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The Public School Advantage, Take 2

Saturday, January 31, 2015  
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
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By: Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski 

Reviewed By: Peter Gow, Executive Director, The Independent Curriculum Group, Dedham, MA

Editor's Note: The Lubienski's book has been the subject of numerous reviews. In November 2013, SAIS published an interview by David Cutler of SpinEDU with Chris Lubienski about his findings and his methodology. Read that interview here. What follows below is a look back at the reception of the book over the last year.

In late 2013, the independent school community awoke to The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. The book's title alone felt like a poke in the eye to that which many believe to be true about independent schools: that we "outperform" public schools, hands down. I'm betting that a fair number of independent school folks never read beyond the title itself in their consideration of The Public School Advantage. Yet we still find ourselves discussing it, and sometimes fear that our futures may be darkened by the shadow cast by its title.

Part of its initial impact came from the fact that its authors, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, call into question some aspects of the prior work of NAIS president John Chubb, who is characterized and then essentially dismissed as a “political theorist.” We can all agree that Dr. Chubb is far more than this, and I would even suggest that the lessons we might take from his leadership are more thematically aligned, if not necessarily in any substantive accordance, with the Lubienskis than might be initially apparent.

The methods and broad conclusions of The Public School Advantage are hard to argue with. Using the large longitudinal datasets of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP—“The Nation’s Report Card”) and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 (ECLS-K), filtered for key factors like socioeconomic status, they assert that students in public schools outperform private school students in the areas assessed. 

However, as has been pointed out, the Lubienskis’ comparison does not include a more rigorous sector breakdown: independent schools make up only a small proportion of the “other” private schools in these studies. (Read John Chubb's previous response to the book.) We may be mixed up in the public mind with every parochial or local Christian school, but independent schools maintain definitional differences that might provide consoling distance from the Lubienskis’ conclusions. For many independent school readers of The Public School Advantage, making and addressing this distinction has been enough to blunt its title’s jab.

That said, the book offers the independent school partisan food for thought, if only he or she is willing to bite into its more bitter arguments. Within the Lubienskis’ data, conclusions, and general critique of recent trends toward “market-based” solutions to educational problems are embedded some lessons, or at least strategic directions in which The Public School Advantage may be pointing us. 

1. As John Chubb (and previously Pat Bassett) told us, independent schools must rouse even more energetically from the bed of laurels on which society has ensconced us; we have too often (and very mistakenly) tended to accept this place of relative ease as an earned distinction. Independent schools must be more alert and active in embracing the power of new ideas, and should be leveraging individual reputations, heritages, and missions not to ballast the status quo but to impel us toward more innovative and effective ways to serve students, families, and communities.

2. Rather than commission someone to write a hypothetical The Independent School Advantage to disprove or discredit the Lubienskis’ conclusions based on college lists or the vitality of social justice initiatives, independent schools ought to look at the NAEP results and at the already plentiful data on student performance; this is what John Chubb intends when he extols the virtues of data. It is not rocket science to learn what we are doing well and not so well and to use this information to devise better ways to serve all the children whose families have sent them to be formed by our missions, programs, and methods. If we learn that we are not reaching every single one of our students, after our own data has been filtered by the same factors applied by the Lubienskis, do we deserve our reputations?

3. As John Chubb and others have also recommended, not only should independent schools pay more attention to the national, regional, and local conversations about education, we must also participate in them. The rising number of independent schools partnering with local public schools and community-based organizations is a positive symptom of growing awareness in this area, but we need to have more independent school voices—especially more individual school leaders—engaging in the public discourse on education.

Not every independent school educator will agree with the critique of “marketism” offered in The Public School Advantage, but I think the book offers an important to-do list. We need to educate the general public more thoroughly in what independent schools are and what they aren’t. We need to start talking with our counterparts in all sectors to share what we know and to learn about the best ways to educate all students. We must engage so as to justify the freedoms from certain regulations and tax burdens that society has conferred on us—to make the case back to society that these privileges yield a social good. There may be lessons we could offer on the limits as well as the strengths of the independent school organizational model.

The Public School Advantage does not pose a threat to the well-being of independent schools. Like its title, its dismissal of many great, thoughtful analyses of educational practice and policy—even of perspectives I do not always personally agree with—is an unfortunate distraction. 

Rather, independent school readers ought to reconsider The Public School Advantage as a call to action, to real and sincere engagement with issues both great and small, from how we might use data to improve our daily work to how we might be a more plausible voice in the great work of educating not just our own students, but an entire society. 

*Read the November 2013 SAIS interview with Chris Lubienski, author of The Public School Advantage.

Peter Gow is the executive director of The Independent Curriculum Group and a long-time independent school teacher and administrator. He blogs at Not Your Father's School and consults on multiple aspects of school programming, planning, and operations. 


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