Program Design Called Crucial Across Array of School Choices

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While school choice may be one of the most polarizing issues in education today, a new volume of research papers makes the case that innovations aimed at giving families more say in where their children go to school can be whatever their architects make of them.

Programs such as magnet schools, charters, tuition tax credits, or open-enrollment options can either lead to schools that are more integrated by race and socioeconomic status or they can exacerbate segregation. They can promote innovative approaches to schooling or stifle them. They can spur learning gains for students or make no difference in achievement. It’s all in how they’re designed, the authors argue.

“A lot of times the debate is that, while I’m talking about magnet schools, you’re talking about vouchers,” said Gary J. Miron, the lead editor of the book. “The debate often overlooks the diversity within the broad realm of school choice and the difference in how specific types of school choice are legislated and implemented.”

Posted online March 20, School Choice: Evidence and Recommendations, is a joint project of the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University in Tempe and the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The volume, which cost just under $100,000 to produce, is expected to run into some criticism from school choice advocates, though, because its funding came from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, a Michigan think tank that gets financial support from the National Education Association, a staunch opponent of private-school choice.

“There is a bias in the book, albeit not so strong a one as to negate its value,” said Paul T. Hill, a prominent choice scholar based at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, who is not connected with the new book.

“This book reflects a convergence of thinking,” he added in an e-mail message to Education Week. “If capable scholars do high-quality work and hone their assumptions and definitions carefully, the results are similar (if not identical), regardless of what side of the choice debate he or she is inclined to be on.”

Wide-Ranging Look

Mr. Miron, who has conducted studies both supportive and critical of school choice plans, said he launched the project 18 months ago to fill a need for a comprehensive, nuanced, up-to-date textbook on school choice. The book’s 10 papers, each written by different scholars, attempt to address an unusually wide range of efforts aimed at injecting free-market principles into education.

They include charter schools, which are public schools allowed to operate free of some regulatory constraints; home schooling, in which students are taught at home, usually by parents; and virtual schools, which allow students to attend school over the Internet.

The papers also examine voucher plans, which allow students to attend private schools with public funding; private schools; tuition tax credits, which allow write-offs for scholarship and tuition payments made to private schools; and versions of public-school-choice plans that permit students to attend schools in other districts or at magnet schools within their own districts.

The papers also attempt, when possible, to examine the impact of those schooling arrangements on both the students who take advantage of them and those who attend their neighborhood public schools.

Achievement Questions

What several of the authors found was that, decades after Milton Friedman, the late economist, introduced the idea of universal school choice, researchers still don’t have a complete understanding of how it plays out in schools or whether it can be relied upon to produce solid benefits.

For their review, Mr. Miron and his research partners at the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo reviewed more than 87 studies analyzing the effect of various forms of school choice on student achievement.

While the research track record for some forms of choice, such as vouchers, is better than others, the literature has yet to yield “clear and unambiguous factual statements about achievement across any of the key types of school choice,” Mr. Miron and his colleagues conclude in their paper.

The Michigan scholars also found great variation in the quality of studies conducted to date, many of which have been done by advocacy groups. They found, for example, that while studies of home schooling seemed to yield some of the biggest learning gains for students, that research also suffered the most from methodological flaws.

“And if you look at the media coverage,” Mr. Miron added in an interview, “some of the weaker school choice studies have gotten the most attention.”

A case in point, he was, was an American Federation of Teachers study on charter schools that made the front page of The New York Times in August 2004, as well as a subsequent study that pro-choice supporters put forth to counter the AFT claims.

But Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said Mr. Miron’s paper gives short shrift to the stronger body of research specifically on school voucher programs, such as the experiments in Cleveland, the District of Columbia, Milwaukee, and New York City.

“It’s a little simplistic to suggest studies are merely mixed,” said Mr. Wolf, who was not part of the project, “when the findings are positive for many participants and zero for some.”

Among some of the book’s other findings and recommendations:

Comparing Teachers

An analysis by Marisa Cannata of Vanderbilt University, using data from the U.S. Department of Educations’s 2003-04 Schools and Staffing Survey, found differences among teachers in various types of schools. The variations included whether they were certified, whether they had master’s degrees, how much teaching experience they had, and how selective a college or university they attended.

• Public and private schools of choice tend to have teachers who are less experienced but who may have better academic skills, based on the fact that higher percentages of them graduated from highly selective colleges than is the case for traditional public schools.

A larger proportion of public school teachers than private school teachers, on the other hand, are certified to teach or hold a master’s degree, finds Marisa Cannata, a Vanderbilt University research associate who analyzed data from a federal survey of teachers conducted across the nation in 2003-04.

• In her essay on school choice and segregation, Roslyn Mickelson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, notes that, while most studies suggest that school choice efforts can lead to economic and racial segregation, educators can design choice programs that promote integration.

One option that she puts forward: interdistrict choice plans, such as the Boston-area Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity or METCO program, which allows inner-city students to attend public schools outside their home districts.

• While school choice was promoted early on as a way to spur innovation in schools, market forces also can lead educators to become more risk-aversive at the classroom level, notes Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor of educational organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in his brief.

Ironically, larger organizations, such as school districts, may be in the better position to nurture innovation, he adds, because they can invest more in experimentation, absorb potential losses, and designate different types of schools or programs to serve certain types of learners.

• Despite claims that competitive pressure will prompt traditional public schools to improve, Michigan State University researcher David D. Arsen reports that studies to date on that question are mixed.

Money Mismatch

Wendy C. Chi, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado who examined funding in 2005 for pro- and anti-choice efforts, found that foundations and other organizations that support or advocate for school choice spent dramatically more on pro-choice activities than other groups, such as teachers’ unions, spent to fight choice.

“If these issues are being decided on money, rather than effectiveness, I think that’s important to know,” Ms. Chi said in an interview.

Mr. Hill, however, took issue with Ms. Chi’s calculations.

“The chapter uncovers some interesting facts about advocacy for choice,” he said, “but it also underestimates pro-status-quo advocacy spending by not counting feel-good efforts supported by local public education funds, PTAs, the League of Women Voters, and foundations that sponsor ‘Golden Apple’ awards and other celebrations.”

Vol. 27, Issue 29, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: March 26, 2008, as Program Design Called Crucial Across Array of School Choices
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