Government Study Distorts 'Successes' of Public Schools

Do some public-school students perform as well or better than private-school students? A recent study by the federal Department of Education seems to suggest they do.

Test scores from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicated that public-school students enjoyed a 4.5% advantage over private school students in 4th-grade math and were competitive with them in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math. They were, though, at a decided 7.3% disadvantage in 8th-grade reading.

These results, mixed though they were, prompted Reg Weaver, the head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, to boast that “the results were nothing more than we expected” and that public schools were “doing an outstanding job.” The Palm Beach Post weighed in with a mean-spirited editorial titled “Bush-suppressed study dispels voucher myth.”

Flawed Methodology

Weaver may want to re-cork his champagne. In a meticulous 56-page critique, distinguished education expert Paul Peterson of Harvard lambasted the government study for its flawed methodology. The study, he found, fell short of routine academic standards by improperly boosting the performance of public-school students relative to their private-school peers.

The Department of Education researchers “adjusted” the raw NAEP data to account for differences in the socioeconomic status between the two groups. They did this, however, by classifying students according to whether they received federal aid such as subsidized school lunches or Title I assistance, rather than by a more even-handed approach.

Federal funds flow to public and private school students in very different ways. Public schools receive federal aid on a “school-wide” basis (that is, the assistance flows to the entire school based on the percentage of poor students enrolled) but reaches private-school students on an individual basis only. Once a public school qualifies, therefore, every student at the school, regardless of poverty level, is technically counted as a recipient of those services.

The bottom line is that the researchers’ samples of public- and private-school students were hopelessly confused and worked to artificially elevate the scores of the public-school students.

Peterson substituted better criteria, such as the parent’s level of education and whether another language is spoken in the home, and found that “when student characteristics are estimated consistently across school sectors, a private-school advantage relative to public schools is evident at all grade levels in both math and reading in all estimations but one.” In most cases, the private-school advantage dwarfed the much more modest edge that elicited the cries of hallelujah from Weaver and his liberal allies.

Trapped in Failing Schools

This intellectual spat, incidentally, has real-world ramifications. After all, during the 2004-2005 school year 2,112 public schools recorded their fifth consecutive year of failure. There is no better case for school choice than the students in these “persistently failing” schools.

Let’s examine the extent of this meltdown in one school district: New York City. Altogether, more than 137,000 Big Apple students were trapped in 129 of these failing schools. Though schools are ambitiously named after intellectual giants such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, their academic failure is the unhappy norm. It isn’t uncommon, in fact, for more than 90% of students to fall short of New York State’s minimum standard for academic performance in reading and math.

Here are two examples. Among 8th graders at the Harlem junior high school named after Dodger great Jackie Robinson, 92% failed the standard in math and 98% in reading. At another junior high a few blocks south of Yankee Stadium, named after Yankee Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, the scores were even worse—98% and 99% failed the math and reading standards, respectively.

President Bush has proposed a $100-million opportunity scholarship program to give the children in these and other persistently failing schools a chance to attend the private or parochial school of their choice. Sadly, the members of Congress who represent them are the most vociferous opponents of this common-sense remedy.

In each of eight New York City-area congressional districts, 7,000 or more children are trapped in these failing schools. In Rep. Jose Serrano’s (D-N.Y.) Bronx district, 36,814 children attend 35 failed schools. For Harlem’s Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the number is 21,681 attending 22 persistently underperforming schools. Joe Crowley’s (D-N.Y.) Bronx district includes more than 16,500 such kids in a dozen schools. Yet they and their New York colleagues regard Bush’s initiative as a threat to their constituents rather than a last chance for them to salvage their futures.