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Cutting Through Right-Wing Spin on Public Education: When the Going Gets Tough, Privatization Proponents Get Paul Peterson

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By Kevin Franck

Let's say that someone invented a pill that supposedly makes children grow faster. To measure its effectiveness on children from two different countries, you would assemble a sample group of each and measure their growth over time. But what if the children in one of the countries already tended to grow at a faster rate? This would certainly skew your results. The question would be how to isolate the effects of the pill by accounting for pre-existsing differences in growth rate.

The authors of a recent education study faced this very question when they tried to compare the effectiveness of public schools and private schools. Conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the study compared the test scores of students in different schools and initially found that private school students scored higher. But they had not yet accounted for demographic characteristics e.g. parental income and education level, the number and quality of books found in the home, etc. that affect student test scores irrespective of the quality of school attended. For instance, children in private schools tend to come from wealthier and more educated families and therefore tend to score higher.

The NCES researchers sought to compare the effectiveness of public and private schools, so they devised a complex statistical formula to control for demographic differences among students. Once they controlled for the factors that give private schools an advantage they found that public schools performed as well as, and in some cases better than, private schools.

Critics of public education predictably discounted the study's findings. A senior research fellow at the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation, an organization that advocates publicly funded vouchers, implied that anyone who believes public schools perform better than private schools might be on drugs. Right-wing education scholar Chester Finn claimed that coverage of the study said more about the media than the state of public education.

And this week a familiar face joined the right-wing stampede to neutralize the NCES study. Paul Peterson a media savvy political science professor at Harvard released a report claiming that the study got it wrong. He took the study data and then applied his own statistical formula to it, effectively negating the researchers' sophisticated adjustments for demographic differences. After waving his statistical wand over the data he went on the offensive, arguing that the study actually proves that private schools perform better than public schools.

Peterson makes the most of his Harvard credentials, but he is more a political animal than a scholar. His work has been funded largely by organizations dedicated to promoting right-wing ideology and policies, such as the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Olin supported the work of Robert Bork, Phyllis Schlafly, and Bill Bennett, and Bradley funded the work of notorious Bell Curve author Charles Murray, whom the organization's former president once referred to as "one of the foremost social thinkers in the country." Both organizations have sought to produce academic-sounding rationales for right-wing policies; their grants to Peterson are no exception.

Peterson has a history of re-analyzing and re-interpreting data from studies whose findings run counter to his own right-wing policy preferences and then announcing that things are not as they seemed. For instance, researchers at the University of Wisconsin in 1995 found no appreciable difference in academic performance between Milwaukee public school students and children who attended private schools via publicly funded vouchers. But Peterson reworked the data using a different set of assumptions and found that surprise there actually was a significant gain. John Witte, the lead University ofWisconsin researcher, said that Peterson's analysis was so riddled with mistakes that it could not be taken seriously.

In 1998, researchers at the University of Indiana published a study which found that the Cleveland voucher program had no effect on student achievement. Again, Peterson went into action. He claimed that the study was flawed because it used test scores he considered "implausible" because they had been reported by the Cleveland public schools. He then thoroughly reworked the study and concluded that surprise again the data show that the voucher students actually performed better than their public school counterparts. He reached this conclusion by tweaking the statistical formula used to tabulate the results and replacing the supposedly implausible scores with others, which were derived from a test developed and administered by an organization which ran voucher schools in Milwaukee.

Paul Peterson is a conservative political operative in the guise of a scholar. His work is funded and celebrated by right-wing groups bent on privatizing public education. Is it any wonder he always manages to reach the same pro-privatization conclusions?

Every school day in America , thousands of teachers work hard to help students grow into thoughtful, responsible citizens. The recent NCES study shows that their hard work is paying off. Tragically there are public schools that struggle, and those schools need honest, effective, and research-proven reform. We need to continue the debate about school reform, but we must remain committed to honesty and to our public schools. But quasi-academic proponents of privatization, like Paul Peterson, are committed to neither.

Kevin Franck is Senior Education Policy Analyst at People For the American Way

August 7, 2007

— Kevin Franck


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