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February 14, 2013

What is the economic benefit of vouchers?

A recent study of the Washington, DC voucher program purports to show that the voucher program yields a whopping 162 percent rate of return because more students graduate due to the voucher program than would have without the program in place. Not too shabby. However, a closer look at how they came to this number raises some serious questions about such large rates of returns.

When it comes to calculating the economic benefits of the voucher program the study does use a similar methodology as other studies that have calculated rate of returns on other education policies such as high quality Pre-k and dropout prevention programs, among others.

In this, as well as, previous studies the economic benefit was based on the increased wages and lower unemployment rates of those who graduate high school compared to dropouts, so more high school graduates means more tax revenues.

Moreover, high school graduates tend to require fewer government services so they will use less taxpayer money as well.  While there is certainly room to disagree with the accuracy of these measures, they do provide some estimate of the economic benefit of such education programs. So the question is not how much students benefit from the program.

The big question is actually how many students benefit from the voucher program. The economic benefits may be large but if very few students graduate high school due to the voucher program then it doesn’t matter how great the economic benefits are. So the larger question really is whether the voucher program improves graduation rates as much as the report states it does?

To determine how many more students graduated high school due to the voucher program, the report used the official evaluation of the voucher program which found graduation rates were 12 percentage points higher for those students who used the voucher and those students who entered the lottery but did not receive a voucher. According to the study, if this rate held true more than 400 students per year would graduate high school due to the voucher program.

However, I’ve looked over the report and while its methodology is sound, there are number of issues that raise the question whether the increase in graduation rates can really be attributable to the voucher program?

A major issue to keep in mind is that the voucher evaluation was about determining the impact of having a voucher system not about whether students were better off using the voucher. In fact, the majority of students who were offered vouchers never used them. They either attended a charter school, remained in their traditional public school, or attended a non-participating private school.

Moreover, half of the students who entered the voucher lottery but did not win a voucher (control group) went on to attend to a charter school or a private school. So the 12 percentage point increase in the probability that a student will graduate is based on whether a student was ‘offered’ a voucher, not whether the student actually ‘used’ the voucher.

What the evaluation actually found was simply offering a student a voucher— even if they remained at their local public school or charter school— improves a student’s chances of graduating high school. I am a strong believer in the ‘invisible hand’ and the power of competition. However, this just doesn’t make sense to me. If the evaluation was simply measuring the impact of vouchers to create competition then that impact should be felt by all students even those who didn’t enter the voucher lottery.

This makes the claim that vouchers increase graduation rates 12 percentage points quite suspect, especially since the same evaluation found that the voucher program had no impact on student achievement. One reason this may be the case is that test scores are objective measures provided by the schools. However, the graduation rates of those students who took part in the voucher program are based on parent responses to follow-up surveys.

It could be the parents of students who were offered a voucher, claimed their child graduated but did not. Also, we don’t know if students who graduated from private schools were required to meet as rigorous requirements as students in public schools.  So, it really is questionable whether the DC Voucher program has produced more high school graduates prepared for the real world.

What this new study shows is that any program that increases high school graduates will yield significant economic benefits in the form of additional tax revenue and less demand for government services.  But whether the DC voucher program does actually increase the chances a student will graduate high school is still not known, as the original evaluation failed to isolate the impact of using a voucher. Without an accurate measure of the number of students who graduated high school due to the voucher program it is impossible to say that the DC voucher program provides a 162 percent rate of return.

December 13, 2012

Catching up is hard to do

NCLB called on public schools to close achievement gaps, and that focus is one thing that’s not likely to change whenever Congress gets around to reauthorizing ESEA. However, a new study by ACT shows how long the odds are for low-achieving 4th and 8th graders to eventually graduate college-ready, which should make us think about how to go about gap closing.

ACT has once again mined its considerable databases to track the progress of students as they moved from 4th to 12th grades in order to find out how many ended up “college ready.”  ACT grouped students by three achievement levels: on track to college-readiness, off track, and far off track. Here’s what they found about 8th graders’ chances:

This table means that only 10 percent of students who were far off track in 8th grade were college ready in reading by 12th grade. The analysts further found that African American and Hispanic 8th graders were twice as likely to be “far off track” than their white classmates.  Similar patterns were evident among 4th graders, too.

If there’s a silver lining in this news, it’s this: “Far off” students who attended the top 10 percent of schools were about three times as likely to become college-ready.  In reading, for example, 28 percent of “far off” 8th graders in the top schools had become college-ready by the time they were seniors compared to the overall average of 10 percent.

This shows us that there are things schools can do to reverse the downward trajectory of low achievement. At the same time, though, it underscores how hard it is to break these trends after 4th grade. As if we still needed another argument for starting early with high-quality pre-k, ACT has surely given us one.  But they also provide evidence for never giving up on kids and their capacity to learn to high levels, even in high school.

A note on methodology: ACT’s college-ready benchmark is the score at which students have a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in the relevant college freshman course.   Their database has data for students in a half dozen states who take the ACT series of aligned tests at 4th, 8th and end of high school. You can find their report “Catching up to college and career readiness” — and I encourage you to do so — at www.act.org.

December 6, 2012

The common core starts to get real

It’s been two years since the common core standards were released to the nation, and the 46 adopting states are starting to get serious about implementation. Up until now, CCS criticism has been rather muted. But this seems to be changing as administrators and teachers attempt to translate CCS language into classroom instruction.

The Washington Post this week reported on English teacher backlash to the common core standards in their field.  The CCS call for non-fiction texts to comprise 70 percent of high school students’ reading and define benchmarks for reading in history/social studies, science and technical subjects. The reporter spoke to several English teachers who don’t like it, lamenting that poetry and literature will be sent to the curricular backseat. Judging by the letters written in response to the story, a lot of people side with the teachers.

I believe their concerns, although real, are misplaced. First, there’s a good reason the common core goes so far to specify what kind of texts students should work with and how much.  U.S. students do well in international comparisons of reading literature, but their performance drops significantly when being asked to read for information.  Our 15-year-olds, for example, perform better than all but five OECD nations when reading to “reflect and evaluate.” In comparison, 14 countries outscore us in reading to “access and retrieve.”  U.S. fourth-graders do about the same.

Other issues have to do with implementation. In this regard, the English teachers are right to be annoyed for they were not intended to be the only ones teaching reading. The teachers of other subjects should be responsible for the ELA standards in their areas. Yet the English teachers quoted in the Post are clearly taking on the whole burden under the assumption that reading and writing is their job.

For their part, many science and history teachers fear that taking on the task of teaching the reading and writing standards will detract from teaching their “subject.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though, because it’s impossible to separate reading and writing from learning content. But as any good editor knows, there are specific rules of rhetoric for different purposes.

A university English department head once told me about a student he had, who managed to get to her senior year without taking the required freshman comp course and so ended up in his. She was by his account a very sharp psychology major. Still, he was constantly surprised at how awkward her essays were until one day he had an epiphany. He recognized that she was following the rules of structure and argument unique to psychology— not English lit. He also realized the university’s freshman comp course was not preparing students to read and write in the range of disciplines. As a result he initiated a major course overhaul.

The new ELA standards open a big role for higher ed. Teacher preparation programs need to be explicit about how to read and write in different subjects. They can also provide professional development for practicing teachers that is subject specific. Reading and writing belong in every classroom. Plus it will let us keep time for poetry in the English classroom.

Filed under: standards,teachers — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 3:31 pm

December 4, 2012

5 states put time on their side

Five states have entered into a pilot project to add 300 hours of instructional time to the school year.  The participating states — Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee — had each made more school time part of their approved ESEA waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. The Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning are providing technical assistance and support for the pilot, which is expected to reach about 20,000 students in 40 schools.

According to an AP story, the overarching goals for adding time are to raise student performance and to also provide a well-rounded curriculum including the arts and other subjects that sometimes take a backseat to reading and math.

There’s a common-sense appeal to the idea that extending time for learning will produce more learning.  A CPE review of research on school time found that to be generally true— with some caveats.

Number one is that the impact of extra time depends how it’s is used. Merely stretching 45 minutes of typical instruction into a bigger slot isn’t likely to make much difference. That’s why it will be important to give teachers their own time for planning.

Last year, CPE’s Jim Hull and Mandy Newport analyzed the amount of time students are required to be in school in different countries (cited in the AP story). They found that contrary to many reports, the U.S. requires about as much or more time than many of our economic competitors. They also found little relationship between time required and outcomes. Just consider the case of high-scoring Finland which requires the least hours compared to low-scoring Italy which requires the most. Note that time required doesn’t necessarily represent the actual instructional time students receive. Nonetheless, this underscores how vital it is to use the time effectively.

The pilot has a three-year timeframe. We’ll be watching to see how much impact it has on student learning and how it compares to investments in teacher professional development, curriculum or other strategies to raise achievement.  As budget conscious school leaders know, time in the school schedule truly is money. Hopefully, these five states will have lessons for schools across the country to make sure time is on our side.

Read more about the TIME Collaborative here.

November 29, 2012

New grad rates looking up

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates by state for the year 2010-11, and the overall picture is best described as not as bad as we thought.

The release marks the first year that states are reporting uniformly computed graduation rates based on a four-year cohort of students. There are two big advantages to the new calculation. First, because all states are using the same formula we can reliably compare rates across states. Second and most important, the new calculation comes as close as possible to tracking individual students, including those who transfer in and out of the system, and is therefore a much more accurate picture of high school completions. (CPE describes the problems with previously used grad rate formulas here.)

The Department cautions that these numbers are preliminary. Even so, there’s enough here to offer some encouragement to public schools that they are moving in the right direction.

Prior to the universal adoption of the four-year cohort rate, statisticians had to rely on estimates to come up with comparable grad rates. We feature one of these estimated data sets  — EdWeek’s Diploma Counts — in our Data Center.

I compared the Department’s numbers with EdWeek’s. Please note that the Department numbers are for the class of 2010-11 while EdWeek’s most current data are for 2008-09. There has been a modest but steady upward trend in high school graduation over the last decade, and so we could reasonably expect a 1-2 point difference due to actual gains. However, the newly reported and more accurate rates from the Department are for the most part significantly higher than the EdWeek estimates. For some states the difference is as much as 10 points or more.  Consider:

Also keep in mind that these rates are for on-time graduation. CPE’s Jim Hull estimates that including students who take five or six years to earn a standard diploma would increase the grad rate by about 5 points.  Yet another advantage to the cohort rate is that states will have the data to better track students who haven’t graduated on time but are still on track toward a diploma.

The preliminary data may contain some noise, especially concerning special needs and ELL students, whose rates range widely by state from high 20s to low 80s. These numbers will need to be sorted out. In addition, no state exceeds 90 percent and the rates for African American, Latino and Native American students still lag, showing that we still have a lot of work to do. But there is cause for optimism that schools’ efforts are starting to show results. Find your state’s cohort rates here.

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