Sunday, June 26, 2005

Public schools perform better than private

There was a great column in this morning's Dallas Morning News by Joshua Benton. In it, he analyzes the data from a study done by a couple of University of Illinois researchers who were trying to figure out if private schools are -- as most people believe them to be -- better than public schools. They used traditional metrics (NAEP test scores in this case) and -- and here's the key -- adjusted for variables like income level, education level of parents, etc.

What do you think they found? Private schools aren't any better, they just have far easier to educate populations. But Benton says it so much better than me:

[The researchers] found that, at all class levels, public schools had a small but consistent edge over privates. Their suspicions were supported by the numbers: The reason private schools look better on paper is because they serve more middle- and upper-class kids.

Or, to be even plainer: Poor kids in public schools did better than poor kids in private schools. Middle-class kids in public schools did better than middle-class kids in private schools. And rich kids in public schools did better than rich kids in private schools.

I've got no grudge here. I attended both public and private schools. And there may be plenty of reasons to send a child to private school that aren't about test scores – religion, for instance.


So actually, dear voucher proponents, it would appear that public schools do better than private schools. Hmmm... And no, I have absolutely nothing against private schools whatsoever. There are many good reasons to send kids to private schools, but failing public schools is NOT one of them since private schools don't perform as well as public schools.

Back to Benton:

Real estate agents in the northern suburbs love to talk up how great the local schools are. Their scores have been among North Texas' highest for years. But were they "great" because they employed great teachers and brilliant principals? Or were they coasting on the fact they were handed a group of upper-middle-class kids with involved parents – the kind of kid that's easiest to teach?

Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine Plano West High's [affluent] student body were suddenly switched with South Oak Cliff's [impoverished].

Plano's test scores would collapse; South Oak Cliff's would skyrocket. But would that mean the teachers at Plano West have suddenly forgotten how to teach? Would it mean the maligned schools of Dallas' southern sector suddenly became world beaters? Nope on both counts.

Interesting point, huh? And especially considering that in most voucher schemes, private schools do not have to accept all-comers. Wanna bet their test scores will be high? Sure. Give any principal the ability to pick their student body and they'll be successful.
Finally, the Lubienski study suggests that changing how a school is governed isn't an easy way to "fix" education.

In the 1990s, some education reformers argued that schools were being held back by the systems that run them. If you could just find a way to get rid of the school boards and the public-education bureaucracies, they argued, schools would flourish.

It's one of the core arguments for vouchers and charter schools. Change the governance structure – or let private schools get public dollars – and kids' performance will improve.

The Illinois study is just one study, and it's certainly an area that needs more research. But it's a sign that the old public-school model may not be as troubled as some argue.

Indeed. For the study itself, click here.

9 Comments:

Blogger Jenny D. said...

This is not news. The Coleman report showed this back in the 1960s. A whole bunch of studies showed in the 1990s.

They missed something, though. Catholic schools do better than public or other private schools at educating poor kids.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Joe Thomas said...

Great post, Brink. The link at the bottom wasn't working.

Jenny, could you point me to the reasearch/article/opinion about the Catholics doing better with impoverished students? Thanks!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Kallay said...

One of the difficulties in making peace in the Middle East is that each side insists on defending its own extremists as a matter of pride. Israel defends its rabid fundamentalist settlers while the Palestinians defend murderers and thugs and tries to free them from Israeli prisons. 'They're trash,' the thinking seems to go, 'but they're better than the other side's trash!' Thus progress is held hostage by the worst elements of both sides.

I see an analogy here. We acknowledge the problems with public schools but see them as generally a 'good thing', then gleefully point to news stories about failing charter schools and discuss the dangers of religious indoctrination and elitism in private schools, which we categorize as 'bad things.'

We treat education as a zero-sum game between public and private schools. It seems to me that we would be much better off fighting for good schools, whatever kind they may be, and against bad ones.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Jenny D. said...

The best book I can point you to is by Bryk, Lee, and someone else called Catholic Schools and the Common Good. Came out of a big study in the 1980s. Valerie Lee was my one-time academic adviser. I confess I tend to think my own teachers are smart.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Brink said...

One question, Jenny: Do Catholic schools have to take all students?

I agree with Jonathan wholeheartedly. I'm not saying Catholic schools are bad; they do an excellent job with very little tuition revenue. But my point is simple. If a student comes to a Catholic school and disrupts a class, they have the luxury to say "Get out." A public school does not.

Show me a Catholic school that accepts ALL students and still gets better results than public schools and I'll be impressed.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Joe Thomas said...

Thanks, Jenny. It's a bit old, but not a lot of comparison research seems to meet the light of day. I will try to get a glimpse of it after the RA.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Joe Thomas said...

Jonathan, the majority (but not all) of the problems in pubic education (and I risk getting Jenny revved up, here) are due to underfunding and a real lack of resources (teachers, experience, community involvement, hope, etc) in the urban areas.

When we are serious about providing the resources, the smaller K-3 (and K-6) class sizes, free (to the kids) after school tutoring, the on-going professional development, and more early intervention programs (including optional full-day kindergarten and pre-K) we will see some moderate progress toward the high standards we hold public education accountable to.

If we really (and I mean really) want to make a difference in America, we will agree that the "problems" in public schools are in truth problems of society and merely easier to see in the context of public schools.

At that point we can implement the family services and adult education and training needed to break the cycle of poverty, increase the reach of social mobility, and provide all Americans the "opportunity" we know a democratic society can provide-- if its citizens demand it.

At present, we demand 'accountability' but refuse to provide the appropriate resources to achieve our lofty goals.

8:10 PM  
Blogger leany said...

Private schools are normally able to provide more individualized attention to students as the class size is much smaller. The extracurricular activities, while they may not be the same offerings, can greatly affect a child’s overall development.
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