Opinion
Education Opinion

The Rhetoric of Reform: Does Research Count?

By skoolboy — July 09, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Better schools. Higher scores. And satisfied parents. That’s the record of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

Thus begins Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ column in yesterday’s Washington Post. In this piece, she seeks to rally public support to renew the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which provides scholarships up to $7,500 to use towards the costs of a participating private school, including tuition, fees, and transportation. The authorizing legislation stipulated that priority for scholarships was to be given first to students attending schools that were judged in need of improvement (SINI) under NCLB standards.

Last month, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education which Spellings heads, released the results of the Congressionally-mandated evaluation of the OSP, which reports impacts after two years. As the first federally-funded private school voucher program in the U.S., the OSP is a political football, and this evaluation report and its predecessors have been pored over by policy wonks across the land. The statute that authorized the OSP mandated that it be evaluated in terms of its impact on student test scores and school safety, as well as a more ambiguous criterion of “success,” which was operationalized in the study as parents’ and students’ satisfaction with their schools. The evaluation used a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to assess the impact of the OSP.

The executive summary of the report tells the tale, in unambiguous terms. (a) After two years, there was no effect of the OSP on reading or math test scores either for students who were offered a scholarship or those who actually used a scholarship. (b) If we look at 10 different subgroups of students—girls or boys, students attending SINI or non-SINI schools at the time of application, elementary or high school students, those from application cohort 1 or cohort 2, or students performing relatively higher or lower at the start of the study—there were no statistically significant effects of participating in the OSP on math for any subgroup, and for reading, three subgroups (students attending non-SINI schools at the time of application, relatively high-performing students, and students from cohort 1) might have done better than their nonparticipating peers. But even here, the evaluators caution that the statistical significance of these effects did not hold up when conventional adjustments for multiple comparisons were made. In other words, these subgroup effects might be due to chance, given how many comparisons were being made at the same time. Notably, the subgroup specifically identified in the legislation—students who had attended a SINI public school under NCLB—did not do better either in reading or math.

skoolboy isn’t crazy about using public funds to support private schools, but he’s a big supporter of using public funds to support the education of children in D.C., who historically have been among the lowest performers in the nation. Congress authorized this program, it’s survived legal scrutiny, and it’s deserving of a fair shake. But distorting the results of an evaluation doesn’t serve the public good. If Ms. Spellings wants to argue that the program should be renewed by Congress because parents are more satisfied with their child’s school, or because they are less likely to report serious concerns about school danger, she’s welcome to make that argument. Those are good outcomes, and some might argue that they’re ample justification for renewing the program. (Others might point out that students who received scholarships did not report higher levels of satisfaction with their school, or better school safety.) Or, alternatively, one could argue that the program needs more time to mature in order to be successful. But let’s not kid ourselves, Madame Secretary: the evidence on the academic success of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program—measured on your preferred metric, scores on standardized reading and math tests—is far too weak to make a persuasive case. Misrepresenting the evidence does honor neither to education research nor to education policy.

The opinions expressed in eduwonkette 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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP