The latest results of the longitudinal evaluation of Milwaukee's school choice program were released by the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) at a Forum Eye-Opener Breakfast last week. (You can listen to the podcast here.)
Dr. Patrick Wolf, the lead evaluator, does a nice job summarizing the findings of the eight different research reports in his executive summary. These are nuanced findings, with a few contradictions in them, yet understanding them is vitally important for policymakers. Wolf's summary, if not all the reports, should be required reading for local and state officials.
What struck me as I waded through the findings (and I have had several weeks to ruminate on them as I was given a preview of the results last month due to my membership on the SCDP's advisory board) was that Wisconsin has created an education reform policy so paradoxical that mixed results are nearly assured.
First, by encouraging dissatisfied parents to "vote with their feet" and exercise their choice, have we exacerbated schools' mobility problems and negatively impacted student performance?
Educators have known for ages that children who switch schools experience a set-back in achievement, at least initially, and maintaining stability goes a long way toward being able to improve learning and understanding. School choice presumes that a child's switch to a school selected by a parent as being a better fit for the child would outweigh the initial negative impacts of the switch. While that may, in fact, be true, the researchers found that in Milwaukee parents don't stop after making that first choice. They just keep choosing, and choosing, and choosing. (Some portion of this choice is likely due to the high mobility rates of low income families.) This occurs in both the public and private schools, although it appears to be a bigger problem in the public schools. The resulting instability in classrooms and in children's lives could be negatively impacting test scores in both MPS and the private voucher schools.
Thus, we need to ask ourselves, "Could there be such a thing as too much choice?" Or, at least, "Are we doing enough to educate parents about the consequences of choosing too often?"
The second paradox involves an expectation of improved test scores resulting from greater competition among schools, despite that fact that most competition occurs in grade levels that are too young for standardized tests. Third grade is when standardized testing starts, yet over the past 10 years, most of the vouchers have been used by students in grades younger than 3rd. The threat of losing students to another school was supposed to result in better outcomes and parents were supposed to choose the most successful schools, causing poorly performing schools to lose market share. In reality, what we find is that demand for vouchers is greatest in younger, untested grades, which doesn't really send much of a message to schools about the need for measurable performance improvement in order to succeed in the marketplace.
One way to get the message to the schools would be to start testing younger students. A more realistic option is to acknowledge the research that shows parents aren't considering test scores as a major factor in their decision to choose a school. If the choice isn't based on testing results, then perhaps we shouldn't be expecting the reform to improve test scores. If that's the case, then we need to agree on a different policy goal for the school choice program: parental satisfaction, sustainability of religious schools, weakening the political power of the teachers union, stemming population decline in the city, or saving taxpayer money. These have all been suggested as policy goals over the years and are worthy of debate.
Maybe it is time to stop discussing school choice in the context of "competition" altogether. I once talked with a parent who had narrowed down her choices to either the large public Montessori school a 45-minute bus ride away or the smaller private Catholic school in a nearby neighborhood. I tried to talk her though the few comparable facts I had collected about each school...enrollment size, afterschool programs, etc. Her biggest concern was not academic achievement, but discipline, and I had no information for her about that. I don't know how she made her decision, in the end, and I don't know how her decision could have sent an actionable message to the "losing" school. Was it too big? Too secular? Too far? Too traditional?
Most of the reaction to the SCDP research results has ignored the inherent conflict between the results and the rhetoric: How can it be competition that has improved MPS (ever so slightly), when the performance of the competing schools actually differs so little from MPS? How can both good and bad schools be thriving in the educational marketplace?
The answer is that parents are willing to overlook academic deficiencies when they are satisfied with other aspects of the chosen school. Schools, public and private, good and bad, are able to attract students each year despite also losing students each year. Milwaukee must face facts: Our parents like having choices and yet our schools are mostly underperforming. So now we must debate: Do we give up on school choice or adapt it to a new goal? Do we shut down failing schools or invest more resources in them?