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.
“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.”