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Public schools aren't broken. So why are we trying so hard to break them?

Robert Niles
Published: October 31, 2013 at 9:54 AM (MST)
If a group of wealthy children of college-education parents — kids who get homework help at home and tutoring on the weekends — score better on a test than a group of poor children of non-English speaking immigrants who can't provide help at home, what does that tell us? Does that tell us anything about the kids' schools, or their teachers? Or do those scores just tell us something about those kids themselves?

Is a school attended exclusively by the first group of kids a "better" school than one attended by the second group? What would happen if both groups switched schools for a year? Would the first group score worse on tests, and the second group better? Or would the results look pretty much the same? What if both groups went to the same school? Would that school be "good," or "bad"?

For too long, politicians and the public have judged schools — and our American public education system — simplistically, by looking at top-line test scores. We've looked at where students end up — completely ignoring where they started, and far they have come to get there. Then we give assign credit or blame to students, teachers, and schools with no consideration for where those students began when they first stepped into their schools.

I'm reminded of the late Molly Ivins' devastating line about George W. Bush: "He was born on third base, and thought he'd hit a triple."

For years here on Sensible Talk, I've been encouraging you to look beyond the top line of test scores, and to look instead at apples-to-apples comparisons of schools. Look at how children of similar economic backgrounds are performing. Once you do that, you find that the so-called "bad" schools in a community are really the poor schools. And that when poor and middle-class kids attend the same school, the middle-class kids end up scoring pretty much the same as the kids at exclusively middle-class schools.

And yet… we're in the middle of a national "education reform" movement that accepts as gospel the hypothesis that schools are failing. That test scores are declining, and that if we simply move kids in "bad" schools to charter or private schools, they will be better educated as a result.

But what happens when we actually test this hypothesis, instead of simply accepting and acting upon it?

It's not enough to look at those top-lines scores. Advocates for private and charter education are wise to this game, and routinely try to cherry-pick children from wealthy and well-educated families to help their schools present the highest scores and most academic awards possible. What happens when you control for economics and make an apples-to-apples comparison between types of schools, instead?

We've already seen the results for charter schools. On balance, students who attend charters do not score as well as students in traditional, voter-controlled schools. (And that's the real systemic difference between charter and public schools. Public schools answer to voters, through school boards and state legislatures. In many states, charters answer to no one. They're publicly-funded private schools where it can be difficult, even impossible, for voters to turn off the flow of money once it's started, should those schools underperform or fail.)

Now, thanks to University of Illinois researchers Sarah and Christopher Lubienski, we have the results for public vs. private schools, too. The professors looked at scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, and found that, when you look apples to apples, controlling for demographics, children in public schools score better than children in private schools.

Hey, maybe if we really cared about improved the education of American children, instead of funneling taxpayer money to charter and private schools, we'd turn around and ban them instead. Make every child attend public school. After all, the data suggest that our kids would learn more.

As much as it'd please me to make that argument, what we need more in our national conversation about education is to stop looking at everything as a competition. If you want to send your children to a private school, fine. No one should stand in your way. If you want to homeschool, cool. Go for it. But let's stop acting as if public education is an inferior option, when, on balance, data show that it is, in fact, the superior one.

Ultimately, though, we don't educate populations. Education happens at the individual level. If a teacher at a local private school is a better fit for your child than the teachers at your neighborhood public school, the private school might be the better choice for your family. I know from personal experience in my children's public school district that state budget cuts, a declining local population of children, and a rising percentage of poor children in the community together have forced our schools to cut or eliminate classes in many academic subjects, such as non-Spanish foreign languages, music, forensics, and the social sciences — classes that local private schools continue to offer. Speech teams, show choirs, marching bands, and theater programs are gone from most public high schools in our district, or operating at a bare-bones level. Public school money is going instead to programs to help provide poor kids the academic support they're not getting at home. That's good and necessary, but why must schools have to make that choice?

We need to change the national conversation about education reform. Instead of assuming that public education is failing, we should knowledge and celebrate its success, then ask how we can make public education even better for all American students.

Why are we taking money from a successful education system, and forcing it to cut the language, science, and arts programs that could engage and motivate so many more students? Why are we diverting public money to demonstrably inferior alternatives? Why are we ceding more and more control of education policy to Wall Street billionaires and their allies in the federal government, instead of creating a system that empowers teachers to meet needs of their individual students and local community? Why are we attacking schools instead of addressing a scandalous and growing problem of child poverty in America? Why aren't we even talking about that issue? And why are we trying to break something that's not broken, instead?

If we want to find the answers for our education system, we need to start by asking the proper questions.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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