Will's column focuses on one of the schools profiled in the book -- Cristo Rey Jesuit High School -- and its positive outcomes. As far as I can tell, Cristo Rey is doing an admirable job educating low-income students and deserves a lot of praise. So I'm glad Will took the time to highlight their educational model and achievements.
But near the end Will makes a statement that is somewhere between overly simplistic and absurd. I'll post the entire paragraph below:
CRJHS can have its work program, its entirely college preparatory courses ("the old, dead white man's curriculum," says an English teacher cheerfully), its zero tolerance of disorder (from gang symbols down to chewing gum), its enforcement of decorum (couples dancing suggestively are told to "leave some space there for the Holy Spirit") and its requirement that every family pay something, if only as little as $25 a month. It can have all this because it is not shackled by bureaucracy or unions, as public schools are.
From a research standpoint, here's the problem with that statement: his model is misspecified -- it suffers from omitted variable bias. And it's particularly egregious in this case b/c he leaves out a potentially confounding variable -- selection. If he published a paper with such findings, they would be dubbed spurious.
He attributes all of the successes of the school to the fact that they don't have to deal with as much red tape as other schools (particularly public schools). But he fails to mention that the larger reason the school can have such policies is because they can select their students -- both which ones are admitted and which ones are allowed to remain enrolled. And, perhaps even more important, the students who enroll are from families who chose to apply and chose to pay at least a small fee to enroll their children -- and then chose to remain enrolled once they knew what the school was like.
In Whitman's book, he writes that 43% of students who applied in 2006 were admitted (p. 142), and that the retention rate (percentage of students who remained enrolled) from freshman to senior year was 62% (p. 144). In other words, a significant number of kids (about 73% of those who apply) either choose not to or are not allowed to complete 4 years at the school.
Part of the reason why public schools can't have such strict discipline codes is due to bureacracy, but the larger reason is because they can't select their students -- meaning that they have to accomodate everybody, and they must have options for students who don't like the rules other than expulsion.