Private Schools and the Public Interest

September 9, 2009

I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Just not in my neighborhood. While you are at it, drop by and beg for permission to run for office.

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Regular JPGB readers will recall the survey that the Goldwater Institute sponsored showing an appalling lack of civic knowledge among Arizona high school students, both public and private. Sneak preview: a special Oklahoma remix is on the way.

Well, guess what, we also asked a series of questions about political tolerance, volunteerism and satisfaction in the same survey.

Yesterday the Goldwater Institute released two studies: Tough Crowd: Arizona High School Students Evaluate Their Schools and Better Citizens, Lower Cost: Comparing Scholarship Tax Credit Students to Public School Students.

Let’s start with the latter study, which focuses on political tolerance and volunteerism. I could fish up absurd quotes from people about how only public schools can teach proper civic values, and how scary private schools under a choice system are certain to indoctrinate children into all sorts of dangerous anti-democratic ideologies. You being a discriminating consumer of education blogs, however, makes the task unnecessary.


So what happens when you ask a standard set of political tolerance questions to samples of public and private school students in Arizona? Try this:

Tolerance 1











Mmkay, maybe public schools aren’t doing much better at teaching tolerance than they are in teaching reading. Next we asked:

Tolerance 2













So a high percentage of kids, especially in public schools, like the idea of a personalized language police. Disturbing. Next:

Tolerance 3













Hello ideological segregation! Next:

Tolerance 4













Mmm-hmm, we’ll just have all the candidates drop by your house and ask for permission to run. Be sure to wear your ring so that the candidates can kiss it.

Ah well, tolerance isn’t the only civic virtue- volunteerism counts as well. Next we asked:

Tolerance 5












and while we were at it:


Tolerance 6













There were no meaningful differences between private school students attending with the assistance of a tax credit scholarship, and those who did not receive a scholarship. A minimum of 41% of tax credit scholarships are given out by groups that employ a means-test, so it is not the case that the private school kids are all wealthy and attending Dead Poet Society Schools, which are few and far between here in Arizona in any case.

Of course not all, and perhaps even none of the observed differences can be attributed to the actions of the schools. This however seems very unlikely. This was a survey of high-school students. I know I didn’t have a clue about my family income when I was in high-school, and thus wouldn’t believe the numbers we might get from asking about it, so we didn’t ask.

These results however strongly debunk the notion that private schools function as intolerance boot camps. In fact, it is much easier to build that sort of a case against public schools with the available data, though more research ought to be done.

Arizona’s $2,000 tax credit scholarships are looking like quite the bargain compared to $9,700 Arizona public schools. If you care about tolerance and volunteerism, that is.

More soon on how Arizona high school students view their schools.

PJM on Civics Ignorance

October 6, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, Pajamas Media carried my column on the centruy-long failure of public schools to teach civics effectively:

On the other hand, just because the school system’s failure has been going on for a long time doesn’t mean it isn’t a failure. And school failure always has consequences.

Just think how much better American life might have been over the past century if we had been a nation of citizens who knew what citizens ought to know, rather than a nation whose schools failed so miserably and so consistently at their jobs. Would fewer people have succumbed to the siren song of isolationism in the 1930s, while Hitler and Stalin built their empires of mass murder and Mao took control of the Chinese revolutionaries? Would the triumph of the civil rights movement have come sooner and with less toil and bloodshed, and left behind fewer of the unresolved problems that still fester in our politics? Would there have been a clearer understanding of the nature of communism, meaning less denial and excuse-making for Soviet and Maoist atrocities, perhaps even leading to an earlier and more complete victory for freedom in the world? Who can say what horrors we might have avoided if our citizens had all along understood the intellectual and historical foundations of liberty?

Moreover, if the failure is so long-term, we can’t attribute it to transitory phenomena like 1960s radicalism. We have to expect it to be rooted in the basic structure of our educational institutions — whatever we’re doing wrong, it’s something we’ve been doing wrong for at least a century.

Civics Ignorance: A Very Long Track Record of Public School Failure

September 17, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Around these parts we sometimes discuss the failure of civic education in government schools. Our focus is usually this body of research, consistently showing that private school students have stronger democratic values than public school students. And of course Jay has more recently done some pathbreaking research on how civic values are embodied (or not) in public school names (which seem to have undergone a dramatic change in the past 50 years) and public school mascots (which do not appear to have done so).

But of course most people come at this issue from a different angle, bewailing the results of the breakdown of civic education in government schools – our high school graduates don’t know when the Civil War happened, etc. – without saying much useful about the cause.

Well, in response to a recent article on the subject, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included an intriguing letter to the editor drawing our attention to a 1943 study of the civic knowledge of 6,000 incoming freshmen at the nation’s top colleges. According to the letter, over half did not know the dates of the Civil War and could not locate St. Louis on a map, and nearly two-thirds mistook Walt Whitman for bandleader Paul Whiteman.


Separated at birth?

The study doesn’t appear to be on the web, but I did find this Chronicle of Higher Education article that cites some more findings from it. Apparently only 6 percent were able to name the original 13 colonies. The article also cites a 1917 study that found widespread ignorance of historical items that history teachers said “every student should know” at all levels from elementary school to college.

(Digression: The 1943 study was conducted by historian Allan Nevins of Columbia. While searching for it online, I stumbled across the fact that Nevins is widely credited as the founder of the field of oral history, having been the first to systematically seek out and record on tape, for the use of future scholars, the recollections of persons who had witnessed events of historical significance. Fascinating! Don’t say you never learned anything from Jay P. Greene’s Blog.)

So it seems that on civics education, as on the subject of reading and math scores, the reason we have an outrageous and unacceptable failure of outcomes is not because our schools have undergone a recent decline but because our schools have a consistent, very-long-term record of shocking underperformance. To quote an author who used to be a leading scholar of the history of education, there was no golden age.

What to make of this? To judge from the Chronicle article, some seem to think that we should find it comforting rather than all the more disturbing to know that the failure of civics education is not new. Clearly it does mean that civic ignorance is not a sign that the Republic is in immediate jeopardy of an existential crisis, and the overheated rhetoric to that effect needs to be toned down. On the other hand, the long-term damage done by civic ignorance is going to be all the worse and all the more difficult to repair. It appears that the failure of public schools to teach civic knowledge and values is not the result of a recent change that might be attributed to transitory influences (such as 1960s radicalism) but a fundamental flaw at the heart of our educational institutions. I find the latter thought more daunting than the former, not less.

But there is hope. As I mentioned at the outset, private schools do a better job of civics education. That gives us a clue as to what that fundamental flaw in our educational institutions is (they’re a government monopoly) and how we can go about setting it right.

Teacher Quality Illustrated

May 21, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

No, that title does not refer to a new glossy magazine for education wonks. It’s the title I’m giving to the following totally unscientific (N=2) but really amazing story that happened to my mother last week.

My mother is a retired teacher living in a mid-size Indiana exurb, where she does volunteer work at the local museum and art center. Last week she was tapped to take a couple of third grade classes around the town and talk about the town’s history.

The first group was out of control and spent the entire trip picking up leaves and throwing them at each other. Their teacher did nothing either to address their behavior or get them to pay attention to the historical talk. She was essentially on vacation.

“This is Lincoln Park,” said my mother as they entered Lincoln Park. “Does anyone know who Lincoln was?”


Abraham Lincoln?”

More silence.

And then, a hand goes up.

“Does he live here in [name of town]?”

My mother comes back exhausted and demoralized. She announces to the head of the art center that she’s through dealing with kids whose teachers can’t even be bothered to keep them in line on a field trip – or to teach them who Abraham Lincoln is.

“But you have another group you’re supposed to take today.”

Out my mother trudges to take the next group, which is already romping around on the lawn outside. This is another third grade class from the same school, serving the same population. The only difference is their room assignment, which is probably close to random.

Seeing my mother appraoch, the teacher claps her hands once.

The entire class falls silent, stops what they’re doing and pays attention. When asked, they organize to set out on the trip. They pay attention at every stop on the trip, and throw no leaves.

“This is Lincoln Park,” said my mother as they enetered Lincoln Park. “Does anyone know who Lincoln was?”

Not only do they know, but – with no prompting from the teacher – they begin to rattle off everything they’ve absorbed about Abraham Lincoln.

“He came through our town once on the back of a train.”

“Yeah, they say he wasn’t planning to stop, but there were so many people he stopped and made a speech.”

Then one child says:

“Every year on President’s Day, my father brings us to Lincoln Park so we can say ‘thank you’ for Abraham Lincoln because he did so much for us.”

On the way back, my mother compliments the teacher and tells her she has a real gift.

“It’s my first year,” she responds.

Taken aback, my mother can only respond that she hopes it’s the first of many.

It later transpired that it was only her first year of teaching in public school; she had two years of experience in private school before that. But under the state’s teacher-union contract, her two years in private school aren’t recognized (as is the case for some private schools in some states), so she’s paid like a first-year teacher.

I do not suggest that we can generalize anything from this story, or from any other story, or even from any number of stories (the plural of anecdote is not data). But I insist that we can, and ought to, generalize from scientific studies, especially when we have a large number of them and the findings are fairly consistent.

The studies on teacher quality find:

  1. While demographics matter for student outcomes, other things also matter – a great deal – and teacher quality is one of the most important things that matter.
  2. Years of experience, which are one of the two primary determinants of teacher pay, are not strongly associated with improved student outcomes, particularly after the first few years. (Neither are teaching credentials, the other major determinant of teacher pay.)

Yes, I know that the kid whose father takes him to Lincoln Park every year has a good family environment. But the kids in the other class have good family environments, too – this is a high-income exurb in Indiana we’re talking about.

I just thought that, in addition to being a lot of fun (“Abraham Lincoln? Does he live here in town?” Yeah, he and Tom Jefferson own the big antiques store on Main Street, right next to Billy Shakespeare’s used book shop), the story illustrated what we know from the science about teacher quality in a striking way.

Oh, and here’s another point worth making: Now that America’s public school system has apparently decided not to name schools after important civic figures any more, it’s all the more important that we hire teachers who will make sure their students know who Abraham Lincoln was. Either that, or public schools will continue to lag behind private schools in teaching students good democratic values.

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