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September 19, 2017

New report details history of school vouchers in US

The Center For American Progress (CAP) recently released a report on the history of vouchers in the United States, a reform strategy that has garnered renewed interest in the Trump Administration, despite it’s murky origins and outcomes.

Image result for prince edward county protest

The report begins by referencing a 1951 strike organized by black high school students in Virginia’s Prince Edward County who were lobbying for a new school with improved facilities and resources. The students were convinced, with the help of lawyers and the NAACP, to sue the district for segregation. Their story was a classic example of the “separate but equal” legal doctrine that allowed racial segregation to flourish even after the abolishment of slavery and it was cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.  After the Supreme Court ruled that public schools had to integrate black students, many districts found ways to get around the verdict. Prince Edward was one of the most extreme examples of the lengths some communities went to avoid adhering to the law.

The county decided to drastically decrease public education spending to the minimum $150,000 and shut down all public schools in 1959. The closure lasted for five years.  Officials thought if public schools weren’t open, they couldn’t be integrated. During this five year period the state offered tuition grants, specifically for white students, to attend schools in neighboring counties.  The white residents of Prince Edward also came together and built a private school, Prince Edward Academy, that was only for white students.  Between 1959 and 1964 some black families sent their children to schools outside of county lines or even outside of the state to live with relatives, but most were forced to go five years without any kind of formal education.  The tuition grants were specifically designed to sustain the idea of segregation in Prince Edward County and the entire state of Virginia where public money was being used to help only a handful of students.

Today, vouchers still do not help most students achieve a quality education.  There are 49 million public school students but there are not 49 million vouchers to be offered. While current voucher programs do not segregate students by race in such an obvious way as those of the past, many still see segregation as an unintended consequence.  Public schools have legislation attached to them to address racially isolated schools but vouchers do not have the same civil rights legislation attached to their policies.  The research on vouchers today suggest that, in general, more vouchers are associated with more segregation in national and international studies.

The consequence of increased segregation from vouchers directly opposes the current beliefs about school diversity.  In the recent PDK poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools, 70% of the parents surveyed would prefer sending their children to a racially diverse school.  The data shows that the majority of public opinion has drastically changed regarding integration in schools, so it is time for our policies to reflect this transformation by learning from episodes like the one in Prince Edward County and moving forward.






May 8, 2017

Black and Latino parents express their views on education

School choice advocates seemed surprised earlier this year when the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charter schools. The need for school choice, according to many advocates, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, stems from lack of choices and underperformance of public schools for low-income students and students of color. However, a new survey by the civil rights group The Leadership Conference asks black and Latino parents about their views on education. Instead of education advocates and policymakers presupposing that all parents want is choice, we should stop and listen to them.

Parents want changes that would provide fair opportunities to their students. Most of their criticism is centered around race-based inequalities in funding and resources, as well as biased treatment of their students. Some parents may use school choice to attain greater equality, but until every school provides a high-quality education, providing options alone isn’t enough.

The Leadership Conference surveyed 600 black parents and 600 Latino parents across the U.S., all with children ages 5-18. The margin of error for each group is 4 percent. In addition to ensuring that our education system hears the voices of all groups of parents, this survey is particularly important because it helps peel back the layers on why black and Latino students often lag behind in educational attainment. They also make up nearly half of the student population.

Surveyed parents overwhelmingly felt that schools in black and Latino communities received less funding than schools in white neighborhoods. Research from EdBuild, an organization that studies education funding, would back up that sentiment. Black parents whose children attended majority white schools were more likely to rate their school as excellent than parents of students at majority-black schools (61 versus 14 percent). If funding tends to follow white students, then minority students at majority-white schools would also benefit from better supported schools. Socioeconomic status may also play a role in this perception; black and Latino students are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white students.

BlackLatino

Parents also cite racism and bias as contributors to their children receiving an inferior education. When their children had mostly white teachers, parents were more likely to believe that U.S. schools weren’t really trying to educate black/Latino students. This aligns with recent research that shows that black students are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to college if they had at least one black teacher in upper elementary school. While the mechanisms for the research findings are unclear, it is apparent that black and Latino parents feel that schools aren’t giving their children an equitable education.

Parents also shared what they feel will improve their schools: high-quality teachers, access to educational resources and technology, and high expectations for their students. They also care about extracurricular activities and after-school programs. In an open-ended question, nearly half of respondents cited good teachers as the most important characteristic to make a great school, placing it far above the number who cited a core/general curriculum or safe and nurturing environment. Eighty-nine percent of black parents and 81 percent of Latino parents wished that their children were challenged more.

All of these sentiments have been backed up in importance by research. High-quality teachers are paramount to students’ learning. Strong learning materials support great teaching by ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers. Students with same-race teachers tend to have higher performance. Schools receive inequitable funding, with poor and minority students typically concentrated in schools with fewer resources.

And yet, many policy-makers and education advocates have spent the last couple of years debating the merits of school choice. It seems that we’re missing the more important policy questions. Charters perform at about the same level as district schools, and large voucher programs actually have worse achievement results for students. So, instead of trying to create new systems, maybe we should focus on what really matters; just ask the parents.






April 28, 2017

New federal study of DC voucher program shows academic decline

A new federal analysis of the District of Columbia’s voucher program has found that students who transferred to private schools posted similar and, in some cases, worse scores than their peers who remained in public schools.

The findings appear to be the first time the Institute of Education Sciences (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education) has noted that voucher recipients performed worse on some academic measures than DC public school pupils in general.

It comes on the heels of new research on Louisiana and Ohio’s statewide voucher programs, which showed precipitous declines in test scores between students who took advantage of the voucher and transferred to a private school and similar students who stayed in public schools.

Created by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was intended to provide low-income families in the District of Columbia with tuition subsidies to attend private schools. Reauthorized in 2011 as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, it was the first and remains the only federally-funded voucher program in the U.S.

Ongoing evaluation of SOAR was a key feature of the 2004 and 2011 bill, hence IES has conducted numerous studies in the past that looked at student outcomes, parent satisfaction and general characteristics of the participants. But this is the first time researchers have observed a sharp difference between the test scores of SOAR participants and non-participants. Before we get to the specifics, some background: the study’s sample included students who applied to the program in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and were either offered or not offered a scholarship; the difference between the two on a variety of measures was studied one year after SOAR students transferred to private schools.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • Math scores dropped, on average, 7.3 percentile points for voucher recipients compared to students who applied but had not been selected for the program.
  • Reading scores dropped among elementary students (7.1 percentile points) who participated in SOAR compared to those who did not, but there was little discernible difference at the secondary level between these two groups.
  • Students who transferred from low performing schools (the very students the program is intended to help) saw no significant gain on their test scores one year after transferring to private school.
  • Meanwhile, voucher participants who had not transferred from schools designated as “in need of improvement” saw their math scores drop, on average, 14.1 percentile points and their reading scores by 11.3 percentile points compared to students who were in public schools.

While these findings aren’t as dramatic as Louisiana, where students saw a 27 percentile point drop in math one year after transferring to private schools, it’s yet another chink in the, let’s face it, drafty armor known as school choice.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having options. The problem is when one equates more options with better outcomes. This is not always the case, as this and other studies are showing.






February 7, 2017

School Improvement Grants: Why didn’t $7 billion change results for students?

Mathematica recently released a study of the federal program of Student Improvement Grants (SIG). Their findings? Schools receiving the extra funds showed no significant improvement over similar schools that did not participate. With a price tag of $7 billion (yes, with a “b”), this strikes many as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Interestingly, the study also found no evidence that the SIG schools actually had significantly higher per-pupil expenditures than similar schools that didn’t receive the grants, which may have contributed to the mediocre results.

SIG awarded up to $2 million annually to 1,400 schools, which was administered by states. The program began in the 2010-11 school year and continues through the end of the 2016-17 year. Starting in 2017-2018, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will allow states to use up to seven percent of their Title I allotments to improve the bottom five percent of schools. States may choose to dole out funds via formula or competitive grants, but districts are the ones responsible for using evidence-based practices to improve schools.

Under the old SIG rules, the federal government required schools to choose from one of these four turnaround models:

SIG 1

The new report analyzed transformation, turnaround, and restart models, and found no statistically significant effects for any of them. The authors did find positive, but not statistically significant, effects on math and reading scores for schools receiving the grant, but lower high school graduation rates. Critics of the new report have noted that the mathematical model chosen was not sensitive enough to detect small effects. The authors did find mixed effects each year, which many studies would have the power to find as significant, but due to the design, these remain insignificant. To give perspective of the magnitude of these effects, the effect of decreasing elementary class sizes by seven students is about 0.2 standard deviations; the effect of urban charter schools compared to their neighborhood schools after one year is 0.01 in math and -0.01 in reading (0.15 and 0.10 after four years). According to the Mathematica study, the results of SIG in 2012-2013 were 0.01 standard deviations in math and 0.08 standard deviations in reading, with a drop of in the graduation rate (note that SIG had a positive impact on the graduation rate in 2011-2012, which suggests that these results are not statistically significant, or could be zero). Not enough to conclude a positive effect, for sure, but not nothing, either.

 

SIG3

I’ll offer a couple of my own thoughts (based on research, of course) on why SIG didn’t have the success that was hoped for:

1. The authors found no evidence that the grant funds actually increased per-pupil spending. In government-speak, the funds may have supplanted other funding streams instead of supplementing them, even though the law states that federal funds are supposed to supplement other funds spent. They found that SIG schools spent about $245 more per student than similar non-SIG schools in 2011-2012, and only $100 more in 2012-2013 (again the results are not statistically significant, meaning that we can’t confidently say that the difference isn’t zero). Recent studies have shown that spending makes a difference in education, so this may help explain why we didn’t see a difference here.

2. Students in many priority schools (the bottom five percent of schools), which are the ones that qualified for SIG grants, may have had the option to transfer to higher-performing schools. While the report doesn’t address this, it seems that students with more involved parents and better academic achievement may have been more likely to utilize this offer, thus lowering the average scores of the schools they left behind. Students perform better when surrounded with higher-performing peers, which means that the lack of overall effect could have been influenced by the loss of higher achieving students.

3. Schools receiving SIG grants were high-poverty and high-minority. The average rate of students eligible for free-and-reduced price (FRL) lunches in the study group was 83 percent, with non-white students making up 91 percent of the school populations (as compared with the overall school population being about 50 percent FRL-eligible and 50 percent non-white). While the resources allocated through SIG to these schools should have made spending more equitable, schools may have still struggled with recruiting and retaining experienced, qualified teachers, which is often a challenge for high-poverty, high-minority schools. Research is clear that integrated schools have better outcomes for students than segregated schools. Yet, the reform strategies used under SIG (replacing school staff and/or converting to a charter school) did little to improve school integration.

Hopefully, states and districts will learn from these lessons and use school reforms that fundamentally change the practices of the school, not just a few personnel: increased funding, school integration, changes in instructional practices, meaningful teacher/principal mentoring and development, and/or wrap-around services for students in poverty or who have experienced trauma.






January 27, 2017

7 reasons why school choice ≠ school reform

I attended an event this week on Race, Poverty, and School Reform, and I was surprised to hear almost every panelist discuss choice as the best way to reform schools. Research doesn’t support their claims, however.  While choice is great and helps parents find programs and schools that best fit their children’s needs, it is not the panacea to all challenges in education.  Choice doesn’t always have to be outside of the traditional public school system, either.  Finally, choice is not reform in that parental choice of school doesn’t always result in better outcomes for their students.

  1. About 87 percent of America’s school-age children are in public schools, including the five percent in charter schools. We’ve spent decades creating systems to serve students, and those aren’t likely to go away soon. So, if we want to improve outcomes for students today, we have to work within that system.

 

  1. Traditional school districts offer many students choices. Thirty-seven percent of all parents reported having choices within their local public schools in 2012. This includes magnet schools, charters (both district-run and others), and districts offering flexible attendance zones or transfers.  Many districts offer specialized schools and programs such as dual-language immersion, STEM, or the arts.

 

  1. Charter schools aren’t necessarily better than traditional public schools. CREDO found that only about a quarter of charter schools outperform their local counterparts, while in reading, 19 percent of charters perform worse than their local traditional school, and 31 percent perform worse in math. Granted, charters in urban settings and those that serve students in poverty do tend to outperform their local counterparts, but part of this is due to poorly performing traditional public schools in these regions.  Even with this growth, most poor and urban students in charters are not catching up with their more advantaged peers.  And, while the overall average is positive, traditional schools outperformed charters in about one-third of the cities studied.  So, while charters may be a good option for some, they are not across-the-board saviors for student achievement.

School Choice 1

  1. School choice in any form (school districts, charter, and vouchers) can make segregation worse, which has negative impacts on students’ achievement and life outcomes. While there are some charters that are intentionally diverse, only four states (Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina) have state laws that require charter schools to reflect the makeup of their local traditional public schools to some degree. Very few public school districts utilize controlled choice models that aim to balance parental choice with diverse school populations.  Research also shows that parents tend to choose schools schools based on school location and demographics that match their own .

 

  1. Private schools aren’t necessarily better than traditional schools, either. Results are hard to measure, as most programs don’t require private schools to participate in state tests. High school graduation rates are generally higher, but that may also be due to admissions-based cream-skimming and/or relaxed graduation requirements (this is just speculation, echoed from other researchers).  While some programs have shown positive results (New York, DC), others have harmed student achievement.  Students in the Louisiana voucher program dropped significantly in achievement, dropping 16 percentile points in math and eight in reading.  Some studies have shown that private schools perform worse than public schools if demographic factors are accounted for.

    Impact of Louisiana Voucher Program on Student Achievement after 2 years

School Choice 2

 

  1. School choice in the form of public school vouchers doesn’t always serve every student. Very few voucher programs require private school providers to adhere to IDEA laws for special education students (outside of programs that cater specifically to special education students), and no states require participating schools to address the needs of English language learners. Voucher laws allow private schools to adhere to their admission criteria, which encourages more schools to participate.  However, these criteria often discriminate against students based on their religion and sexual orientation (only Maine and Vermont prohibit religious schools from participating).  Some private schools may also have extra fees for sports or other programs, which may exclude low-income families from participating in the program.  Few voucher programs provide transportation, which may also be limiting.

 

  1. Full-time virtual schools, which serve about 180,000 students nationwide, have been shown to grossly underperform other forms of schools. Only two percent of virtual schools outperformed their traditional public school counterpart in reading, and zero percent had better results in math. CREDO estimates that attending a virtual school is the equivalent of not attending school at all for a year in math, and of losing 72 days of instruction in reading.

School Choice 3

School choice can be great for some families and some students.  However, the reality is that just because parents choose schools doesn’t mean that that school will do better for student achievement overall.  While some education reformers are pushing for increased school choice as a way to improve education, the research just doesn’t support this notion, at least not in the current framework.  What we should be doing is learning from high-performing schools in every sector (traditional, charter, and private) to replicate effective administrative and instructional practices.  While competition itself may someday push schools to improve, that doesn’t help today’s students, and there’s no guarantee that competition makes schools better, anyway.  Today’s students deserve true reform based on evidence, not ideology, so that they receive the best education possible.







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