Common criticism of public education is misguided

Parents and politicians wonder aloud why some private and charter schools have higher test scores than neighboring public schools.

They assume that something different is going on in those schools. This leads to the perception that public education is a failing institution. Some media members encourage these negative assertions with inaccurate and misleading information. Test score performance is contingent on who is going into these schools.

Designed to measure individual ability, tests are misused to gauge an entire school’s performance. Critics of public education use generalizations that are not accurate or logical. They deceptively imply that the quality of a school is measured by test scores. This deception suggests that differences in curriculum, teacher quality and leadership are the cause of disparities in test scores.

Curriculum content and instructional delivery vary little in any school setting. Similar materials and teaching methods are used in most educational environments. Any pronounced differences result in little noticeable effect on test scores. The commercial market supplying curriculum materials caters to public, charter and private institutions. Sweeping overhauls of the curriculum have had little effect on standardized test scores. This is frustrating for veteran educators that have experienced many of these changes and seen little or no improvement in student performance by this measure.

Teacher quality, like any other profession, exhibits a range of talent. But it is difficult to quantify instructional ability. Instructional differences have little effect on test scores. Test-taking ability of the student body determines test score outcomes. We have many blue skies throughout the year in Southern Nevada, while there are many more cloudy days in the Midwest. It is not a logical assumption that weather forecasters on local television are superior to those in Michigan.

Building leadership is essential in providing a positive culture for students. Principals are responsible for providing a safe, cordial and productive learning environment. These traits can be established in any school setting and should be measures of school quality. But unlike test scores, these traits are difficult to quantify.

The need to use objective numbers to measure the quality of schools may have grown out of the business community. Standardized tests have become the primary measure of school quality in a seemingly objective manner. Measuring school quality with test scores is like using company profits to measure the quality of a work environment. Profits and test scores measure talent.

Standardized tests are designed to measure specific ability or intelligence and rank individual students. When used to measure school achievement, standardized tests reflect the demographics of the student body. Poverty and other socioeconomic factors influence test scores. These factors are apparent in state and national assessments, and college admissions exams. An increase in the percentage of students from low-income families results in lower scores. Unfortunately, there is no educational remedy that affects this outcome. When students change schools, it alters the peer group but does not greatly improve individual ability on tests.

Public, charter and private schools compete to attract and retain higher-achieving students. This is similar to comparing coaches. A public school athletic coach may be limited to student-athletes in his or her attendance area. Is playing against a private school that can attract (recruit?) more talented athletes a fair assessment of their coaching ability? Test score differences are determined by which schools win the recruitment competition.

Use a map of elementary schools in any urban district in the United States to compare test scores with income levels in the neighborhood. Test scores for each school correlate almost perfectly with family incomes in the surrounding communities. Higher incomes lead to higher test scores (and nicer homes).

Understanding what standardized tests really measure helps answer concerns about public education. Charter and private schools are not better educational systems, they just have different students. Suggesting that they are superior to regular public schools is deceitful.

Mislabeling schools is in reality a degradation of low-income students. This is not a defense of public education but an acceptance of its limitations.

Greg Wieman is retired after a 38-year career in public education in which his roles included teacher, coach, principal and superintendent. He holds a doctoral degree in education from Eastern Michigan University. He can be reached at [email protected]