The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools
Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski
University of Chicago Press, $50 (cloth)

Would it surprise you to learn that students attending traditional, district-run public schools outperform their peers in charter schools and private schools?

That is the bold claim at the heart of Christopher and Sarah Lubienski’s new book, The Public School Advantage. The author’s extensive analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative datasets produced results that run counter to both “common wisdom and the research consensus.” Conventional wisdom—spread by leading educational reformers, politicians of all stripes, and the editorial pages of major newspapers—assumes that charters are academically superior.And for twenty-five years, researchers have largely agreed that private school students, too, fare better academically than do their public school counterparts. This finding even has a name: the “private school effect.”

Private school students do, in fact, score better on tests, but the authors wanted to figure out if this advantage is a genuine marker of superior education in private schools or simply an artifact of the more privileged backgrounds of the students who attend them. To answer this question, the Lubienskis decided to analyze math achievement scores. Math, they explain, is an especially good indicator of school effectiveness because it is a subject “learned primarily in school, as compared with other subjects, such as reading, which tend to be more heavily influenced by students’ experiences at home.” The authors examined two main datasets—a longitudinal study of more than 20,000 students who started kindergarten in the fall of 1998; and the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which surveyed more than 300,000 fourth and eighth graders. (Known as the “nation’s report card,” the NAEP is widely regarded as the gold standard in student-achievement research.)

Using sophisticated analytical tools with names that only a statistician could love—hierarchical linear modeling, multivariate regression—the authors conclude that the private-school effect is a myth. After accounting for the demographic differences among different school sector populations, traditional public school students performed just as well in math as did their private school peers. In grade four, public school students actually outpaced their demographically similar peers in private schools. Furthermore, the Lubienskis discover that even though private school children arrive in kindergarten a little bit more academically prepared than their public school peers, public school students make up the difference over the course of elementary school. Call it the public school effect.

Echoing the results of other major research studies, the Lubienskis report that traditional public schools also hold a slight edge over charters, which are roughly comparable demographically, although charters enroll a larger proportion of African American students. It remains an open question, however, whether charters offer a superior education to specific student populations. While the authors find no evidence that charters provide a better education for particular student groups, this year’s study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes suggests that students in poverty, especially poor African American students, and English language learners may enjoy more learning gains in charters.

The Lubienskis leverage their findings to take on the basic assumptions of market-driven educational reform. While they are initially hesitant to dismiss reforms inspired by the private sector, their conviction grows over the course of the book, such that by the last chapter they state flatly that market-based educational reform is “increasingly a belief system rather than a policy theory.”

There is no better spokesperson for the bedrock beliefs of market-based educational reformers than Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor. Public education is “essentially a government-run monopoly,” Klein wrote in The Atlantic, stating concisely the position of today’s market-oriented reformers:

Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

Lamenting the lack of accountability in the public education system, Klein called for a “full-scale transition” to a “competitive marketplace” in which business practices and principles would govern public schools.

We are living in an era in which the solution is always markets, but competition among schools does not always lead to improved education.

The Lubienskis maintain that we are living in an era in which the allure of markets is “irresistible”; it doesn’t matter what the problem is—the solution is always markets. Consequently we tend to compare the private sector with the public sector in Manichean terms. Where the private sector is lean, the public sector is bloated. Where the private sector is nimble, the public sector is slow. Over the last several decades, we have turned to the private sector to fulfill a wide range of public services, from corrections and national security to transportation and firefighting. So it should not be surprising that recent school reform measures have been dominated by market-based strategies such as vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay for teachers.

The three pillars of the market strategy, according to the Lubienskis, are choice, competition, and autonomy.

The theory behind expanding choice is that when you give parents a say in deciding where to send their children to school, they will choose the school of the highest academic caliber.Parents are rational consumers who will make informed decisions about the quality of different educational “products,” that is, schools.If parents are not satisfied with a particular school, they will send their child to a different one.

But parents, the Lubienskis report, seldom make school choice decisions based solely on academic considerations. Parents frequently rely on factors that have no bearing on academic quality, including a school’s proximity, its racial composition and religious orientation, even whether it has a uniform policy. Market theory predicts that underperforming schools will close due to a lack of demand, but a school’s popularity turns out to be a poor proxy for its academic success. Consider the hundreds of “failing” charter schools across the country that remain open and well-attended.

With respect to competition, the idea is to unleash the natural powers of the marketplace, spurring schools on to “greater effectiveness, efficiency and innovation.” I suspect that for most Americans, this is an appealing and sensible proposition. Alas, the Lubienskis contend, competition among schools does not typically lead to serious and sustained efforts to improve core educational functions. Rather, the data show that schools in competitive environments tend to invest more resources in screening out lower-performing students whose sub-par test scores would damage the school’s academic reputation, or they spend more money on marketing in order to keep their enrollment numbers up. Neither of these two common responses to market pressures is desirable for a public institution devoted to universal access and the common good. Consider the competitive marketplace of for-profit higher education. The former director of the University of Phoenix reported that for-profit colleges tend to spend approximately a quarter of their revenue on sales and marketing, while dedicating only 10–20 percent to faculty salaries. Do we really want K–12 public education to follow that model?

What the Lubienskis call “incentivism” is at the core of efforts to introduce more competition into the public school system—efforts largely committed to boosting test scores. Standardized testing has become the linchpin of modern educational reform. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, the fate of individual schools rests on their ability to make “adequate yearly progress” on tests. Schools that consistently fail to meet their targets can be reorganized, re-staffed, and even shut down. Teachers and administrators are increasingly seeing their performance evaluations tied to student test scores, with some school districts offering generous bonuses when scores zoom ahead.

On incentives, the authors overlook the potential of carrots, such as merit pay, and sticks, such as school closures, to encourage bad behavior, but the impact can be significant. Hundreds of school districts across the country have been flagged for possible cheating as a result of test score gains about as statistically probable as winning the lottery. An abbreviated list of districts facing serious allegations of cheating includes Detroit, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Houston, and St. Louis.This year in Atlanta, 2009 National Superintendent of the Year Beverly Hall—who earned more than half a million dollars in performance bonuses during her tenure—was indicted along with thirty-four other educators after an investigation found evidence of widespread and systematic cheating. Teachers and administrators allegedly changed tens of thousands of test answers. Too few serious investigations have been undertaken to really get at the full scope of the cheating problem, but it clearly goes beyond the bad-apples thesis expressed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other defenders of test-based accountability.

Public school teachers are subject to more stringent certification regulations and more frequent professional development and oversight.

The final pillar of market-based reform is autonomy—the notion that charter and private schools have an operational advantage over traditional public schools because they are not held back by bureaucratic red tape and special interests such as teacher unions. The only two school-level variables the Lubienskis found were consistently positive predictors of student achievement were teacher certification and reliance on instructional practices informed by professional guidelines, both of which directly pertain to the issue of autonomy and both of which are more prevalent in traditional public schools. In an argument that would drive Klein and company to distraction, the authors suggest that because public school teachers are subject to more stringent certification regulations as well as more frequent professional development and oversight, they end up being more plugged into recent advances in curriculum and instruction, such as the new pedagogical approaches developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. On the vaunted independence of private schools, where teachers have more freedom to decide both what and how they will teach, the Lubienskis conclude, “Instead of promoting instructional innovation, we find that private school autonomy can lead to curricular stagnation.”

• • •

Market-oriented reformers are convinced that where students come from is irrelevant, as long as they have access to high-quality schools guided by private sector principles. It is thus important to underscore the significance of student demographics, which account for the overwhelming majority of variation in achievement levels; indeed, the kinds of schools students attend account for less than 10 percent of the variation in their test scores. Given this, the authors of Public School Advantage might have spent more time explaining why background factors are so strongly correlated with academic achievement. They assume it is sufficient to assert that “more advantaged” students enjoy more academic success. But while it is readily apparent how learning disabilities and limited English proficiency result in lower test scores,it is not immediately obvious why higher socioeconomic status boosts test scores. More access to books, high-quality health care, “cultural capital,” etc.? The relationship between class and academic achievement is a subject that inspires rollicking debate in educational policy circles and ought not be ignored here.

Public School Advantage, I’m afraid, will not be picked up by the casual reader. In addition to a heavy dose of statistics, the prose sometimes suffers from the reach-for-the-highest-register tendencies of academic writing (why use “show” when you could substitute “evince”?). And the review of market theory, which is characterized by excessive repetition of definitions and key points, reads more like an introductory textbook than a monograph. More substantively, the authors’ analysis often has a schematic quality to it. With the exception of a brief section on think tanksthey have constructed a policy world largely bereft of reformers, interest groups, and politics—a strangely arid and unpopulated landscape. The authors make glancing references to key pieces of educational legislation, but a more nuanced and extensive discussion of No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s more recent Race to the Top initiative would have been helpful.

In spite of these limitations, 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.