Bruce D. Baker, Rutgers
A few weeks back I posted a rather harsh critique of a summit convened by NAIS President John Chubb which he described as a gathering of leading researchers intended to generate ideas on the future of private independent schooling. Among other things, I critiqued the chosen researchers’ balance of ideology, knowledge of private independent schools and in some cases, generally lacking substance of their body of work on educational productivity.
John Chubb, as he has been known to do, graciously responded to my critique, pointing out that he would soon blog about the conversations that emerged among these researchers.
Below are two examples from Chubb’s recent blog posting, which I view as entirely consistent with my original concerns. Mainly, that the researchers gathered have weak understanding of private independent schooling, how private independent school leaders view their market and the broader perception of how private independent schools contribute to their students and families in particular and society more broadly.
Chubb summarizes the comments of Marguerite Roza as follows:
Marguerite Roza, an economist with Georgetown University and the University of Washington and authority on the costs of schooling, stressed the opportunity for our schools to deliver high quality within the price range of more families. Research already documents the unsurpassed value of outstanding teachers to the success of students. If schools directed more of their effort and resources toward having the best teachers in town, they might find that other expenditures made to meet parent and student demand are less necessary.
I have written on numerous occasions on my blog about how a handful of researchers and policy advocates have jumped on a fast moving bandwagon pitching the idea that “good teachers” always trump small classes (ignoring any interaction between the two), that teacher pay structure is woefully inefficient (any dollar spent on experience gained or additional degrees being inefficient), and that schools and districts generally spend way to much per child on “extras” including stuff like cheerleading and ceramics. Further, technology is a more efficient substitute for almost anything!
These are frequent messages of Marguerite Roza in particular, and thus I must view her suggestions above in this light. It may be reasonable to suggest that some private independent school somewhere would try to fill a niche of providing tech driven classes of 30 to 40 children, with very highly compensated expert teachers and absolutely no frills (no cheerleading, ceramics, lacrosse, squash, fencing or drama). It may be reasonable to try to convince parents that such a school is worthwhile, despite a dearth of actual evidence to support such an approach.
I’ve personally yet to encounter any private independent school leaning even slightly in this direction. What I’ve seen instead is expansion of what some might consider boutique sports and activities, smart use of technology but coupled with close human/adult contact in small classes, and for the most part, relatively traditional teacher compensation structures. Hey. Go ahead. Give it a try. I’m not buying it either from the perspective of parent or from the perspective of researcher.
Chubb summarized another portion of the two day conversation as follows:
Parents are increasingly demanding better evidence of “the value proposition.” Will my son or daughter be admitted to a more competitive college or university? Will their SAT scores be higher? The researchers emphasized that the demand for evidence of outcomes will only increase. Again, they emphasized the opportunity. Our efforts to provide test score data are sometimes criticized—“of course your scores are high, you admit only the most academically able students.” But the fact is, we serve all kinds of students, and often do best with average students who may get lost in a public school. With a little R&D, we could develop the tools that would enable our schools to estimate the academic “value add” that our schools provide students with different backgrounds and preparations.
This is an interesting point which raises questions about the differences in how parents versus policymakers and researchers view the contribution of schooling to their children or to society. Further, this raises questions regarding what parents of children in schools of choice view as how the schools they choose might contribute to their children.
As I’ve explained on many past blog posts, researchers like to sort out school effect from peer effect, where the research/policy objective is to identify “effective” and “efficient” schools regardless of (rather than because of) the students they serve. But parents are as interested in capitalizing on peer effect itself as part of the school effect and in many ways, above and beyond the fact that peer achievement is associated with individual achieve (and growth). That is parents are choosing the school both for the programs and services it provides and for the students who currently attend, knowing that both matter academically and otherwise. Parents selecting a private independent school in particular are seeking the appropriate social, cultural, academic, artistic and athletic match for their child. There may be as much interest in the ability of their child to compete with well-matched peers on the tennis court or in wrestling as there is in AP Calculus.
As John Chubb acknowledges, parents are seeking the value-proposition in the sense that they are seeking to place their child in a school that will provide the greatest long term advantages, but perhaps also the best fitting short term context.
Chubb’s summary, derived from his participants at the meeting then goes somewhat astray. He suggests that (of course) private school reports of test scores are of marginal use because they represent substantial selection bias. Notably, that selection bias itself is a marketing tool. The assertion that “we serve all kinds of students” is undermined by even a casual review of the percentile bridge between predicted national percentile ranks and percentile ranks on commonly taken private school entrance exams (ISEE and SSAT). The 98%ile student nationally on math is about the 75%ile on math among SSAT takers as 9th grade applicants. Further, many elite private independent schools report average SSAT scores around the 75%ile (meaning their average student is about the 98%ile nationally). In other words, statistically, the distributions of private independent school students and all students are hugely different.
The policy assertion being made by Chubb is that private independent schools might seek to develop “value-added” measures that will allow them to show how they can improve the chances of success for students they serve in general, and by specific backgrounds. Of course, in the competitive pipeline linking private school attendance and college acceptance, one child’s gained advantage is often another child’s loss. It’s all relative and much about jockeying for position among the academic 99%ile. Further, shedding the most pessimistic light on this proposal, one might argue that having such value-added metrics – were they even statistically feasible – might encourage schools to seek out those students who require the least effort (expense) to add value.
The big issue here, and the big misunderstanding by John Chubb and his advisors regarding private independent schooling, is that private independent schools already think much about the value they add, and in many qualitative and not remotely quantifiable ways, they convey this information to parents their ongoing marketing.
In many cases, the value-added provided by private independent schools actually has little to do with measurable academic value added. In my own recent tours of private independent day and boarding schools, the clearest examples of specific school programs providing value-added to graduates moving on to college relate to athletics and arts (though neither cheerleading nor ceramics). That is, much of the value-added in private schooling is being added by what Chubb’s advisors would otherwise decry as inefficient, wasteful and counterproductive.
Over the past year, I’ve heard stories of the aspiring wrestler who might otherwise have attended a less competitive regional public university, but by having the opportunity to wrestle in a top boarding school program, landed at a leading elite public university, another student who picked up squash while attending an elite boarding school to find that his squash skills would help him gain admission to a highly selective liberal arts college. And finally, there are the budding thespians at a local day school who’ve found their way after graduation to some of the nation’s leading college theater and drama programs.
It is my suspicion, though at this point based largely on emerging anecdotes that that this apparent focus on developing students’ unique talents toward achieving and edge is quite common – if not central to the philosophy of many NAIS schools. To some extent, academic value added is an aside, or at least assumed. These are all (or at least mostly) academically strong students (the top 80% on SSAT being about the top 20% on other standardized tests). Thus the goal of the school is to differentiate them by identifying and nurturing their talents.
Policymakers and advocates seeking to craft academic value-added metrics for private schools might be wise instead to consider how the individualization and talent development approach of private schools (with access to rich curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities so often classified as inefficiencies and undermining narrowly measured value-added) might inform policies and practices in public schooling.