How Public Schools Have the Edge Over Private Schools

Pupils raising their hands during class

The fuel that drives much of the pro-market education reform agenda is the belief that public institutions are inherently inferior. Therefore, all that ails the nation’s schools, according to so-called “reformers,” can only be addressed by injecting market-based remedies into the system, or basically taking the “public” out of public education. But evidence is beginning to mount that the core assumptions behind these policies are, to say the least, unsound.

A few years ago, Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, both professors at the College of Education at the University of Illinois, analyzed two national data tests – the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – and reached a conclusion that took them by surprise.

In their new book, “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools,” the Lubienskis explain how, after you account for the socioeconomic factors that benefit private schools, public elementary schools are, on average, more effective at teaching mathematics. Chris and Sarah Lubienski recently spoke with NEA Today about their findings, the impact of “autonomy” in private schools, and educational equity.

Your conclusions challenge the basic underpinnings of the reform movement. What’s been the reaction so far to your book?

CL: As you might expect, it’s been kind of politicized. Unfortunately, Not only is the policy debate over education very politicized, but increasingly the research is as well. So you have many  foundations, think tanks and individual researchers lining up on one side or the other of this issue, and putting their agenda ahead of actually evidence. That’s a bit of a concern for us.

We don’t have any sort of anti-private school agenda and we actually went into this research under the assumption that private schools had the advantage. This was a surprise to us because a generation of research had suggested that private schools were more effective.

STL: We’re also seeing a lot of folks saying, “Well, you’re not talking about my private school,” which kind of misses our point that, overall, we’re not seeing the advantage for private schools. This is important because of the policy implications. The policies are based on the assumption that private schools are inherently better than public schools. Our research inherently challenges that.

Why is mathematics achievement a better gauge to measure school effectiveness, as opposed to reading, for example?

CL: It’s generally recognized that mathematics is a better measure of the effect of schools, because students tend to learn that subject more in schools than at home. Other subjects, such as reading are learned at home. Parents read to their children so it is often a refection of the home background of the child.

The belief that private sector is superior to the public sector is so dominant in our public discourse. Do you see any consensus emerging around education policy that this is misguided?

CL: It’s a real problem because it goes beyond education to other sectors as well. Whether it comes to transportation or education or health care or mail delivery, there is this overriding assumption that “public” is inferior. There is evidence to suggest that it’s not so clean cut. Community or state-run endeavors can be more effective or efficient. Look at our health care system. The private side is larger and less efficient than our public programs. We are seeing more and more academics who are pointing this out. In education, we are seeing somewhat of an emergence of a consensus around this issue. There will be push back – as I mentioned earlier there are entrenched interests. But other researchers, using different data sets, have been finding similar results to ours, so we are beginning to see people question this assumption that private schools are better.

People like choice. It’s a basic American value. The question is, if we embrace choice as the panacea of a reform movement, is that going to pay off? If people look out only for their own self-interest or their children’s, is that going to help provide a public good to the community? As we show in our book, there is some serious flaws with that logic when applied to a public good such as education.

What should parents who may be debating what kind of school to send their child take away from the book?

CL: I’ve had parents ask me what this all mean for the options that they’re considering. Again, we’re looking at nationally representative data, so this book doesn’t necessarily speak to individual parents looking at local choices, so much as the policymakers making assumptions that one type of school is necessarily better.

That said, we were able to identify some factors parents might want to consider when they’re looking at schools, Instead of just looking at whether a school is private or public, they may want to look at the type of preparation and pedagogy the teachers have had or the type of curriculum a school offers. Are the teachers certified or not? These things should matter quite a bit.

You discuss the impact of “autonomy,” usually cited as a private school advantage. How is it not so?

STL: There is greater autonomy in private schools. It’s just that that might not be such a good thing. It looks like the autonomy is being used to hold onto outdated instructional practices and to hire uncertified teachers. Public schools, on the other hand, are moving beyond traditional math exercises and are applying more complex, real-world problems in the classroom.

CL: Autonomy is one of the main catchwords of the reformers. When you look at the evidence, schools tend to use that autonomy in more competitive climates in ways that aren’t necessarily to the benefit of students. They tend to invest more money into marketing instead of the classroom.

Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski

Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski

Generally, how would categorize the state of public education today?

CL: Well, we’re not suggesting that there is nothing wrong with public schools – even though some have suggested that it is what we are saying. There are some serious problems in our system but we also have amazingly good schools. So there’s a lot of variety in American public education. One of our biggest concerns is not only the gap in quality outcomes but also the gap in opportunities. Those are serious problems we’re facing in education and have to be addressed.

STL: I would add that if you look math math instruction, the public schools have implemented reforms and it has shown in our scores in NAEP. Public schools generally have embraced more of a professional model for education than a market model.

What should people understand about the PISA results, which rank U.S. students as barely average, before they use them to make judgments about public schools?

STL: We didn’t study PISA or any other international benchmark, but I do think people need to be careful with international results because cultures in countries are so different.  International comparisons do provide one benchmark of where our country is doing over time, but let’s go back to the issue of inequity in our schools. There have been studies that entered privileged school districts in the U.S. as a country and they come out near the top of the world. Looking at the percentage of US students in poverty is an important factor when we compare them to, say, students in Scandinavian countries, where poverty is a fairly minor element of the population.

And yet, so many policymakers are determined not to acknowledge poverty.

CL. Right, and  some reform organizations avoid that discussion by holding up certain types of low-income schools that have “beaten the odds.” By doing so, they are arguing that educators have relied too much on demographic factors as an excuse for not educating those students. There are certainly examples of schools that have beaten the odds, but upon closer inspection, there may be other explanations for their success. There seems to be some selection bias or some sorting going on, for example, or a large amount of resources from private donors. On the other hand, it’s not an excuse – studying demographics is a very useful way to understand the patterns. It helps us see what is going on in our schools.

Top Photo: Norman Lono
Bottom Photo: Anna Katherine Lubienski