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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."

If you want to know the truth about public school test scores, look beyond the top line and look instead at apples-to-apples comparisons. Look at how children of similar economic backgrounds are performing at different schools. 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.

This was posted originally at Please follow Robert Niles on Twitter: @robertniles.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There is a genuine brokenness out there. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, Amber6541, Odysseus

    Schools that educate poor children in the US are indeed failing, much more than schools that educate poor children in other developed countries.  Either our poor are different, or our schools are different, and I suspect it's the latter.  

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 01:54:18 PM PST

    •  Our Poor May Be Different. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Amber6541, RuralLiberal, quill, Chi

      Their neighborhoods are key funders of their public education. I suspect that's not the case in a number of the other developed countries.

      Most of them also lack a historic slave population that has a similar history to our Blacks over the past century, and continues to be shut out of much opportunity.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 02:14:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Other countries fail to educate their poor (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      happymisanthropy, quill, Chi

      just as much. But other developed countries don't have the disparity between rich and poor that we do, nor do they have the isolated communities of rich and poor that we do.

      Also in some countries, kids with less academic aptitude are tracked into trade courses and don't take them same tests.

      Neither our schools nor our poor is what's different. Our society is different.

      Ed FitzGerald for governor Of Ohio. Women's lives depend on it.

      by anastasia p on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 03:23:25 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Blanket assertion w/o supporting (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      evidence or defining the parmaters of poor.

      "When dealing with terrorism, civil and human rights are not applicable." Egyptian military spokesman.

      by Paleo on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 05:16:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Our poor are poorer and we have more of them (0+ / 0-)

      25% of our kids are in poverty. No other developed country has rates even close to that.

      17 states have half or more of their kids living below the poverty line.

      That's horrific. How can we be allowing that when we consider ourselves to be the greatest nation in the world?

      Some of our kids go without health care. No other developed country has that.

      Many of these kids don't have a stable place to live or a safe, quiet place for doing homework or even keeping their stuff. You can't have library books if you can't guarantee their safe return. Some of them live with noise or chaos almost constantly when they are out of school. They may effectively live out of a car with occasional couch-surfing.

      These kinds of conditions are neurologically damaging to children. It's not just that their parents aren't helping them with homework - it's that the kids are so overwhelmed with their environment outside of school that it is very difficult for them to learn the advanced concepts we're expecting and requiring - which by the way are substantially more rigorous than the curriculum we encountered as kids.

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 10:09:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Not we, evil RW racist TGOP are nt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    nosotros no somos estúpidos

    by a2nite on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 02:09:39 PM PST

    •  It has been the policy of Republicans since (0+ / 0-)

      Reagan to work to destroy public education in America BY POLICY.  And they are succeeding in many parts of America, so I disagree with the diarist that in many parts of America, the public schools ARE broken, and they got that way, in many cases by policy.

      If you want to see the right wing game plan for the destruction of public education in America, state-by-state, click the link below to the ALEC Report Card on American Education.  Click the pdf link.  Read the report, and see if you can come away with any conclusion other than they are trying to destroy public education and  make it a profit center for their for-profit Education Task Force members.  It's all there, a blueprint to destroy public education in America.

      Republicans are like alligators. All mouth and no ears.

      by Ohiodem1 on Wed Nov 06, 2013 at 03:11:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  the only folks trying to break them are profiteers (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Amber6541, RuralLiberal, jan4insight, Chi

    everyone else is engaging in often contradictory struggles designed to surrender power and effectiveness to forces who care more about money than education

    Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

    by annieli on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 02:19:45 PM PST

  •  Everything public has fallen into disfavor, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy, RuralLiberal, Chi

    now that the public actually has the tools (information, access, ballot) with which to govern as the Constitution promised.


    public parks
    public transit
    public access
    public hearing
    public record
    public notice
    public information
    public libraries

  •  In a way, it's getting to be like gerrymandering. (6+ / 0-)

    Instead of the voters choosing politicians, we have the politicians choosing the voters.  Now we're seeing attempts to 'play the system' because schools are choosing students, rather than simply taking all comers, regardless of economic class or disabilities.

  •  The oligarchs don't want working schools. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy, quill, Chi

    If kids actually learned something from school, they start asking uncomfortable questions when they get older, and the oligarchs have to deal with constantly being challenged.

    They want schools to psychologically condition kids to be unquestioningly obedient.

    Or as my savior put it...

  •  In a word, profit (5+ / 0-)

    The largest chunk of state money is spent on education. The greedsters are trying  to get their mitts on it. They are ghouls who don't care about your health care or retirement, so why should they care about your kid's education.

    Here in Ohio, we have the abomination known as for-profit charter schools. Year after year, they are ranked at the bottom of the heap — a string of Ds & Fs. They close suddenly and reopen under different names. Kids are sent back to public schools midyear. Their books often are too messed up to audit.
    But their operators are among the biggest donors to Republican politicians in the state and the Ohio Republican Party.

    Follow the money.


    Ed FitzGerald for governor Of Ohio. Women's lives depend on it.

    by anastasia p on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 03:20:41 PM PST

  •  Because Ultimately Goldman Sucks, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quill, Chi

    Microsoft and other corporate parasites want to get rid of bricks and mortar schools-- and get their slobbery lips on the billions the government spends on public education.

    This is one of the scams I warned everyone about; there'd be more after the 2007-2008 crash.

    "The 1% don't want SOLUTIONS; they've worked very hard the last four decades to get conditions the way they are now".

    by Superpole on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 03:38:06 PM PST

  •  Ideology and money (0+ / 0-)


    "When dealing with terrorism, civil and human rights are not applicable." Egyptian military spokesman.

    by Paleo on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 05:14:06 PM PST

  •  This is an excellent summary of many issues (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    in public education. Concise and to the point. Thanks.

    Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

    by elfling on Sun Nov 03, 2013 at 10:10:36 PM PST

  •  Our public schools do have problems (0+ / 0-)

    ...but, as Diane Ravitch says, the reform movement is a fix for a problem that doesn't exist.  The problems that exist aren't being addressed, and the fixes that are being implemented are just rubbish.

    But this doesn't mean that no problems exist in public education.   If all education were equal, then it wouldn't matter how much help a child was getting from home.   Every child would  have an equal chance to do well within the parameters of the school day and school resources (teachers, technology, libraries, activities and buildings and grounds).   NCLB, Race to the Top, and the "reform movement" have just made problems worse by promoting the worst things in education (competition, testing, standards) and adding federal funding, profiteering, and corruption to the mix.

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