Private and Public School Effectiveness

A Reappraisal
Martin Carnoy
Stanford University
Luis Benveniste
The World Bank
Richard Rothstein
Economic Policy Institute

Two stylized facts dominate current educational policy thinking in the U.S. The first is that public schools are ineffective. The second is that they are ineffective because they are not accountable for producing high academic achievement.

At one extreme, these stylized facts are interpreted to mean that public education cannot be made more efficient. According to this view, the public sector is structurally incapable of delivering high quality educational services to the diverse student populations in schools. It is too bureaucratic, too unionized, and a monopoly. Improving schooling requires that the management of education must be shifted out of the public sphere into the private, where market forces could make schools more productive. This interpretation is gaining ground, so it bears careful analysis.

To do such an analysis, this report go back to basics. It examines whether this characterization has substance in real schools. Along with a team from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, the authors studied a highly diverse sample of 25 schools—roughly half located in a major metropolitan area on the east coast and roughly half in two metropolitan areas on the west coast. The sample represented public, private, and charter elementary, middle, and high schools. Private schools included parochial and independent. The report also targeted schools within each "sector" (private, public, or charter) that served different social class populations. In every school, researchers spent time in classrooms, and interviewed teachers, administrators, parents, and/or students.

The purpose is to discern how these various schools work, especially how they construct their own conceptions of accountability. The report seeks to understand how teachers, administrators, students, and parents think and behave around accountability in schools; and what is the range of responses that schools of various types formulate to the problem of accountability, so better to judge whether the critics of publicly managed education are correct in opting for markets in education.

One critique of a study that uses cases rather than a large, random sample of schools is that it is not a representative set of schools, and hence cannot draw conclusions regarding either accountability systems, nor possible differences or similarities between private and public schools. It is true that the sample is not random. It was drawn to represent a range of possible variation rather than as distributionally representative of the population of schools. It is also true that the report can say less concerning high schools, since there were only five in the sample, and high schools are more complex institutions than elementary schools. But by visiting a reasonably substantial number of public and private schools catering to higher and lower socio-economic background students in three metropolitan areas, it should be possible to find the kinds of differences in accountability systems claimed by market advocates. Their claim, after all, is that market-driven behavior is observably and significantly different from bureaucratically driven behavior. If that is the case, such differences should be observable in a sample of 25 schools. If they are not observable in this sample, then it is really up to market advocates to show what it is about schools that would produce this result.

Suggested citationCarnoy, M., Benveniste, L., & Rothstein, R. (1999, January). Private and public school effectiveness: A reappraisal [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.