A post from Diane Ravitch’s blog on a study from Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends. The Study is called, “Impact of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program: Achievement Effects for Students in Upper Elementary and Middle School.”
Overall, voucher students experienced an average achievement loss of 0.15 SDs in mathematics during their first year of attending a private school compared with matched students who remained in a public school. This loss persisted regardless of the length of time spent in a private school. In English/Language Arts, we did not observe statistically meaningful effects. Although school vouchers aim to provide greater educational opportunities for students, the goal of improving the academic performance of low?income students who use a voucher to move to a private school has not yet been realized in Indiana.
I do take issue with one of the study’s assumptions, however. The abstract says that improving the academic performance of low-income students is a goal. My contention has long been that this stated goal for Indiana’s voucher system is a pretext. My working theory is that the real goals are primarily: a) reduce the influence of teacher’s unions; b) redirect education money to friends and well-wishers of pro-voucher policymakers; and c) subsidize private, religious education.
A brief aside – I know that sounds cynical. And I’m not a fan of knee-jerk cynicism when it comes to politics. It’s too easy, corrosive to public discourse, and so often doesn’t capture what’s happening. Too many lawmakers and other policymakers — even those with whom I disagree — are subjected to being unfairly painted as these cartoonish supervillains by members of the public who can’t be bothered to deal with nuance. In my experience most public servants honestly have their hearts in the right place. So, I would be delighted to learn that my cynicism is misplaced. Maybe lawmakers will review these studies and reconsider the state voucher program. Maybe they’ll restructure their voucher initiatives in a way that’s contrary to the big three “real” reasons for vouchers I’ve listed above. If that happens, I’ll certainly reconsider my cynical take on the matter.
Ravitch also mentions a study by Robert Planta and Arya Ansari showing that apparent advantages of going to a private school disappear when one controls for socio-economic advantages of the kids going to those schools. In other words, the private school wasn’t particularly responsible for the high performance of the kids; the advantages the kids had outside the school were responsible.
[I]n unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the socio-demographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children, or children enrolled in urban schools, benefited more from private school enrollment.
So, we’re diverting funds from traditional public schools and adding administrative burdens for a voucher system that doesn’t help kids’ educational performance and might even hurt it. There are higher performing public school systems all over the world that we could be copying — but, doing so might not hurt teacher’s unions, might not redirect education funds to friends and well-wishers of voucher advocates, and might not provide a subsidy to private, religious education. The link in the previous system is to a blog post I did from 2016 on an National Conference of State Legislatures study that looked at Finland, Singapore, Ontario, Alberta, Estonia, Hong Kong, Japan, Poland, Shanghai, and Taiwan. My take aways from the report:
1. The U.S. is falling behind when compared to the rest of the world. This can’t be explained away by hand waving about apples-and-oranges.
2. The good news, of sorts, is that there are now lots of countries doing better than we are, so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We can see what works and copy it.
3. There needs to be a support structure in place so that kids come to school ready to learn. In other places, that can take the form of government support to families with young children or extended family structures or the community generally. The upshot is that the kids are healthy and the kids are being educated before they get to school. Extra resources are devoted to struggling kids once they get to school.
4. Access to elite teachers. The system recruits high quality educators; implements a rigorous system of preparation and licensure; pays them well; develops a mentor system; gives them a professional environment to work in; selects high quality administrators; and develop standards benchmarked to other countries.
5. Develop a Career and Technical Education path for those students preferring more of an applied education rather than a more academic approach. This shouldn’t be an educational backwater like so many vocational programs. It should be geared to boosting the national economy and providing a higher standard of living for a broader base of the population.
6. These reforms should be part of a comprehensive plan. It will probably be the case that not all problems can be tackled at once, but the plan implementation should not be erratic or arbitrary.
This may be simplistic, but my current thinking is that our biggest obstacle to achieving a world-class education system (and a world-class health system for that matter) is the legacy of centuries of slavery in the U.S. It has left the civic equivalent of psychological scars that results in social dysfunction and seemingly insurmountable division. “We” are perfectly happy to spend huge amounts of Our money to help Us. But, We get really parsimonious when They might get some of Our money. Places where the public mostly regards everyone in the country as Us have any easier time providing for the welfare of the general public (as the preamble to the Constitution puts it) than places where the public has a significant division between Us and Them.
Kennedy, Sheila S says
You may characterize your analysis as cynical, but it is absolutely accurate. I would only note that different proponents of vouchers may be motivated by different elements of the three you identify–for example, Pence and DeVos are clearly most interested in siphoning public funds from public education and directing them to religious schools.
Carlito Brigante says
My working theory is that the real goals are primarily: a) reduce the influence of teacher’s unions; b) redirect education money to friends and well-wishers of pro-voucher policymakers; and c) subsidize private, religious education.
I can’t agree more. If the intention were to improve outcome of lower-income students, then the solution would be to provide those students with better resourced schools. But we often here thart we are merely “throwing money at the problem.” This sounds more like the dog whistle song “we don’t want to spend any money on them.” I saw BlackKKlansman last night, so perhaps I am still skewed this morning.
The dismissive that “we are just throwing money at something” reminds me of a lesson I learned when interning for a government farm agency. “No one is in favor of government waste unless the government is wasting it on them.”
Dr. Michael Shaffer says
I wish I had discovered your blog a long time ago. I have always believed that the voucher system was NEVER created for the purpose of getting poor kids out of failing schools. Your three point reason for their birth and expansion is borne out in every decision that has followed their creation in 2011.