"So what?

A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the federal Education Department, indicates that public school kids in the fourth and eighth grades perform about as well or better than kids in private schools.

Seems like good news, doesn’t it?

Not, apparently, if you owe your job in education to the Bush Administration. Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, and the crew currently in charge of making policy for our education apparatus have invested a lot of time and energy in trying to convince the rest of us that public schools don’t work. That public schools are a quaint and outmoded notion that should be dismantled and turned over to private interests. You know, kind of like our interstate highway system.

It seems Spellings and Co. didn’t expect that a study of this kind could produce these results any more than Spellings’ boss expected an insurgency in Iraq. The study compared fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores in 2003 from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools. It went through a lengthy peer review. And it put the test scores in context by allowing for factors like the children’s race, ethnicity, income and parents’ educational backgrounds.

The study found that the public school kids did as well or better on tests than their private school counterparts in reading and math, with the exception of eighth grade reading, where the private school kids had the edge.

Did Spellings and Co. unfurl the flags to celebrate the fact that public school kids appear to be holding their own and, yes, competing with kids who go to private schools? Hardly. The study was released at the end of the day on a Friday. There was no news conference and no comment from Spellings. In fact, Spellings did everything she could to bury the thing. Her critics suggest that this was because the information contained in the study is not exactly music to her boss’ ears.

But the Education Department’s study should not have been completely unexpected. Last year, a pair of scholars at the University of Illinois, Christopher and Sara Theule Lubienski, published a study called “A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement.” They analyzed data pertaining to fourth and eighth graders from more than 1,300 public and private schools. First, the Lubienskis divided the kids into four socio-economic groups. When they compared children of similar socio-economic status, creating, in other words, a level playing field, public school fourth-graders scored six to seven points ahead of their private school peers; the public eighth-graders were up by one to nine points. “Wow,” said Mrs. Lubienski in the Christian Science Monitor, “this flies in the face of what we thought — that private schools do better than public.”

It is heartening to see our public schools affirmed this way, particularly when one stops to consider how long they have been forced to suffer the slings and arrows of politically motivated attacks by people who have been more interested in seeing these schools fail than in helping them succeed.

But the fact that there appears to be so little difference between levels of achievement among public and private school kids begs another question. When it comes to educating our kids, do we really know what we’re doing?

Compared to achievement levels in other countries, the answer is not encouraging. When American high school seniors were compared to students from 21 other countries at the Third International Math & Science series, the Americans came in 19th, ahead of just Cyprus and South Africa and behind Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania. These results might have been worse, but Asian students didn’t even participate in the series.

The 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment math test, based in Paris, found that American 15-year-olds performed “significantly below average,” ranking 29th out of 34 nations.

In 2005, it was reported that China is producing four times more BS engineering degrees than the U.S., and Japan twice as many.

And how many of us can point with any confidence to, let’s say, Syria on a map?

The sorry fact is that while we’ve done a great job of creating a small but thriving education theory industry in this country, we’ve failed to come to grips with what’s basic: We can’t agree on what a “good education” consists of.

In part, this is because we’ve surrendered education to the Chamber of Commerce. What kind of workers do our business leaders want? Our schools do their best to deliver the goods. The only trouble is that what business wants is constantly changing, which puts our schools behind the curve. Although our business leaders have a hard time understanding it, education isn’t the same thing as training.

But the short-sighted needs of business wouldn’t be able to dominate our schools if our society had a greater sense of shared purpose and values. Right now we’re an ever-loosening conglomeration of groups and niches, subcultures and special interests. We’re not a culture, we’re a mall where goods like education are doled out one family at a time. Until we understand the educational enterprise as central to the creation of a social commonwealth, we can measure all we want, but we may never measure up.



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