Public School Advantage, The

by Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski


The information here is important and convincing, if unengaging. I’m not a trained researcher so it may not impress you to hear that I couldn’t find many holes in the data analysis. Another disclosure: I am a public educator and thus suffer from the accompanying biases. That said, this sure seems like a cogent argument for not only how private/charter schools are less effective than public schools, but also for why that might be so.  Perhaps most impressive is that, while the authors’ position is clear, the presentation is always respectful of the opposite position and almost never polemical.

Basically, the Lubienskis present data that confirms what many pro-public schoolers have been saying for years: the difference in performance between the two sectors (i.e., the raw scores) is due not to the effectiveness of the school but rather to a difference in student ability. In other words, if you were to somehow assure that both private and public sectors were dealing with the same breakdown of student demographics (principally racial and socio-economic), then public schools would score as well or better than any others. This is as intuitive as it is (here) borne out by facts.

The next question is why public schools are more effective, and the Lubienskis boil it down to two main factors: teacher certification and the adoption of more modern, research-based instructional practices. They suppose — and this is the weakest part of the book, toward the end when they begin engaging in poorly supported hypotheses — that allowing more autonomy for teachers in the private sector leads to complacency and stronger adherence to outdated teaching models. In other words, they suspect that the bureaucratic control over teaching and professional development in public schools actually produces results, an idea that should make private/charter folk shudder in their boots.

My favorite aspect of the book is how it really crystallized some of the problems I have with the market theory of education. First of all, I’m convinced that some things are more important than the profit motive; health and education are two of those things, and I don’t think anyone will ever convince me otherwise. So the idea of just sort of throwing education up in the air and letting it flutter down like a leaf on the wind of market forces is really horrifying to me. The Lubienskis helped me better understand this horror with some of their arguments.

First of all, assuming that parents can automatically recognize good educational practices (an important premise when consumers are supposed to make educated choices about products and services) is just wrong. That simply doesn’t happen with schools, where true outcomes aren’t seen for years. . . and in the meantime if you’ve chosen wrong, well WHOOPS, that kid didn’t work out so well so I guess you’ll have to choose better next time. Your bad!

Is this really the kind of world we want for our children, where literally their very futures become totally uncertain? Parents can’t make informed decisions when there’s not even consensus on how schools perform relative to each other.  And as the Lubienskis point out frequently, the market theory idea that rational consumers will make informed choices doesn’t play out here, where parents routinely select schools based on criteria other than quality education.  Do we want parents to be able to use public funds, for example, to pay conservative Christian schools just based on religious values, when all evidence points to them being the absolute worst-performing of all schools?  It’s the slickest of slopes.  Another important factor is the idea of competition between schools leading to unintended outcomes, such as schools devoting more energy to marketing and student exclusion. Marketing people make good livings off of persuading people to buy things, and if that power is applied to the education “market,” how much less informed will the parental decisions be?

Most importantly is one that they don’t hit on directly, and which I alluded to above, which is that education is not one of our country’s sectors that you want to leave open to the arbitrary pull of market forces. There are certain areas of life that require, you know, vision and planning, and education is one of those. You don’t just expose it to whichever entrepreneur wants to make a buck; you have to protect it, nurture it, be its steward. Otherwise you’re just begging to have the entire education infrastructure of our country destroyed. And what some people may not understand is that we’ve been there before. We didn’t like it, what with the rampant inequality and our undereducated workforce. It’s what, you know, led us to come up with public education in the first place.

Okay so I’ll limit my diatribe to damages already incurred, but one last point is that I did look up rebuttals to the book before writing this, just because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something obvious. It seems like the only conservative rebuttal of any substance was by Patrick Wolf on the “Education Next” website. Yet his points aren’t relevant.

He complains, for instance, that the Lubienskis used only math performance, yet when citing reading scores, he omits one of the most significant factors that the Lubienskis admit they couldn’t adequately measure, namely that private school parents are probably more invested in education and thus more likely to read to them at home than their public school counterparts. Wolf would prefer to use other measures such as graduation rate, post-secondary schooling, criminal activity, and others, all measures that coincidentally depend much more on a student’s demographic than on her/his schooling.

Wolf then complains that performance is measured using tests that align more closely with public than private school curricula, yet somehow I can’t imagine him making the same distinction would the tests show higher scores for private schools. He then closes by triumphantly proclaiming that “this book has nothing to say empirically about school voucher programs,” since “voucher recipients make up a tiny fraction. . . in the data set the authors examine.”

This last, however, is either willfully or ignorantly missing the point. For if the Lubienskis can show that private schools in general do not outperform public schools, then the voucher debate is irrelevant. This is because without a significant advantage in private school efficacy, there is no compelling reason to switch from a well-established service provider to a more expensive one that is largely unregulated and unproven.

And here’s a question for all the market proponents: how much economic sense does it make to pay more for a service that’s either equal or inferior to the one you’re already getting for free?



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