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Book: Private schools not as effective as some advocates suggest

Sarah and Christopher Lubienski
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Anna Lubienski

Private and charter schools may not be as educationally effective as policymakers and school-choice advocates are leading Americans to believe, according to research by education professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski. Their studies are explored in a new book, “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.”

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11/11/2013 | Sharita Forrest, Education and Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book challenges popular assumptions about the superiority of private-school education and raises questions about the political imperatives behind current school-reform and policy initiatives that are based on market theory.

Cover of Lubienksis' newest book: "The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools"
The newest book by education researchers Christopher and Sarah Lubienski is published by the University of Chicago Press.

While market theorists promote consumer choice, school autonomy and privatization as the panacea for the problems in America’s public schools, many of their policy and reform initiatives are “misguided” and not supported by the evidence, say the authors of “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools” (University of Chicago Press).

In the book, education researchers Christopher and Sarah Lubienski present exhaustive analyses of data related to student achievement in the public, private and charter school sectors and examine a variety of student, school and teacher characteristics to determine which of them may affect student achievement. Their study is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive to date on the topic.

The authors, who are married, are professors in the College of Education at the University of Illinois.

Christopher Lubienski is a professor of education policy, organization and leadership and is the director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education in the college.

Sarah Lubienski, who is a professor of curriculum and instruction, also holds an appointment as associate dean of the university’s Graduate College.

Despite claims by policymakers and some members of the news media indicating that public schools are by and large failing at the task of educating the nation’s children, the authors say that their analyses suggest that public schools are “actually providing a more effective education service relative to schools in the independent sector.”

Using two nationally representative data sets, which comprised cross-sectional as well as longitudinal data, the authors evaluated a variety of student, teacher and school characteristics and compared children’s test scores in mathematics by school sector.

Achievement differences among the different types of schools are much more closely related to student demographics than to school sector, the researchers found.

“The higher test scores of private and independent schools are the result of the fact that they serve more affluent students, and those achievement advantages disappear once the schools’ demographic advantages are factored in,” Christopher Lubienski said. “In fact, when the background advantages of students are considered, most private and independent schools are actually underperforming relative to public schools.”

To test the possibility that their findings might reflect a selection bias – with more able students attending public schools and less able children attending private schools – the researchers used a different data set to examine the initial academic readiness and academic progress of more than 9,700 kindergartners and fifth graders.

Their analysis focused particularly on Catholic schools, which compose the largest portion of the private-school sector and are the schools most likely to embrace voucher systems.

Kindergartners at private schools tend to be more academically advanced when they enter school, but by the fifth grade, their public school peers surpass them in academic growth, the data indicated.

“The evidence is rather compelling that, at least on a national scale, the independent school sectors are not necessarily more effective at promoting mathematics achievement than public schools,” Sarah Lubienski said. “In fact, the reverse appears to be true.”

Policymakers and school-choice interest groups are ignoring and discounting research that conflicts with their arguments that market-based policies and reforms such as privatization improve school effectiveness, the researchers said.

Rather than promoting innovation that boosts academic achievement, school-choice systems may shift schools’ focus to that of marketing to attract better qualified students, resulting in higher levels of segregation. Likewise, autonomy may promote reliance on outdated curricula and teaching practices.

The authors suggest that policymakers’ determination to reform public education based upon the underperforming private-school model results from a combination of societal forces, which include members of both major political parties embracing “mixed-market, public-private partnerships as an alternative to traditional state-run enterprises.”

Those efforts to advance market-oriented education policies are supported by leading philanthropies, foundations and think tanks that fund research and programs favorable to that agenda.

Editor's note: To contact Christopher Lubienski, call 217-333-4382; email club@illinois.edu. To contact Sarah Lubienski: 217-333-1564; stl@illinois.edu.

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