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Unionized Public Schools Do a Better Job

Marc Jampole
November 21, 2017


by Marc Jampole

from the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

IN DEFINING what constitutes a leftist perspective on education, let’s rely on a number of foundational principles that have defined the American left for more than 150 years: The left favors unions; the left believes in public education; the left believes in the ability of government to address societal needs; the left wants to create a level playing field which includes equal educational opportunity to all in integrated classrooms reflecting the diversity of the American experience; the left favors curricula that are historically and scientifically accurate and imbued with the values of a secular, democratic and diverse society.

When you apply these principles, you pretty much get a less racially segregated version of the typical, unionized, big-city American public school system of the late 20th century. Yet over the past thirty or more years, the left has been playing defense on issues related to primary and secondary education, fighting off attacks from the right that charge public school systems across the country — called “government schools” by the most radical of the right — with failing our students.

Those criticizing public education since the beginning of the Reagan Era suspiciously resemble the assemblage of constituencies and special interests that today control the Republican Party, including:

• Those who want to cut the cost of educating our youth to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy;

• Those who want to serve as contractors when government services are privatized;

• Those opposed to unions;

• Those opposed to either the values or the facts taught in the public schools, especially in science, health and history courses;

• Those who want to restrict the type of people with whom their children associate.

Be it charter schools, vouchers for private schools, or cyber schools (a type of charter school in which students take classes over the Internet), the false panaceas that these rightwing
opponents of public education propose always involve privatization, to give “consumers” — parents and guardians — more choice among competing schools. Opponents of public schools tout “choice” as a great good, one that only the “free market” can provide, without ever defining what “choice” actually means. They can’t possibly mean choice in curriculum, because until about eighth grade, virtually all American pupils, pupils, except for the rare gifted, get the same basic curriculum, sometimes with enrichment. After eighth grade, the large public school system can offer far more choices in courses, tracks, special schools, magnet programs, university courses and vocational opportunities than a private school can. No, when rightwingers say “choice,” they really mean choosing with whom children associate in schools, and choosing to educate children in values other than those of an open, secular, multicultural, fact-based democracy.

The current left-right divide on education breaks down to a number of “which is better” questions, like an eye exam: Which is better, public or private schools? Traditional public schools or charter schools? Public schools or cyber schools? Kids who use vouchers to attend private schools or kids who stay in their neighborhood school? The problem is that in seeking answers to these questions, many researchers have compared apples to oranges while claiming to compare fruit to fruit. In fact, one kind of fruit are children from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds, while another kind of fruit are children from wealthy and upper-middle-class backgrounds.

Raw data shows, for example, that children in private schools perform better than those in public school do. But when you correct for poverty and disabilities, as University of Illinois researchers Christopher A. and Sarah Theule Lubienski do in their seminal study, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, you find that students in public schools perform significantly better and show greater improvement over their private schools peers. (More on the Lubienskis’ important research below.)

That we need to correct for poverty before making “which is better” comparisons becomes clear when we consider the research by David C. Berliner of Arizona State University and many others that finds that teachers and all other facets of schooling contribute less than 30 percent to a student’s academic success. Other factors include the neighborhood in which the student lives, the education and wealth of the parents, the access to reading materials, museums, camps and other enrichment, the languages spoken at home, and the relative emotional and psychological stability of home life. Most of these other elements can be used to characterize students as either wealthy or disadvantaged. If most of the 70 percent non-school contribution to academic success boils down to wealth, the only way to answer the “which is better” questions that dominate school debate is to correct for poverty — as often as we can.

MY SOURCE for research on what factors contribute to academic success, and for much of the other research that this article reviews, is 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, a compilation of literature reviews and bibliographies exploring fifty widely-believed but pernicious myths about public education. The authors are two distinguished scholars in educational practice and theory, David Berliner [not the David C. Berliner referenced above] and Gene V. Glass of the University of Colorado at Boulder, with nineteen of their recent doctoral students. While frequently identifying the most factually vacuous and dangerous myths with the right wing, Berliner, Glass, et. al. write from the perspective of social scientists with no political axe to grind.

It was 50 Myths, for example, that laid out the research that demonstrates that the basic premise behind all criticism of the U.S. educational system since World War II is based on a false notion that U.S. students underperform their peers from other developed countries on tests. Opponents of public schools offer our poor performance relative to the rest of the world as proof that public schools are failing our children.

It turns out that it’s another case of comparing apples to oranges! Start with the raw data: the 2009 Program for Student International Assessment (PSIA) found that U.S. students rated in the middle of the pack in reading (14th) and science (17th) and towards the bottom in math (25th) among thirty-four countries, while the 2011 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) found U.S. students performed anywhere between 7th and 11th among fourth and eighth graders of sixty-three countries in math and science — a solid improvement over how we did twenty years ago, but still not first or second.

A closer look, however, reveals that the U.S. has a substantially higher poverty rate than any other country participating in PSIA, and than most participating in TIMSS.” The poverty rate of those in the U.S. taking the PSIA test exceeded 20 percent, compared to first-place Finland’s child poverty rate of less than 5 percent among their test-takers. If we look only at U.S. schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students are poor — as former National Principal of the Year and nationally-known educational consultant Mel Riddile did in “It’s Poverty, Not Stupid” and Professor Berliner did in “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth” — we discover that U.S. students finish ahead of every other country! We can see a similar effect on TIMSS scores. Moreover, the U.S. leads the world in the number of high performers on international tests — and in the number of low performers.

When we correct for poverty, we must come to the conclusion that either all school systems throughout the world fail their students, or that the U.S. system is one of the best in the world. Common sense and logic dictate that we do, in fact, have a superior education system, and that it is the American economy and society in general that are shortchanging are youth by allowing so many of them to live in poverty. The foundational premise upon which the right builds its arguments against public schools and in favor of choice and privatization is fallacious.

STILL, NO SYSTEM is perfect. We could always do better, right? Shouldn’t we apply the business strategy of continuous improvement to our schools? If private schools educate our students better than public schools do, why not offer vouchers? If charter- or cyber-school students outperform students in traditional public schools, why not introduce these ways of organizing schools more ubiquitously throughout the country? The problem is that once we start comparing apples to apples, it’s clear that students get a much better education by unionized teachers in traditional public schools and public school systems than any of the alternatives touted by the right.

In perhaps the most significant piece of research on the subject, the Lubienskis absolutely shatter the myth that private school students outperform their public school peers. This myth was ingrained in the nation’s psyche long before the mass media in the Reagan years began their nearly forty-year campaign to convince the public that privatization and the free market always work and that government solutions always fail. In The Public School Advantage, the Lubienskis start with the scores of private and public school students on the National Assessment of Education Progress test (NAEP) from 2000 to 2005 and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K). Arguing that scores in English proficiency are much more dependent than math scores on learning outside the classroom, the Lubienskis limited themselves to poring over the math scores. The raw scores say that private school students do much better than public school students in math tests and improve their scores much more over time. The Lubienskis combine multiple variables such as available reading material and computer access in homes, parents’ educational level and eligibility for free and reduced-cost lunches and other anti-poverty programs to categorize test-takers along the social-economic spectrum. After considering the much higher number of students from wealthier backgrounds in private schools, and other variables such as ethnicity and disabilities, the Lubienskis found that on both the NAEP and ECLS-K, public school students outperformed their private school cohorts.

The Educational Testing Service, Stanford, and Notre Dame all double-checked the Lubienskis’ computations by looking at the same statistics and came to the same conclusions. Far from the crisis in public education that many see, the Lubienskis make a strong case that public school are doing a fine job educating the youth of America.

In a study commissioned by the Center on Educational Policy, researcher Harold Weglinsky applied the same approach to high school students participating in the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988-2000. As usual, the raw scores gave private schools an edge, but after correcting for family background, Weglinsky writes, “students attending independent private high schools, most types of parochial high schools, and public high schools of choice performed no better on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history than their counterparts in traditional public high schools.” Moreover, students who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more likely to attend college than their counterparts at traditional public high schools. Weglinsky also found that young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up with no more job satisfaction at age 26, nor were more engaged in civic activities, than young adults who had attended traditional public high schools.

The results of these studies don’t surprise me because I live in the real world, and in the real world the best get paid the most: The best lawyers tend to make the most money, as do the best accountants, the best writers, the best muscians, and so on. Forget the obscene fact that Beyoncé makes about two hundred times what the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic does — they both do quite well when compared to the average piano teacher who gives lessons through the JCC. Public school teachers make more money than private and charter school teachers. Doesn’t it make sense that they would therefore do a better job and that public schools would therefore do better in quantitative comparisons? I know that there are some very competent and dedicated private school teachers, but collectively, how could the population of private school teachers outperform that of public school teachers, who make so much more money?

The Lubienskis, however, ran the numbers and it turns out that the major reason that public schools outperform private schools is that public schools are more open than private ones to innovation, frequently spearheaded by “those centralized bureaucracies so despised in market theory,” as the Lubienskis write. The large, bureaucratic public school system is also quicker to apply the latest findings on how to educate students of various ages in various subjects.. The very benefit that free market supporters tout as the advantage of school choice — innovation —in fact resides with the traditional public school. The Lubienskis also found that public school teachers are more likely to be certified, get to participate in more continuing education, and tend to have more years of experience.

WHAT ABOUT charter schools, which are public schools that are run not by a board of education but by an independent board that often contracts with private, typically for-profit companies, to do the actual teaching and administration? Many black leaders as well as centrist politicians have embraced charter schools, the latter as part of a recalibration of constituencies that downplays union members.

But as with private schools, the research shows that charter schools typically fall short of public schools in educating students. In both 2009 and 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) assessed the performance of charter and public school students across the country, in sixteen states in 2009 and twenty-seven states housing 95 percent of the 2.3 million kids in charter schools in 2013. In 2009, charter schools did miserably when compared to traditional public schools, particularly in states such as Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Texas that have supported charter schools the most. More than 80 percent of charter schools in 2009 were either no better than or worse than comparative traditional public schools in how well their students performed on math and reading tests.

Yes, charter schools are improving, from very bad to mediocre: In 2009, 37 percent of charter schools performed worse than the neighborhood public school and only 17 percent did better. In the latest CREDO study, 31 percent of charter schools now do worse than the neighborhood school, while 29 percent do better. Charter schools range in quality from state to state: doing better in New York, Michigan and Louisiana, and worse in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Texas, among other states.

As it turns out, we can’t even trust the performance turned in by the minority of charter schools considered to be high-performing, as many discourage the enrollment of students who won’t do well on tests or who have disabilities. A 2013 Washington Post article by Valeri Strauss titled, “How Charter Schools Choose Desirable Students,” details the multitude of ways that charter schools ensure that they admit and retain only students likely to do well. These practices include giving admission tests, making applicants write essays, limiting the application period to a short period of time and only publicizing it in certain neighborhoods, demanding (illegally, as it turns out) that applicants produce birth certificates and Social Security cards, and asking them to document any disabilities before admission. Many charters also weed out students over time: Professor Berliner, for example, cites the example of a Tucson charter school run by the for-profit BASIS Charter Schools that U.S. News & World Report named as one of the top ten high schools in the country, which started with 125 students in sixth grade but has a mere 21 in its graduating class. The administration presumably weeded out low performers, who then returned to their traditional public school.

It’s absurd that anyone would expect a better outcome for charter schools. After all, as Michelle Exstrom details in “Teaching in Charter Schools” in the publication of the National Conference of State Legislatures, charter school teachers have less experience, are less likely to be certified, are paid less well, and have higher turnover rates than public school teachers.

Nevertheless, while charter schools have failed to improve education of public school students, they have accomplished a hidden objective of the right: separation of the races. Across the country, charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools, according to an analysis by researchers for the University of California at Los Angeles Civil Rights Project.

SEVERAL OTHER experiments in privatization have proven to be sheer failures. Studies of student performance in cyber schools, for example, show that online education does a far worse job of educating students than traditional public schools. The annual dropout rate in cyber schools often exceeds 50 percent, graduation rates are very low, and achievement scores are abysmal when compared to public school peers.

We can infer that voucher and tax credit programs that give money to families to send their children to private schools do not lead to increased academic performance since the research shows that public schools tend to outperform private ones. So far, studies of voucher programs in Wisconsin and Ohio have found that students using vouchers to attend private schools did no better academically than comparable public school students, despite the fact that the voucher students tend to come from more stable and wealthier backgrounds.

All forms of choice in education fail to live up to the claims of their rightwing supporters. Traditional pub-
lic schools do better than private schools, charter schools, voucher/tax credit programs, and cyber schools. The public-school advantage is particularly strong in those states in which the corps of teachers is more heavily unionized, according to Valeri Straus in a 2010 Washington Post article titled “The Real Effect of Teachers’ Union Contracts.” Professor Berliner points out that not coincidentally, teachers in nearly all countries that are high-performing on international tests are highly unionized.

If choice and privatization don’t work to improve the performance of students, what does? After all, although adjusted figures do demonstrate that our current educational system is doing well, we could always improve.

The answer is to spend money, which is not what conservatives want to hear, as that would require raising taxes, probably on those with higher incomes. The first thing to do with additional money is to reduce class size, as more than a century of research shows that smaller classes benefit students, especially those in grades K-3. And despite what Professor Berliner calls the “junk science” of the Cato Institute and other right-wing think tanks that purport to show that the positive impact of preschool and kindergarten is illusory or temporary, investing in universal preschool and kindergarten provides permanent benefits, except when the kindergarten focuses too much on academic subject matter. Clearly, more computers in schools, newer textbooks, more science labs, bigger libraries and more vocational tracks in high school would all improve our schools. All take additional funding.

Remember, however, that school is responsible for only 30 percent of a student’s success — so the real key to improving school performance is to reduce poverty. Raising the minimum wage, providing a less niggardly social welfare net for the poor, and facilitating the growth of unions, are three of many leftwing ideas that would reduce poverty in the U.S. and thereby improve student performance.

In their book Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir collect and analyze an impressive amount of research to demonstrate that those who suffer a scarcity of a resource — say food or money — dedicate more of their brain to addressing that scarcity, thereby degrading their ability to attend to their daily tasks in school or on the job. According to the authors, scarcity “puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb.” The most striking study they cite administered I.Q. tests to Indian sugar cane workers before the harvest, when they were broke, and after the harvest, when they had some money. The difference in scores on these admittedly imperfect tests amounted to nine or ten points. On an I.Q. test, which measures certain intellectual capabilities correlated with success in school, ten points means a lot: for example, about 28 percent of the U.S. population scores between 106-115, while only 9 percent of the population scores between 116-125.

In other words, not only do rich and upper-middle-class children have the advantages of classes and lessons, summer camps, trips abroad, private tutors and SAT prep courses, they also have an inherent advantage in that their brains are not drained by scarcity concerns. The easiest way to improve our educational system would be to end poverty, which would enable formerly poor children to focus their brains on learning and not on the anxiety of not knowing when their next meal will be found.

When the right tells us that choice and privatization will improve the performance of students, that the traditional school system with unionized teachers underperforms, and that spending more money on schools won’t improve performance, they are basing their beliefs on their own preconceived notions. If we use verifiable research, we discover that the traditional left view on public education is right: Traditional public schools with unionized teachers produce the highest quality educational outcomes for our children. If we want to improve those outcomes we should start by spending more money in the schools and instituting programs that fight poverty.

On matters of education, the traditional left is right and the right is wrong.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer and retired public relations executive. He launched this column, “Left Is Right,” with a piece on immigration. Marc’s new poetry flip book, Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month, is available at our Pushcart.