Education Week reports
on debate about a recent book by Illinois researchers that concludes public schools outperform private schools when you compare results of similar groups of students. Conventional schools also did as well or better than charter schools. The findings have engendered a debate that, naturally, pulls in the Walton-financed choice promotion unit at the University of Arkansas.
The book is "The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools
," from the University of Chicago Press. The authors are Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, a husband-and-wife team of education professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
They used the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress, a gold-standard national test, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99.
After accounting for socioeconomic status, race, and other demographic differences among students, the researchers found that public school math achievement equaled or outstripped math achievement at every type of private school in grades 4 and 8 on NAEP. The advantage was as large as 12 score points on a scale of 0 to 500 (or more than one full grade level) when the authors compared public school students with demographically similar 4th graders in conservative Christian schools.
The Lubienskis also used NAEP data to conclude that regular public schools outperformed independently operated, publicly funded charter schools in 4th grade math and equaled them in 8th grade math.
Finally, the Lubienskis used their longitudinal data to find that public school students started kindergarten with lower math achievement than demographically similar private school peers. By the time they reached the 5th grade, however, they were outperforming
those same peers in the subject.
The authors hypothesize that teacher certification in conventional public schools might contribute to better performance and that the public schools might also be more in line with new concepts for communicating math, rather than rote instruction of adding, subtracting and so on.
The Lubienskis conclude that "private, autonomous, choice-based schools are not necessarily more innovative or academically effective but instead often perform at lower levels even as they attract more able students."
Well, now. The Waltons didn't pay all that money into the UA "education reform" department for nothing. And their subsidized profs in Fayetteville have risen to the challenge, mocking the Lubienskis study and challenging it on a number of grounds. Education Week reports in detail on their critiques, as well as the authors' rejoinder.
Absolute certainty is impossible in such debates. But I continue to find interesting the zero-sum tone from UA. Choice good. Conventional public schools bad.
Choice of schools based on emotional factors is not always good. There are also many rotten conventional public schools. (I do think least some of them reflect the difficult family backgrounds delivered to them more than failing teachers.) No study has yet, as the Lubienskis noted, found a way to account for the powerful advantage of committed parents — willing to pay private school fees or willing to meet the requirements of a charter school. Public schools can't throw out parents who don't go to teacher conferences.
What's frustrating is that the debate is really meaningless, as with many hotly contested policy disputes. Faith drives most people, not studies or data. You cheer the studies you like and discount those you don't. I'm as prone to that as anyone. I do believe it's accurate to say that the weight of research to date is that nobody has invented a replicable model that reliably lifts economically disadvantaged kids from homes without a history of educational achievement. Generally, the studies show overall, public schools match their private and charter counterparts. There are outliers in each group. My particular faith is a belief that a common public education system to which all are committed is the American ideal and less likely to divide communities and create haves and have-nots. Walton U. sees it otherwise.