Smearing education choice

John Stossel

7/26/2006 12:00:00 AM - John Stossel

This month, papers all around America reported that according to the U.S. Department of Education, "children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools."

The New York Times put the study on its front page, along with a quote from teachers' union president Reg Weaver, who claimed it showed "public schools were doing an outstanding job."

Please.

Most public schools are far from outstanding. America's government schools have rigid one-size-fits-all rules that reward mediocrity. Despite raising per-student spending to more than $10,000 (at least $200,000 per classroom!), test scores have stayed flat. On international tests, Americans now lag behind students from less developed nations like Poland and Korea that spend a fraction as much money on education.

The people who run the international tests told us, "the biggest predictor of student success is choice." Nations that "attach the money to the kids" and thereby allow parents to choose between different public and private schools have higher test scores. This should be no surprise; competition makes us better.

It's true in America, too, as we know from the few tiny choice experiments that have squeaked past the restrictions of the unions and the education bureaucrats. There are now eight studies from some of the places where choice has been tried. All show that when parents are given choices, kids' performance improves. But those studies didn't make the front page of The Times.

Why? Were they inferior to the new study? Not at all. Many were the best kind of controlled studies -- they followed students who were assigned by lottery to get a ticket out of the regular public schools. That gave the researchers two nearly identical populations to compare. Again and again, kids who won the lottery did better than those who were stuck in the standard government schools.

Then why did the new study conclude that public schools performed as well?

The researchers tortured the data.

It seems the private school kids actually scored higher on the tests, but then the researchers "dug deeper." They "put test scores into context" by adjusting for "race, ethnicity, income and parents' educational backgrounds to make the comparisons more meaningful."

Maybe it's unfair to call that "torturing the data." Such regression analysis is a valid statistical tool. But it's prone to researcher bias. Statistical hocus-pocus is not the best way to compare schools. "Ideally, to ascertain the difference between the two types of schools, an experiment would be conducted in which students are assigned (by an appropriate random mechanism) to either public or private schools." That quote, believe it or not, is from the study. But the ever-scrupulous journalists at The Times didn't find that "fit to print."

In any case, it's telling that they put so much emphasis on 4th and 8th grade tests. That's just the beginning of a student's education. American 4th graders do pretty well in international competitions. It's by 12th grade that Americans are so far behind. The longer they spend in America's bureaucratic schools, the worse they do. I'd like to see The Times publish results of 12th grade comparisons, but I won't hold my breath.

Why are the mainstream media so eager to defend a unionized government monopoly? Maybe The Times gave the "adjusted" test data (and an earlier version of it published in January) so much play partly because of the editors' dislike of "conservative Christian" schools (which did poorly in the study) and the Bush administration (which has talked about bringing market competition to education).

But I suspect the biggest reason is that the editors just don't like capitalism and free markets.