Education Opinion

Dear Wall Street Journal, Let’s Be Serious

By Douglas N. Harris — March 23, 2016 2 min read
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I spend a lot of time on this blog addressing questionable interpretations of evidence related to various types of school reforms--choice, charters, test-based accountability, teacher evaluation, vouchers. In most cases, at least some of the arguments have an element of truth. The interpretation can depend on whether you define a word this way versus that, or place the burden of proof here versus there, or emphasize this student outcome versus another one.

But, really, Wall Street Journal? Surely, you can do better than what you wrote in your Saturday editorials.

The editorial chastises Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards for making it harder to start charter schools in school districts that have a letter grade of C. The law leaves unchanged the ability to start charters in higher-rated schools with A or B grades and lower-rated ones with D or F grades. Here, they almost have a point since the charter-based reforms in the state have seemed to generate positive outcomes in New Orleans (albeit at a considerable cost). But New Orleans was considered a failing district when the reforms started and the benefits of charters are almost certainly much smaller in higher-performing districts--for the simple reason that such districts are already generating higher achievement. This is also supported by evidence that, nationally, charter schools are more effective in urban school districts. It’s highly unlikely we would see the same effects in the C-rated districts that are subject to the governor’s proposal.

The WSJ argument about vouchers is even worse. It takes a bit of gumption to suggest that, “If the voucher program were counted as a school district in 2015, it would rank ninth in the state for annual performance.” While acknowledging that voucher students “slid academically,” they neglect to mention that the effects were among the worst ever observed for any educational program, or that this initial awful performance drove the subsequent “improvement” in the second year. Sometimes there is nowhere to go but up, and that it hardly the time to claim victory.

The WSJ also makes the same mistake as New Orleans reform critics--arguing that even the C-rated traditional schools are not generating great outcomes. That’s true, but it’s irrelevant if the program you have in mind is unlikely to do any better. You can’t have it both ways, complaining about the low scores of the system you want to replace without mentioning that your own preferred option appears no better or worse. (Similarly, New Orleans reform critics argue that the low current test score level is a sign of failure even though the reforms dramatically improved those levels. They ignore how dismal test scores were before the reforms.)

And of course the WSJ has to attribute supposedly dramatic policy shift to Governor Edwards’ teacher union connections. Maybe so, but the changes in the voucher and charter programs being proposed by Governor Edwards are very small tweaks and fall closer to the preferences of the Republican legislature than to the state teacher unions.

The New York Times has been no better in reporting on New Orleans. We should expect more from our “top” national journalists, whatever their ideologies.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.