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Monograph's Author Critiques Carnegie Study on Choice

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Last fall, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released an influential report on school choice that questioned its efficacy and importance as a way to improve schools. Now, a new monograph, "Beyond Partisan Politics: A Response to the Carnegie Report on School Choice,'' accuses the Carnegie study of "numerous outright errors of fact, as well as errors of omission and interpretation that seriously undermine its credibility.''

In response to previous criticisms, the foundation has defended its report as a balanced study of the pros and cons of the choice movement to date and not as an "anti-choice report.''

James MacGuire, the author of the new critique and a senior fellow at the Center for Social Thought, a nonprofit think tank in New York City, discussed his analysis with Senior Editor Lynn Olson.

Q:
You claim the Carnegie report ignored significant bodies of contrary data. Can you give an example?

A:
The report failed to acknowledge the rapidly growing number of studies that demonstrate a link between choice and improved academic performance. Mary Anne Raywid, James Coleman ... and Robert Crain, among many others, have found a direct link between the freedom to choose and improved performance, even after correcting for socioeconomic and other variables. It was wrong for Carnegie to omit mention of this work.

Q:
How do you explain the discrepancy between Carnegie's conclusion that the majority of parents do not support school choice and other polling data on this subject?

A:
An array of national polls taken over many years shows that a clear majority, and probably more than two-thirds, of Americans favor school choice. In a March 1992 report, the U.S. Department of Education listed 18 polls taken since 1989 showing support for public school choice ranging from 60 percent to 81 percent.

I am not an expert on polling, but I turned to people who are. They attributed the difference in results to the very different and clearly tendentious ways in which Carnegie framed its questions. For example, Carnegie used the buzz word "neighborhood schools'' to describe non-choice schools, but failed to note that most schools of choice are also neighborhood schools. ... Unfortunately, all of Carnegie's questions were slanted in a way that would tend to elicit a negative response toward choice.

Q:
You found the report's conclusion that few parents have elected to participate in statewide choice programs misleading. Why?

A:
The Carnegie report skewed its numbers by relying primarily on inter-district participation in statewide choice systems--that is, on the numbers of children whose parents choose to send them to schools in other districts, which frequently means in other towns. Inter-district choice is both the most administratively difficult form of choice for school districts and the most inconvenient for parents.

The most vigorous choice programs in the country are primarily intra-district or at least intra-city. Because Carnegie did not include intra-district choice participants in its count of students attending schools of choice, it radically underreported the true numbers.

In Arizona, Carnegie used outdated figures for students attending schools of choice in order to downplay its popularity. In fact, this year there was a 35 percent rate of growth in students attending such schools in the state over last year.

Q:
The Carnegie report concludes that parents who decide to send their children to another school do so for nonacademic reasons. What's wrong with that analysis?

A:
In Arizona, for instance, Carnegie reaches the conclusion that only 33 percent of parents choose schools for academic reasons. It does this by including a large number of unresponsive answers in the totals and by interpreting a number of clearly academic motives--e.g., to get into special programs--as nonacademic. Correcting for these distortions, the percentage of responding parents who chose schools for academic reasons exceeds 60 percent.

In Minnesota, Carnegie used similar techniques to conclude that only 16 percent of parents chose schools for academic reasons, even though ... a subsequent U.S. Department of Education survey found 55 percent of parents whose children switched schools in Minnesota cited "learning climate'' as a reason for doing so.

Q: You suggest that district-based choice programs are the most promising. Why?

A:
Here, I am happy to be in some agreement with Carnegie. The essence of choice is local, voluntary reform and improvement. In places like Montclair, New Jersey, East Harlem, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, schools improve through the efforts of dedicated teachers and parents. In the process, real communities are built. ...

It should also be noted that most statewide choice programs are brand new and, in some cases, consist of nothing more than enabling legislation. Like anything else in education or in life, choice takes time to work.

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