- A Playbook for Building Common Core Support Among Teachers - October 8, 2014
- Shifting Our Mindset Around Teacher Evaluations - September 3, 2014
- A Profession for My Generation - August 19, 2014
- The Difference Between Calculation and Mathematics - August 5, 2014
- Four Little Tips to Transform Your Classroom - August 5, 2014
- Just the Facts: Charter High School Performance in Memphis, TN - July 30, 2014
- Tennessee Education's Perception Problem - July 9, 2014
- Irrational Fears Prevent Real Common Core Progress - June 30, 2014
- Performance Based Tests Take the Guesswork Out of Assessing - June 4, 2014
- Teaching and the Off-Season - May 27, 2014
I work in a charter school, and unlike a teacher in a traditional district school, the students I see every day are not sent to our school based on their street address. Some live down the street and some drive 30 minutes both directions. We have students that come from both private and public school backgrounds. Regardless of where they come from, our parents make the choice to send their students to our school because they believe we will provide them with a high quality education.
What’s Should School Choice Be About?
School choice is about giving parents the opportunity to select the best education for their children from a variety of options. But choice itself isn’t enough. To truly be worthy of public investment, school choice programs should also improve academic outcomes for the target population. When the evidence suggests that a particular approach doesn’t improve academic outcomes we need to think very carefully before adopting it.
As a caveat, I will not debate the merits of school choice in this article. My purpose is merely to examine one of the most popular options for school choice at the moment, school vouchers, and determine if it is worth of our public investment and if not, offer alternatives.
Overview of Research on Vouchers
With this goal in mind, states and districts across the country need to critically examine the merits of another school choice approach, school vouchers. Funded by the government, vouchers provide a fixed amount of money to families that can be applied towards tuition at a private school. Voucher programs typically target low income students and their families with the promise of an alternative to their traditional neighborhood school. Currently nine states and the District of Columbia offer some type of voucher program, some of which have existed for over two decades.
But what does the evidence say about the impact of vouchers on student outcomes? To date we’ve seen little to no positive demonstrated impact on student achievement from these programs. In 2010, the Center on Education Policy reviewed 10 years of voucher research and action and found that vouchers had no strong effect on student achievement. The most positive results come from Milwaukee County’s voucher program, but the effects were small and limited to only a few grades.
Voucher programs also struggle to achieve their mission of providing low-income students with a way out of failing schools. For example a critical study of the Milwaukee program found that it overwhelmingly helped those already receiving education through private means. Two thirds of Milwaukee students using the voucher program in the city already attended private schools. Instead of increasing mobility for low-income students, the program primarily served to perpetuate status quo.
Even more concerning is that voucher programs suffer from poor transparency. Private schools are not required to publicize the same amount of student data as traditional public schools. As a result, the quality of these schools is not always clear, and sometimes students leave one failing school through the voucher program only to unknowingly end up at yet another failing school. This has occurred in Louisiana where the Associated Press reported in late November of this past year that at least 45 percent of voucher students were attending schools that were classified as either failing or near failing.
The Verdict: Vouchers Don't Work
I support much of the education reform movement’s goals because I believe they lead go improved student outcomes. Because of this I’m a proponent of expanding school choice, as long as it is effective at improving student achievement. I’ve seen the positive impact these policies can have on students when they are effective through my work in a charter school. But I question school choice policies that have not demonstrated positive impacts on student outcomes. When a program hasn't been able to achieve its goals of raising student achievement or giving low-income students a way out of failing schools after years of work and numerous studies, I personally believe we should spend our resources elsewhere.
Alternative School Choice Policy: Expand High-Quality Charters
For policy makers searching for ways to improve school choice, I propose that we focus on growing the overall number of quality school choice options across the country, while also shutting down low performing charters. While not perfect, charters are much more accountable to the public than voucher schools and have more proof points for positive impacts on student outcomes.
What Are Charters?
Contrary to what many believe, charters are not private schools. Charter schools are public schools operated by independent non-profit governing bodies that are also held responsible for the same academic standards as traditional public schools. Once approved, the charter must meet its goals during a predetermined time period or be shut down. Charters have the benefit of being able to operate with more freedoms than traditional schools. They can try different intervention systems for struggling students, use unique strategies to build school culture and are given greater flexibility in personnel policies.
Where to Look for Great Charters
Some states do better than others at promoting high quality charters. For example, in Tennessee where I teach, charters have a good track record of providing quality options to parents looking for an alternative to their neighborhood school. According to the Standford CREDO study, which examines charter quality across the country, Tennessee charters serve a population at a lower academic starting point than students in traditional schools, especially compared to charters in many states across the country. And even though students in charters start further behind, charter schools in Tennessee have demonstrated statistically positive results, providing their students with 86 extra days of reading learning and 72 days of math beyond the state average.
Legislators looking to expand high quality charters as a legitimate alternative to vouchers could pursue several policies to enhance the quality and size of our quality charter school network in their states. First, they can raise the bar for new charter applicants across the state and ensure only high quality charter operators open new schools. Second, they should make it easier to close down charters that are under performing to ensure that only the best stay open. Too many under performing charters continue to operate even when they've demonstrably failed in their mission to improve student outcomes.
Charters Should Be Partners, Not Competitors
I do want to add that I do not believe that charter schools represent THE solution to what ails American public schools. We should continue to work to improve our traditional public school system as well as expand school choice options because this is where the vast majority of our students will go for the foreseeable future. We should also not devote resources to school choice at the expense of traditional public schools. However, I do not believe that the two have to be mutually exclusive. Charters can serve as laboratories for testing different methods of educating students that can then be implemented in the wider public school population. And they also serve to provide parents of students that are zoned to attend failing schools with a quality public alternative that will be held accountable to the same standards as any other public school. Both charters and traditional schools can continue to develop in partnership to ensure that all students can attend the right school for them. They should complement each other rather than become a mutually exclusive approach.
So, for leaders searching for a way to expand school choice, let’s work to grow and develop what works and not rely on untested strategies. Let’s devote the resources otherwise to be used for ineffective voucher programs to enhancing the quality and capacity of our already strong charter network.