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The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

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by Christopher A. Lubienski

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Nearly the whole of America’s partisan politics centers on a single question: Can markets solve our social problems? And for years this question has played out ferociously in the debates about how we should educate our children. From the growth of vouchers and charter schools to the implementation of No Child Left Behind, policy makers have increasingly turned


Nearly the whole of America’s partisan politics centers on a single question: Can markets solve our social problems? And for years this question has played out ferociously in the debates about how we should educate our children. From the growth of vouchers and charter schools to the implementation of No Child Left Behind, policy makers have increasingly turned to market-based models to help improve our schools, believing that private institutions—because they are competitively driven—are better than public ones. With The Public School Advantage, Christopher A. and Sarah Theule Lubienski offer powerful evidence to undercut this belief, showing that public schools in fact outperform private ones.             
For decades research showing that students at private schools perform better than students at public ones has been used to promote the benefits of the private sector in education, including vouchers and charter schools—but much of these data are now nearly half a century old. Drawing on two recent, large-scale, and nationally representative databases, the Lubienskis show that any benefit seen in private school performance now is more than explained by demographics. Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis go on to show that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones. Even more surprising, they show that the very mechanism that market-based reformers champion—autonomy—may be the crucial factor that prevents private schools from performing better. Alternatively, those practices that these reformers castigate, such as teacher certification and professional reforms of curriculum and instruction, turn out to have a significant effect on school improvement.             
Despite our politics, we all agree on the fundamental fact: education deserves our utmost care. The Public School Advantage offers exactly that. By examining schools within the diversity of populations in which they actually operate, it provides not ideologies but facts. And the facts say it clearly: education is better off when provided for the public by the public.  

Editorial Reviews

Diane Ravitch
“This important book provides clear evidence that the ‘free-market model’ of schooling does not match the hype of the privatization movement. It demonstrates that public education is a valuable and successful institution. It must be protected and strengthened, not privatized.”
David Berliner
The Public School Advantage is a complete and thorough analysis of America’s many different kinds of schools—secular, charter, and public—and should end the arguments about which kind is better. Chris and Sarah Lubienski provide both the data and the clear explanations needed to understand the many false claims made about the superiority of schools that are not public. The result is a ringing endorsement of public school achievement.”
William F. Tate
“In The Public School Advantage, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski present studies that challenge assumptions of the market-based argument for education and provide a cogent analytical comparison that evaluates public versus private elementary school performance.  While questions remain, they provide an important contribution to a timely topic.  This book provides empirically based insight about the school choice debate and is worthy of our attention.” 
Slate - David Kirp
“A powerful blow against the central premise that students at charter and voucher schools get a better education than their public school counterparts.”
Boston Review - Jeffrey Aaron Snyder
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.”
Oregonian - Glenn Altschuler
“Their data-driven argument is a valuable contribution to a vitally important topic.” 
School Administrator
“The author’s conclusions make a strong case for the continued investment in public schools and for resisting market-driven approaches.”

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The Public School Advantage




Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08888-4


Conflicting Models for Public Education

Societies based on the idea of liberty have two primary templates for organizing their institutions. For many enterprises, free markets are best suited for advancing both individual and collective interests through the private or nongovernment sectors. For other undertakings, especially those needed to nurture or sustain freedom and individual autonomy, government action is often used to initiate, support, or administer essential services. Each of these organizational models evinces specific advantages for recognizing and meeting the needs and preferences of citizens, and each has its own purview of institutions where it is deemed more appropriate and useful.

And yet, while democratic or bureaucratic "politics" and economic "markets" are often presented as contrasting ideals, the line between these arenas is often less defined than it may first appear, with government action often necessary for supporting effective market mechanisms and private interests frequently playing a pivotal role in the public arena. Indeed, individual institutions themselves—for example, the military or the federal courts—can often include elements of both politics and markets, so that there is more of a spectrum than a stark boundary between government action and private economic activity. Some concerns can be addressed largely through one organizational model, while the other plays a lesser, perhaps supporting, role in providing goods and services to citizens in that sector. And it is in the area between pure market and government models—on issues such as health care, transportation, the environment, and education—where the most interesting debates play out on the appropriate and optimal roles of the government and the market in social organization.

Where one model is less effective, the other may serve as a better primary template for organizing institutions. For instance, the free market ideals of voluntary participation and individual choice may not be the best tenets for organizing, say, national security. Instead, collective and coercive government action may be better suited for administering that public good, which all then enjoy. Likewise, government's ability to gather and redistribute resources and enforce equity standards may not be useful in all areas. State control over the media and food production led to disastrous results in the Soviet Bloc; people prefer individual freedom and choice in many areas of their lives, and the aggregate of individual choices can lead to the best outcome when articulated through market mechanisms in many areas. The problem comes when one model systematically fails to produce an important good or service that is placed in its purview, yet there are reasons to resist the obvious remedy of shifting production toward the other model.

That is, there are many examples of "market failure" or "government failure" evident in a number of areas. We all know of instances where the state fails to effectively deliver a service, such as filling potholes or policing the streets. And we know of cases where markets produce drastic inequality in wages or limit access to essential goods based on people's ability to pay. In these cases, people often react by seeking to move the endeavor into the other model. Governments could easily limit CEOs' pay or distribute important goods to the poor, many would claim; and private companies may be better prepared to provide security services, for instance.

In this knee-jerk tendency to look to alternative models, markets have been ascendant in particular in recent years as a means to address the social problems that are increasingly associated with popularly perceived government failure. Problems of government ineffectiveness and social malaise tied to public programs such as welfare help explain why markets have become increasingly paramount, seen as a commonsensical solution to seemingly intractable problems of government ineffectiveness. Whether it is promoting individualized retirement accounts (instead of federally administered Social Security), privatized medical savings accounts (instead of government health insurance programs), or even privatized military services (for functions previously performed by the armed forces), markets make sense on many levels.

The same is true in the area of schools, where market-style organization has an inherent appeal. Particularly in the case of public schools, which—as we will show—are the site of multiple tensions and competing demands, markets represent a very attractive solution because of their apparently neat delineation of producers responding to the needs of consumers, namely, the children. But closer scrutiny of these issues raises important questions about the efficacy of simplistic solutions such as these.

Indeed, the idea of education for all may be the best example of the unforeseen difficulties of moving to a market model. In fact, schools were not always a state function, as is evident in the history of most Western democracies. Instead, they were often left to a range of private providers, including religious, charity, for-profit, and family-based models. Education became a state concern in the United States only when reformers in the nineteenth century argued that a laissez faire approach to education led to too much variation, too much inequality, and not enough access to a service that was crucial to the young republic (and, according to some perspectives, not enough uniformity when the nascent Industrial Revolution required workers with a reliable set of skills and values).

The Continuing Crisis

The U.S. public education system was created because of perceived failures in how schools were suited to respond to social and economic upheaval. Yet, since that time, America's system of public education has seemingly been in a chronic state of crisis. Reports on the state of the public schools are familiar to anyone concerned about the quality of U.S. education:

• In New York City, "only 24 per cent of 1135 tenth graders tested for arithmetic performed at their grade level;" half of the students performed at a sixth grade level.

• The nation suffers from a shortage of qualified teachers: "One out of every seven teachers in this country cannot meet even the minimum requirements."

• Teachers are underpaid, and the U.S. education system, once the envy of the world, is falling further behind its global competitors.

• Even the students who make it through this failing system are notably unprepared for college—a solid majority of college freshman cannot identify even the most famous U.S. presidents.

So the failure of America's public education system threatens not only to induce economic decline: as one report concluded, "Our democracy is at stake."

Interestingly, these seemingly dead-on indictments were all leveled before the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 and even before the 1954 Supreme Court called for the end of a two-tiered education system. Yet those students and teachers were also part of the "greatest generation," which produced unparalleled economic growth, extended democratic rights, developed incredible technical innovations, and spread prosperity like never before (or since). Were the critics wrong?

While we do not pretend to answer that question, the familiarity and resonance of these admonitions about the state of public education illustrate that anxiety regarding the state of public schools is not new. Such crisis factoids have always been popular with reform advocates seeking to advance their own policy agendas. As Meredith Wilson comically illustrated in his 1957 slice of Americana, The Music Man, Americans may not be motivated to buy into change unless they see signs of substantial trouble, especially in their own backyards. Economist Milton Friedman made the same causal connection regarding the potential of an apparent crisis to effect drastic changes in social policy: "only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change."

In fact, continued concerns about school quality and inequality led to major efforts to improve education, including the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Great Society programs such as Head Start and Title 1, where the federal government directed unprecedented resources toward education starting in the 1960s. Yet consternation about America's educational performance has only intensified since then. The fact that the warnings of the 1940s and 1950s reverberate so clearly now only strengthens the claim that these immense and expensive efforts have done little to turn around a stagnant public education system.

Now a new generation of reformers has taken up the familiar refrain of failure in public education, noting, for instance, that no country currently spends more on education but gets less in the way of results. These reformers raise the alarm when U.S. students score near or at the bottom in international rankings or when results on some standardized tests appear to be stagnant. In view of this widespread mediocrity, it should be no surprise that every year well over one million students quit school; some critics note that actual graduation rates vary from 60% to only 70% across states, with students in some urban areas just as likely to graduate as to flee these "dropout factories." While billions have been spent on marquee social programs such as Title I for poor children, we are told that fewer than six of ten high school graduates can read at a level necessary to succeed in daily life.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the gaps in achievement between rich and poor children, and between white and minority students, are stubbornly persistent in a nation that holds education as the primary route to equal opportunity. A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education supposedly broke down legal barriers to equitable educational opportunity, the typical African American student was still scoring below 75%–85% of white students on standardized tests. In the eighth grade, fewer than one out of twenty English language learners can read at a proficient level. The litany of such concerns has been so constant for so long that the crisis in public education is now a permanent attribute of the educational landscape in the United States. Parents, policymakers, employers, and taxpayers all see good reasons to demand vastly improved outcomes from the school system.

And reformers have been trying many things. Just as earlier generations tried to fix the schools with a plethora of new curricula, resources, and programs, the chronic concern with the state of American education has spawned a slew of new efforts at the local, state, and national levels. Theoreticians, policy analysts, columnists, and corporate CEOs have all advanced various plans to improve America's schools. Some of these are quite specific, focusing on a particular pedagogical approach such as phonics-based reading or block scheduling to reconfigure instructional time. Others are grander in scale, such as whole-school reform packages, the No Child Left Behind legislation, or efforts to universalize prekindergarten education.

In view of the constant flow of reforms directed at schools, contrasted with the generations of failure, it is hardly surprising that people lose patience with the constant tinkering around the edges. Indeed, in light of the myriad short-lived and misguided reform efforts, many observers suggest that K-12 education in America may be deteriorating not only in spite of, but at least partly because of, this barrage of often misguided efforts to improve public schools. That is, instead of concentrating on imparting core academic skills to the next generation, some worry that educators are too distracted by the next new thing, whether it be "professional development schools" or whole-language instruction or multicultural education or Reading First.

And the apparent failure of massive reform efforts to spur substantive change in a system "institutionally opposed to significant structural reform" has fueled a new generation of reformers who look to change the structures of the system itself. These policy advocates point to persistent evidence of public school failure in advancing an agenda structured around choice and competition—giving families the option of attending a private school or using competitive pressures associated with private schools to force public schools to improve. They have forcefully moved beyond the considerable evidence on the substantial difficulties of educating at-risk children to focus on school and teacher accountability—arguing that educators too often fall back on demographics as an excuse, when we now have models from the charter sector that demonstrate that poor children can learn if given the effective instruction that is apparently evident in private schools. The watershed 1990 book, Politics, Markets and America's Schools, from Brookings scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe is still probably the most articulate and compelling statement of the problems and root remedies for public education since Milton Friedman published his proposal for vouchers in the 1950s. They identified politicized governance—"direct democratic control"—as the institutional flaw of American public education and presented empirical evidence on market mechanisms of choice, competition, and school autonomy as the panacea for lagging school performance.

Politics, Science, Markets, and School Failure

Once only on the periphery of education reform, the insight from Chubb and Moe on the structural problems in public education has gained prominence in its appeal as an alternative perspective for inducing fundamental change in schooling. This idea is premised on the notion that the public education system is inherently incapable of improving itself. According to this line of thought, and echoing Ronald Reagan about government in general, these "existing institutions cannot solve the problem, because they are the problem." Wave after wave of ultimately unsuccessful reforms demonstrate that schools resist and repel even the best, most well-intentioned efforts at substantive change.

In the 1970s, radical scholars argued that, like it or not, this is exactly the way that the system is supposed to function in a market society. According to this "social reproduction" perspective, schooling is an institution in capitalist society that perpetuates social and economic advantages for elites. Since a hierarchical economic structure needs a certain number of people to fill less prestigious and less rewarding positions, schools serve the role of sorting students based on their social class origins or race or gender and not on their actual abilities. Consequently, although schools may go through the motions, adopting the rhetoric and symbols of reform in order to maintain their popular legitimacy, they in fact avoid substantive efforts to make education more effective, since increasing equitable outcomes would actually undermine their true function.

In more recent times, theorists of quite a different ideological bent have also argued that the institutions of schooling are structured to resist substantive change. Reforming the internal policies and processes of schools will not go very far, according to these self-avowed "market theorists." Contemporary curriculum and instructional practices reflect a remarkable continuity with earlier eras because, unlike schools in the private sector, public schools themselves have no incentive to become more innovative or responsive to the needs of students. Educators may half-heartedly adopt ideas that could work, only to cast them aside when the next fad appears. More likely, they may adopt nominal changes to please their bureaucratic supervisors but will continue doing what they always do once the classroom door is closed. So the strategy of targeting the internal processes of public schools is destined to fail because the external environment—the institutional framework in which schools have operated—essentially inhibits real change, according to this logic. Rather than focusing on educating children, these institutions are instead geared toward serving the needs of powerful interest groups, most notably the teachers unions in the current expressions of this thinking. To change public schools, these theorists argue that we need to change that institutional framework in ways that encourage schools to adopt the more effective educational practices that drive the private school sector.

At least that is the logic of the reform agenda we examine in this book. However, the evidence presented later in this volume suggests that market models may also face challenges owing to the complexities and uniqueness of education as a social endeavor; in fact, market mechanisms such as deregulation or greater autonomy for schools may even be causing some of the problems they are purported to address. Indeed, Americans put multiple (and often conflicting) responsibilities on their public schools by enabling schools to avoid effective practices in response to misguided market demand. America's schools are supposed to promote social tolerance, train students in employable skills, provide nutrition, teach social skills, offer athletic programs, and boost academic achievement. And the idea of public education means doing all this and more for very diverse groups of people who often have very different conceptions about what schools should be doing and how they should be doing it. Few would say that public schools are succeeding at these multiple missions. Indeed, market theorists offer a cogent and compelling critique of the myriad failures of public schools, but we will see that it is not at all clear that market models would do any better in this regard. In light of this potpourri of demands on public schools, the question that has emerged as the central consideration is whether public schools can still "work" in enhancing academic outcomes for diverse students.

Excerpted from The Public School Advantage by CHRISTOPHER A. LUBIENSKI, SARAH THEULE LUBIENSKI. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Christopher A. Lubienski is professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is coeditor of The Charter School Experiment: Expectations, Evidence, and Implications and School Choice Policies and Outcomes: Empirical and Philosophical PerspectivesSarah Theule Lubienski is professor of education and associate dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Public schools are TERRIBLE! You don't learn for beans, most teachers have no idea how to teach (although there are a few that are really good at their job), and getting a good education has been going downhill lately. Go to good private school.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Public school is the worst way to learn.