Research Summarizes the Public School Advantage

A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries.  There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.

One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.

Other reasons people desire school choice?  “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”

What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind?  “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”

The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream.  Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”

Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.”  These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”

What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education?  First is the belief in public sector failure.  Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are.  However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.”  The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”

For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.”  This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.

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Test Scores Poor Indicator of Students’ Life Outcomes and School Quality: New Consensus?

According to Education Next, “Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.” This Arkansas “Department of Education Reform” epitomizes the far-right think tank posing as a university department. For years, Greene has been at the center of education “reform” orthodoxy, and yet today he is questioning one of its primary tenets—the use of short term test score gains as the primary measure of school improvement.  While federal policy in education as prescribed in the new Every Student Succeeds Act continues to prescribe annual testing and the requirement that states develop plans to turn around schools that can’t quickly raise scores, there seems to be growing consensus in the academic world about problems with accountability that is purely test-based.

Here is what Professor Greene posted on his blog on Tuesday:  “I’ve written several times recently about how short term gains in test scores are not associated with improved later life outcomes for students. Schools and programs that increase test scores quite often do not yield higher high school graduation or college attendance rates. Conversely, schools and programs that fail to produce greater gains in test scores sometimes produce impressive improvements in high school graduation and college attendance rates, college completion rates, and even higher employment and earnings. I’ve described at least 8 studies that show a disconnect between raising test scores and stronger later life outcomes.” Greene devotes the rest of his post to describing a new study that replicates these findings.

Greene concludes: “It’s time that people start paying a lot more attention to this pattern of a disconnect between short term test score gains and long term life outcomes. We can’t just dismiss this pattern as a fluke… If we think we can know which schools of choice are good and ought to be expanded and which are bad and ought to be closed based primarily on annual test scores gains, we are sadly mistaken.  Various portfolio management and ‘accountability’ regimes depend almost entirely on this false belief that test scores reveal which are the good and bad schools. The evidence is growing quite strong that these strategies cannot properly distinguish good from bad schools and may be inflicting great harm on students.”

Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed, describes educational research that confirms Greene’s concerns about test-based accountability.  Tough explains the research of Kirabo Jackson: “What he found was that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year… But Jackson also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his non-cognitive measure.  If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade… Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much.” (pp. 69-70)  Tough is describing teachers and schools that build intrinsic motivation and that attend to challenging students, connecting them with other students, and building autonomy. And Tough describes schools that are supportive, not punitive: “When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day.” (p. 73)

This week  the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado released a policy brief that cautions about condemning schools that continue to struggle rapidly to raise test scores even as they are in the midst of concerted reform and turnaround.  NEPC’s brief warns:

“Attempts to dramatically turn around schools to show quick improvements in student outcomes are often counterproductive, resulting instead in school conditions associated with persistently low performance. Many quick school turnarounds, like those initiated via the federal School Improvement Grant program, were associated with unintended, negative outcomes such as high teacher turnover, large numbers of inexperienced teachers, administrative instability, poor school and classroom climate, and socioeconomic segregation.”

NEPC instead endorses comprehensive reforms that address the multifaceted issues that are known to affect test scores: “Part of the challenge in turning around schools is that outside-of-school factors likely account for twice as much of the variance in student outcomes as do inside-of-school factors. Accordingly, the community schools approach—one of the most prominent and research-based approaches to sustained reform—addresses the academic, social-emotional, and health needs of children as well as the capacity to systemically meet these needs in communities of concentrated poverty.”

Academic reforms—beyond the social and health reforms that surround children in a wraparound Community School—also take time: “Research offers strong caution against claims of miraculous school change.  Instead, changing a school’s culture and practices in sustainable ways that improve student learning takes years of commitment by all the stakeholders in the school… Effective schools have stable leaders who support teachers…. Effective schools have teacher leadership that’s distributed through the school and that facilitates a continuous improvement cycle…. Effective schools meaningfully engage families and the community.”

The NEPC brief concludes: “Policies that demand rapid school turnaround largely ignore the complexity of reforming schools for sustainable improvement and also ignore out-of-school factors such as poverty, race, and systemic funding disparities. These mistakes arise, in part, from an imbalanced focus on test scores that can be gamed to show temporary and shallow improvements.  Instead, policies should look to a broad range of appropriate interim indicators to assess whether a school is improving.”

All this research points to the need for a radical shift in America’s domestic policy agenda. Our society will be required to reverse tax policy that has slashed public education budgets across many states and also to invest in the institutions, including public schools, that serve America’s poorest children living in concentrated and sometimes extreme poverty across our urban centers.

K-12 Inc., Largest Education Management Organization, Pays CEO $19 Million from Our Taxes

This week the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado published the fourteenth edition of its report, Profiles of For-Profit and Nonprofit Education Management Organizations.  According to NEPC’s press release, “The real growth in the for-profit sector is with companies that operate virtual schools.  The growth of virtual schools, which is fueled by millions in advertising dollars is astounding because of the sketchy academic results reported by the schools that operate online.”  According to NEPC, K-12 Inc., the largest for-profit Education Management Organization, now enrolls 87,091 students in the 57 virtual schools it operates across the states.

It is therefore appropriate that the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) recently launched a new series of profiles, “America’s Highest Paid Government Workers,” on its OutsourcingAmericaExposed.org web page with the story of Ron Packard, the CEO of K-12 Inc.  CMD’s “highest paid government workers” are people who work for private companies and contractors but whose salaries are paid with our tax dollars.  CMD reports: “K-12 Inc. is a publicly traded, for-profit, online education company headquartered in Herndon, Virginia.” “In 2013, K-12 Inc. took in $848.2 million from its businesses, with $730.8 million coming from its ‘managed public schools’ with 86 percent of the company’s profits from tax dollars.  According to CMD, Packard made $19 million from tax dollars paid to K-12 Inc. in 2013.