Christopher and Sarah Lubienski’s recently published book, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools has caused quite a commotion in both the independent and public school universe. The Lubienskis shed new light on an old question, showing, in a limited way, that when properly adjusted for demographics and economics, the gains students receive from a private school education may be smaller than previously thought. The results of their research are relevant for parents taking a careful consumer-driven approach to selecting a private school. The Lubienskis’ analysis also provides perspective on common problems that befall some private schools and have been discussed on this blog. 
The consensus of previous work, based on data collected in the 1980s and 1990s, was that there is a positive “private school effect” on performance. The Lubienskis find the opposite to be true. They use data more recently collected across the country to study outcomes for elementary and middle school students. The Lubienskis specifically focus on mathematics, claiming that math is more isolated from “family background factors” than other topics because “mathematics is a subject that is learned primarily in school.” By using more recent data, a far larger sample of students, and accounting for family background with the latest statistical techniques, the Lubinskis made a surprising discovery.  On average, public schools are better at teaching math. The Lubienskis credit the routine licensing, certification and professional development requirements that public school teachers face to maintain high quality teaching. Considering the dominant presence of religious schools in their sample and their narrow focus on mathematics, the authors’ sweeping conclusions about private education are overly ambitious. That said, there are important lessons for private school shoppers in their work.
Autonomy is viewed as an advantage by many private school advocates and the notion that students might be better off with more choices has merit. However, according to the Lubienskis, it also has drawbacks. Weak public regulation of private schools and relatively permissive accreditation standards is a key factor leading independent schools to underperform public schools.  This causes independent schools to function in relative isolation and cling to old standards, remaining out of touch with current learning theories. Also, previous posts have noted, private schools under financial pressure may unwisely use this autonomy to embrace shallow, quick marketing fixes that bandage over falling enrollments rather than create meaningful long-lasting programs that create a school legacy and a solid curricular foundation. When these compromises are made, they are difficult for you as a prospective family with children considering the school to see. To a large degree, this blog has tried to provide an inside view and specific cases when some private schools have succeeded and failed. The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools provides some more evidence that might help parents select a good school.
Mr. Steve deBeer, the Head of Friends School in Boulder, Colorado, wrote a particularly interesting post about the Lubienskis’ book, titled, Are Independent School’s Worth the Investment? Mr. deBeer’s thoughtful piece clearly points out the shortcomings of the Lubienskis’ dataset. He emphasizes that a foundation for his school is an established teacher certification program that partners with other public and private schools in the Boulder, Colorado area, and he makes the important point that student success cannot be reduced to the results of a single test. Digging deeper into the tiny school’s website shows an impressive teacher training program exposing the teachers to Colorado State Teacher licensing as they work to be informed by the state’s Core standards but are not beholden to them. Friends School in Boulder demonstrates an impressive and sustainable investment in human resources with the head of school working to make its educational mission statement deeply rooted in fertile soil. Even though the Lubienskis enumerate the problems with private schools in their book, Mr. deBeer’s school seems to stand as an example of a place that offers the value added which might compel parents to pay top dollar for a private school education.
Compare the Boulder Friends School experience to a local DC Metro Friends school that labels its curriculum, depending upon where one is looking, as “extensive,” “varied,” “progressive” “green,” “project-based” “deep and rigorous”—in other words, anything but conventional.  The faculty is an eclectic mix of veterans who assiduously guard their individuality and young, underpaid teachers with limited experience and who are not required to have formal education training. The school also has a penchant for hiring its own alumni. Faculty development is optional or forced to promote a fledgling 1:1 technology program. It is this type of autonomy within the private school industry that can inhibit a school from meeting rigorous standards and creating stable faculty development programs. So, it is not surprising that this same school, on the eve of their reaccreditation, linked their curriculum to the new national Common Core. The Common Core. an instrument of public school education, is designed to promote the basic literacy that all citizens are required to have to be informed when moving out of the public school general education program. Quaker school teachers who were once noted and praised for unconventional approaches to teaching appear to suddenly be expected to know and understand the newest approaches to Common Core teaching with no training or support at this local Friends school. Parents should be vigilant for this type of hasty problem solving at some private schools. With some intelligent digging, flawed curricular formation and unsupported faculty is easy to spot.
The Lubienskis note that many factors can motivate a family to seek a private school alternative. Some families place high value on an ethical or religious foundation for student life, other families are concerned about safety or individual attention, and yet others care deeply about building the connections their children will need to be welcomed into a particular social class. These factors are not the focus of the Lubienskis’ book. However, if the primary objective of a family is to obtain a more rigorous education for their children, the Lubienskis’ analysis suggests that a family should look very closely into the curriculum of the school and not assume that they will be getting a “private school advantage” when it comes to academics.
 The book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private schools University of Chicago Press, 2013 by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski: reviews and author interviews listed below are a good entry point for the Lubienskis’ analysis. The most cited is the Atlantic Monthly.
Ryan, Julia. The Atlantic Monthly, October 18, 2013. Are Private Schools Worth it?
Crawford, Amy. The Boston Globe, December 15, 2013. Public Schools Beat Private Schools
Chubb, John. National Association of Independent Schools Blog, November 21, 2013. A Critique of “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools”
del Castillo, Rafael. Seattle Girls School Blog, October 23, 2013. Are Private Schools Worth it?
Strauss, Valarie, The Washington Post, November 5, 2013. Are Private Schools Better than Private Schools? New Book Says No
 The Lubienskis use the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A critique of their methodology is beyond the scope of this post. One issue evident to any educator is that while children may have parents incapable of teaching them algebra at home, a key foundation for advanced mathematical thinking is the ability to visualize problems, which is strengthened by the right kind of “play”, as any Montessori teacher can tell you. Also, without a deep background in statistics, it’s difficult to critique their techniques, but their efforts to compare “apples to apples” by controlling for demographics are incomplete. Even within a narrow group (such as white, suburban, well-educated families), people who send their kids to public schools are different than people who choose private school in a way that will affect their results.
 Private schools are required to receive certification from the relevant state government and independent schools may periodically undergo an accreditation process from a peer-based non-profit associations, such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.
 These descriptive phrases were found in the Montgomery County Maryland Gazette newspaper, the school’s own web site, a local environmental discussion blog and the school’s Wikipedia page. If you are shopping for a private school match up the ways it presents itself in the media with its academic programs. See past blog posts for examples of schools with strong academic programs.
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