"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The "P" Word

The stealth campaign to dismantle public education continues unabated, even though there are signs that the privatization discussion is seeping into larger rivulets of the mainstream media. Chicago's schools are under a direct and frontal assault led by the mayor, himself, as documented each month in George Schmidt's Substance Newsletter.

Here is a recent example of the emerging discussion from the Chicago Sun Times:

Privatization is no answer to improving education
February 4, 2006


One of the most contentious issues in the school funding reform debate has little to do with finances. Sure, critics maintain that schools don't need more money to provide a better education. Increasingly, however, the main argument against reforming public education funding focuses on how broken the system is, rather than the cost of fixing it. In essence, critics claim the public school system is a bureaucratic dinosaur so stifled by regulations and lack of innovation that it's incapable of delivering a high-quality education, regardless of funding level.

Under this line of thinking, privatization is the key to better schools. Since private schools compete for students, they're compelled by the market to provide the quality education consumers demand. To support their claims, privatization advocates note that private-school students consistently outperform public school students on National Assessment of Education Progress tests. So, rather than waste additional revenue on enhancing public education, the most efficient use of taxpayer money is supporting more school choice, through public funding of private and charter schools. The resulting competition will force public schools to improve.

But what if the theory's fundamental premise -- that private schools outperform public schools -- is wrong? Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski, University of Illinois professors, recently tested that premise in the most comprehensive study of relative performance of public vs. private school students. The full study, which analyzed National Assessment of Education Progress math test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, is available online at //www.ncspe.org.// What separates this study is that for the first time, the research controlled for the role demographics such as student socioeconomic status, English proficiency, disability, race/ethnicity, gender and school location play in student achievement.

The study's main finding is eye-opening: Demographic differences between students in public and private schools more than account for the relatively high raw scores of private schools. According to Christopher, after factoring in demographic differences, ''the advantageous private-school effect completely disappears, and even reverses in most cases, seriously calling into question the common wisdom that private schools provide a better education than public schools.''

Sarah notes the research team didn't expect this result. ''I went to a private, conservative Christian school and had no preconceived bias on the issue. I just wanted to mine the data to create an accurate, comprehensive picture.'' Mission accomplished. The study analyzed more than 190,000 fourth-graders in 7,485 schools and more than 153,000 eighth-graders in 6,092 schools. In each instance, the number of students studied was 10 times greater than previous research. The study analyzed math rather than reading scores, because children primarily learn math in school, whereas most learn some reading at home. Hence, math better isolates the impact of the school on achievement.

The bottom line is clear. Private schools have students that come from better backgrounds, more affluence and have more home academic resources than public school students. Once those factors are considered, public school students outperform their private school peers. This means public schools are especially adept at educating the students who are most difficult to teach. It also means the fundamental basis of the argument in favor of privatization -- that the competitive market produces a better education -- is wrong. Yet, the assumption that market forces compel private schools to demonstrate better academic performance than public schools remains valid. That's how a private school differentiates itself and attracts tuition-paying students.

What proponents of privatization failed to consider is that private schools can attain better test score results in two ways. First is doing a better job of educating children. But it's very difficult (and expensive) to educate at-risk kids who come from concentrated poverty, have special needs, or aren't fluent in English. Far easier and much less expensive to attract students who are more likely to achieve academically and avoid those difficult to teach. Effectively, private-sector forces compel private schools to recruit top students, because it is the most cost-effective way to produce top scores. There's no incentive to design an education that can reach students who are difficult to teach, because there's no profit to be made from teaching poor kids.

Ironically, this was predicted by Adam Smith, the father of capitalism. In his seminal work, /The Wealth of Nations, /Smith called for the public sector to assume responsibility for educating the general public. In Smith's words, ''The education of common people requires, in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the state.'' Smith supported public education for ''common'' folks because they couldn't afford private schools. He contrasted that with the position of individuals of ''rank and fortune,'' because their parents are ''willing enough to lay out the expense necessary'' to educate them.

The data show that Smith was right. When it comes to educating the public, nothing works better than public schools.

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company
Unfortunately, Martire's statement that "there is no profit to be made in teaching poor kids" shows that he needs to familiarize himself with Whittle's corporate socialist model.

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