Advantage, public schools

Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski challenged conventional wisdom when they published research that found public schools were better than private schools at boosting student achievement.

Book cover The Public School AdvantageFive years later, their conclusions have been confirmed several times over – especially by studies of state voucher programs that provide public funding for students to attend private schools.

“In the last four years, every study of student achievement in voucher programs has found large negative impacts, except for a couple of studies that found no impact,” Christopher Lubienski said recently. “The programs are hurting the learning outcomes of children using the vouchers.”

The Lubienskis, now on the faculty at the Indiana University School of Education, published their findings in the 2014 book “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.”

They relied on large data sets from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. While students in private schools, on average, had higher scores than students in public schools, the advantage disappeared when the researchers controlled for family background and other demographic factors. With those adjustments, public-school students did better.

Using NAEP data, the researchers also compared mathematics performance in public schools and charter schools. In fourth grade, public-school students performed a little better. In eighth grade, there was no real difference.

Why were public schools more effective? According to the Lubienskis’ analysis, the autonomy that is supposed to be the strength of private and charter schools can be a weakness. Free from bureaucratic regulation, the schools may hire inexperienced and noncertified teachers and disregard current knowledge about pedagogy and curriculum.

When “The Public School Advantage” was published, the man-bites-dog nature of its conclusions generated some media attention, including an interview with the Atlantic. Voucher and private-school supporters attacked the research and its methods.

But as more studies have shown that vouchers hurt student performance – in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio, for example – advocates have “moved the goalposts,” in Christopher Lubienski’s words. Instead of arguing that vouchers help students learn, they increasingly embrace school choice as a goal in itself. Or, as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos suggests, vouchers are all about freedom.

Of course, parents have the freedom to choose the education they want for their children, if they pay for it. But given the results of voucher studies, Lubienski argued in a recent column in The Hill, using public funds to support moving children from public to private schools is ethically questionable.

“What we’re essentially doing is experimenting on children,” he said.

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