Despite what DeVos wants you to believe, research shows public schools outperform private schools

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by Brian Washington

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As the nation’s new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, promotes the flawed idea that taxpayer dollars should be spent to pay for private school tuition, research proves she, along with many others, is dead wrong to assume that public school students would be better off in private schools.

On Monday, DeVos visited North Carolina’s Fort Bragg Army Base, where our troops’ families are losing education programs because of President Trump’s federal hiring freeze. DeVos thinks private school vouchers should be made available to military families. She’s spreading a similar privatization message today in Florida.

But before heading back to Washington, D.C., DeVos needs to pick up a book by a husband and wife research team that warns policymakers and parents not to assume that a private education is better just because you have to pay for it.

They make the assumption that moving kids from public to private is going to help them, but actually our data and some of the more recent voucher studies suggest the opposite—that it actually has a harmful effect,” said Christopher Lubienski, a researcher with Indiana University.

Lubienski and his wife Sarah, a researcher with the University of Illinois, authored a book entitled, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. The two looked at several early childhood longitudinal studies and data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and found, just like the title says, public schools outperform private schools.

Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski

“When we did the analysis, and we controlled for the fact that there tends to be more affluent parents sending their children to private schools, when you account for those demographics, that more than explains any gaps in achievement. In fact, public schools are actually more effective in teaching mathematics” said Lubienski, who believes math is a better reflection of what’s being taught in schools compared to reading, which is often learned at home.

“This definitely turns the common wisdom on its head, and it undercuts the basic narrative we have around school reform now exemplified in Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump.”

The Lubienskis recently attended a town hall in Nevada, where educators, parents, and lawmakers turned out to hear what they had to say. Education Votes asked Lubienski about educators’ reactions when they hear the findings.

“For some people, they are nodding in agreement because it’s something they already sensed,” said Lubienski. “We’re just looking at nationally recognized data that confirms what they already knew—public schools are doing a better job in a lot of cases.”

So what are the ingredients that go into creating a quality learning environment for students. According to Lubienski, smaller classes sizes matter (no surprise here for educators) but so do demographics. He says students do better when they have a “wealthier peer group”.

Unfortunately, these attributes tend to be found more in private schools. However, Lubienski’s research shows public schools make up for these deficits with teachers who are properly trained and certified.

“That makes a big difference. We’re talking about teachers who have been trained in some of the standards that have been pushed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics,” said Lubienski. “Kids in private schools will tend to talk about math being about memorization and just reciting facts, but less so in public schools. Public school kids tend to think of it more as solving problems and real world applications and that’s a big difference.”

And while educators at private schools report they have greater autonomy, Lubienski believes this could pose a danger to students, leading to segregation and the exclusion of those who are costlier to educate.

“The assumption is that they (private schools) would put more money into the instruction,” said Lubienski. “In fact, we’re seeing they are putting more money into things like marketing.”

Lubienski adds he and his wife’s findings have been replicated by a number of other prominent researchers. So with that being the case, what’s the advice for parents considering private school vouchers?

“Parents chose private schools for a variety of different reasons,” said Lubienski. “But if it’s a matter of choosing them because you assume they are better than public schools, the data simply doesn’t bear that out.”

Reader Comments

  1. Maybe a simple analogy might enlighten what seems to be causing a great rift in this subject. Every municipality in our country provides a public water service to which users pay a price. Some citizens prefer to buy water from privately owned vendors for various reasons and do so knowing they are not going to get a voucher for money they spend to get “better” water. If you even suggested this, you’d be laughed off your feet. But in reality, this is what’s being suggested by the Republican proponents of the voucher. We are the greatest country on Earth because of our public education system which prohibits no one from attending. It’s your right.to seek better education as you see it but not at the expense of the public school system.

  2. I am a retired school teacher and still remain membership with UEA because I want to get involve in education. It is very important to me. I have 19 grand children. My six children went to public school and all took advance classes and went on to graduate from colleges.Parents need to get involve with their children education beside school staffs. I have three daughters who are teachers and also a son-in-laws as teacher. My husband is the university professor. We are all in education. I just hope that they get pay what they deserve. I am for public school. Private and charter schools never will replace public school. Before I start teaching full time. I went to observe meetings of private school parents and staffs and I did not see the normalcy of a school setting. I am sure there are some exception schools but overall I don’t trust private and charter schools! Government waste so much money to support these school and suffer public school funding. Teachers are not all certified, classes may be smaller but the quality of teachers are not up to what needed! We need to support to make public school better with fundings and programs and especially pay teachers better than $40,000 a year. How do you live with that and not have to work 2 or 3 jobs. One of my daughters, after teaching 9 years and still earned under $40,000. Love the public schools and the teachers who dedicate their lives to educate the future leaders of this great nation!

  3. I attended public schools for my first six years, and a private school for my next six years. I had four years in a great public school. and then two years in two terrible public schools. My parents then decided to send me to a private religious school. This school was challenging, I was behind, and I really struggled the first two years. But capable and caring teachers brought me around. I finished in the middle fifth of my graduating class. I was accepted at Cornell, Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and the Naval Academy with several scholarship offers. I owed my recovery to this private school and the dedicated and compassionate teachers the school provided and encouraged. I am convinced that competition with a universal voucher program will weed out the failing public schools, providing better outcomes for those students, while allowing the excellent public schools to flourish,

  4. Choice. It is about giving choice for how our children are educated. And that may vary from place to place, too.
    And peoples monies should not be taken from them for schooling that they may not want to be forcing on their children. Our children have had some home schooling AND gone to public schools. Both have been good, but sometimes the public schooling has had problems.

  5. Parents choose private schools for a variety of reasons. Safety, segregation, classism, and social status are some of those reasons. Quality education is not always the top priority. Private schools, like any schools, run the gamut from quality to mediocre education. My daughter goes to a public, K-8, STEM school, which used to be a Hippy school. After the numbers were run, it was found that Hippy school or STEM school our school has consistently sent a higher percentage of kids to college than the other schools in our area. There are a number of factors that go into that result, but my point is that it’s a public school.

    1. I don’t believe for a minute that it is classism, class-ist or any other “ist” for that matter!

      Why are there gifted programs, special ed programs and the like? AND why do they remain? Because said are very successful, demonstrating that one size does NOT fit all. Hence the success of non-public schools or…. even… home schooling! **gasp!**

      We don’t even test all of our students with the same one-size-fits-all test! ….How many students receive ‘accommodations” for all of the standardized testing???

  6. I know some students in a smaller public school with phenomenal and caring teachers who are the best l have ever been around. Those students have the best education money could buy, but the teachers do it because they love the profession and the students they inspire everyday. The priorities of the governor are going to ruin something great that did not need fixing…what a poor legacy he is leaving. I hope the courts can straighten this out before it’s too late! Love Iowa and our long tradition of getting a great education for all our citizens,

  7. It’s all about equal access. Not just who can pay tuition or transport, but each student to have choice undeterred by cost or location– including special needs children, ESL children,and low income. Public schools are required to do it!!!

    1. Of course they do. (practice segregation )It is a basic premise of ‘private’. The proprietors do what they want and those with the means pay for it, by choice. That is not to say that public schools are all good or all bad, just different from private schools. The government at any level ought not to pay for private schools and those with the means have no reason to make excuses for their choice.

    2. The story is not only false but misleading. WHERE are the statistics to back up what is being said. Every parent who sends students to private schools does not send them just for academics; they send them because of their faith; smaller schools/classrooms, more opportunities, etc…

      1. I believe they are quoting information gained from “several early childhood longitudinal studies,” which are probably listed in the bibliography of their book, and “data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”

        The book is published by the University of Chicago Press.

      2. If you’re interested in seeing the data, read their book or take a look at the source (NAEP) mentioned in the article. There is definitely focused, well-designed research to support their claims.

  8. Any research that shows private schools, in general-on average, to be not as effective as public schools in preparing students for their next level has to have had some very precise hand picking on data. If private schools did not meet some need not being filled by public institutions, they would not exist. People (usually) are smart enough to not pay for something that is inferior to that which is ‘free.’ It is obvious that one can find specific examples of good and bad on each side of the argument, but to headline an article that says private schools aren’t as good as public? Well, you got to scratch your head.

    1. “If private schools did not meet some need not being filled by public institutions, they would not exist.”

      Indeed! But since private schools do exist, they must be fulfilling some need not being fulfilled by public institutions. What might some need be? Without question, the need many private schools fulfil is that of “keeping my child away from ‘those’ children even if it means private school cannot not serve my child any better than public school.”

      Get the point?

    2. Sorry, but I’ve known public school teachers who thought private would be better than public, but were appalled by how far behind their children were compared to her own students despite the lower socioeconomic demographics. If she were not a public school teacher, she probably would not have known better.

      1. Having attended 9 years of public school then 4 years of parochial/private high school, teaching in public school, I can say that the private education institutions are far more academically focused. Not to say public schools are bad but when focused on academics, private institutions are far more capable of delivering a world class education. No discipline problems, no need to use resources on special education, no unions to inhibit teachers who want to teach. Funding available. Parental involvement. Private is different and in general much better.

        The reasons are clear and for the most part pubic school just can’t be the same. Having to serve the whole spectrum of students presented, dealing with lethargic, non interested parents, forced to live with discipline problems, funding problems, union rules that sometimes help but usually stifle innovation, principals who are afraid of their jobs, public schools have so many issues to overcome, it is almost impossible to match the environment of a private school. With those anchors dragging on them, its a wonder public schools do as well as most do.

        To try to prove private schools do not do as well as public schools really is laughable. Who reviewed and endorsed the nonsense? I mean other than the NEA??

        1. I agree. I can’t vouch for all public or private schools, but I spent over 30 years in private education Students who came from public schools were almost always behind; many required extensive tutoring to keep up or had to be placed back in the grade they had just completed in the public school system.

        2. Bob, all of your objections go back to MONEY. Private schools are ways to get a student out of having to participate WITH his or her peers. If the private school selects its own students to be the Uppah Crust, or to be Not Disabled, or to be Not Misbehavers (none of those selections is much allowed, in public schools), then OF COURSE they’ll deliver a “world class education” to the fraction that’s left, because they’ll have an unrealistic set of students in the first place.

          But that is not what public education is about, nor is it what we WANT schools to do. Schools are also, and in some ways above all, centers of socialization. Every day and every way that a student’s school (yes) DISCRIMINATES AGAINST learners, as in this example, is a day closer to students getting it that they are the selected, the “chosen;” and a day closer to putting out a graduating class graced with every ego fault shown by the Silver Spoon Set.

          If that is good enough for you, I guess I understand; but in the life of the country, do you want to put out students who know how to get along with everyone (because they’ve been in school with “everyone”), or do you want to promote the sort of me-first sentiment that the private schools operate by and therefore promote? To promote the isolation the schools first institute with their exclusion policies?

      2. Your comment is what is laughable because you obviously have no idea what education associations, which you label “unions,” have accomplished over the years to make sure every student succeeds.
        You obviously can read, but you obviously cannot reason well if your only comment is to get rid of unions. Please find me a study that contradicts the one you just read about.

      3. Don’t dumb yourself down. The key to educational success is smaller class size and better trained teachers. Teachers unions have been fighting to keep those principals for many decades. The problem is keeping a consistent funding base. There is a shortage of teachers because they are blamed for problems they cannot fix. It’s a miracle anyone wants to become a teacher. Ms De Vos wants taxpayers to pay for her agenda. She wants public money for private religious education. She can well afford to pay for that without stripping the pubic education system of crucial funding. But she would rather have the public pay for it. By the way, the teaching pool is short of teachers. The fact is that teachers in private schools work longer hours for less pay & benefits. Does that make for better trained teachers and better education? The college degree costs the same. You do the math. I think the head of education should be promoting the best possible education for all. Wisconsin stripped the teachers unions. They are now considering hiring high school graduates because they
        have a serious teacher shortage. Those same high school grads would be teaching in the De Vos religious schools so how is that a better education. Make an opportunity to thank a teacher (union or not) for what they do. They are under paid, blamed for the current education problem, bad mouthed by the general public and education “experts.” It’s not about the unions.

    3. Depends in what parents are looking for. Prestige? Exclusivity? Segregation? Sometimes it is more than academics.

  9. If there’s money for private schools there’s money for public schools and private school are siphoning away valuable dollars that could go towards a child’s education. Our public school systems from teacher salaries and training to physical infrastructure has been deliberately ignored and had reduced funding for decades by tight fisted, mean spirited republicans and now they point at it and say “Look. They’re failing. It’s because they’re government funded. We have to privatize them as the solution”, even though it was they who destroyed them and caused all their problems so as to complete their self fulfilling fantasies about the miracles of privatization. Private schools are less accountable to the public for their methods and outcomes too. Republicans just want to privatize everything regardless of whether the facts say its better to do that or not because it’s just become part of their dogma and propaganda that government is always wrong and can’t do anything right. they forget that we’re talking about a government that came from behind and won WWII in a matter of less than two years once fully committed. no small feet even by today;s standards. That;s what happens when everyone rows in the same direction and commits to actually solving problems rather than feeding the fires of division as republicans and all their asshole media trolls on Fox and elsewhere do 24/7 now. Like everything else these days, republicans just pull shit out of their ass and make it gospel with no idea whether it’s true or not and no evidence to back it up and often as with Climate change and Global Warming, mountains of evidence to the contrary of what they believe and people just follow along like lemmings marching over a cliff as one giant single organism with no one individual taking the time to question if it’s the right thing to do or not. That’s the problem you have when you put strongly held beliefs pulled out of thin air in place of evidence. The truth doesn’t require our agreement. They need to get this through their heads fast before they completely ruin this country for the majority of us just trying to survive their bullshit.

  10. It stands to reason that demographics and social status play a big part in how academically successful a student is. So if they pull money from public schools to pay for private schools through the voucher program, how will that help the kid in the inner city that’s not from an educated family and not from an affluent family ? It won’t. There will be less monies in their school to provide their education. Let the affluent pay for their well-to-do children to attend private schools. They can afford it.

  11. WHEN public school are adequately funded and run properly AND are not performing, then we can consider other options.

  12. We as educators know she is unfit but trump is so out of control that all he thinks about is giving important positions to those who contributed the most money to his campaign. He needs to go and take all these unqualified people with him!

  13. Those writing on behalf of public schools show faulty grammar, unsupported evidence for their claims, as well as lack of teaching experience, As long as they are talking to like minds they can retain their smug, but unsupportable evidence and claims. As one who has been in the field of education since 1958 teaching k through high school, In regular as well as Special Education…. I feel eqipped to judge.

    1. That’s quite the run-on sentence with I’ll-placed capitalization. As a third grade public school teacher, I feel equipped to judge.

    2. I don’t think you are “equipped” to judge, without basic spelling understanding. In English, the letter q is typically followed by the letter u. I know that not because I was a teacher in public schools for 25 years and a proud member of NEA, but because I was educated in public schools.

      1. Oh, now I see that you corrected your original post above. But I would say, I always encouraged my fourth-graders to proof-read before submitting their final writing assignments. You would do well to heed that advice from this public-school teacher. By the way, you receive a red mark for the sentence fragment with no beginning capital letter, “to be precise.”

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