Grading Schools

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A new report from the General Accounting Office [PDF] compares privately managed public schools with the traditional variety in six cities and finds mixed results. Students at the privately managed schools score better on standardized tests in Denver and San Francisco, but no better or even significantly worse in four other cities.

Now, I don't particularly have a dog in this race: I think programs of parental choice are apt to improve schools over time, but I can't work up all that much enthusiasm for mere outsourcing that's still mediated by the political process. Nevertheless, it had been my impression that it was often the schools in the worst shape that were passed off to private management. Assuming that's the case here, then shouldn't we be more interested in a longitudinal performance study of each school than a cross-sectional snapshot of the region two or three years after the private firms came in?

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  1. I think Julian’s right to be skeptical about this finding from the GAO on private management of schools. As the document states in an appendix, the researchers were unable to factor in a number of variables that would seem directly relevant to their conclusions. For example, they don’t know why students were attending the privately managed schools in the study. Were they assigned there as a special educational project? Was it a magnet school in a troubled neighborhood? I’ve had to set up some education experiments, and know from first-hand experience that it can be daunting to try to track students over time and figure out who is doing what where. The best approach is to make something available — vouchers for example — at numbers below the demand, then track those who don’t get in (randomly) as a control group.

    More generally, this issue of “privatization” of district-run public schools is really a tangenial one for most free-market education reformers. I was just talking to a former employee of one of the management firms that was included in the GAO study, and he remarked that plenty of these companies leapt before they looked — that is, they tried to maximize the number of schools they had on contract rather than picking carefully the school systems that would let them fire whom they wanted, hire whom they wanted, design their own curriculum, etc.

    At that point, you are just changing who controls the checkbook and who sweeps the floors at night, if that. Not a real test of charters, vouchers, or market-based education at all.

  2. And then there’s the question of whether “score better on standardized tests” is itself a valid measurement.

  3. Do you want N1 layers of bureaucracy from the public sector, or N1+N2 layers of bureaucracy from the combined public/private management of the school?

    I’ll take x = Min(N1,N2).

  4. This may be seconding thoreau, damned if I know, but I have a woman’s intuition that Julian Sanchez is onto something. It’s just that my attitude is out of sync with my latitude, and I can’t find my longitude with both hands and a sprung chronometer. Not to mention my cross-sectional fell through my crack.

  5. “a dog in this race”

    Bud, you’re mixing metaphors. There’s no such thing as a race dog.

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