So Much for “School Choice”

Everybody bookmark this. And be ready to retrieve it every time the righties wheeze about the “failing” public schools.

The Education Department reported on Friday that children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private school counterparts fared better.

The report, which compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores in 2003 from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools, also found that conservative Christian schools lagged significantly behind public schools on eighth-grade math.

The study, carrying the imprimatur of the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Education Department, was contracted to the Educational Testing Service and delivered to the department last year.

The Bushies put the study through extensive peer review. Apparently unable to dispute the presented facts, they’ve dismissed the report as being “of modest utility.” Of course, if the report had found that private schools were better … well, you know. The Republicans would be pushing for complete demolition of the public school system so that children can be herded into private schools and receive the proper religious indoctrination.

The report mirrors and expands on similar findings this year by Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski, a husband-and-wife team at the University of Illinois who examined just math scores. The new study looked at reading scores, too. …

… The two new studies put test scores in context by studying the children’s backgrounds and taking into account factors like race, ethnicity, income and parents’ educational backgrounds to make the comparisons more meaningful. The extended study of charter schools has not been released.

Interesting tidbit:

The report separated private schools by type and found that among private school students, those in Lutheran schools performed best, while those in conservative Christian schools did worst.

Reaction from anti-public school activist:

Joseph McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, an umbrella organization that represents 80 percent of private elementary and secondary schools, said the statistical analysis had little to do with parents’ choices on educating their children.

“In the real world, private school kids outperform public school kids,” Mr. McTighe said. “That’s the real world, and the way things actually are.”

In the real world, ideologues out-bloviate non-ideologues. They don’t need no steenking data to tell ’em what goes on in the real world, hombres.

Back in the 1950s, at least in the Bible Belt where I come from, conventional wisdom said that public schools were better than parochial schools. Somehow, the desegregation wars of the late 1950s and early 1960s caused a whole lot of white parents to change their minds. The school prayer flap of the 1960s added more alarm to the mix. Since then the movement to destroy the public school system (MtDtPSS) has moved on from its segregationist roots, and now it’s a movement to destroy the public school system because too many public school teachers are godless liberals. And in recent years, the MtDtPSS has come full circle; anti-public school activists have been working overtime to persuade African American parents to support voucher systems and send their kids to the proper indoctrination facilities private schools.

I’m not saying that all private schools exist for the purpose of indoctrination, but that that indoctrination is the essential motivation of the MtDtPSS.

Anti-private school activists argue that vouchers would create market competition and cause all schools to improve because they are competing. But Milwaukee has had vouchers for 15 years now, and that’s not how it’s worked out:

An investigation this June by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found problems in some voucher schools that–even to those numb to educational horror stories–break one’s heart. No matter how severe one’s criticisms of the Milwaukee Public Schools, nothing is as abysmal as the conditions at some voucher schools.

Some of them had high school graduates teaching students. Some were nothing more than refurbished, cramped storefronts. Some did not have any discernible curriculum and only a few books. Some did not teach evolution or anything else that might conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

At one school, teacher and students were on their way to McDonald’s. At another, lights were turned off to save money. A third used the back alley as a playground.

One school is located in an old leather factory, another in a former tire store, a third is above a vacuum cleaner shop and hair salon. …

… The summaries show that a disturbing number of schools are beset by two overriding problems: inadequate facilities and unqualified teachers. (I’ll leave concerns about fraud and scams to the district attorney’s office.)

At the Sa’Rai and Zigler Upper Excellerated Academy …, principal Sa’Rai Nance doesn’t even have a teaching license. She said she opened the school after she had a vision from God. Nance also said that “excellerated” is a fusion word combining accelerated and excellent and is “spelled wrong on purpose.” The word “upper” refers to “the upper room where Jesus prayed.”

Carter’s Christian Academy … is described as “essentially a small storefront building with a couple of tiny rooms redone as classrooms. …There were no visible books or toys or paper.” The school’s two teachers have high school diplomas, and the highest-paid teacher makes $8 an hour.

At Grace Christian Academy (K4–7), one staff member privately told reporters “that there was no curriculum. Several classrooms were using worksheets downloaded from the Internet. …There were few books or schools materials on [the] shelves or anywhere in sight.” In at least one case, the summary continued, “the teacher was giving inaccurate scientific information to kids. [Principal Reginald] Armstrong says teachers use Biblical principles. He taught his class the story of Adam and Eve recently, from a literalist position.” Armstrong has a teaching license, but none of the other teachers do.

Among the several reasons Why Market Forces Don’t Work in this situation is that the really excellent private schools generally are way disinterested in taking voucher students. Conversely, private schools eager to get voucher money are, um, often not so hot.

See also Steve Gilliard and Echidne.

Update: Flaming idiot Pejman Yousefzadeh of RedState links to the same article and concludes it proves private schools are better than public schools. He manages to do this by extremely, um, selective editing — excerpting commentary by Kevin Drum, stripped of context, and leaving out the data that showed public schools outperform private schools.

Kevin notes that public school students do less well in secondary school than do private school students. There might be several reasons for this that have nothing to do with school performance however. Kevin Drum writes,

But what does seem to show up over and over again is the effect of concentrated poverty. Nearly everything I’ve read suggests that when the number of kids in poverty reaches about 50% in a school, teaching becomes nearly impossible — and that this matters much more in secondary school than in elementary school.

Private schools can dismiss disruptive students and expel non-performers. The poorest of the poor don’t go to private schools, vouchers or no vouchers. ESL students don’t go to private schools. Don’t bother trying to explain this to Yousefzadeh, who suffers a serious lack of critical thinking skills. Maybe he went to a private school.

Seriously, if you google for information about public versus private school you find all manner of “reports” claiming that private school students are “better prepared” or more likely to get advanced degrees than public school students. As for the first claim, there is always a curious lack of supporting data compiled from independent and disinterested sources.. As for the second — if you’re talking about elite “prep” schools like Phillips Academy, sure. If you’re talking about some of the places described above, like “Carter’s Christian Academy” — I doubt it.

17 thoughts on “So Much for “School Choice”

  1. I’m trying out another preview plugin.

    Note: This one sorta kinda works. It’s a little clunky, but it does work. Now if I can find quicktags that work without overwriting the preview we’ll be in business.

  2. As a public school teacher, I just love these studies. Factor in the reality that some of the better private schools in Milwaukee will cherry pick the best and least disruptive students and send the others packing. Leaving them to a low level private or public school to educate. Even at that the public schools are outperforming the private schools. Teaching seems to be one of those professions that everyone thinks they can do so there is little respect for what teachers do. My contention has always been that if you want school choice then at least allow us to all play by the same rules. If you think you can teach thirty fourteen year old kids, half of whom have some sort of disability or limiting characteristic, better than I do, go for it. But don’t start booting them out and keeping the best and then tell me what a better job you are doing.

  3. Thanks for this, Barbara. I don’t read the NYT and would have missed it; here in Milwaukee paper’s editorial position is pro-voucher, and the study would almost certainly have never made its pages.

    The study also provides a perfect argument against a voucher program like Milwaukee’s: Students of the same demographic fare no better moving to a private school than had they stayed in their accountable public one.

    (And the preview screen looks awful, at least for me on Mac OSX and Safari, with too much space between the left sidebar and the preview/ comment box and the right sidebar partially obscuring the preview/ comment box.)

  4. Re preview screen — I’m trying out “plugins,” which are scripts written for WordPress that (allegedly) one can upload into the WordPress files on the server to add features to the web site. But if they don’t work, it requires going in to the files and rewriting the script, and that’s a little out of my range.

  5. privat skuulls r bettr’n publik skuulls.
    i otta now
    n sew shuld u.
    i juss gut my decree frum a privat 1.
    itz knot d 1 hun u’r lisst.
    beesids, i wuzz aslo hom toett.. n tha wuzz a grate hellp.
    i thanc jees’ evry dey tha i didn hav 2 go 2 a publick 1. skuull, i mene. i wood o bin toutt al kin’s o youzles krap.
    licke durwon n revulusion
    insted, i lerned tha jees’ is the flounder ov r kountry – n he otter now abot whass bess 4 us. U.S. – ha, gettit!
    i kan harley weight. im goying 2 librty univrecity in 2 munths.
    witch me lock!
    HA! i won knead it!!! i gut uh skolurchip!!!!!
    mah majur? kristianty n guvernmint.
    ah wanna bee a lawyur fur d lorr jees’
    oar, n akountant.
    i lyke 2 lye
    n i lyke numburrs
    mabbe ah’ll bee booth…
    heck, wen i happlyed at yalle univrecity lass yere – i now, yalle univrecityz da samme plase joerje dub, dub… joerje w went 2 – thay sad i wuzz bettrn and smartrn hymn…

  6. The title of the NYT piece is “Public Schools Perform Near Private Ones in Study.”

    Hmm. That sorta sounds like they are “comparable,” perhaps not as good. But, the lede notes they “generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools.”

    So, why not “Public Schools Perform As Well As Private Ones in Study”? Or, “as well or better?”

    Misleading title.

  7. I half expected c u n d gulag’s sendup communique from the G.W. Bush School of Literacy to close with, “P.S. Hear is a pictur of a cat.”

    But I’m having literacy problems of my own, apparently. To borrow a phrase from a Francophone Quebecoise I once worked with, “maha, what means ‘bloviate’?” I couldn’t find it in the dictionary, although I can make a pretty good guess from the context. Don’t need no steenkin reality, I should think.

  8. Interesting study; thanks for posting it here for those of us who don’t read the New York Times. I can’t say that I’m surprised by the findings, as I have been a defender of the public school system for many years. But at least now I have a specific study that I can point to!

  9. Joe–my thoughts exactly. The title makes is sound as though the public schools are “almost” as good, when they are generally equal to the better private schools, and head and shoulders above the conservative christian schools.

    Imagine if they had tested the children on science knowledge, such as heliocentrism and evolution (both of which a significant proportion of the conservatives christians don’t really believe, according to some studies…..)

    Thank god (so to speak) that the citizens of the state of Michigan had the wisdom to ban state funding of private education, and to write it into the constitution. (Actually, it was an anti-catholic measure from the 70s, the banning of “parochi-aid,” but the result was the banning of all public funding of private education. A good result from possibly bad intentions.)

    My father, who never got much past grade school (Stalin’s USSR), always told me that it was not the school, but the efforts of the student, that were paramount. Most recent studies seem to bear him out.

    P.S. Preview is useless in Mac. Half of the comment is obscured by the right column.

  10. joanr 16,
    Thank you for your bloviation…I can explain that word in 4 language’s, if you’d like.
    u gife da “Preznit” 2 moch kredit.
    hee kouldn’t spall C-A-T ‘f u spottd hymn da “C’ n da “A.” Mebbe u kant eether…
    Here’s how your line would appear:
    “Pee. Ass. Hearz uh piktur ov uh kat”
    Bloviation… As Shrub would say, “Kows! Heh, heh, heh…”
    Here you go, joanr 16:
    Get it?
    Got it?
    And no, joanr 16, you ‘don’t ‘need no steenkin reality…’ Dass 4 entilectualls… knot 4 u…
    But, you should THINK!!!
    Before you bloviate….
    That’s reality…
    Have a nice weekend!

  11. i went to a private catholic school, grosse pointe, mich and fort lauderdale, fla. i would not send my cats to them for education. those nuns, many of them, were abusive physically amd verbally. a few of them were mentally ill. typing and shorthand class involved dictation and transcribing the pope’s encyclicals. imagine our thrill when the nun fell down icey steps, broke her jaw and had to have it wired shut. for a short time we were back to being a business class. social studies involved the pastor coming in to “discuss” the new testament. i asked so many unanswerable questions, he finally refused to acknowledge me. i finally stopped participating in any thing religious. religion was more important than reading, writing and arithmatic. just think no more daily masses, no more station of the crosses etc. i told them to consider me non catholic. told my parents do not try and stop me. they could beat me until i was black and blue, no more religion. graduation day last day in a catholic church. whew!! that felt good to unburden myself from their mumbo-jumbo

  12. Teacher here.

    In California, at least, there’s another reason why public school teachers might be better-equipped thatn private school teachers: every 5 years, we have to submit proof to the state that we have completed at least 150 hours of additional training, conferences, workshops, etc., in order to renew our teaching certificate.

    Private school teachers have no such requirement for continuing education. They do not even need to be certified in the first place.

  13. Mark Thoma links to a Wall Street Journal article on this study. As far as the Red State fellow who claimed Kevin Drum found flaws in this study, Kevin made no such statement. I guess the Red State fellow flunked 8th grade reading.

  14. Pingback: Even More Shit You Should Read (in Alphabetical Order) at

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