The Possibilites and Limitations of Educational Alternatives
Last week, I wrote that we needed many more options in education than the traditional public school. In his latest column, Steve Chapman echoes that sentiment but cautions that no single alternative is likely to bring revolutionary change. For instance, Chapman looks at the lackluster results from the voucher program in Milwaukee:
In 1990, in one of the most innovative developments in modern American education, the Milwaukee public schools created a parental choice system. Some low-income parents got vouchers that could be used to send their children to private schools.
It was a richly promising idea. The new option would let disadvantaged kids escape wretched public schools. Competition would force public schools to improve or close. Students would learn more.
Twenty years have passed. Last week, researchers at the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas published their latest assessment of the results.
What did they find? Something unexpected: Kids in the program do no better than everyone else. “At this point,” said professor Patrick J. Wolf, “the voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers.”
Although I agree with Chapman’s main point, I think he is too critical here. Voucher students score basically the same as public school students, but the graduation rate for students receiving vouchers is 77% to 65% for students without the voucher, which is hardly insignificant. Even more striking, especially in such a lean fiscal year, voucher students attain the same level of education as their public school peers for less than half the cost — $6,400 a year for voucher students against $14,000 for public school students. In other words, the private schools are doing the same job with half the resources. Cutting costs without substantially improving educational outcomes is not worthy of a standing ovation, but it at least deserves mild applause. The same point can be made about charter schools.
That said, Chapman’s conclusion is incredibly wise:
What should we learn from these experiences? Not that nothing works, but that few if any remedies work consistently in different places with different populations. We shouldn’t expect that broad, one-size-fits-all changes imposed by the federal government—such as those offered by the Obama administration—will pay off in student performance.
From the local school district to the federal Department of Education, humility, caution, and open-mindedness are in order. Because right now, the main thing we know about improving schools is that we don’t know very much.
This is why changes in the educational system should come from the bottom up. Students, parents, and individual schools and districts should be encouraged to experiment and imitate those experiments that work. Grandiose nationwide (and even statewide) plans, on the other hand, have a tendency to ignore local and individual particulars. Ignoring those particulars all too often leads to general failure.