Public Schools Outperform Private Ones, Conservative Christian Schools Rank Last Among Privates
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Mar 31, 2006 at 01:54:04 PM EST
In "The Manufactured Crisis: "Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools" Dr. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle argued that ongoing criticism of America's public schools is baseless and partisan.  [read review of book in Christian Ethics Today]. A new study released January 2006, funded by the US Department of Education, by researchers at the University of Illinois at Champagne Urbana rebuts  claims on the alleged low performance of public schools [ click here for PDF of full report ]. Meanwhile, the ongoing assault on America's public schools comes from many quarters   [ see full story ]
[NCSPE study summary] Findings reveal that demographic differences between students in public and private schools account for the relatively high raw scores of private schools on the NAEP.  Indeed, after controlling for these differences, public school students generally score better than their private school peers.....Conservative Christian schools, the fastest growing private school sector, are the lowest performing private schools.

The ongoing assault on America's public schools comes from many quarters   including possibly ABC's 20/20 and John Stossel [ story thanks to the ever watchful eye of Media Matters for America Media Matter For America shines a spotlight on a January 13, 2006 "20/20" which seemed to view education through privatization-colored corrective lenses:

"Stossel presented skewed 20/20 segment on "stupid" public schools:

    Summary: ABC's John Stossel presented a "special report" on the failure of American public schools that included a series of misleading claims, a lack of balance in reporting and interviews, and video clips apparently created primarily for entertainment to argue for expanding "school choice" initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools."

Meanwhile, writes Talk To Action's Dr. Bruce Prescott, many on the Christian right - including powerful factions in the Southern Baptist Convention - are agitating for the wholesale pullout of children from public schools.

But,The centerpiece of the strategy to destroy America's public schools may in fact be the No Child Left Behind Act.

A recent analysis predicts that 3/4 of Massachusetts schools will fail to meet the provisions of the "No Child Left Behind" act when it goes into full force in 2014 - despite the fact the Mass. schools rank among the highest in the nation.

Further, 1/4 of U.S. schools currently fail to meet the provisions of the No Child Left Behind act:

Paul Basken, for Bloomberg News and run by the Washington Post reports:

More than a quarter of U.S. schools are failing under terms of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, according to preliminary state-by-state statistics reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

At least 24,470 U.S. public schools, or 27 percent of the national total, did not meet the federal requirement for "adequate yearly progress" in 2004-2005. The percentage of failing schools rose by one point from the previous school year. Under the 2002 law, schools that do not make sufficient academic progress face penalties including the eventual replacement of their administrators and teachers.

The results raise doubts about whether the law is working and its results are fairly calculated, said Michael Petrilli, vice president for policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research group.

Now, the January 2006 DOE funded NCSPE  University of Illinois cited previously suggests that public schools are performing - in fact - comparatively rather well, and Kevin Drum, for Washigton Monthly, ventures there an explanation for the dysfunctional nature of the NCLB act, its perverse outcomes: "the Bush administration wants to see lots of public schools labeled as failures. It's basically a long-term plan to erode the public's faith in public schools and thereby increase support for private schools and vouchers."

Indeed, this suggests a dual strategy by the Christian right to defund and delegitimate America's public schools while James Dobson, Al Mohler, Laura Schlessinger and others advocate that parents to pull their children from the public school system. Dr. Bruce Prescott, on Talk To Action, discusses the prospect of the wholesale pullout of Southern Baptists

People For The American Way - as of 2003 - has detailed the Christian right's "removal strategies" :

By dramatically downsizing the constituency of public schools, a mass exodus campaign would reduce public schools' ability to mobilize support for funding and reforms. Over time, this could lead to a de facto privatized system.

Citizens for Excellence in Education, based in California, has initiated a program called "Rescue 2010" that urges all Christian parents to take their children out of public schools "as soon as it is feasible and possible." In a 1998 fundraising letter for Rescue 2010, CEE founder Robert Simonds wrote that "it is a massive job to get Christians to transfer their darling children to Christian or home schools, but it can be done."85

Directed by E. Ray Moore, Exodus 2000, a campaign similar to Rescue 2010, established a Web site urging Christian parents to abandon public schools. Moore's effort has received publicity and support from D. James Kennedy, a Florida televangelist and leader in the Religious Right movement. 86

Under the leadership of its founder and president, Dr. James Dobson, Focus on the Family, echoed the messages of other removal campaigns. Speaking on his daily radio program Dobson stated, "In the state of California, if I had a child there, I wouldn't put the youngster in a public school ... I think it's time to get our kids out."87

Talk-show host Laura Schlessinger lent her support to the removal campaign in April 2002. "Take your kids out of public schools," Schlessinger told her radio audience of an estimated 15 million listeners.88

These "removal" advocates have also received support from others such as Marshall Fritz of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State who praised Dobson for his "courageous and insightful" statement.89 Columnist Joseph Farah has also urged parents to withdraw their children from public schools, acknowledging that "I am promoting a radical idea here." Farah added that parents whose children attend public schools should understand "why I don't want my kids anywhere near your kids."90

If parents of the Southern Baptist Convention and others of the Christian right pull their children out of America's public schools, what sort of education will they receive ?

According to Dr. David C. Berliner, it will be - at least - a substandard one:

 "Educational Psychology Meets the Christian Right: Differing Views of Children, Schooling, Teaching, and Learning" [ 1996 ], Berliner finds the educational theories espoused by the Christian right "cannot be supported by modern psychology" and that "The school curriculum used in many fundamentalist Christian schools was also analyzed and found to be limited, biased, and sometimes untrue." :

[ study summary ] Among the most unrelenting contemporary critics of public schools are members of the Christian Right, some of whom seek the destruction of public education. The theories of child rearing espoused by the Christian Right are analyzed in this article. They emphasize physical punishment, the breaking of children's will, and obedience to authority. Such theories cannot be supported by modern psychology. Furthermore, these child-rearing practices are totally incompatible with the constructivist models of learning that form the basis for the educational reforms undertaken by science, mathematics, and social studies educators. The school curriculum used in many fundamentalist Christian schools was also analyzed and found to be limited, biased, and sometimes untrue. The arguments made against outcomes based education and whole language programs were found to be confused and chaotic. The antagonism of the Christian Right to these programs is based on a fear of losing control over their children's thinking, rather than any compelling empirical data. It is concluded that many among the Christian Right are unable to engage in politics that make a common school possible. They may be unable to compromise and live with educational decisions rejecting a pluralistic democracy keeping separate church and state.

The whole 'school exodus' thing is simply another facet in the religious right's plan to dismantle secular government. It's interesting to know that public schools are better than private religious schools. We need to remind people of the statistics.

I can't help but wonder what the goal of 20/20 really is- it seems that all of their religious segments have been pro-religion and anti- secular government.

by Lorie Johnson on Fri Mar 31, 2006 at 02:23:43 PM EST

Stossel is simply another right wing media hack. I have never trusted anything he has said after he received an award from Joseph Farah, publisher of WorldNetDaily, several years ago.

by JerrySloan on Fri Mar 31, 2006 at 04:39:29 PM EST
I've written on him before. It's a shame ABC is some shameless as to let Stossel keep on with his particular...... whatever you want to call it. Not journalism though.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Mar 31, 2006 at 06:07:37 PM EST

But I have a question that does not seem to have been addressed.

As a full scale liberal Democrat how do I balance my egalitarian urges with my own experience in public schools?

I was bored almost to going postal in high school. Around the 8th grade on,  it seems all we did was endless repetition aimed at the slowest students along with a dumbing down of complex issues and truncation of each book as spring made it clear that the end of the school year was approaching with more than half a textbook untouched.

The repubs want to eliminate public schools but they are going to get some sympathy from those who were strangled by the uneven quality of schools in the US.

This was in the 70's in the south and school integration may have played a part as the poor quality of the black schools in the area gave lie to the segregationist claims of separate but equal. But from what I hear, the same situation contributes to the dropout rate in some school districts as well as explaining the attraction of "charter" schools in some areas.

by Nom de grrrr on Sat Apr 01, 2006 at 02:16:56 PM EST

I don't know what the answer is in the end but I'm certain it doesn't lie in the wholesale dismantling of public education.

Can public schools be improved - sure, they can. But, in the end the main route towards that is a level of funding which attracts talented teachers and allows for smaller classrooms and hence more individual attention - and, that formula holds for private and public schools both.

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Apr 01, 2006 at 03:46:40 PM EST

I can't say that the findings that "conservative Christian" (read: dominionist) schools getting the lowest rankings surprises me.

Most dominionist educational programs (both private schools run by dominionist churches and "homeschool"--more properly termed "correspondence school"--courses promoted in the dominionist community) use one of four major curriculum packages from Pensacola Christian College (A Beka), Bob Jones University (using its own branded curriculum), School of Tomorrow (Accelerated Christian Education) or Christian Liberty Academy (CLASS).

All four of these curriculum packages are known to sacrifice entire areas of education at the expense of dominionist indoctrination, and even the most liberal of these curricula (A Beka and BJU) are so blatantly dominionist and promoting ideology over educational content (in the case of A Beka, even to the point that set theory--the foundation of most modern mathematics--was completely excised from their maths books) that it is not exaggeration to state these curriculum packages are designed less for education and more towards blatantly inducting children into coercive religious groups and their theology.  (This is not exaggeration, by the way; a recent post on Dark Christianity details an article from "The Chronicle" showing how the parent publishers of the A Beka curriculum may in fact qualify as a bona fide "Bible based" coercive religious group.)

I myself have written articles on A Beka in particular (part 1 and part 2 are here for your reading pleasure); even as an informal researcher and science and maths geek I found an absolutely amazing number of shortcomings educationally and--more disturbingly--quite a bit of stuff in the curriculum that brings up "red flags" for potentially coercive groups.   (The "Bible education" section in particular throws up quite a number of warning signs; quite a bit of "scripture twisting" and other serious signs of spiritual abuse.)  The history section is frank "Christian Supremacist" historical revisionism, maths deletes set theory altogether due to it being a form of "moral relativism" (as noted previously), science is explicitly young-earth creationist, and in fact discourages "reality testing" or inquiry (another major "red flag" sign of a potentially abusive group).

A Beka is actually far from alone at this--BJU and ACE in particular have been documented as having the same problems by a wonderful series Rethinking Schools has done specifically in regards to voucher initiatives (which is one way dominionists are trying to use your tax dollars to indoctrinate their little sprogs).  A few articles of note from that series:

School Vouchers: A Threat To The Rights Of Women And Gays (notes in part how anti-LGBT and anti-woman's-lib material is part of most dominionist curricula, includes examples from BJU curriculum)
With God On Their Side... (part of what inspired my own A Beka research, is part of a book by Frances Patterson containing extensive research into dominionist school curricula; A Beka, BJU, and ACE curricula packages are quoted from extensively to show promotion of "Christian Supremacist" and often frankly Christian Reconstructionist content throughout the curricula)
Teaching Religious Intolerance (details anti-Catholic, anti-non-Protestant, and, well, anti-non-dominionist content in A Beka, BJU and ACE curricula)
A Visit To A Religious Elementary School (details taxpayer dollars used to fund an Assemblies of God-operated private school in Milwaukee as part of its voucher program, notes that daily operations (including mandatory religious services) have not changed despite state regs requiring allowing students to opt-out; notes religious content so infused that entirely separate program would be necessary)
Privatizer's Trojan Horse (notes, interestingly, how "No Child Left Behind" is being used to dismantle public school funding in favour of private, sectarian, often-dominionist schools)

It is really no wonder that increasingly state universities are starting to scrutinize the actual educational "content" of these curricula.  One major state university system, the University of California, has actually ruled the three most commonly used curricula packages in dominionist schools as educationally insufficient for admission; they are being sued by, among others, one of  the major accreditation mills for dominionist pre-secondary school education. (ACSI, one of the parties in the lawsuit against the University of California, is not recognised by any group including the US Department of Education offering accreditation--one of the warning signs of an accreditation mill.  At least one other listing shows ACSI as a potential accreditation mill.)

by dogemperor on Sat Apr 01, 2006 at 10:34:23 PM EST

That's an entire dimension missing from what I wrote that needs to be added.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 12:22:07 AM EST
Glad to help at any rate.

As an aside, I actually have just spoken with Frances Patterson (who conducted one of the most thorough studies of the subject of dominionist curricula) and have a book to recommend (and one I am now going to hunt down:

Democracy and Intolerance: Christian school curricula, school choice, and public policy

And yes, Powell's does carry it :3 So if the admins like, they can put it on the recommended-reading list.

by dogemperor on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 11:23:30 AM EST

Although not cheap. But probably worth the price.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 01:06:01 PM EST
From what I've seen of it so far (I'm planning on purchasing the book myself) it is definitely worth the money--valuable ammo for people fighting dominionism, at any rate.

Speaking with the author of the book, she has noted that the last chapter deals with a possibly new and as-yet untested approach for fighting voucher initatives and other attempts to gut the public school system by dominionists--this would definitely be something to look into.

by dogemperor on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 01:51:11 PM EST

"Farah added that parents whose children attend public schools should understand "why I don't want my kids anywhere near your kids." I feel bad for Farah's kids. They're either gonna grow up to be intolerant, hate-filled fanatics, quite possibly the next Tim McVeigh or Eric Rudolph, or they'll rebel and become anti-social misfits, quite possibly drug addicts. Either way, the kids lose.

by Animal on Tue Apr 04, 2006 at 09:25:02 AM EST

Is John Stossel Stupid? How a Lack of Good Comparison Makes for Shaky Analysis

Available with links on my site:

In his ABC report, Stupid in America: How a Lack of Choice Cheats Our Kids Out of a Good Education, John Stossel makes a compelling and purposely provocative case. His argument is encapsulated in the subtitle of his report: "How a lack of choice cheat our kids out of a good education." According to Stossel, the basic problem facing American schools is that they are insulated from competition. As he puts it, "American schools don't teach as well as schools in other countries because they are government monopolies, and monopolies don't have much incentive to compete." His reference to "other countries" is an important part of his argument. Indeed, much of his argument hinges on a type of comparative analysis, in which he ostensibly reveals the fundamental flaws of the American educational system through comparison with other cases. For example, to "prove" his basic claim, he focuses on Belgium, where the government forces schools to compete for students by funding students as opposed to schools. In other words, education money "follows" children to whatever school they decide to attend. It is, as Stossel is careful to point out, a kind of voucher system. Stossel peppers his report with a number of other international comparisons as well. He says, for instance, "The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from poorer countries that spend much less money on education, ranking behind not only Belgium but also Poland, the Czech Republic and South Korea." Significantly, he implies, but does not explicitly state, that Poland, the Czech Republic and South Korea must also have schools systems premised on the same competitive principles that exist in Belgium. Indeed, based on Stossel's basic comparative argument, we should expect every country in the world that scores better than the U.S. to have a "competition-based" school system. We don't know, however, because Stossel doesn't tell us. His use of "facts" (and comparative cases) in other words, is extremely selective. Is he hiding something? Or is he simply too stupid to know that that sort of selective analysis is inherently flawed?

What happens when we examine some of these other cases in a bit more depth? One country to consider is Finland, which, according to a 2004 study done by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), has the "best" school system in the world. So, does Finland have a "competition-based" system? Well, at least not based on Stossel's criteria. In fact, Finland has a "unified" school system, which sees children staying at the same school between the ages of seven and 16, rather than having primary and secondary schools. In other words, not only do schools not compete for students, but students are "stuck" in the same school 10 consecutive years. Interestingly, Finland also "spends more per elementary, middle- and high- school student than any other nation on Earth, and comes in second on spending for higher education. School lunches, health care, most class materials and university tuition are all free." But according to Stossel's report, money is largely irrelevant in determining educational quality. In fact, Stossel belittles those who think money is the problem. As he explains it, "while many people say, 'We need to spend more money on our schools,' there actually isn't a link between spending and student achievement." He also approvingly quotes Jay Greene, author of Education Myths, who asserts, "If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved....We've doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet schools aren't better." True, but in keeping with Stossel's generally superficial (stupid?) analysis, there is no further discussion of why this is the case. Perhaps the problem is not money per se, but how the money is spent. Indeed, early on in his report, Stossel notes how one very successful charter school in California uses its money to pay its teachers "more than what public school teachers earn." I am not suggesting that higher salaries are a magic bullet:this isn't the case at all. But it is disingenuous, at best, to assert that just because state funding has increased that money is irrelevant to a quality education. A better, less "stupid" analysis would have examined in detail and depth the manner in which money is being spend by school districts today. Moreover, a comparative analysis of school spending in the US and other countries would also likely have shed light on the issue. By the way, teacher pay in Finland is relatively low, but this may ultimately hurt the education system since so many young teachers are leaving after only a few years.

It is important to emphasize that I am not making the case that "competition-based" schools systems are bad. That would be stupid. Rather, I am saying that the issue is far more complex than Stossel is willing to admit. Certainly, the simplest comparative analysis will tell us that so-called monopoly-systems are not destined to "cheat" children of a high quality education. So, what is the answer? I do not purport to have one, if only because I know I haven't done the research necessary to develop an adequate understanding of the issue. What I do know, however, is that anyone serious about the issue must avoid polemics and instead engage in serious analysis. And, one way to do "serious analysis" is to be much more careful about doing comparisons.

On this point, consider what Stossel could have done if he had looked at Belgium in more depth. In so doing, we will easily discover that there are a lot of differences between Belgium and the United States. One obvious difference is simply that Belgium has a population of only 10.3 million people, compared to almost 300 million in the United States. It is also an overwhelmingly Catholic country with two basic ethnic groups, the Flemish (58 percent) and the French-speaking Walloon (31 percent). Further analysis would show, moreover, that the educational performance of the Flemish and Belgium communities in Belgium are statistically different: while the mean scores on the math scale for the Flemish community were higher than those in the best-performing OECD countries, Finland and South Korea, the means scores for the French-speaking community were only "average" (relative to other OECD countries). It is also worth noting that, in Belgium, children can start mainstream nursery education at the age of 30-months. Very countries in the world provide publicly financed education at such an early age (almost all children in the Flemish parts of Belgium receive nursery education). Identifying differences such as these are important, and they are important for a basic reason: each is a potential explanatory variable. That is, each could possibly explain why the school system in Belgium produces better-educated, "smarter" students. We cannot know for sure because a comparison of only two cases suffers from the small-N problem ("smart" people know what this is). To determine which factors--or combination of factors--is important or essential requires more cases and more systematic comparative analysis. This is hard. But, this might explain why Stossel didn't do this. Maybe he's not just stupid, but lazy.

Of course, I'm being facetious. Stossel isn't stupid and he isn't lazy. But he has an ax to grind. Unfortunately, as with many TV personalities (it's hard to call him a reporter), he's willing to make his case even if it means ignoring or, worse still, hiding important facts. He sees only the world he wants to see, and will use his considerable resources to ensure that the rest of the world sees the same thing. Fortunately, as a political science, I can easily identify poorly constructed, highly biased "analysis." Indeed, it is quite ironic that, while bemoaning the poor educational system in the United States, Stossel intentionally propagates ignorance. He doesn't really want a well-educated, critical and analytically adept American public; he wants a public that is easily manipulated and conned by facile "reporting" with a clumsily concealed political agenda. That's too bad.

By Timothy C. Lim

Available with links on my site:

by tclim on Sat May 06, 2006 at 11:09:02 AM EST

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