| October 1, 2010

The Dirty Big Secret of Education Policy

Education policy is back in the news like it hasn’t been in years. And if it feels like nothing’s changed, that’s because in some ways it hasn’t. Politicians are always offering us yet another quick fix that will finally make the public school system work. The quick fixes have varied over the years, but the political system’s dedication to quick-fixery has remained—the one reliable constant in an ever-changing world.

And there’s one other thing that doesn’t change—the web of silence and deception they use to distract our attention from the one solution that’s consistently proven to get results in improving public schools. The empirical evidence for this reform has been piling up for years, but the system would rather you didn’t know.

Never mind the parade of phony reforms pushed by the unions and their allies—smaller classes, lavishly funded pre-pre-pre-kindergarten programs starting in the womb, etc. Just a couple of years ago, they were even peddling the idea that schools should be turned into neighborhood social-service centers. They put together a major all-hands marketing push for this idea—but it didn’t pass the laugh test and even the dinosaur media declined to pick it up, which is why you probably didn’t hear about it.

By now, we know that all those reforms are worthless. Even the dinosaur media know it, believe it or not. From Time to the Washington Post, they’re turning against the unions in force. (The New York Times is still in the tank, but thankfully no one reads it.)

The problem is no longer that the unions push quick fixes. The problem is that too many of the people who are looking for real reform are hung up on their own quick fixes.

National Standards Aren’t the Answer

Ten years ago there was a strong and deep left-right consensus among education reformers in Washington that things would get better if the federal government made basic skills testing, with public reporting of the results and sanctions for failure, a requirement of federal schools funding. That was the premise behind the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

But the “sanctions” enacted by the states mostly had no teeth, and those that had teeth could be easily avoided by jumping through various readily available loopholes. And the results are now in—on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, math and reading results haven’t budged since NCLB was enacted. Outcomes for 17-year-olds, the only ones that really matter, are flat. We saw some tiny upticks among younger students, but even those stalled out after 2004.

I’ll fess up and admit that in 2001, I thought NCLB was worth a shot. Test-based accountability programs at the state level had shown some promising success, especially in Florida. The federal government was already throwing money at the states for education anyway. Why not try to get something good in exchange for that funding? Turned out the lever wasn’t long enough.

These days it’s national standards. Every ten years or so there’s a big push to create national education standards. It’s a lousy idea—it destroys the competitive pressure created by having multiple independent state systems, and it creates a huge unaccountable bureaucratic power center that can be captured by the unions and turned to their purposes.

In the past, campaigns for national standards have always been defeated. This time, the Beltway crowd was smarter. Instead of pushing for “national” or “federal” standards, they put the word out that states would be rewarded—through programs like Race to the Top—for creating a “voluntary” multi-state standards system—entirely on their own, you understand. The president even dropped hints that all federal school funding might get cut off for states that didn’t play ball.

Bingo! Overnight, a whole bunch of states suddenly got together to create a “voluntary” multi-state standards system, and more have been signing up as the months go by. So the feds got busy developing the assessment system by which the new standards will be judged—and thus, a national system under federal control was established through the back door.

The big irony is that this new quick fix is probably going to destroy the one good thing we got out of the old one. The one thing the NCLB testing requirement does well is to create invaluable transparency. People know now, much better than they used to, just how bad the schools are—and they know that it isn’t just the inner-city schools that are failing, but the whole system. Education researchers are also making use of these testing data to do extremely valuable work on examining what other reform policies (merit pay, school choice, etc.) are effective.

As NCLB fades into the sunset, it’s crucial to maintain that transparency and access to data. But the new national standards are going to take the existing rigorous basic-skills tests and mix them in with evaluations of soft skills, portfolio assessment, etc. Those things are not bad in themselves—myself, I’d much prefer to send my daughter to a school where they evaluate her for, say, having an entrepreneurial mindset about her work. But if that kind of subjective “testing” is mixed together with the other kind, and if we don’t get a fully transparent separate report on the basic-skills test results by themselves (which we won’t), we’ll be right back where we were before NCLB. And we’ll have lost the basic freedom—which NCLB preserved—to set our own standards in our own states rather than being held hostage to an unaccountable federal bureaucracy.

The Best-Studied Approach to Improving Public Schools

Meanwhile, there is one—and as far as I know, it’s the only one—education reform that is consistently proven to improve public schools. More evidence gets piled up every year, and it all points in one direction. But the politicians—and too many of the reformers—don’t want to talk about it. And when they do, they misrepresent the facts.

The impact of school choice programs on public schools has been studied 19 times, by researchers at top institutions (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, the Federal Reserve, etc.) using high-quality empirical methods.

Let’s stop right there. Even before we look at the results, that is a far more impressive body of research than any other education reform can boast. Accountability testing? There has been some good work on this, but not a lot—and the methodology is sometimes good but sometimes less so. Merit pay? We have a handful of studies using methods that are at best problematic. Tenure reform? We have tons of research showing that teacher quality makes a huge difference, but this highly promising reform idea hasn’t been implemented so we haven’t been able to study it yet. The unions’ various ideas? Don’t make me laugh.

So school choice is the best-studied approach to improving public schools. What does it find?

Would you believe that 18 of the 19 studies found that school choice improves public schools, and the one remaining study found no difference? And that nobody’s talking about this—except when they dishonestly deny that the research supports school choice?

Every study in Milwaukee has found that the city’s voucher program improved public schools. Every study in Florida has found that its two voucher programs and one tax-credit scholarship program (a similar form of school choice that’s funded through the tax code) have improved public schools. Every study in Ohio, Texas, Maine, and Vermont has found that school choice programs there improved public schools.

And that one study that found no effect? That was in Washington, D.C. And the really interesting thing is that the D.C. voucher program is the only school choice program in the country that deliberately insulates public schools from choice competition. The program pours extra money into public schools when students leave. Thus, students are denied the benefits of healthy competitive incentives that are improving public schools everywhere else school choice has been studied.

So even that outlying study is the exception that proves the rule, in the original sense of that phrase—testing the theory to find out whether it explains anomalies. We have one school choice program that doesn’t allow competition to affect public schools. And that’s the one program where school choice doesn’t improve public schools. Rule confirmed.

It’s true that the benefits of school choice so far are not revolutionary. They’re moderate in size. That’s because we haven’t been allowed to have a true, unfettered voucher program that could deliver such results. If the tiny, overregulated voucher programs we’ve tried so far have worked well, how much more would we get from a real voucher—a universal voucher?

I’m not expecting the political class—which seems to include a lot of the education reformers—to wake up and smell the coffee any time soon. But that doesn’t make me want to give up on fighting for vouchers. It makes me want to fight for them all the more.

The successes of the school choice movement in the past twenty years have established choice as a permanent part of the education reform landscape. We’re not in danger of losing our investment, as long as we stay vigilant.

And the political conditions for taking vouchers to the next level are only going to get better as other reforms continue to fail. Pressure will continue to build for real solutions. Even now, the dinosaur media don’t shill for the unions anymore. And the social-justice crowd and others on the political left are repudiating the unions and embracing charter schools—a watered down, halfway house version of school choice. How do you think it’s going to go when they realize that even charter schools aren’t enough?

As I’ve always said, our most important asset in the school choice movement is that we’re right. The world really does work the way we think it does—the evidence shows it consistently. That’s why our reform works when the others fail.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice.

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