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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More on Public vs. Private Schools

by folkbum

Right Cheddarspherean Dad29 takes me to task this morning over a post of mine from last month. I wrote then about a Department of Education study released quietly showing that, when you correct for socioeconomic and other factors, private schools do not perform any better than public schools do. The feds held onto that study for months, added language dismissing its significance, and released it on a Friday afternoon hoping no one would notice. Clearly, this is because the results don't match the rhetoric from the Bush Administration since day one, which is that private schools are better.

Dad29 quotes at length from a Human Events Online story out a couple of weeks ago. HEO is a proud conservative publication (it's in the banner at the top of the page), so I was immediately skeptical. And for good reason: The HEO story was based on a study done by Harvard's Paul Peterson, a long-time voucher advocate and denigrator of the public sector.

Here's the original Peterson release; even after playing with the data enough to get the result Peterson wanted, he still wouldn't say it was the last word. His partner in the research said, "Our results are not offered as conclusive evidence that private schools outperform public schools."

Why would I think that Peterson is just playing around with the data? Because he has a history of doing exactly that to further his pro-voucher agenda (sorry for the long excerpt):
Peterson's research methods have proven to be completely unreliable, if not outright fraudulent, in both intent and execution. Important research by Peterson was never peer reviewed (or, rejected by his peers), and first published by the Wall Street Journal. Despite this lack of veracity, Peterson's results have been picked up and trumpted by the conservative movement across the country.

Take for example his research of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, begun in 1990. The State of Wisconsin's official evaluator of the program from 1990-1995 was John F. Witte, a Political Science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Using rigorous social science methodologies, and submitting his work to peer review, Witte found essentially no academic difference between school voucher students and regular Milwaukee Public Schools students. Indeed, in some very specific areas, the public school students actually fared better than their private school counterparts.

But in 1996 Peterson reported a re-analysis of Witte's numbers that he had done along with Jay Greene and Jiangtao Du, titled "The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data from the Program's Evaluation." Actually, the study had been released before Peterson's court testimony supporting the Milwaukee program, giving opponents no time to adequately analyze his conclusions in time for the court appearance.

[T]hree years later, researchers [broke] down Peterson's "research" pointing out that, in Witte's words, "...the problems with this result are so numerous that I don't think anyone really believes it." Of course, there were earlier clues to the bogus nature of Peterson's research. First, the study had been submitted to an academic journal for peer review, but had been rejected! After the rejection, Peterson initially published some of his results in the Wall Street Journal [. . .].

Witte broke down Peterson's research in a long article in the journal The Phi Delta Kappan in September 1999, an article that has since been expanded into a book just published by the Princeton University Press, titled "The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America's First Voucher Program."

The political nature of Peterson's research cannot be overstated. Peterson's results have been picked up and amplified--most often taken as gospel, with no rebuttal--by the think tanks, journalists, and other operatives within the conservative movement, including right-wing ABC TV News reporter John Stossel.
Got that? Peterson, despite the Harvard letterhead, has long been passing off bogus research on vouchers and private schools for almost the sole purpose of providing cover for conservatives to push their pro-voucher agenda. Even when the fed study I wrote about was first published, Peterson was in the press right afterwards spinning the study's results, knowing that the movement was looking to him to provide something they could use. A Dayton Daily News columnist found that ironic.

(Even beyond Peterson's own suspect work, he's responsible for at least one other unforgivable sin: Giving the world Jay Greene.)

I was in Alaska when Peterson's study was released, or I might have said something then. As it is, I don't really have to say much more, because Kevin Franck has done such a nice job here. That one's worth the read.

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