Claim that Private Schools Outperform Public Schools Doesn’t Hold Up

Review concludes that Cato’s simple tally of unscreened studies is not a useful way of summarizing research

Contact: Teri Battaglieri, (517) 203-2940; (email)
Clive Belfield, (718) 997-5448; (email)

EAST LANSING, Mi. (Sept. 30, 2008)—A new report from the Cato Institute purports to show that private schools around the world perform better than public schools and that the United States should embrace a free and competitive education marketplace. A review of the Cato report, however, finds the report’s analysis to be faulty and the resulting policy conclusion to be unwarranted.

The report, Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence, was reviewed for the Think Twice project by Professor Clive Belfield of Queens College/City University of New York, who is also co-director of the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Markets vs. Monopolies tallies up the conclusions reached by 55 domestic and international studies. It finds that, by a ratio of 8 to 1, private schools outperform public ones. It then presents the results of a closer look at a subset of studies, representing systems with the greatest market freedom, and finds that private schools again outperform public schools.

From these findings, the report draws a series of broad policy recommendations: That the content of schooling does not need to be overseen by the state; that there should be universal access to minimally regulated education markets; and that parents should directly pay at least some of the cost of their children’s education.

Belfield’s review strongly criticizes the report’s analysis as well as its findings. “Contrary to the basic assertion in the Cato report, there is little warrant for U.S. policymakers to draw policy conclusions from tallying the results of the body of very uneven international evidence. The large and growing body of U.S. evidence about school choice and marketization is more accessible, applicable and useful than figuring out how international evidence applies to the U.S.”

Regarding the report’s simplistic “vote-counting” to analyze the studies’ conclusions, Belfield notes that “not all votes – not all studies – are necessarily equal.” Researchers have developed much more careful ways of analyzing and making sense of multiple studies that explore related phenomena. The danger, Belfield explains, is that many of the studies counted in the Cato study are substantially weaker than others, and their value is highly suspect.

The Cato report also omits a number of relevant studies, raising “serious questions about the report’s methodological assumptions and about the usefulness of reviewing international evidence instead of relying on U.S. research,” Belfield writes.

Belfield notes that even if the report’s fundamental findings of the experiences of other countries were accurate, it nonetheless cannot support the policy conclusions. The national systems surveyed, including those in Pakistan, India and Ghana are so different from the U.S. as to make comparisons questionable, and the report ignores such questions as the costs vs. benefit of market approaches, both in economic and social terms.

“It is possible that private schools are superior to public schools when all the international evidence is counted,” Belfield writes. “We don’t know, and this report does little if anything to help answer that question.”

But the best studies in the U.S. and abroad, which include rigorous controls for bias, show the purported private school advantage to range from small to non-existent, he concludes. “As such, expanding market forces is unlikely to yield dramatic improvements in the quality of the U.S. education system.”

Find Clive Belfield’s review and a link to the Cato report on the web at:

About The Think Twice Project
The Think Twice project provides the public, policy makers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think tank publications. It is a collaboration of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.


The mission of the Great Lakes Center is to improve public education for all students in the Great Lakes region through the support and dissemination of high quality, academically sound research on education policy and practices.

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