The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

The following is an excerpt from the preface and from chapter seven of the book, "Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education."

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

Christopher A. Lubienski & Sarah Theule Lubienski

304 pages, University of Chicago Press, 2013

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There has long been a perception that public schools are second-rate—that anyone who can get their child into a private school should do so. Such desires for private education are so strong that in some districts we’ve even allocated public funds—through voucher and charter programs—to allow those who can’t afford private education a chance to. But what if our underlying assumption is wrong? What if private schools aren’t better? That is the stunning conclusion of The Public School Advantage. Eschewing most ideologies in favor of empirical data, it argues, via evidence, that our longstanding but much-beleaguered public education system is still the best choice we have.

Of the many competing plans to improve America’s schools, one overall agenda distinguishes itself in terms of its logical potential for fundamentally changing education. The innovative strategy of giving parents more choice of schools, of encouraging competition between those schools, and of granting schools more autonomy to satisfy parents—in short, “incentivizing” education—has taken hold as perhaps the most prominent and promising idea for improving American education at its core. This approach is evident in efforts such as charter schools, vouchers and tax credits for private schools, private management of schools, and privatization. All such “incentivist” approaches draw on market mechanisms modeled after the private sector, including the private education sector.

The reason reformers look to the private sector is obvious. The beauty of the logic is its simplicity. Governments and the bureaucracies they generate are thought to lead to overspending and ineffectiveness—whether the U.S. Postal Service, military procurements, or public schools. This is because governments typically administer enterprises on a monopoly basis, setting up barriers to potential competitors in order to protect their own entities in areas such as education. Hence, virtually all public funding goes only to “public” schools that are traditionally regulated by government bureaucrats, run by administrators who have obtained an official endorsement from the state, and staffed by teachers who have been certified by state-approved teacher training programs. As with all monopolies, this may lead to complacency, and even disincentives for employees to innovate or otherwise respond to the needs of their “customers.” But the private sector, driven by choice and competitive market incentives, is thought to produce better outcomes, such as those associated with FedEx, eBay, or private schools. There, school employees have built-in incentives to work harder, or at least more effectively, at providing a better education, for fear of losing students, losing tuition funds, losing their jobs, or even seeing their school “go out of business.”

At least that is what we thought. Indeed, that is the narrative of the market and, increasingly, public policy in the United States and around the globe. Yet the evidence we have found tells quite a different story than what theorists and the current crop of self-proclaimed reformers assert. Specifically, it points to a new, emerging view of the academic performance and impact of public schools in contrast to the outcomes of their more autonomous counterparts in the charter and private sectors. And the question of the impact of different types of schools, or schools in different sectors, is paramount in this era of choice, charter schools, and vouchers for private schools.

Yet, despite the significance and timeliness of this issue, this topic was not really on the research agenda for either of us. We were each happily ensconced in our own work—one studying mathematics instruction and achievement, the other examining school organization and innovations. While the question of achievement in different types of schools had occasionally appeared on the radar of the wider research community in recent years, it was usually around the hotly contested voucher debates—often vicious arguments that seemed to be geared more toward personal acrimony than enlightenment when it comes to social policy. Indeed, like many researchers, we believed the question of a beneficial private school effect on achievement had been essentially settled by the seminal studies of the 1980s and ’90s, and we had virtually no inclination to delve into that area. And then, while examining data on mathematics instruction from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Sarah added “private school” as a control variable, and some surprising results appeared.

We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns flew in the face of both the common wisdom and the research consensus on the effectiveness of public and private schools. Immediately, we checked to see what had happened in the analysis, whether “public” and “private” had been “reverse-coded” or some other such error was involved. But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up. And they held up (or were “robust” in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses. We eventually posted a technical paper on a respected website and published a short article, which received some attention. And then, like any good researchers, we applied for funding to study this issue in more depth using the most recent, comprehensive databases. The results across datasets are consistent and robust—indicating that these patterns are substantial and stable, regardless of changes in the details of the analyses.

These results indicate that, despite reformers’ adulation of the autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming. That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.

There is an old joke about an economist walking across a college campus with a student. When the student notices a five-dollar bill on the ground, the economist is dismissive: “It can’t be a five dollar bill. If it were, someone would have picked it up.”

While not exactly a rib splitter, this joke illustrates the inherent, if underappreciated, limitations of assumption-driven disciplines such as economics in understanding the world. Too often, people not only interpret evidence through ideological assumptions, but ignore facts that fall outside of, or run counter to, those assumptions. Particularly in areas such as a market theory of education, surrogate evidence on the quality of organizational options based on presumptions of how rationally self-interested individuals would act is often privileged over actual evidence of how organizations are really performing. That is, ideological assumptions often trump empirical evidence.

Such is the case with education. If families—and especially parents with defined preferences for better schooling—are avoiding public schools and are instead competing to get their children into private and charter schools, often paying substantial amounts of their family income toward tuition or other costs, then this must indicate that such independent schools are better, according to this narrow economic logic. Indeed, such a conclusion is constantly affirmed in the media and in reports from countless think tanks and blogs. Yet as the data indicate, those behaviors are not an accurate reflection of the reality of school effectiveness. So why would people pay for a product or service when a superior product or service is available for free? Such was the perplexity expressed by one prominent economist when faced with unexpected patterns such as these:

This result is quite surprising, because it appears to violate simple price theory. Public schools are free; [independent] schools often charge substantial tuition, making them noticeably more expensive than the alternatives. Yet some percentage of parents systematically chooses [independent] schools despite high cost and mediocre performance. Is this real?1

According to this logic, public schools are known to be inferior because people are willing to pay for an alternative; if they had real value, we could tell because people would embrace them … just like they would have embraced the wayward greenback.

Yet the evidence presented here on mathematics achievement — the subject that best reflects school effects — in nationally representative samples of elementary schools suggests otherwise. Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, these public schools are, on average, actually providing a more effective educational service relative to schools in the independent sector. In fact, the limitations of our data, if anything, likely underemphasize the notable performance of public schools, given that factors not measured in our data sets would favor private, independent schools—public schools are doing something right that overcomes these factors. While this challenges the very basis of the current movement to remake public education based on choice, competition, and autonomy, our 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. Meanwhile, attributes such as operational autonomy championed by the market theory of education—or, as it is increasingly a belief system rather than a policy theory, we might use the term “marketism”—may actually be hindering or even diverting schools in the independent sector from higher achievement as they use their freedom in embracing stagnant, less effective curricular practices.

Reprinted with permission from The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher A. and Sarah Theule Lubienski, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2014 University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

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1 Eric A. Hanushek, “Comments in Response to Grogger and Neal’s ‘Further Evidence on the Effects of Catholic Secondary Schooling,’” in Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2000, ed. W. G. Gale and J. R. Pack (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000)


  • BY Patricia Moran

    ON April 16, 2014 02:42 PM

    During my formative years, I attended Catholic schools in Brookyn NY and in Queens NY
    totalling twelve years, plus one year for Kindergarten. This was many years ago when parochial schools were better than public schools. Classes were much bigger then and the Nuns had their hands full. But, we learned!  Yes indeed. Later on in my life, while attending a fine
    Community College, I was exempted from taking a mandatory English class because of what
    I learned in the above mentioned schools.
    Yes, the schools were tougher and there was no tuition for Elementary education. In High School, tuition was expected but was minimal by today’s standards.
    I am very glad to have had a good education. My children attended overseas schools (DoD) taught by excellent teachers and also experienced Catholic schools for a time.
    As you know, some public schools are good while others are not. Parochial schools still tend to be a notch above.

  • Estelle Dahl's avatar

    BY Estelle Dahl

    ON April 16, 2014 10:19 PM

    Four of the absolute worst teachers I have ever observed were in Catholic schools, as was one of the very best.  These five teachers were at four different schools.  One was a constant screamer, one was downright mean and even cruel, one was completely incompetent in classroom management, one was a bitter, angry person who hated kids, and one was probably a saint who could teach almost anything to anyone.  Four were nuns, including the saint, and one was a lay person.  Very UNeven quality, to say the least!  The often unspoken reason many parents send their children to private schools is because they don’t want their kids to associate with the perceived “lower class” public school students.  Very unfortunate, and very sad.  We will all intersect at some point in life.  Well, maybe not if your last name is Romney.

  • Our Catholic friends send their child to a Catholic all boys school because they don’t want him in a public school where kids do drugs and drink, etc.  HA!  We live in an area where the public school is noted for excellence and high college placement numbers, yet foolishly people spend their money on something they think they are getting.  All my nieces and nephews went to private schools and excellent colleges, yet not one is doing any better than those of us who went to public schools and public universities!  In fact, they are not doing as well.  Many kids who go to private high schools have learning issues and need small class sizes, or live in areas where the public schools are not very good and there is no option.  Incidentally, 30 years ago when my siblings went to Catholic school, my parents pulled all of them out because when they transferred to the public HS after years in parochial school, they underperformed.  The program wasn’t as rigorous and the teachers not as skilled (likely due to less pay for teachers at private schools).

  • Armando Benavides's avatar

    BY Armando Benavides

    ON May 14, 2014 08:38 AM

    The reality is that we have excellent private, public, and charter schools and low performing too.  The challenge is to continue to advocate for the excellent schools and strive to close all low performing schools.  That is the best approach.  This notion that public schools are superior to charter schools maybe so in some school districts but not in others.  I have closely examined student performance outcomes in standardized tests in my children’s CA district and find wide differences in performance outcomes even within the schools of the district, with students at some schools far exceeding the performance of others. 
    That is the reality that parents face.  How to select the best school for their child.  I for one, based on my assessment of the performance data, have concluded that parents should have a right to chose among all of the excellent schools , whether charter, private, or public and reform or close the poor performing schools, no matter what its classification.

  • ShayDigenan's avatar

    BY ShayDigenan

    ON June 24, 2014 09:19 AM

    Thank you for the article now I have new arguments to use in disputes. There are so many articles about poor financing of public schools or about some terrible accidents. I know they happen there, however they happen in other educational establishments too. I think that public school id really the place which unites everyone but now we try to divide people into some categories.  I also had doubts but my son got education at public school and there teachers revealed his talent to write excellent essays, click here to see them. And he is not the exception as there are lots of talented people who made their first steps in such educational establishments.

  • ShayDigenan's avatar

    BY ShayDigenan

    ON June 24, 2014 09:20 AM

    Thank you for the article now I have new arguments to use in disputes. There are so many articles about poor financing of public schools or about some terrible accidents. I know they happen there, however they happen in other educational establishments too. I think that public school id really the place which unites everyone but now we try to divide people into some categories.  I also had doubts but my son got education at public school and there teachers revealed his talent to write excellent essays, click here to see them. And he is not the exception as there are lots of talented people who made their first steps in such educational establishments.

  • David Eckstrom's avatar

    BY David Eckstrom

    ON December 26, 2014 06:51 AM

    Armondo demonstrates why the misconception that private schools are superior persists by saying “The reality is . . .” in response to an article that details what actual controlled analysis says, and then backs it up with a personal anecdote.

    Facts just don’t seem to matter much in this debate.

  • LL Cool J's avatar

    BY LL Cool J

    ON March 5, 2015 07:36 PM

    Has it been mentioned that many private schools do NOT even require teachers to have a current teaching license??  Astonishing.  I found this out when I was getting my Master’s in Education.

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