The public school advantage

Maurie Mulheron

I have just finished reading a new book co-authored by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, The public school advantage: why public schools outperform private schools*. The authors are academics at the University of Illinois and their book deals with the marketisation of education that is occurring at an accelerating rate in the United States. Laws to introduce vouchers, autonomous charter schools and tax credits for private schools have been passed in states across America as private management companies move in to run schools and churches see the opportunity to create more faith-based schools.

The authors acknowledge that the power of the market is eroding traditional boundaries between public, private and community sectors. Their concern is whether competition theory can be applied to non-market endeavours such as universal education.

At a time when Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne champions the fragmenting of the public education system by pushing for public schools to be more like private schools, such as the silly sounding "independent public school" model, the Lubienskis offer Australian educators some interesting insights.

Charter schools were to be given far greater operational autonomy so as to be more like private schools. So certain were the politicians pushing this agenda that in 2004 these “reformers” convinced the US federal government to collect data on a representative sample of autonomous charter schools as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This measure of achievement is sometimes referred to in the United States as the “nation’s report card”.

But the data collected “... contradicted the hope that these autonomous schools, modeled after private schools, would outperform public schools”.

Intrigued by the results, the two academics applied for funding to conduct a much more indepth research project so as to enable them to study more recent, more robust and much more comprehensive datasets.

The findings, published in their book, are important. As they state, “These results indicate that, despite the reformers’ adulation of the autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming. That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such
reforms ….”

The day after finishing reading the book, I awoke to the following headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (March 6): “Smart state arises from the public school base.”

I was struck by the synchronicity of it all — one chapter closing, another opening.

The Sydney Morning Herald article revealed that NSW public schools, in the latest NAPLAN results, represent 39 per cent of Australia’s top performing schools. NSW public schools make up just 23 per cent of the nation’s schools so the results are significant. What is even more remarkable is to understand that this achievement comes at a time when even more of the state’s students are identified as disadvantaged as measured by the revised socio-educational advantage index.

We are achieving against the odds.

At the other end of the scale, NSW public schools are under-represented among the country’s poorer performers.

While we must always be careful when drawing conclusions from one set of data, the article does certainly reinforce some of the main findings of the Gonski review which showed that there was a growing gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

At the same time, we could speculate that these NAPLAN results, coming as they do after some years of additional National Partnership funding, indicate that greater investment in the schools that do the heavy lifting results in improved outcomes for students with the greatest need.

We could add books like The Public School Advantage and the Sydney Morning Herald article to the dozens of other studies that show that changes to governance and structure are peripheral issues, mere distractions from the real issue. Our public schools do not need to become “independent” or “autonomous”, they just need to be given the resources they need to get the job done.

*The public school advantage: why public schools outperform private schools, Christopher A Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski (2014) University of Chicago Press. Available from the Federation Library.