The Biggest Public School Problem Might Be the Brand

Surprisingly, public schools outperform private and charter schools—but no one knows it.

public vs private schools
(Photo: Jeremy Gordon/Flickr)
Jack Schneider writes the column 'The Learning Curve' for TakePart. He is an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of two books, including From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education . His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and USA Today.

Most people believe that charter and private schools are preferable alternatives to traditional public schools. This is evident in the palpable anxiety at school open houses, in overheard conversations at coffee shops, and humorless posts on parent blogs. And it comes across quite clearly in survey data. According to a recent Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans believe that private schools provide a good or excellent education. Charter schools aren’t far behind, clocking in at 60 percent. And traditional public schools (where the vast majority of K-12 students are educated)? They come in dead last, with only 37 percent of respondents expressing confidence in their merits.

This wouldn’t be much of a story if the data on school performance supported these assumptions. Yet private schools are often outperformed by their public counterparts. Sure, private schools often have higher raw test scores. But they also tend to serve more privileged populations. So, when factors like income, race, and parental education are taken into account, private schools don’t appear to add as much value as one might assume they do.

Charter school performance also fails to match public perceptions. As research indicates, charter school quality varies dramatically, from state to state, and from school to school. And on the whole, charter performance is comparable to that of traditional public schools.

So what accounts for the split between popular perception and actual results?

One factor worth considering is marketing. Gauging school quality from the outside is notoriously difficult, and it can often take parents years to determine the value of the education their children are receiving. Desperate as they are for information, parents tend to fall back on general brand attributes—turning to crude indicators of quality like the condition of the school’s physical plant or its general reputation, which may have nothing to do with actual effectiveness. Private and charter schools, always vying for clients, are well aware of this. And not surprisingly, they work to shore up their brands by investing in computer labs, creating impressive faculty bio pages, posting cheery banners, and even launching advertising campaigns.  For their part, traditional public schools tend not to engage in such practices. After all, they have plenty of clients, and brand status is only loosely tied to actual performance.

Exclusivity also plays a part. Research from consumer psychology indicates that people disproportionately value products when they are perceived to be scarce. And insofar as that is the case, private schools and charters are at an inherent advantage over their traditional public school counterparts. Private schools are generally small in size and carefully cultivate the image that they are selective in their admissions. Many, of course, are genuinely difficult to get into. Yet others ask students to complete a lengthy application process even if they are virtually guaranteed admission; even if it’s a sham, the process creates a sense of accomplishment for the families granted admission. Some charters play this game, too. As public schools, they can’t employ selective admissions procedures. But they can recruit more applicants than they have spaces for. The goal is to force a lottery for available seats and, thereby, to trigger a sense of scarcity.

The media has a role, as well. Newspapers run stories about schools with problems that need solving far more than they run stories about schools that are doing well. And politicians score far more points by playing up fear than they do by engendering calm. Consequently, a bleak picture has emerged—of failing public schools in general, and of failing inner-city schools in particular. 

Finally, there is the powerful influence of choice to consider when trying to understand public perceptions of private and charter schools. As a wealth of psychological research indicates, people prefer making their own decisions. And, more importantly, people tend to be happier with outcomes if they have had a hand in shaping them. Thus, while choice may not be a panacea for school quality—as some free-market ideologues have claimed—it is something of a panacea for satisfaction. Even if they don’t produce markedly better results, private and charter schools hold a powerful advantage in generating positive reputations.

None of this is intended as a takedown of private and charter schools. Many do good work, and they should be valued for that. Rather, the point is that public schools suffer from a divergence between public perception and measurable reality. Knowing this, we might conduct fewer conversations about an ostensible crisis in public education, driven by the troubles of a small number of schools, and, instead, concentrate on the importance of cultivating positive reputations among the vast majority of public schools that are doing just fine. Traditional public schools need not build their brands in order to ensure survival—after all, they educate 90 percent of young people. But they may need to do so in order to secure the good faith of the American public—faith that is essential to a healthy and thriving system.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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