Eye of the Beholder

All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different?
By Luis Benveniste, Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein
RoutledgeFalmer, 2002, $19.95; 224 pages.

All Else Equal‘s central claim is that privately run schools are not always good, a truth with which even the most fervent advocates of school choice would agree. Being a school of choice, and therefore subject to competition and market forces, is not enough.

The authors reached this conclusion after interviewing principals, teachers, and parents in 16 California public and private schools, spending extra time in 8 of the schools. Their small sample of schools was further stretched so as to compare private versus public sponsorship, elementary versus middle schools (the sample included no high schools), and higher- versus lower- income student populations. Although Benveniste, Carnoy, and Rothstein provided little information on how the schools were chosen or how data were collected and analyzed, it is clear that they looked at school organization, the learning climate, teaching methods, and relationships with parents.

Despite these limitations, the authors’ point that privatization does not guarantee success, even if generally acknowledged, is worth underscoring. Good private schools will not emerge, even in the theoretical long run, if there is no serious investment in them; if the rules for funding them and allowing students to choose them change constantly; and if bad ones are not eliminated by competition. Likewise, charter schools, even if they are privately run, are not likely to be very good if they continue to receive less funding than traditional public schools; if they are started with sweat equity by people who hold mystical beliefs about organizational performance; and if they are run in an atmosphere of official hostility from the public school establishment.

The book dwells on a second point that also can hardly be gainsaid: private and public elementary schools serving disadvantaged children resemble one another in many respects. Such schools, responsible for educating many students who enter kindergarten without knowledge of even the alphabet, need to focus on very basic skills. And any school located in a chaotic neighborhood must put a lot of effort into custodial care, regardless of whether it is public or private. Such schools will differ significantly from those in suburbia, where the children generally come from educated households in which parents routinely provide bedtime reading and a buffet of enrichment activities.

However, these basic observations do not lead to the conclusions the authors wish to draw from them. Consistent with their earlier writings, Benveniste, Carnoy, and Rothstein insist that social class dominates all aspects of education. So pervasive is its influence, they argue, that public and private schools in poor neighborhoods not only resemble one another but must be essentially one and the same; any differences are merely cosmetic. They stick to this claim even though their own case studies show that private elementary schools serving poor kids provide safer, quieter, and more-focused and orderly environments. Parents and teachers in private schools also express much more trust in one another. These differences cannot possibly matter, the authors claim. Or, if they do, they are caused not by the unique efforts of private schools but by their “creaming” the best students and most supportive parents-and by their ability to make illegitimate demands on parents because of their long waiting lists.

Here is where the book starts to unravel. In the first chapter, the authors argued that any achievement differences between poor children in public and private schools must be due to unobservable differences in those children’s families. The families are all poor, but the private school families must be more supportive of education, though this is never seen directly. But after building their argument on unobserved information, they then dismiss information that is before their very eyes. Presented with clear evidence that private and public schools differ in the educational environment and culture they create, they argue that these highly visible differences in schools are either unimportant or illegitimate. By this logic, the unobservable is real and the observable is bogus. Strange for a book that is supposedly based on a series of case studies of schools.

The book thus gravely misuses the qualitative research method, a method whose very essence is the close, direct, careful, unbiased observation of the institution under study. Eschewing the complexity of what they observe, the authors leap to simplistic, one-dimensional conclusions. After finding that certain practices exist in both public and private schools, Benveniste, Carnoy, and Rothstein decide that the schools are therefore all the same, without asking whether the factors are equally important in both settings. For example, they note that, just as public school principals complain about the hundreds of directives they receive from the school district’s central office, some Catholic school principals dislike even the few instructions sent from the archdiocese each year. To these authors, the huge difference in the number of such regulations is of no consequence. Similarly, after reporting that all schools in low-income neighborhoods have difficulty finding good teachers, they conclude that the conditions of teaching in all such schools must be the same.

Case-based research is valuable because it can show how organizations work in detail. But comparisons must be subtle, nuanced, and disciplined by common sense. Microsoft and a garage software company are not the same because they both use computers. Moreover, case studies can be valid only if the types of organizations being compared are distinct from one another. In this case, the comparison between public and private schools was blurred by the fact that half the public schools in the authors’ sample were either charter schools or recently reconstituted schools operating under special rules. These schools are supposed to be semi-independent and to resemble private schools in many ways. One is left asking whether there is any basis for the finding that public and private schools are not different.

But empirical evidence is not what drives All Else Equal anyway. The book is essentially a statement of a faith: that urban public schools are what they are because of the children and parents they serve, and private schools could not possibly be any different. Therefore, if private schools are safer and quieter, it is because they cherry pick children who are eager to learn and have parents who will defer to teachers’ judgments. Parents’ satisfaction with private schools is based on the climate they maintain, but this can have no connection with student learning.

The authors wander from this “good kids” argument in two ways. First, they profile some district-run schools that have created coherent instructional programs and maintained social climates that support learning, apparently without selecting their students. They accomplished this by gaining permission from their school districts to experiment and by offering distinctive academic programs. Second, the authors admit that private (especially Catholic) schools can influence their students’ effort and deportment, mainly by pressuring parents.

Now, apparently, school practices do make a difference. But the authors, not wanting to be caught out there, claim that these private school practices-such as discouraging families that would hate the school from applying and treating choice as a two-way street that lets the school tell parents what’s necessary for their kids to succeed-are illegitimate for publicly funded schools.

This sounds like a great case for privatization. Private schools possess real advantages, and they do not all boil down to hand picking students. True, some private schools are not competent enough to use those advantages, and some district-run public schools are able to distinguish themselves with exceptional academic programs. But the advantages of self-definition and reciprocal choice (between family and school and teacher and school) are inherently available to private schools, while district-run schools find them very hard to get and keep.

The authors of All Else Equal clearly set out to show that enabling independent parties, such as nonprofit organizations or private firms, to run publicly funded schools will do no good. Indeed, this became their conclusion, but without much support. The book reaches too far, from the safe statement that choice alone is not sufficient to a fallacious conclusion that choice is not necessary because it is not sufficient. Private schools, by virtue of their being private, are able to maintain some of the necessary conditions for providing a solid education: they can defend their instructional approach, and they can make reasonable demands on students, parents, and teachers. All Else Equal argues, contrary to its own evidence, against trying an approach that can bring better schools to poor children.

Paul T. Hill is a research professor of public affairs at the University of Washington and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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