Public Education is Winning

By diderot

October 6, 2018

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ook, everyone understands that public school teachers are failing their students due to outside forces they can’t control—bureaucratic mandates­ that define what they can and can’t teach, and monolithic unions that protect their weakest members, undermining the work of the best.  Fortunately, we live in a time when instruction in private and (especially) charter schools is free to experiment with what really serves students best.  Those results show in the test scores, and the lessons are spreading, thanks to the deep pockets and innovative approaches of benefactors like the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Fund.

If you find yourself here nodding your head in agreement—stop right now.  Every word of that preceding paragraph is untrue   The fact of the matter is that public schools are winning in the quality of its educators.    

And if you’re open to reading along, you’ll find out how.


ow do you judge which schools are best?  When you propose fuzzy concepts in education like “well-rounded” or “learning to interact with others not like you” or “teaching kids what the real world is like”, bias is bound to rear its subjective head.  We live in a world of data analysis, so the data analysts decided the only way to truly measure the quality of an education is to boil away everything except the basics—core subject proficiencies.  And of those, they particularly like math, since 2+2=4 in every language and in every classroom. 

Testing core proficiencies can be done in two ways: as a “snapshot in time”, measuring how all kids are doing among different types of schools in an identical time period; and longitudinally, which follows an individual’s learning growth across many years.  Logically, longitudinal makes the most sense, but it takes a lot more time and money, so there aren’t nearly as much data.

But either way, if data analysis is the bottom line, let’s go with that. 

et’s take a test

Before we get into the latest results, let’s talk about some of the tangential issues that animate the heated arguments between advocates for public schools (yes, there still are such people)…those pressing for more public funding for charter schools (whether independently run by communities or private businesses)…and those demanding tax-funded vouchers allowing kids to attend fully private schools of any type. 

I’m going to ask you to respond to a few popular arguments on education.  (Because most of us are at least a few years out of school, let’s just make it true/false to save any embarrassment.)  Here goes:

1)     “People with real money are going to spend some of it (maybe a LOT of it) educating their kids.  That means private school kids are better prepared when they start school…they attend schools with more advantages and fewer negative classroom/outside influences…therefore score better…and get into the best colleges.”

A: True!

But maybe not to the degree you think. Here’s the proviso: if you equate “private” only with that elite prep school in your area where only the very richest kids attend (think Brett Kavanaugh), you’re defining it too narrowly.  The manic preoccupation of wealthier parents to prepare even their preschoolers to get into Harvard is only one of three basic motivations that keep kids out of public schools.  The other two are: assuring a religious or cultural overlay on what their kids learn; or third, keeping kids away from the “bad influences” in the local public school. 

The “bad influence” consideration is most pronounced south of the Mason-Dixon line, where sufficiently wealthy white parents seek private “academies” with no students “not like” their own kids.

The overall profile of religious education in America is changing, with fewer students being enrolled in Catholic schools, while conservative Christian schools are the fastest growing segment in K-12 education.  And conservative Christian schools are also—in many respects—the lowest performing in America.

Consequently, the overall academic performance of all forms of private schools may not be what you think. 

2)     “Come on, don’t dance around the facts—minority students do much worse than white kids.”

A: Well, true--and not true. 

The lowest performing cohort is poverty-level minority kids, especially African American ones. But the defining emphasis here is on the income metric, not the skin color.  It appears that money doesn’t just talk--it also teaches. So insert ‘poor’ for ‘minority’ in this statement, and you get much closer to the truth.

3)     “Public schools are riddled with bad actors and bad environments that keep kids from learning.”

A: Well, to a degree this is also true. 

Public schools report higher-than-normal students experiencing poverty, chemical abuse, threats and crime.  (Note: this is not to say these students ARE drug abusers or criminals—only that these are more common factors in their lives.)  The atmosphere in public school classrooms ranges from wonderful to awful, with the bottom end existing for a very clear reason.  Unlike private, independent and charter schools, it is much harder to expel a truly disruptive student from public schools.  That happens freely in charter and private schools.  And in those cases, guess where the rejected wind up?  Right—in public schools. Public school teachers are put further behind the eight ball. (Public school districts often offer alternative schools, for truly disruptive individuals.) 

But despite what we all thought we learned about gritty public schools in Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver, or Welcome Back, Kotter, attending a public school is neither inherently life-threatening, nor necessarily different.  Kids are kids, and good principals and teachers run good classrooms everywhere. 

4)     “But charter schools do everything better, which is born out in data demonstrating that fact.”

A: Entirely false.

I know this is hard to accept—just look at all those glowing news stories!   Actually, it turns out that there is a single area where charter schools do excel—PR.  A recent example is an opinion piece last year in Newsweek that proclaimed, “the debate is over.  Charter high schools are equal to or better than their traditional peers.  It’s a fact”.

No, it isn’t.  It’s a lie. 

This opinion was co-authored by a woman who’s president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (She’s also worked for a private education company and the right-wing Heritage Foundation.)  The not-so-hidden goal in charter school PR is diverting public money into private educational corporations which run many of these schools.  And this process can get particularly odious.  One guy in Arizona used public funds to build his charter school…then sold the school and kept the profits.  The guy is a state legislator.

The danger is clear: once you accept the shift of public dollars to private charter school operators, the next step gets easier—funneling those same public dollars as ‘vouchers’ to pay tuition to even the wealthiest or most cockamamie private schools. But that’s a separate rant.

Let’s get back to data analysis and explore where common conclusions are wrong.


he Numbers

To an overwhelming extent, charter schools base their academic claims on relatively small studies done more than 25 years ago. This is what fueled media attention on charter schools in the first place. 

But there are much richer, more detailed recent findings.  In 2003, one huge survey sampled more than 300,000 students on mathematical proficiency in fourth and eighth grades in all types of schools.  It separated findings for public, charter, Catholic, Lutheran, Conservative Christian and “other private” schools.  Not only was it wide, but it began to add necessary depth. It incorporated factors like racial composition, income levels, the educational environment in the home, school size, and region of the country. 

For the first time, it proved things many public school advocates had long asserted—there are considerably lower rates of minority students attending all forms of private schools.  And also, significantly lower percentages of lower income students of any race in those same private schools.  Plus, fewer special needs kids, or those where English was not primarily spoken in the home. In other words, public schools begin with a decided academic disadvantage in student population.  (It should be pointed out that separate from the ‘all private’ school category, charter schools had the highest percentage of minority and poor students.)

This massive study did have one drawback.  It was one of those “point in time” snapshots, not demonstrating how students got to their level of their academic achievement, or where they might be going. 

In any case, the raw findings, in one sense, are not surprising—overall, private schools reported a discernable (but not huge) scoring advantage over the average public school.  But another finding was not expected: charter schools lagged behind public schools.  Again, this all came from the topline findings. 

But after all the variables were baked in and everything was equalized, things got really interesting.  The findings for all types of religious schools, and the “other” private schools, plummeted to levels clearly below the typical fourth grade public school student. (A ten point difference below equals about one grade level):


The difference was nearly the same for eighth graders.  (However, charter schools, which fell noticeably below the public schools in fourth grade, effectively matched their public counterparts in eighth grade.)

On whole, when public schools educate the same type of child as private and charter schools, they do a better job.  Academic research from Stanford and Notre Dame showed the same thing.  There is no question that some charter schools are doing great work.  But overall, many of their proponents bury their heads in the sand and cite suspect research that is outdated and sometimes even laughable. Let me repeat—public schools are teaching better.

Want added proof?  There’s another even more significant data set.  Remember the idea of a “longitudinal” survey, following the same students during their academic careers?  It’s the gold standard, and one such survey began back in 1998.  While it only tabulated three subsets— “public”, “Catholic” and “private”—the results are telling.  (Charter schools were not part of this study.)

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The testing began as the kids entered kindergarten.  Here public school and Catholic school kids started about even in the blocks, but private school kids had “a couple months” head start in learning.  (Each number above roughly equates to a month’s difference in learning.) This was to be expected, as private schools typically serve students from more affluent homes, with kids frequently coming from the best preschool programs.

By fifth grade—the taller bars in the graph—things had changed.  Public school students had fully caught up with their private school peers…and left Catholic school counterparts half a year behind.  Put another way, public schools (and their teachers) were shown to be doing a better job of educating American kids.

That’s the fact.

n their seminal work, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, authors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski meticulously scrubbed the data to reveal as close to a true apples-to-apples comparison as has ever been done.  Then they considered the findings in light of the supposed advantages of “free market competition” and “autonomous schooling” espoused by charter schools.  Their conclusion:

“The dual remedies of autonomy and competition are fraught with their own difficulties when applied to the real world of education. According to our data, not only may autonomy and competition not work as well as reformers have promised, but they may make matters worse.”  

But wait, how could this possibly be true?  By definition, parents who take the time and/or pay the money to place their kids in private or charter schools are self-selecting for academic excellence, right?  These parents care about education, which is seen as a built-in advantage.  On the other hand, many public school kids come from families where parents have not or could not explore school alternatives for a wide variety of reasons.  In any case, in order to prove that those kids in public schools are getting a better education, there better be a good reason. 

And here it is.

o put it simply, it’s the teaching!

Are public school teachers smarter?  More dedicated?  Infinitely loving? I don’t know. Your results may vary.  But on whole, they are better teachers. 

Here’s one central reason—they’re far more likely to be certified.  In other words, they had to pass a test to prove they know what they’re doing.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  I mean, people typically need to be certified to charge for applying your nail polish.   There are some sixty (60) different studies that point to the correlation between teacher qualification and student scores. 

For the record, here are the percentages of certification for American schools as gathered by National Association of Educational Progress:

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That chart tells a story by itself. But there’s an added aspect. Public school teachers are typically much more involved in their own ongoing professional education…learning and often adopting new ways of getting lessons across to kids. In the business world, this is called adopting best practices.

Thus, this is a telling irony.  Teaachers in religious, charter and private schools are purportedly free to “experiment” and “innovate”. But in many cases, this simply translates to being ‘free’ to use the old fashioned, tried-and-true ways that many parents beleive are best.

But if public schools are doing it better…are the experts listening?

Not so much.

edication does not equal success.

As mentioned previously, there are people with incredible amounts of money and power who are sincerely trying to make education better.  At the top of that list, of course, is Betsy DeVos, the federal Secretary of Education—who is not sincere at all.  She cares as much about public schools as I care about her.  She is the pampered daughter of a very rich man who married the son of another very rich man (her father-in-law is the guy who invented Amway).  She is the product of a private Christian high school and the right-wing Christian Calvin College, learning without ever leaving her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She’s also a longtime donor to and advocate for Republican politics, especially those entities supporting charter schools and the issuance of taxpayer-funded vouchers to kids to attend private schools. 

Betsy has never spent a day of her life learning in a public school.

Near the other end of the political spectrum are Pacific Northwest notables Bill and Melinda Gates.  They have invested tens of millions of dollars in failed educational initiatives, and recently announced yet another new focus for their educational investing.  Eventually something has to work, right?

Bill is a graduate of the oh-so-prestigious Lakeside Academy in Seattle, and then did a temporary spell at Harvard.  His wife went to private Catholic girls’ schools in Dallas, then off to Duke, which is located at the intersection of Entitlement Blvd. and Jim Crow Drive.  

Neither Bill nor Melinda has spent a day of life learning in a public school.

But these people—along with the Walmart-funded Walton Family Foundation—are among those willing to spend fortunes to make schools better, especially for low income minority students.  Their effort is commendable—but how would they know?  This is sort of like asking your well-intentioned podiatrist to perform your open-heart surgery.  (Hey, they’re both doctors, right?)

And one has to wonder if the funding history of these billionaires reveals a bias right from the start. The Walton fund has contributed to one of every four charter schools in America.   Gates gave $3 million to fund the initiative that put charter schools on the ballot in Washington State in the first place.  And speaking of Gates, after falling flat on two huge initiatives (smaller schools, and quick adoption of Common Core standards), his foundation then decided maybe the key might be to instruct teachers how to teach better.  That was a total bust, too. 

The foundation was left to recently conclude, “we have taken these lessons to heart, and they are reflected in the work that we’re doing moving forward…”.


n the end, there is a much larger and more compelling issue than specific-grade math scores. The Lubienskis point to the way public schools, beginning in the 1800’s, produced graduates who would possess a certain common baseline of understanding and reasoning…with, “basic skills, attitudes and values.”  That wasn’t a simple process.  In the melting pot of public schools, kids were forced to interact with people not like themselves—they looked different, they had funny names, they didn’t even speak English very well.  But it worked.  Public schools helped build understanding—and American greatness.

So here we are, two centuries later, still expecting common skills, attitudes and values from unaligned schools that teach in vastly different ways:

“Americans still place multiple, diverse and sometimes contradictory responsibilities on their schools.  Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, Americans also ask schools to teach civics, as well as provide programs to counter bullying and teen pregnancy, to support child nutrition and national economic competitiveness, to offer athletic programs and technology training, and to house social services and career counselling.  They ask their schools to nurture civic cohesion…”.

But there is no chance of cohesion when kids are raised in separate bubbles that mandate strict like-mindedness, or enforce a narrow social or racial stratum.  Such kids enter the world unable to see it for what it is.  Along the way, many fail to develop empathy.  The school of hard knocks is replaced by the school of social seclusion. And everyone suffers the consequences.

The jobs of schools—the jobs of teachers—are not easy.  A failure in the classroom is a failure for society.

Maybe we can minimize such failures by emulating the work being done by the best of teachers.

The work being done in public schools.

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