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The Empire Strikes Back (Part I): New study claims public schools are better than private schools

To refute him and other critics, public education’s supporters have trotted out a new report that they say proves that public schools actually outperform charter, private, and religious schools.

Lee Duigon
  • Lee Duigon,
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The very title [The Messianic Character of American Education] signifies that the author [R.J. Rushdoony] understood exactly the heretical challenge that public education posed to an essentially Christian nation, for the educators, imbued with behavioral psychology and evolution, not only rejected Christ as the Messiah, but pretended to be themselves messiahs offering their own seductive and poisonous brand of salvation through the institution of secular humanist education.

—Samuel L. Blumenfeld (forward to the 1995 edition of Rushdoony’s The Messianic Character of American Education, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA)

It is self-evident that on this scheme, if it is consistently and persistently carried out in all parts of the country, the United States system of national popular education will be the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of Atheism which the world has ever seen.

—R.J. Rushdoony (p. 335)

When Rushdoony wrote those words in 1963, he planted the seeds of an all-out war of ideas against a public education establishment that until then had pushed its plans forward without any opposition.

Rushdoony’s sides bore fruit: there’s opposition now, and plenty of it. Battered by constant criticism, embarrassed by adverse news reports (WorldNetDaily, for example, keeps a running tally of teacher-student sex scandals), and threatened by a presidential administration openly supportive of educational alternatives, public education’s supporters have begun to hit back.

ABC-TV’s John Stossel poured fuel on the fire in January when his documentary “Stupid in America” aired on 20/20 (see http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=285).

To refute him and other critics, public education’s supporters have trotted out a new report that they say proves that public schools actually outperform charter, private, and religious schools.

“Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data,” by Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, University of Illinois, can be read in its entirety at http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP111.pdf.

In this article, the first of a series, we’ll examine the escalating controversy over public education in America, and the role to be played in it by the Lubienskis’ report.

Stossel: Not Impressed

John Stossel has read the report, he told Chalcedon, and he’s not impressed.

Stossel said the authors had to “torture the data” and subject it to “improper analysis” to get the result they wanted: an affirmation of the public schools.

“Government monopolies fail,” he said, “and public education is a government monopoly. There’s no competition, no incentive to do better. Sure, the kids seem to be doing okay in the eighth grade; but the longer they’re in our school system, the farther they fall behind the rest of the world.”

Stossel criticized the Lubienskis for focusing solely on mathematics test scores.

“It’s only the math?” he said. “What happened to reading, writing, history, and everything else?”

After his documentary aired, teachers’ union members staged protests outside his office. He then received a challenge from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to teach in a New York City public school for a week, but the day before he spoke to Chalcedon, the union withdrew its invitation (see his April 5 column, http://www.townhall.com/opinion/columns/JohnStossel/2006/04/05/192548.html).

“I’ll probably do a follow-up to the documentary,” he said. “The controversy just won’t die down.”

“Based on Lies”

Among those complaining about Stossel and the rest of public education’s critics is “Talk to Action” (http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/3/31/13544/0640), a self-avowed pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality weblog of the Religious Left.

Says “Talk to Action” writer Bruce Wilson, “ongoing criticism of America’s public schools is baseless and partisan,” and Stossel’s “skewed” documentary “included a series of misleading claims, a lack of balance in reporting and interviews, and video clips created primarily for entertainment to argue for expanding ‘school choice’ initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools.”

Wilson decries “the ongoing assault on America’s public schools” and “the strategy to destroy America’s public schools.” But his language is mild, compared to that found on teachers’ union websites.

The American Federation of Teachers (see http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/closer_look/050905.htm) denounces “The collection of think tankers, politicians, and commentators who, using funds from a handful of far-right contributors, promote privatization in education. Undeterred by research demonstrating that privatization harms students, the voucher blob [sic] generates pseudoscholarship and op-eds that bash public schools. They have succeeded in creating an echo chamber for anti-public school messages that bounce around think tanks, foundation Web sites and fringe media outlets. Too often, these messages, based on lies, slip into the mainstream media and become accepted as fact.”

By “privatization” that “harms students,” the AFT means any and all alternatives to government schools staffed by teachers’ unions — including, of course, homeschooling. By its standards, you are reading this article on a “foundation Web site” that is part of the “fringe media.”

To defend the public schools, and present them as efficient and effective, “Talk to Action” and the AFT have turned to the study by Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski.

Who’s Spinning the Report?

Chalcedon asked Christopher Lubienski if his research justifies the position that criticisms of the public schools are lies and partisanship.

“Our report is what it is: a research analysis of academic performance using NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress],” he said. “Since you’ve read the report, you can see where we were willing to draw conclusions from the data, and where we felt certain conclusions — including some that many might see as supportive of their particular agendas — would be inappropriate based on this type of data and analysis. As I am sure you know, once this type of thing has been made public, authors cannot control how other people interpret the work or otherwise use it to support any pre-existing positions.

“I don’t know the group you mention [Talk to Action]. Their conclusions cannot be supported solely by our paper; our report simply does not address such issues … However, I do know that people who are interested in these things have referred to research such as ours as evidence that there often appears to be a disconnect between reform rhetoric and research evidence.”

Lubienski granted that the debate over public education, and the use of his findings to support one side or another, has become political.

“I agree that this debate has now — for better, or, more likely, for worse — become extremely political,” he said.

The Lubienskis’ project was funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education — evidence, say public school advocates, that the government supports their position.

But that’s not so, department officials told Chalcedon.

“The study was funded by us, but it was done independently from us,” said Mike Bowler of the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. “We don’t take positions on what the test scores mean. We’re in the middle of evaluating charter schools. Many of these programs are supported by this [presidential] administration, so we couldn’t take positions on them.”

In a nutshell, the Lubienskis’ report says that demographic factors — such as students’ race or socioeconomic backgrounds, their parents’ educational backgrounds, where they live, etc. — account for the higher test scores so often achieved by students in private schools, compared to those in public schools. If those factors are “controlled for” statistically, the report says, then public school students seem to score higher than private school students. The Lubienskis looked only at mathematics test scores compiled by the government in 2003 from a very broad sample base, and applied different statistical models in an effort to rule out the influence of demographics.

Their work will be examined more closely in the next article in this series. Meanwhile, the Department of Education does not concur with the Lubienskis’ analysis — and certainly not with the Left’s interpretation of it.

“That is not our position,” said Elaine Quisenberry of the department’s Communications and Outreach office. “The differences between public and private schools [test scores] are not based on demographics, but also on other variables.” Other researchers, she said, are studying these other variables.

Conclusion

If the Lubienskis’ report is to be taken as evidence that the public schools are fine and their critics are liars, neither the Lubienskis themselves, nor their government sponsors, stand behind that assertion. The Religious Left and the teachers’ unions have put the research to a use that is disavowed by its author and its sponsors.

Chalcedon has always opposed government schools and has been a leader in the homeschool movement — one might even say a co-founder of it. Although we have not supported charter schools and voucher plans, we have learned from experience that the public school establishment has always and will always try either to abolish homeschooling or impose secularist standards on it (see “A Quiet Threat to Homeschooling,” http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/0310/031001duigon.php).

For the time being, charter schools and vouchers are the primary targets of those who seek to curb the school choice movement. If they make progress on that front, they will turn their attentions to homeschooling.

R.J. Rushdoony devoted much of his life to the defense of all Christian education, whether done in the home, church, nonprofit, or profit. He defended and promoted the freedom of all non-government options for education. As a Christian education champion, he appeared as an expert witness in court cases throughout the country. The note of increasing hysteria in both the tactics and the rhetoric of today’s public school establishment are proof that he did not labor in vain.

Next: A Closer Look at the Lubienski Report


Lee Duigon
  • Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.

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