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The Public School Advantage

Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

Nearly the whole of America’s partisan politics centers on a single question: Can markets solve our social problems? And for years this question has played out ferociously in the debates about how we should educate our children. From the growth of vouchers and charter schools to the implementation of No Child Left Behind, policy makers have increasingly turned to market-based models to help improve our schools, believing that private institutions—because they are competitively driven—are better than public ones. With The Public School Advantage, Christopher A. and Sarah Theule Lubienski offer powerful evidence to undercut this belief, showing that public schools in fact outperform private ones.
For decades research showing that students at private schools perform better than students at public ones has been used to promote the benefits of the private sector in education, including vouchers and charter schools—but much of these data are now nearly half a century old. Drawing on two recent, large-scale, and nationally representative databases, the Lubienskis show that any benefit seen in private school performance now is more than explained by demographics. Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis go on to show that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones. Even more surprising, they show that the very mechanism that market-based reformers champion—autonomy—may be the crucial factor that prevents private schools from performing better. Alternatively, those practices that these reformers castigate, such as teacher certification and professional reforms of curriculum and instruction, turn out to have a significant effect on school improvement.
Despite our politics, we all agree on the fundamental fact: education deserves our utmost care. The Public School Advantage offers exactly that. By examining schools within the diversity of populations in which they actually operate, it provides not ideologies but facts. And the facts say it clearly: education is better off when provided for the public by the public.  

304 pages | 4 line drawings, 28 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Education: Education--General Studies, Pre-School, Elementary and Secondary Education


“A powerful blow against the central premise that students at charter and voucher schools get a better education than their public school counterparts.”

David Kirp | Slate

“This important book provides clear evidence that the ‘free-market model’ of schooling does not match the hype of the privatization movement. It demonstrates that public education is a valuable and successful institution. It must be protected and strengthened, not privatized.”

Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools

Public School Advantage is a book to be reckoned with.The calling card of today’s leading voices in educational reform is the charge that our public schools are failing. But failing in comparison to what, the Lubienskis ask? Traditional public schools are not failing to keep pace with charters and private schools, at least in teaching students math, one of the two subjects at the heart of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. On the contrary, traditional public schools in some cases appear to have advantages over other kinds of schools that are usually perceived as more innovative and rigorous. While more empirical work on the public school advantage needs to be completed—in subjects beyond math and grades beyond elementary school—the Lubienskis have launched a strong salvo in the contentious debate about school effectiveness.”

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder | Boston Review

“Their data-driven argument is a valuable contribution to a vitally important topic.” 

Glenn Altschuler | Oregonian

“The author’s conclusions make a strong case for the continued investment in public schools and for resisting market-driven approaches.”

School Administrator

The Public School Advantage is a complete and thorough analysis of America’s many different kinds of schools—secular, charter, and public—and should end the arguments about which kind is better. Chris and Sarah Lubienski provide both the data and the clear explanations needed to understand the many false claims made about the superiority of schools that are not public. The result is a ringing endorsement of public school achievement.”

David Berliner, author of Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools

“In The Public School Advantage, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski present studies that challenge assumptions of the market-based argument for education and provide a cogent analytical comparison that evaluates public versus private elementary school performance.  While questions remain, they provide an important contribution to a timely topic.  This book provides empirically based insight about the school choice debate and is worthy of our attention.” 

William F. Tate, past president of the American Educational Research Association

Table of Contents


Authors’ Note

1. Conflicting Models for Public Education

2. The Theory of Markets for Schooling

3. The Private School Effect

4. Achievement in Public, Charter, and Private Schools

5. The Effectiveness of Public and Private Schools

6. Understanding Patterns of School Performance

7. Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education

Appendix A: Details about National Assessment of Educational Progress Data and Analyses

Appendix B: Details about Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 Data and Analyses


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award

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