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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.






March 13, 2017

Kentucky: School Choice for Whom?

The Kentucky House of Representatives has been busy with education policy recently.  In February, they passed House Bill 151, which would allow parents the choice of sending their child to the school closest to their house (as long as it is in the district in which they reside).  If approved by the Senate, H.B. 151 would have the potential to override school assignment boundaries throughout the state.  As reported by the Washington Post and The Century Foundation, H.B. 151 would also have the potential to dismantle a long-standing school integration plan in Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville.

At face value, it seems reasonable that children be allowed to attend the school closest to their home, creating neighborhood schools.  Most traditional school assignment plans are designed around this concept, with school capacity and population density also playing a role.  The challenge, even for schools with traditional attendance zones, is that school zones could basically disappear if parents claim the right to attend the school closest to their zone.  In Lexington, for example, a student in the southern part of the Breckinridge ES zone (see below) may live closer to Liberty ES than some of the students in the Liberty ES zone, so students who previously would have attended Liberty ES may no longer have a place there (if Liberty ES reached capacity).  The bill has provisions so that students currently attending a particular school may not be displaced by other students, but incoming students, whether kindergarteners or families who just moved in, may not be afforded the same benefit as families who have been in the neighborhood longer.  This legislation has the potential to uproot many school districts’ carefully-crafted  and often-controversial assignment policies, creating uncertainty for families and challenges in assigning students to schools in a manner that accounts for multiple student and demographic factors.

KY

Perhaps the larger reason that this bill is garnering national attention is the effect that it will have on the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district, which encompasses Louisville.  JCPS has a school integration plan that combines parental preference with balanced diversity.  Parents of elementary school students may choose between neighborhood schools in their geographic cluster or magnet schools that serve the entire district; 90 percent receive their first choice.  Middle and high school students are assigned to schools with boundaries designed to maximize diversity.  JCPS also offers district-wide magnet programs, which would not be affected by H.B. 151.  The district’s school assignments also try to minimize transportation time for students.  The result of this school assignment plan is that many students are not attending the school closest to home.  JCPS analyzed H.B. 151­­­ and concluded that half of their students do not attend the school closest to their home, which means that there is great potential for the shifting of students across schools in the future (current students would not be affected but we can assume that the results would be similar for future cohorts).  Only 38 percent of current middle school and 34 percent of current elementary school students live close enough to their current school to be assigned to it, if school assignments were made on proximity alone.

JCPS also analyzed the effect the bill would have on school diversity.  By their projections, the number of students attending high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (greater than 80 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch or non-white students) could increase under H.B. 151.  The number of schools that fail to meet the district’s diversity goals, which are based on parental education, income, and race, could increase from 12 to 40.  Currently, all schools serve at least some highly disadvantaged students; under the new requirements, up to 45 schools may have zero of these students.  JCPS’s current plan provides choice, especially to low-income parents who often live in low-income neighborhoods, to attend schools that are diverse instead of segregated.  The new requirements could mean that schools in more affluent neighborhoods reach capacity with just neighborhood students, pushing out lower income students who would have transferred in under the current plan.  Such choices would not be surprising, given research from North Carolina and Washington, D.C. that shows that geographic proximity is highly important to parents in selecting a school.  This would essentially allow for a dual system of haves and have-nots.

We know that schools of concentrated poverty have a negative impact on student achievement.  A Stanford researcher even found that the most powerful factor correlated with the racial achievement gap is the disproportionate exposure of black and Latino students to students in poverty in their schools.  Neighborhood-based school assignments often have the effect of widening the gap between students of color and their white peers by creating more socioeconomically segregated schools.  Additionally, all students benefit from diverse schools through improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Many school choice advocates say that choice is a way out of “failing schools” for low-income and minority students.  However, allowing parents to choose the school closest to them may exacerbate the school segregation already put in place by housing patterns.  It could also create uncertainty across the state as local districts would have to recreate school assignment policies.  Louisville has worked to create a system that provides for parental choice and diversity based on the needs and preferences of their local community; we would hate to see choice erode for the families who can’t afford to live near more affluent schools.






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.






September 23, 2016

When given options, do we always choose the best one?

School choice is all over the news. John Oliver recently lambasted charter school programs. Donald Trump promised $20 billion to increase parents’ choice options.  The NAACP has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. But how does school choice play out for ordinary families?

In essence, parents have two routes to exercise their consumer rights in education: choosing where they live and where they send their child to school. The fundamental premise behind “school choice” as an education reform are that options not only allow parents to select the school that best meets the needs of their child but it also breeds competition, thereby forcing schools to improve. We’ll leave the competition argument for another time and just focus on how parents make their decisions.

These days, it’s not unusual to find real estate websites boasting better school statistics than state education agencies, because they want to enhance the idea that parents can move to a “good” school district. Many of my friends have asked me where they should move with their toddler so that they can send their child to a high-quality school. Note: this option is typically more available for families with the means to move easily and afford a home in the districts perceived as “good.”

However, research from UCLA has shown that even middle- and high-income parents tend to choose schools based on the opinions of others in their network more than actual investigation of school characteristics. Of the parents who moved in order to be in a particular school district, less than a quarter actually visited the new school, and the majority did not look up test data for the district they were leaving. Such practices exacerbate racial and class-based segregation, as high-minority and lower-income schools are perceived as “bad” and low-minority, low-poverty schools are seen as “good.”

Policy makers and advocacy groups tend to focus more on the second avenue for choice, as they have little influence over parents’ housing choices. Magnet schools, in-district transfers, private schools, charter schools, and private school voucher programs are all choices individual school districts and communities provide to families. Basic economics tell us that in order to have healthy competition, consumers must have access to as many options as possible, as well as the necessary information to help them in making their decision.

The first reality we must face is that schools are a geographic commodity.  Most parents don’t want to send their child on a two-hour bus ride every morning to get to the school across town, so they are limited to schools that are in close proximity.  Second, it is extremely difficult to judge schools objectively. We have ample test data available, thanks to No Child Left Behind, but even if parents know how to access and understand test scores, they are highly correlated with poverty and race, so it does little to explain student growth or school climate.

Evidence from two cities with high levels of school choice show that parental choice and school behaviors tend to increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.In Washington, DC, parent preferences on a web-based application found that parents prioritized demographic preferences and geography over academic achievement. The authors also cautioned that open-choice programs could actually decrease pressure on schools for academic achievement, given parental preferences for particular demographic characteristics.

Choiceblog

Studies from Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin of the post-Katrina system in New Orleans found that schools often found ways to recruit high-achieving students and push out students who were harder to serve, leaving these students with little, if any, choice.  Top-performing schools enrolled disproportionately large numbers of white, non-poor, and non-disabled students.

Sure, families want choice. Who doesn’t like choice? But we also have to make sure that we give families the tools to make good choices that benefit all students.

For more on school choice, check out this visual breakdown we created of what this popular reform strategy looks like by the numbers.

Filed under: CPE — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 7:00 am





December 9, 2015

Some urban districts are ‘choice-friendly.’ So what?

The Fordham Institute today released a ranking of 30 cities according to which ones were the most “friendly” in terms of encouraging and supporting school choice. Topping the list is New Orleans followed by Washington DC and Denver – the only cities to receive an overall grade of B or better.

So what did these cities do to earn these bragging rights? Fordham scored each city on 50 indicators in three domains:

Political support based on interviews with local policymakers and important stakeholders;

Policy environment that, among other things, places no limits on the number of charters, funds them adequately and has quality controls in place; and

Quantity and quality
of choices.

Fordham apparently doesn’t grade on a curve. Almost half of the cities earned Cs and nearly as many got Ds. Albany NY, has the distinction of earning the only F. According to the authors, landing at the bottom of the list means you were deemed “downright hostile” to school choice.

I suppose this is useful information if you are a school choice advocate (Hey, LA: not looking so good with that C-!). But for those who are ambivalent, the ranking omits an important piece of information: how well the city’s schools perform. We’re Americans. Of course we think choice is good. But mostly what parents want are good schools. And being “choice friendly” is no guarantee the choices will be better.

Consider that Charlotte NC and Austin TX are the top-performing urban districts in the nation. Their 2015 NAEP scores in math were not just higher than other participating districts, they were higher than the overall average for the nation as a whole. According to Fordham, neither is a choice-friendly city. Charlotte and Austin respectively ranked 27th and 29th out of the 30 cities in the report. On the other hand, Detroit ranked in the top 10 yet produced the lowest scores in the NAEP urban sample.

This is not to say being “choice friendly” caused low performance. DC, for example, has been one of the highest improving districts in the country on NAEP and was ranked second on Fordham’s list. But it does show that choice for choice sake is not a school improvement strategy. For more evidence see our recent report on school choice.

To its credit, the Fordham Institute advocates for more accountability for student results in the design of choice programs. I also recognize the limitations in the available data. But ranking on “choice friendly” policies doesn’t tell the public what they really need to know: is this helping all students succeed? From what we have found, the promise of school choice has been largely oversold.

Filed under: Charter Schools,NAEP,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 4:46 pm





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