Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Joshua Benton: Can cash buy good schools?

I'm back, temporarily at least. My new roof is on and now my in-laws are here for a visit. They will leave on the 10th but then I will go to visit my folks, and others for three weeks toward the end of July. For now here is an interesting article from the Dallas Morning News.

An interesting new study by two University of Illinois researchers seems to indicate it often isn't. And it gives further evidence that many folks can't spot a "good" school when they see one.

"More often than not when people try to judge the quality of schools, they look at who is walking in the doors of that school, not what the school is doing with them once they're there," said Chris Lubienski, co-author of the study with his wife and fellow professor, Sarah.

Their study looks at math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP is the big federal test whose results researchers love to slice and dice, since it includes scores and demographic data for tens of thousands of students.

When NAEP scores are reported, they always show private-school students outperforming their peers in public school. It's been a consistent finding for decades.

But the Lubienskis were curious. Is that because private schools are really better? Or is it just because they generally enroll wealthier, better-prepared students?

So they built a way to try to remove social class as a factor. They gathered up data on the students taking the test. Were they poor enough to qualify for free school lunch? Did they have a computer at home? Did their parents graduate from college, or did they drop out of high school? They then compared how public and private schools fared when these socioeconomic factors were stripped away.

They found that, at all class levels, public schools had a small but consistent edge over privates. Their suspicions were supported by the numbers: The reason private schools look better on paper is because they serve more middle- and upper-class kids.

Or, to be even plainer: Poor kids in public schools did better than poor kids in private schools. Middle-class kids in public schools did better than middle-class kids in private schools. And rich kids in public schools did better than rich kids in private schools.

"All kids can learn" is a nice idea, and "no child left behind" is a nice slogan. But kids who come from poor, literacy-starved homes start school so far behind better-off suburbanites that the gap isn't closable on any large scale. Dallas ISD could corner the market on the world's best teachers and its test scores still wouldn't beat Highland Park's.

I once heard a researcher say that if you want to eliminate the achievement gap in American schools, the answer was simple: Just end poverty. Good luck with that.

There's more but this is a study that shows once again that in education things are not as black and white as our leaders would have us believe.

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