School Choice Researchers Unite in Ed Week

February 22, 2012

Pictured (L to R): Rick Hess, Jay Greene, Greg Forster, Mike Petrilli and Matt Ladner

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today, Education Week carries a joint editorial signed by nine scholars and analysists. We came together to agree that Mom and apple pie are good, Nazis and Commies are bad, and the empirical research supports the expansion of school choice:

Choice’s track record so far is promising and provides support for continuing expansion of school choice policies…Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact…Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive…

In addition to effects on participating students, another major topic of research has been the impact of school choice on academic outcomes in the public school system…Among voucher programs, these studies consistently find that vouchers are associated with improved test scores in the affected public schools. The size of the effect in these studies varies from modest to large. No study has found a negative impact.

We have diverse viewpoints on many issues, but we share a common commitment to helping inform public decisions with such evidence as science is legitimately able to provide. We do not offer false certainty about a future none of us knows. But the early evidence is promising, and the grounds for concern have been shown to be largely baseless. The case for expanding our ongoing national experiment with school choice is strong.

This may well be the most important part:

The most important limitation on all of this evidence is that it only studies the programs we now have; it does not study the programs that we could have some day. Existing school choice programs are severely limited, providing educational options only to a targeted population of students, and those available options are highly constrained.

These limitations need to be taken seriously if policymakers wish to consider how these studies might inform their deliberations. The impact of current school choice programs does not exhaust the potential of school choice.

On the other hand, the goal of school choice should be not simply to move students from existing public schools into existing private schools, but to facilitate the emergence of new school entrants; i.e., entrepreneurs creating more effective solutions to educational challenges. This requires better-designed choice policies and the alignment of many other factors—such as human capital, private funding, and consumer-information sources—that extend beyond public policy. Public policy by itself will not fulfill the full potential of school choice.

Although I also feel particularly strongly about this:

Finally, we fear that political pressure is leading people on both sides of the issue to demand things from “science” that science is not, by its nature, able to provide. The temptation of technocracy—the idea that scientists can provide authoritative answers to public questions—is dangerous to democracy and science itself. Public debates should be based on norms, logic, and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.


Kenneth Campbell is the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, in Washington.

Paul Diperna is the research director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, in Indianapolis.

Robert C. Enlow is the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Jay P. Greene is the department head and holder of the 21st-century endowed chair in education reform at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville, and a fellow in education policy at the George W. Bush Institute, in Dallas.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, as well as a blogger for Education Week.

Matthew Ladner is a senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Michael J. Petrilli is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington.

Patrick J. Wolf is a professor and holder of the 21st-century endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville.

Our color-coordinated mechanical lion battle chariots that join together into a giant robot are still under construction.

Defender of the empirical research universe!

Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts?

December 10, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Education Week has some survey results that most people probably won’t find surprising or controversial, but that actually raise some tough ethical questions:

The public pins most of the blame for poor college graduation rates on students and their parents and gives a pass to colleges, government officials and others, a new Associated Press-Stanford University poll shows…

When asked where the blame lies for graduation rates at public four-year colleges, 7 in 10 said students shouldered either a great deal or a lot of it, and 45 percent felt that way about parents.

Others got off relatively easy: Anywhere between 25 percent and 32 percent of those polled blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.

Plausible enough! If you go to college and don’t graduate, whose fault is it but yours?

Yet Education Week thinks this is bad news for folks like us:

The belief that students are most at fault for graduation rates is a troubling sign for reformers who have elevated college completion to the forefront of higher education policy debates and pushed colleges to fix the problem, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.

“The message is, ‘Students, you had your shot at college and failed and it’s your fault, not the college,'” Kirst said.

You know what? I think they’re right. This is bad news for us on a certain level. Gathering political capital for reforms that will do something about our collegiate dropout factories requires us to convince people that the colleges, not just the students, need to change.

And yet I don’t think the popular view is quite wrong. Check out this quote:

“We’re all responsible for our own education, and by the time you get to college you are definitely responsible and mature,” said Deanna Ginn, a mother of 12 from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Ginn is right. We don’t want to undermine the personal responsibility of each individual student who drops out.

Yet that can easily become an excuse to take colleges off the hook for their legitimate responsibilities, and these survey results show that happening.

Matt has spent a lot of time documenting the disaster in Arizona, where (to pick just a couple of many shocking numbers he’s posted here) ASU graduates only 28% of students in four years, and the University of Arizona 33%. But those are not really unusual numbers – this is not just an Arizona problem.

No doubt, as thousands of kids come in, spend money and then drop out, year after year, the college administrators and their hired protectors in state legislatures tell themselves exactly what Ginn says – if you drop out, it’s your own fault.

Well, yes. If you drop out, it is your own fault. But let’s think about this. Year after year, you see these dismal dropout rates. Is that really no business of yours? Is it really OK to say that sure, something like two-thirds of the new students we’re accepting this year are making a bad decision by coming here, but hey, as long as their tuition checks clear, that’s their headache, not ours?

I say if you run a college that has a two-thirds dropout rate, it’s your responsibility to do something about that. Taking people’s money to help them make bad choices is both morally wrong and, even from a merely selfish standpoint, imprudent in the long term. You should be asking how you can help ensure that kids who have a low likelihood of graduating are steered onto some alternate path – perhaps you can develop an alternate path for them at your own institution, which would allow you to cash their tuition checks and also look yourself in the mirror with respect. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with saying that each and every dropout is personally responsible for dropping out.

If I know you have an allergy to a vaccine that’s so bad you’ll die if I inject you with it, I have a responsibility not to inject you with it no matter how much money you offer me or how completely convinced you might be that it’ll do you good. After we say that, the principle also implies repsonsibilities at a little lower level than life and death.

Much Ado About Nothing

December 8, 2009

Education Week has an article suggesting that Education Sector’s recently released report on Charter Management Organizations may have been massaged to please big donors.  The author of the original draft of the report, Tom Toch, had his name removed, so the report was released without an author.  It’s unclear whether Tom was dropped as the author because he didn’t have time to review the final manuscript (having left Ed Sector for another job), because of a dispute over payment for the report, and/or because he disagreed with the revised content.

Whatever the reason for dropping Tom Toch as author, the attempt by Marc Dean Millot to turn this into a cover-up seems like a reach.  Millot leaked an earlier draft of Toch’s report on Alexander Russo’s blog. 

I’ve looked at the earlier draft and the final report and, frankly, I don’t think the basic message was changed very much between the two.  Both list a series of challenges that Charter Management Organizations have faced and steps that should be taken to overcome them.  Bother versions are just thought-pieces, not analyses of data.  Either version could have been influenced by the political pressures that regularly creep into DC think tank writing, so there is no reason to privilege the earlier draft as pure and the later as corrupted when it could just as easily be the other way around.  Or perhaps both versions are politically tainted.  Or perhaps neither are.

Read it for yourself and decide, but there is little sign of a conspiracy here.

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