markets is “irresistible”; it doesn’t matter what the problem is—the solution is always markets. Consequently we tend to compare the private sector with the public sector in Manichean terms. Where the private sector is lean, the public sector is bloated. Where the private sector is nimble, the public sector is slow. Over the last several decades, we have turned to the private sector to fulfill a wide range of public services, from corrections and national security to transportation and firefighting. So it should not be surprising that recent school reform measures have been dominated by market-based strategies such as vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay for teachers.

The three pillars of the market strategy, according to the Lubienskis, are choice, competition, and autonomy.

The theory behind expanding choice is that when you give parents a say in deciding where to send their children to school, they will choose the school of the highest academic caliber.Parents are rational consumers who will make informed decisions about the quality of different educational “products,” that is, schools.If parents are not satisfied with a particular school, they will send their child to a different one.

But parents, the Lubienskis report, seldom make school choice decisions based solely on academic considerations. Parents frequently rely on factors that have no bearing on academic quality, including a school’s proximity, its racial composition and religious orientation, even whether it has a uniform policy. Market theory predicts that underperforming schools will close due to a lack of demand, but a school’s popularity turns out to be a poor proxy for its academic success. Consider the hundreds of “failing” charter schools across the country that remain open and well-attended.

With respect to competition, the idea is to unleash the natural powers of the marketplace, spurring schools on to “greater effectiveness, efficiency and innovation.” I suspect that for most Americans, this is an appealing and sensible proposition. Alas, the Lubienskis contend, competition among schools does not typically lead to serious and sustained efforts to improve core educational functions. Rather, the data show that schools in competitive environments tend to invest more resources in screening out lower-performing students whose sub-par test scores would damage the school’s academic reputation, or they spend more money on marketing in order to keep their enrollment numbers up. Neither of these two common responses to market pressures is desirable for a public institution devoted to universal access and the common good. Consider the competitive marketplace of for-profit higher education. The former director of the University of Phoenix reported that for-profit colleges tend to spend approximately a quarter of their revenue on sales and marketing, while dedicating only 10–20 percent to faculty salaries. Do we really want K–12 public education to follow that model?

What the Lubienskis call “incentivism” is at the core of efforts to introduce more competition into the public school system—efforts largely committed to boosting test scores. Standardized testing has become the linchpin of modern educational reform. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, the fate of individual schools rests on their ability to make “adequate yearly progress” on tests. Schools that consistently fail to meet their targets can be reorganized, re-staffed, and even shut down. Teachers and administrators are increasingly seeing their performance evaluations tied to student test scores, with some school districts offering generous bonuses when scores zoom ahead.

On incentives, the authors overlook the potential of carrots, such as merit pay, and sticks, such as school closures, to encourage bad behavior, but the impact can be significant. Hundreds of school districts across the country have been flagged for possible cheating as a result of test score gains about as statistically probable as winning the lottery. An abbreviated list of districts facing serious allegations of cheating includes Detroit, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Houston, and St. Louis.This year in Atlanta, 2009 National Superintendent of the Year Beverly Hall—who earned more than half a million dollars in performance bonuses during her tenure—was indicted along with thirty-four other educators after an investigation found evidence of widespread and systematic cheating. Teachers and administrators allegedly changed tens of thousands of test answers. Too few serious investigations have been undertaken to really get at the full scope of the cheating problem, but it clearly goes beyond the bad-apples thesis expressed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other defenders of test-based accountability.

Public school teachers are subject to more stringent certification regulations and more frequent professional development and oversight.

The final pillar of market-based reform is autonomy—the notion that charter and private schools have an operational advantage over traditional public schools because they are not held back by bureaucratic red tape and special interests such as teacher unions. The only two school-level variables the Lubienskis found were consistently positive predictors of student achievement were teacher certification and reliance on instructional practices informed by professional guidelines, both of which directly pertain to the issue of autonomy and both of which are more prevalent in traditional public schools. In an argument that would drive Klein and company to distraction, the authors suggest that because public school teachers are subject to more stringent certification regulations as well as more frequent professional development and oversight, they end up being more plugged into recent advances in curriculum and instruction, such as the new pedagogical approaches developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. On the vaunted independence of private schools, where teachers have more freedom to decide both what and how they will teach, the Lubienskis conclude, “Instead of promoting instructional innovation, we find that private school autonomy can lead to curricular stagnation.”

• • •

Market-oriented reformers are convinced that where students come from is irrelevant, as long as they have access to high-quality schools guided by private sector principles. It is thus important to underscore the significance of student demographics, which account for the overwhelming majority of variation in achievement levels; indeed, the kinds of schools students attend account for less than 10 percent of the variation in their test scores. Given this, the authors of Public School Advantage might have spent more time explaining why background factors are so strongly correlated with academic achievement. They assume it is sufficient to assert that “more advantaged” students enjoy more academic success. But while it is readily apparent how learning disabilities and limited English proficiency result in lower test scores,it is not immediately obvious why higher socioeconomic status boosts test scores. More access to books, high-quality health care, “cultural capital,” etc.? The relationship between class and academic achievement is a subject that inspires rollicking debate in educational policy circles and ought not be ignored here.

Public School Advantage, I’m afraid, will not be picked up by the casual reader. In addition to a heavy dose of statistics, the prose sometimes suffers from the reach-for-the-highest-register tendencies of academic writing (why use “show” when you could substitute “evince”?). And the review of market theory, which is characterized by excessive repetition of definitions and key points, reads more like an introductory textbook than a monograph. More substantively, the authors’ analysis often has a schematic quality to it. With the exception of a brief section on think tanksthey have constructed a policy world largely bereft of reformers, interest groups, and politics—a strangely arid and unpopulated landscape. The authors make glancing references to key pieces of educational legislation, but a more nuanced and extensive discussion of No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s more recent Race to the Top initiative would have been helpful.

In spite of these limitations, Public School Advantage is a book to be reckoned with.The calling card of today’s leading voices in educational reform is the charge that our public schools are failing. But failing in comparison to what, the Lubienskis ask? Traditional public schools are not failing to keep pace with charters and private schools, at least in teaching students math, one of the two subjects at the heart of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. On the contrary, traditional public schools in some cases appear to have advantages over other kinds of schools that are usually perceived as more innovative and rigorous. While more empirical work on the public school advantage needs to be completed—in subjects beyond math and grades beyond elementary school—the Lubienskis have launched a strong salvo in the contentious debate about school effectiveness.

Feature photograph: beatrhymeslife

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Comments

Having worked in both the public and private setting, I am not greatly surprised by this.  Many of my colleagues in the private arena were there specifically because their dry and boring teacher-centric styles would only work effectively with kids from homes where they were pushed hard to work around bad teaching.  As they saw it, they "'finally got some decent kids." (This is not universal, of course.  I also know some outstanding teachers in the private setting.)
 
I public school, with a broader cross-section of the population in the classroom, teachers simply have to try harder, so those kids who are in public school, but happen to come from the kinds of homes that are typically seen in private schools are probably having a better learning experience.

I feel like private schools do not have a better learning experience. Being as how public schools tend to have a wide variety of subjects to study, and therefore we would be able to learn more about different things then we would from the limited amount of subjects a private schools has to offer.
 
Oh and also change of subject public schools are not aloud to recruit there players for sports because we play fair not like anything that the private school of wichita trinity does they recruit their players and cheat

I put my kids in private school precisely to keep them away from public school kids. Now it would be unthinkable for my kids to socialize with or even have a conversation with a public school kid. This is so I can sleep at night.

I know exactly what you mean Rachel! Ronald Reagan went to public school, a man like that certainly turns you off of associating with riff-raff like that!

Rachel I have a child in private school for a better education, not because he is better than public school kids. You are ridiculous.  God forbid your children rebel against you by using drugs, getting pregnant out of wedlock, commit crimes, or drop out of college.  Those are some very real scenarios that I have seen in kids that I went to private school with who had parents who tried to shelter them from the real world.  Your kids are no better than anyone else's kids!  You make me sick and that ridiculous belief you have  is going to backfire on you! 

I can understand that people THINK the way you do, but to actually admit it in a public forum! You are quite bold and arrogant to think your kids are better than others. I pity you and them. It just makes me sad. And it makes you sound very insecure if you have to put yourself and your children on a pedestal to feel good about yourself.

This has to be an example of Poe's law, right? I can't believe anyone would write such a comment and mean it.

It did have the sound of a droll satirical statement, but with no attempt to clarify it, I can't decide if it's a troll remark or a hit and run.

Rachel, i'm 11 years old and i go to a public school. You kids aren't any better then a public school kid. I go to public school and i am in  the Advanced program, i have done many events and programs for high performance children. Your kids may be in a private school, but they will never be exposed to the real world. In a public school, you learn how to socialize, how solve your own problems, how to exspress you self, have a good education, face your fears and take risks, and expirence life first hand. Plus, why don't you want your children having converstions with public school students? Their not vermons nor some sort of infection. There NORMAL CHILDREN! There not idiots, trust me i should know. Hell, in my school we made a whole movement to help cancer and to raise money. In my other schools we the students have imporved our school on our own. Im pretty sure a public school student can have an intelligent converstion with your children. Your an idot to ever brag about how amazing your kids are. You are pittful. Don't belive im 11? Well belive it, you have just had an online converstion with a public school student. Do you feel stupid?

Rachel, if you are in the "advanced program" that you claim to be, how is it that you don't know that the pronoun "I" is capitalized and not a lower case letter?

First of all, I attended a private school for 8 years, and I also went to public school my senior year, so i have experience in both. I do have to say that in private school, I did feel like the education was better, and private school is more focused on a childs education, but for you to say that about public school kids is ridiculous. The only difference between private school kids and public school kids, is that private school kids know how to put on an act. All the junk that goes on in public school, still goes on in private school, it's just hidden. If you think that because a child goes to public school that they're are automatically "bad kids" you are very judgemental and rude! I graduated from a public school, and I have never smoked, drank, or gotten anything less than a "B". It doesn't matter where a child goes to school that determines a child's character, that is up to the parents, and if your kid is so easily influenced and you think that they will get corupted, then that just shows your parenting abilities.

Who do you think your kids are going to go to college with???  Who do you think your kids are going to work with in the future. 
You are raising the type of kid that creates bigotry and will be living with you thru their 20's because they won't know how to interact with people of different backrounds.
 
 

If the book's 'interpretations' are correct, one wonders how to explain why so many teachers in government schools move their own children to non-government schools?

From what I have seen, as a public school teacher for 20 years and having taught in 4 different districts, a tiny minority of public school teachers send their children to a private school. And they may have a good reason. For example, my husband is French and we considered sending her to a French bilingual elementary school. She understands French, but doesn't have the expressive skills. We opted for public in the end because the French school reeked of elitism.

If the goal of school is math, then bravo. Private schools offer a level of personal formation that can't be touched by a public school. Why? Because they aren't beholden to the non-sense of programs such as NCLB and Common Core. Many private schools are college prep. Common core is basic, at best, and does very little to prepare students to be successful in college.

Rachel, your comment makes me wonder what you imagine public school kids to be and how you know what you think you know about public school kids. I went to private schools my whole life and rebelled by attending a community college where I engaged with good people from all walks of life and learned how lucky I was. Here I found the drive to do meaninful work which eventually led me to Harvard. I married someone who went to public school and my daughter goes to a public school where we have found the most amazing and engaged community. Watch out for the bubbles that keep you from seeing both the struggles and the good in the wider world and limits your (or your children's) horizons.
 

It occurrs to me that public schools abandon the top students in a class and the bottom students in the class to concentrate on the middle section to give them a general education.  It makes the education  numbers better
In most private institutions the top tier gets over and above help -- same for the bottom rung of the ladder(additiional resources) the middle section or core are prompted and assisted  to over-achieve. 
Studies of these kind in support of public education are tuned for the political ear.  I often wonder if a parent got a check to spend on a a child's education equal to what is being spent on failure --- would most choose private over public. Safety, smaller class size and educational opportunity not found in the public sector would win in the end.
 
 
 

Ralph, I have to disagree. Most public school teachers, like myself, use "differentiated instruction." Look it up. When I taught in a private school I did not see teachers using this!

Here's yet another study that focuses on factors that can be controlled (teachers and tests) simply because administrators can monkey with them. As a public educator for over 25 years, I see the most important factors in a child's education perpetually ignored because they aren't controllable: poverty, peer pressure, parents, and personality.  These are the ones that make the difference, but I doubt anyone has the guts to agree with me when it's so deliciously easy to keep blaming curriculum and teachers.

Actually I agree with you, Sara (I think!).  Public schools have been asked to take on multiple roles in the community addressing issues such as poverty (and child malnutrition in particular), the education of parents (from parenting to ESL), counselling services, and on.  It is an immense responsibility that I see practiced in the public schools my children attend--and responsibilities that are largely ignored by private schools, mainly as they do not need to contend with most of these issues.  I hope this study IS read by not only parents but school boards and educators--the continued demonization of teachers and public schools is really an assault on democracy. We spend far less than we should on education; the drive to make educational systems conform to market criteria is a grave mistake--indeed little that is of universal value should be relegated to the "market."  So much has been shaped by class and wealth disparities--as Jonathan Kozol has long maintained--the current market-based "reforms" are but a cynical extension and entrenchment of those deeply class- and race-based ideologies.

"The continued demonization of teachers and public schools is really an assault on democracy."
Yes!
Public education should set its sites on creating good citizens to strengthen democracy over creating a good labor force for the market (which wishes to strengthen plutocracy). 

I agree with you for the most part, but curriculum matters. When you throw a non-poor, non-neglected kid who wants to learn into a school with a terrible curriculum, he simply will not learn as much as he would in a school with a good curriculum. He loses time. He'll probably get some supplementation at home from his parents, and he will learn some things by following his own curiosities on his own time, but he will squander 20+ hours a week on a sub-par curriculum that he could have used to learn far, far more.

My kids have been in both public and private school. I do not believe the teachers are any better in private school. I believe the curriculum is vastly superior, however. It is not selected the same way it is selected in the public system, and it is not as heavily influenced by ivory tower educrats, distant politicians, and wining and dining textbook manufacturers. They read higher quality literature in private school (their public school has insipid, poorly written readers, often with extremely heavy-handed moral messages, that do nothing to enhance a child's love for reading); they learn far more detailed science terminology and figures in private school; they learn far more grammar (they barely touch on grammar at public school); and instead of receiving the somewhat random and out-of-order smattering of history they get in public school, they systematically study a timeline of all of the major events and figures in world history, building on it each year, which gives them a world and chronological perspective. And then there's math.

The most appalling curriculum in our public school is math, where at the end of 2nd grade kids are still using objects to do double digit addition, drawing circles and counting them up instead of lining up numbers and regrouping. They also have to explain, in complete sentences, how they got their answers to basic, commonsense math problems. This takes away quite a bit of time from drilling and mastery and penalizes kids who struggle with writing but may be excellent at math. The math curriculum is appalling. It's so very, very horrible. The best public school teachers, when they see that the curriculum sucks, will go beyond it – but it's becoming increasingly difficult for public school teachers to do that. They are increasingly restricted by state and federal regulation, national and state testing, and administrators.

When I went through public schools, our teachers essentially created their OWN worksheets. No more. They use box curriculum, and woe betide the teacher who tries to work outside of the box. Some still manage too. Many don't. Now, some public schools have better curriculum, of course, but when they don't - it matters. It really matters. With a good curriculum, it doesn't hurt as much to get an occasional bad teacher.

I went to public schools my whole life and came from a family that indulged in drug use for as long as I can remember. I did not. I did pretty good in school and went to work after graduation. I found out that I could go to community college then later moved to traditional and now after a long time I am finally getting my bachelors degree in computer engineering. That is my story. I only know one person that went to private school and by the time he hit 10th grade he was addicted to meth (among other drugs) which were introduced to him at this private school. He dropped out leaving his family behind and remained a heavy drug addict for 12 years. He is now clean and going to college along with me. The only thing I can say about private or public school is that it is up to the child to do well. If your child does not have the drive to succeed then it doesn't matter which school they go to. 

Chris, you seem to be an example of personality making the difference. I see this often.
 

Public schools do a crappy job teaching world history. Kids need to learn more world history so that they know what not to do in the future. Look at where our country is heading..... Could have learned a bit if we studied the Nazis more.
 

I agree with Chris, it's all in the children. If he/she doesnt want to learn, it's the problem. I came from a public school and now a professional but now have a child, I sent my child to a private school because the area where we live in, I did research and private vs public school, private exceeds and my child is an A student. My child knows how to work hard,study hard or so well! She has friends from public school and she does not talked about what my child learn. In short, outside school, she has to be herself.

Haha, this is just an article to make public school kids feel better about being outdone by private AND homeschool kids.

As a former public school teacher, when I had a child I committed never to using public schools.  By definition, public schools teach mediocrity with little demand for excellence.  In private school, even though small, my daughter was afforded opportunities that would have never been available to her in a public school -- classes with only 2 students, being allowed to work 2 years above grade level.  Her school now offers the international baccalaureate which NO public school in my area offers.  She had fantastic teachers and a supportive administration.  If you think all private schools are using the boring Socratic method, you have not explored options.  You need one that is an academic boot camp.  Public schools may be okay for a middle-of-the-road student, but if you have a gifted child, they are a disaster.

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