The New York Times features a piece by Charles Murray arguing that choice has failed to improve test scores. In general, Murray doesn’t think schools can do much to improve test scores. He says:
This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.
It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.
Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.
Murray wants to be clear that he still favors choice, but not to improve test scores. Instead, he favors choice because it satisfies the diversity of preferences about how schools teach and what they teach. Standardized test scores impose a uniform concept of higher achievement on students, and so cannot capture the improved satisfaction of the diversity of tastes that choice can more efficiently satisfy.
There is a kernel of truth in Murray’s argument. We should support school choice simply because it allows us the liberty of providing our children with the kind of education that we prefer.
But Murray is completely mistaken in asserting that choice cannot (and has not) produced improved outcomes on standardized measures. The only research he references is the recently released, non-random assignment evaluation of the effect of Milwaukee’s voucher program on students receiving vouchers. This ignores the 10 superior, random research designed studies summarized here. Importantly, it also ignores the effects of expanding choice and competition on achievement in entire school systems.
Especially with regard to a large and mature voucher program, like the one in Milwaukee, the relevant thing to focus on is systemic effects, not participant effects. Almost everyone in Milwaukee has access to expanded choice, so everyone is receiving the treatment — school choice. The difference between voucher participants and non-participants is where they chose to go to school, not the difference between having access to choice or not. And if you look at the systemic effects study in Milwaukee it shows significant gains in student achievement as choice and competition are expanded.
It is irritating to have to repeat this discussion of the evidence each time Charles Murray, Sol Stern, or Diane Ravitch selectively cite (or ignore) the research literature and claim that choice has no effect. It’s also puzzling why “conservative” activists feel the need to denounce choice and competition in order to promote their pet reform idea.
Murray may well be right that schools face serious constraints in improving student achievement, but you don’t have to trash the gains that have been realized to make that point. (And I think the constraints are less severe than he suggests).
Stern may well be right that even schools in more competitive markets have to make good decisions with regard to curriculum and pedagogy to produce significant improvement. But choice and competition facilitate schools making good decisions about curriculum and pedagogy by providing negative consequences for those who choose foolishly (as well as giving schools the freedom to try more effective instructional techniques). And Ravitch may be right about … well, maybe she isn’t right about very much.
Are conservative activists so starved for attention that they are willing to feed the New York Time’s preferred strategy of promoting conservative in-fighting, just so they can get into the pages of the Grey Lady?
(Edited to add link)