As studies find vouchers don’t improve academics, proponents argue test scores don’t tell whole story

Her own experiences finding the right education fit for her child turned an Atlanta attorney into a school choice proponent. (AJC photo)

The early architects of  school choice maintained that getting kids out of struggling public schools into private ones would raise academic performance as measured by test scores. Several recent studies have concluded differently, including a new report by the Institute of Education Sciences. The IES study found students using taxpayer-funded vouchers in Washington, D.C, to attend private schools performed below their public school counterparts.

As a result of these findings, proponents have tried to shift the voucher conversation. Lackluster academics are being played down, while parental satisfaction and student safety are being played up.

Writing in the Washington Examiner, Jason Russell writes:

A study released last week by the federal Department of Education found that students lucky enough to get a scholarship actually did worse on a standardized math test than students who applied for the program but didn’t get in.

But maybe finding the school with the best test scores isn’t every parent’s top priority.

It must not be, because the same study also found that parents of students in and not in the program were equally satisfied with their schools, despite the math gap. Maybe it’s because parents of voucher students thought their children’s new schools were safer, or it was a stronger community, or it was building their child’s character, or had some other virtue that their standard public school lacked.

The whole point of school choice is that every student is different. The idea is that, rather than a one-size-fits-all educational system, parents should be empowered to pick the school that works best for their child. And that’s the point: Every parent has different priorities. Some will want to pick the school with the best average math scores, yes. But others will want the school with the best reading scores, or the best STEM program, or the best performing arts program, or the best sports, or the best remedial education program, or the school closest to home, or the safest school, or any combination of all of the above.

There’s nothing wrong with citing the feelings of parents and the well-being of students as proof of a school’s value. Except the voucher movement disregards those same measures when declaring public schools are failing. All that matters then are test scores.

The pro voucher movement has long insisted the challenges public schools face in poor communities are no excuse for low scores on state exams, and that the students would be better served academically in private schools. When the voucher debate began in Georgia 18 years ago, early supporters focused on academics. “The whole purpose is to give every child an opportunity to be educated,” said state Sen. Michael J. Egan at 1999 forum on education reform. “If the private school is doing a better job of educating the child, why should the private school be forced to conform to the rules of the public school?”

Now that the evidence increasingly reveals no academic payoff from vouchers, proponents are saying, “Test scores don’t tell the whole story of a school.”

Public school teachers agree and here’s an essay by one explaining why:

A student in my class came in crying today. She was upset that she wasn’t able to go to sleep early like I asked them to for state testing today. I asked her what was wrong and she told me she was too scared to sleep because there were shots being fired all around her house last night.

Another student broke her glasses a week ago. She’s suffering from headaches and guilt because her mother can’t afford to replace them. A third student is homeless, bouncing around between different family members houses because no one wants to take responsibility for him and his brother.

I could go on and on with a dozen more stories. They say our school is failing. They say that my colleagues and I are ineffective teachers. That’s what the numbers show. That’s what a standardized test — one that measures not just my fifth graders, but also the most affluent ones in the best schools in our state — says.

Our numbers don’t stack up. Our students aren’t learning. Our teaching is somehow lacking. We aren’t effective. That’s what the newspapers and the state say.

Let me tell you what I am effective at. I’m effective at creating a safe space. A haven for my students. Somewhere they can come and just breathe. Where they can cry on my shoulder and know I will truly listen. A place where I brainstorm with them for solutions. A place where I cry with them and for them when it just can’t be fixed.

I am effective at making phone calls. At finding community partners to replace my students clothes and belongings after a house fire. I’m effective at finding a way to stretch my own family’s budget to fix a young girls glasses.

I’m effective at letting each and every one of my students know that they matter. That at least one person in their life won’t give up on them. That their score on a test doesn’t show their true worth. I also think I’m pretty effective at teaching reading.

Even if the numbers don’t show it. Even if the state doesn’t believe it. My students have faced things many of us can’t imagine. I don’t need test scores to tell me I’m making a difference. I don’t need the state to tell me I’m effective. I’m doing exactly what I need to do and I am exactly where I need to be.

 

Reader Comments 0

41 comments
WWTJD
WWTJD

It's not about the scores (Sec. of Education DeVoss is not a numbers person), or the quality of education.  It's about removing the student from the secular humanistic goals of state directed education.  


So, follow the money.  DeVoss' husband helped fund the work of Francis Schaeffer -- who promoted the destruction of government agencies.  Home schooling and the use of vouchers were seen as a means of destroying the public school system with the added bonus of removing children from the influence of the government.


DeVoss has no intention of improving public schools.  

Astropig
Astropig

@WWTJD


Who is Secretary "De Voss"? I can't find anyone by that name in the cabinet.


You can't even spell her name correctly! How on earth can you pass judgement on her qualifications!?

Falcaints
Falcaints

@WWTJD could you please list these "secular humanistic" goals.  I completely forgot to give my students their little red books and their copies of Das Kapital this year.

WWTJD
WWTJD

@Astropig @WWTJD Since we are all fools here -- the correct spelling is "DeVos" --  We are both guilty of misspelling her name.


I did not pass judgment on qualifications.   My post challenged the goals of her office, not her qualifications.


Reading comprehension is a secular humanistic goal, isn't it?


WWTJD
WWTJD

@Falcaints @WWTJD

Since reading is optional among Trumpistas, I have no doubt you will not read these -- but you will find "lists" in the following books:


Schaeffer, Francis – A Christian Manifesto

LaHaye, Tim – The Battle for the Mind

Falwell, Jerry – Listen America

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Test scores don't tell it all?  Gosh, where have we heard anyone say that before? Don't tell me...

Iluvnutella
Iluvnutella

Let me tell you what I am effective at.-she is effective at ending sentences with prepositions

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

"A study released last week by the federal Department of Education found that students lucky enough to get a scholarship actually did worse on a standardized math test than students who applied for the program but didn’t get in."  


Of course, the fallacy to that statement is that we don't know what the test scores would be if those students didn't get accepted to the program.  Likewise for the students who applied and didn't get in.  Lies, damn lies, and statistics.


Parents who cry for choice aren't trying to get their children away from bad test scores, they're trying to get them away from the bad behavior.  It's really that simple.

Astropig
Astropig

@Lee_CPA2


"Of course, the fallacy to that statement is that we don't know what the test scores would be if those students didn't get accepted to the program"


Agree. Voucher defenders are forced to prove a negative and voucher opponents get a free pass.As pointed out below,it's a blatant double standard.



Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Lee_CPA2 Thank you for admitting it.  Because we know, in Lee-code, that "those children" are the ones committing that bad behavior.

BRV
BRV

No fallacies involved. Students who used vouchers are the treatment arm. Students who applied but didn't receive vouchers and remained in public schools are the control arm. The authors compared agregated and disaggregated data between the two groups. Since there were students who were offered vouchers but chose not to use them the authors also evaluated the effects of being offered a voucher vs using a voucher. Your failure to read the study or understand basic research methods doesn't mean that the study is flawed. It just means that you are poorly informed.

WWTJD
WWTJD

@Astropig @Lee_CPA2 Yet voucher defenders point to scores to "prove" that public education is failing.  



Astropig
Astropig

@WWTJD @Astropig @Lee_CPA2


Well, it would seem that voucher opponents do the same thing.(See above).


This would seem to indicate (IMHO) that the status quo just wants to make education a political football,the kids be damned.

StanJester
StanJester

"voucher movement disregards those same measures when declaring public schools are failing. All that matters then are test scores."


Double standard ... we hear you.  A student is more than a test score and a school is more than a CCRPI rating.  Roger that.


Question:  How do we assess the success and failure of a traditional public school?  If not test scores, then what?


Bad private schools (and charters for that matter) die ... because students aren't forced to go there.  We don't have that signal with traditional public schools.  Students are forced to attend (generally speaking) and forced to give money to bad traditional public schools.



MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@StanJester Not too many bad charters ”die” for academic reasons. The vast majority close for financial or mismanagement reasons. 

We have to figure out a way to measure school effectiveness that considers student challenges, the actual resouces reaching the classroom and levels of commumity support.

StanJester
StanJester

OK.  What's the plan?  Let me know when somebody comes up with the set right set of data points that will tell us how successful any given school is.


@MaureenDowney Charters usually die because, given the choice, not enough people want to go there ... whether it's academic or some other reason.


When determining the success of a school, no set of data points to date is as accurate as parental choice.

Astropig
Astropig

@MaureenDowney @StanJester


"We have to figure out a way"...


Who's' this "we"? The media? The unions? Maxine Waters? Whenever "we" includes "us" that don't want the same old,same old, then "we" become the enemy of the unaccountable status quo.

Astropig
Astropig

@StanJester


"Double standard ... we hear you.  A student is more than a test score and a school is more than a CCRPI rating.  Roger that."


Ding! Ding! Ding!Ding!


We have a winnah!

NATIVE_ATL
NATIVE_ATL

@StanJester @MaureenDowney Maybe its they don't want to go there.  Maybe its because they can't get there. Transportation to charter schools normally fall on the parent - I'm not saying it should be funded but it is one of the challenges


StanJester
StanJester

@NATIVE_ATL Agreed.  School choice often has way too many caveats ... like limited enrollment.  I'm open to suggestions.

middleofnowhere
middleofnowhere

The voucher movement, the charter school movement, and the whatever they think of next movement have nothing to do with educating students. They exist only to resegregate schools, to get bundles of tax money into the hands of private individuals and corporations, or both.

Shannon the Grouch
Shannon the Grouch

@middleofnowhere That would be easier, but it's not completely true.  A lot of people involved in charter schools are idealistic and believe that many of the rules tying the hands of public schools (and public school teachers) are actively hindering instruction.  And they're right!


But you're right, too.  Many of the people behind these charter schools and private schools *are* more concerned with privatization for the sake of privatization--because they hate government and taxation in all forms.  (Those same libertarian/Ayn Randian ideologues also project their own oft-greedy motivations onto public school teachers, which is ridiculous).  It's funny how the people who hate taxes the most are often the ones who are happy to exploit loopholes and connections to grow their personal wealth through public money.


Paul Ryan, for example, has spent his entire working life in government jobs.  When you think of all the ways he likes to slam government waste and people who rely on the government, that's extraordinary.  But it's people who believe and act like him who are often pushing charters and vouchers.


Still, they aren't all essentially cartoon villains like Ryan.  Many of them are genuinely good people who want the best for children.  It's a shame that the Ryans of the world are able to use them as cover.

Melissa Biegler
Melissa Biegler

Wait. But test scores DO prove that public schools are failing? Good grief.

Margaret Price Ciccarelli
Margaret Price Ciccarelli

I scratched my head at that implication too, Melissa. I recently attended a presentation by statistician John Tanner about how standardized test scores are an arbitrary way to rank students and schools. Once the data set is formed, it can be used in myriad ways to prove a number of thesis, many of which have nothing to do with the quality of schools and the achievement of students.

Tom Green
Tom Green

Test scores also prove that public schools are doing a great job. You'll always be able to find numbers that support whatever you want to prove. For instance, one can use the numbers of students in certain demographics that private schools are able to turn away. Or, the fact that private schools are not held to the same standards.

RealLurker
RealLurker

What bothers me is that most people are ignoring the actual data and solely arguing their beliefs.


If you read the USNews article, it basically says that.  Pro-voucher and anti-voucher groups are "weaponizing" the results instead of discussing them.


If you read the actual report, it examines three reasons why the test scores could be lower.  Two of the three are discounted, but the third is statistically similar to the actual results.


I believe the attitude of the USNews article is the best thing to get out of this entire story.  It seems to me that all everyone does with any education research is:  Search for some snippet that enforces their existing beliefs, Call everyone with different beliefs stupid, and ignore every point made by everyone with different beliefs.  The problem is that the people on the other side are doing exactly the same thing, and all of the discussion turns into juvenile name calling with no actual substance.


EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“So if allowing parents to make choices must inevitably result in them realizing all schools are exactly the same ... what's the worry?”

This really isn’t a serious question, right?  For if it is, then the question speaks for the asker and for why “choice” is and will be nothing but “a sea change.”

Astropig
Astropig

@EdJohnson


Call me on your landline when you turn parents opinions against the idea that they know what is best for their kids.


Better yet, go down to Blockbuster and have them send me a telegram.

Katrina Bishop
Katrina Bishop

Hah! after years and years the truth is finally Coming to light. And once again the pendulum will Swing...

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“Parental choice is gaining ground. Momentum is building. Better get ready for a sea change in public education.”

Yup, better get ready for “a sea change” because that’s all it is and will be…. Change, by golly.  Change!

An Intelligent Georgian
An Intelligent Georgian

Parental choice - BAH.   How many parents are experts at selecting curriculum, teaching methods, etc?   Not too damn many.  But they are GREAT at figuring out if a school is segregated white and segregated Christian.

Alt AJC
Alt AJC

So if allowing parents to make choices must inevitably result in them realizing all schools are exactly the same ... what's the worry?

Astropig
Astropig

In other words, voucher proponents have adopted the argument used by the status quo-that test scores are not a be-all,end-all, and the status quo now disowns that metric because its politically expedient.


Parental choice is gaining ground. Momentum is building.Better get ready for a sea change in public education.



Astropig
Astropig

@Wascatlady @Astropig


Why not just put your hands over your eyes and pretend that what you see is not happening? Why not cover your ears? 


Parents are not as stupid as the status quo thinks (or wishes them to be).When the family decision makers watch the rich and powerful stay ahead of the game of life by availing themselves of educational choices,the smart one don't try to take that off the table for their kids.They try to figure out how to make choice work for their individual situation.If Barack Hussein Obama thinks that Sidwell Friends is a great choice for his kids,then other parents want their kids there also.




StanJester
StanJester

@Astropig "Parents are not as stupid as the status quo thinks"


That is more profound and prevalent than you think.  One of the biggest walls I face is that "Professional Educators" are always saying, "Parents can't be allowed to choose, too many will make the wrong decisions"



NATIVE_ATL
NATIVE_ATL

@StanJester I care but it's a maze out there being a single parent. I wrote an opinion piece about charter schools and vouchers years ago for the AJC when my daughter was in Pre-K.  I made the wrong choice of a Charter School.   Moved to Hampton for her 1st grade year.  She's in 10th grade this year was a BEAR.  You would be surprise what I have been through and have had to do - to make sure she does well.  I'm not complaining because she is the love of my life.  So this 50+ mom tries to account for it this way.  It's hard going through menopause when your daughter's going through puberty.  :-)