An Interview with Christopher A. Lubienski: Do Public Schools Outperform Private Schools?

Dec 7, 2013 by

9780226088914Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Dr. Lubienski, first of all can you tell us about yourself, your education and experience in education?

Thank you for your questions, Dr. Shaughnessy.

I’m a parent, as well as a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, where I study the political economy of education. I also have an appointment at Murdoch University in Western Australia, where I’m collaborating with a colleague on an international study of factors that shape student enrollment patterns in different countries, and looking at how schools respond to competition and choice in serving students. This is also something I have also examined in New Zealand, where I had a Fulbright award to study that choice system.

As far as my own education, and that of our children… this is something we discuss in the book, so I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say that I have experience in — and have supported both — public and private schools. I don’t have any particular antipathy toward either type of school.

2) Now, the title of your book is “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools“. How long did it take to write and where did you get your data from?

Quite a while. Sarah and I first started down this line of inquiry in about 2005, using federal datasets, and we’ve been working on it, on and off, since then. We started working on the book around 2011.

3) What kinds of data were collected?

These are nationally representative data collected by the federal government, together encompassing about one-third of a million students. The datasets include comprehensive information on mathematics achievement, school factors, and family background factors. We focus on math because that is generally thought to be the best measure of school effects. This is important because we are trying to determine how much of an impact different types of schools have, as opposed to family influences, since the types of families served in different school sectors are often quite different.

4) What time frame or period was the data collected?

We describe this in the book, but we’re looking at the federal NAEP data from 2003 on 4th and 8th graders, as well as the ECLS data that followed children starting kindergarten in 1998, through their 5th grade year. So we’re focused on school impacts particularly during the elementary years, since social factors will not have yet had as much of a confounding effect.

5) Now, I suspect that many catholic, parochial schools, private schools do not necessarily collect any data- Am I off on this?

But enough do that we can get representative samples for each type of school. A number of schools declined to participate, and enough suitable replacements were found. In fact, some types of schools are over-sampled to make sure that the data are representative. Still, there are times when some of the data for some schools aren’t reported, in which case we are able to use statistical methods to impute missing data in ways that are considered in the research community to be useful and appropriate.

6) In your mind, what is the penultimate goal of a high school? To get the student into college or make them into a good honest citizen, or something else?

Penultimate, or ultimate?

I think the primary goal of public education is to prepare citizens to live responsibly in a democratic society. So, of course, test scores are simply one measure of the effectiveness of schools — a narrow one, but somewhat useful considering that test scores are the metric highlighted by policymakers for determining the success of the various education reforms they are promoting.

7) I have been dealing with statistics and sample size inequality for years- so I know that comparing an “n” of 400 to an “n“ of 40 presents problems- or am I off on this ?

Only if those samples are not representative, and, of course, you have to notice if the patterns you’re then seeing are statistically significant. Having a small sample size makes it more difficult to see statistically significant differences, but there is not necessarily a problem with comparing different-sized samples.

8) Have you found that EVERY public school in every state in the United States outperforms private schools?

No, we’re looking at nationally representative data. These are broad averages. Thus, the findings speak less to the effectiveness of any individual school, and more to policymakers’ assumptions about the inherent strengths and weaknesses of different types of schools. And this later issue is of particular interest because so much of the current crop of education reforms advances from the assumption that public schools are inherently inferior, and that parents should move their children to independent or non-public options. These data don’t support that claim.

9) For the purposes of this book- how did you operationally define “private“ schools?

Those categories are defined in the federal databases. I think in most cases they’re pretty obvious to most people: Catholic, Lutheran, and other such schools are private.

10) Certainly, private schools do not provide speech/language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and many do not provide Special Education. How do all these things enter into the equation?

We take into account special education designations in the analyses. It’s noteworthy, but not surprising, that students with special needs are under-represented in private and charter schools.

11) Are there any private schools (Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish) that come close to public schools?

Lutheran schools are the highest performing type of private school in this study.

12) Have you found that public schools are closing the “achievement gap“ any better than private schools ? Or was this not part of your investigation?

Past findings of a “private school effect” have been based on the claim that underserved students get a particular benefit from private schools. More recently, though, our analyses, as well as those of other researchers, are not finding any special effect for these students.

13) A lot of your work uses multiple regression to predict achievement. Let’s take one area-math. What have you found?

We found that, once we take into consideration the observable background factors known to influence achievement, student demographics more than explain any apparent advantage in the raw scores of private school students. In short, students in private schools get higher raw scores, but that’s a reflection of the fact that those students tend to be more advantaged. When you compare similar students, you find that public schools typically provide more academic growth.

14) It would seem that job security may have a lot to do with student achievement- or perhaps time in the job. Any insights in that area?

Are you asking about teachers’ job security, or a student’s future labor prospects? One of the best predictors of increased student achievement was teacher preparation / certification, which is more prevalent in public schools.

15) Let’s talk free markets—I can buy a new car- a Chevy, a Ford, A Toyota, A Nissan or even a BMW. But can every single parent choose where to send their child to school?

No, there are natural constraints on a family’s ability to choose, such as proximity and transportation, for instance. Very few people are talking about truly free markets in education. The real question is whether moves towards more market-style mechanisms would lead to a more effective system overall. Our data suggest that it wouldn’t and, in fact, there are serious problems built into quasi-market models that use choice, autonomy and competition. Schools often use greater autonomy in competitive environments not to improve curriculum and instruction, but to hold on to outdated curriculum and instructional approaches, to move resources away from the classroom into marketing, and to attract “better” students.

16) What have I neglected to ask?

It’s important to point out that these findings come at a time when we’re seeing a bi-partisan, even global push toward a wider, more comprehensive use of markets throughout society under the assumption that the private sector is necessarily better. We see this, for instance, in national and public security, health care, and even social services. Yet our findings call into question the assumption that the public sector inherently underperforms.

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