An Obama “Reset” On NCLB?

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The ever-busy Murdoch Street Journal editorial page tells us here that…

President Obama’s stimulus is sending some $100 billion to the nation’s school districts. What will he demand in return? The state budget passed by the New York legislature last week freezes funding for (charter schools) but increases it by more that $400 million for other public schools. Perhaps a visit to a charter school in Harlem would help Mr. Obama honor his reform pledge. “I’m looking at the data here in front of me,” Mr. Duncan told the New York Post. “Graduation rates are up. Test scores are up. Teacher salaries are up. Social promotion was eliminated. Dramatically increasing parental choice. That’s real progress.”

Mr. Duncan’s help in New York is in stark contrast to his department’s decision to sit on a performance review of the D.C. voucher program while Congress debated its future in March. The latest annual evaluation was finally released Friday, and it shows measurable academic gains. The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides $7,500 vouchers to 1,700 low-income families in D.C. to send their children to private schools. Ninety-nine percent of the children are black or Hispanic, and there are more than four applicants for each scholarship.

The 2008 report demonstrated progress among certain subgroups of children but not everyone. This year’s report shows statistically significant academic gains for the entire voucher-receiving population. Children attending private schools with the aid of the scholarships are reading nearly a half-grade ahead of their peers who did not receive vouchers. Voucher recipients are doing no better in math but they’re doing no worse. Which means that no voucher participant is in worse academic shape than before, and many students are much better off.

However, we learn the following from here…

Over its short life, the (D.C.) program proved almost entirely ineffective. Actually, its only real success was as a stimulus for D.C.’s beleaguered Catholic schools — they, not the students, proved to be the vouchers’ biggest beneficiaries.

Obviously, there can be some benefit — even just an emotional one, rather than something that can be measured — to getting out of one of D.C.’s public schools, which can be a bad environment, and into a better one. But that assumes the students were getting out of the worst schools and into appreciably better ones, and that wasn’t always the case. (In fact, kids who attended the city’s worst schools were proportionally less likely to receive vouchers.) Moreover, when it came to academic performance, studies repeatedly showed no significant effect. The RAND Corporation summarized the Department of Education’s first impact study of the program this way:

Because the program was oversubscribed, scholarships were awarded by lottery. To examine total program impact on student achievement, the study compared the results of lottery winners with those of lottery losers (regardless of whether the winners actually used their scholarships or whether the losers attended public schools). The authors found no impact, positive or negative, on average test scores in reading or math. Similarly, they found no impact of the effect of using a voucher to attend a private school on average reading or math test scores.

On top of that, the program was poorly run; it lacked proper oversight, and had some fairly obvious, and quite serious, flaws. Those were exposed in a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, which savaged the voucher system generally, along with the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), which administered it. Among other problems, the GAO found that, in the 2004-2005 school year, “at least 3 of 52 schools that participated that year indicated that at least half of their teachers did not have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 6 schools indicated that about 10 to 20 percent of their teachers lacked at least a bachelor’s degree. Further, many of the schools were not accredited, and there is no evidence that they submitted evidence of educational soundness.”

Something else I wanted to note here about the quality of schools generally has to do with how well they are able to accommodate special needs students, which isn’t something that can be easily quantified either.

This tells us about a voucher program in Florida, a statewide school choice program that provides a voucher for any public school student with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) prepared for students with certified disabilities (and I assume the participating private school would be legally obligated to abide by the IEP). However, as noted here (NY Times content), just because a public school is legally obligated to provide and abide by an IEP also doesn’t mean that it may be inclined to support it in the event of limited resources.

I generally oppose vouchers since they constitute a drain on the public schools of this country, and I think making parents choose between funding for public vs. parochial schools is a disgusting game played by opportunistic politicians using our kids as pawns. However, it seems that Duncan is prudently trying not to undo the good that has been accomplished by the charter school in Harlem (the Journal editorial more or less dovetails the subject of charter schools into vouchers; this AFL-CIO post notes, however, that charter schools routinely fall behind public schools concerning academic performance).

If the kids are used to the Harlem charter school and successful test results can be verified, then let it stand. However, IMHO, that should serve as the exception instead of the rule.

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