Studies link choice, test gains

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As the district opens 100 new schools under Renaissance 2010, students will have more options and neighborhood schools will face greater competition. But are more school options good for kids?

For students who choose to leave their neighborhood schools, the answer is likely yes. Numerous studies conducted over the last decade indicate that students who leave traditional public schools for “choice” schools such as charters and private schools raise their achievement—even though charter schools may have lower test scores overall.

But for students who remain in neighborhood schools, the impact is less certain. Opponents fear that choice will drain resources and top students from neighborhood schools, leaving the most disadvantaged kids behind.

“That’s what people in Chicago are worried about,” says Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor of education and social policy. “That stratification will increase.”

However, several recent preliminary studies suggest that the competition from charters and other schools of choice drives traditional public schools to improve. And even Orfield says that choice can work if districts take steps to prevent segregation.

With more than 200 magnet cluster schools and 20 charter schools, Chicago students already have a wide array of choices. This year, 36 percent did not attend their neighborhood school, according to a district spokesperson.

Nationally, 44 states have open-enrollment programs in place, and 40 states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools, according to the national newspaper Education Week.

Research questioned

Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington knows of only one study, done in New Zealand, that found choice having a negative impact on achievement in schools that lost students. Studies in the U.S. have not demonstrated harm to “schools left behind,” he says.

However, a 2001 investigation by Catalyst found evidence that widespread, unregulated choice at the high-school level had dug a deep hole for many schools on the West and South sides, leaving them mainly with low-performing and special education students. (See Catalyst, December 2001.)

Some opponents of school choice question the validity of the research supporting it. School choice studies are often the work of advocates with a pro-school choice agenda, says Nancy Keenan, education policy director for People for the American Way, a group that opposes public funding for private schools through voucher programs.

Vouchers and charters are still too new to determine their long-term impact she adds. “The research is inconclusive.”

Hill agrees that research results are still preliminary, but school choice advocates have backed up their opinions with data, he says. “The numbers are the numbers.”

However, Paul Goren, vice president of the Spencer Foundation, says the methodology of these preliminary studies might need a closer look. “Did they use appropriate data?” he asks.

In studies of schools in Milwaukee, Michigan and Arizona, those forced to compete for students had greater test score gains than those facing less competition, found Caroline M. Hoxby, a Harvard University economist, who supports choice.

Milwaukee has offered private school vouchers to at least some low-income students since 1990, and in numbers sufficient to generate significant competition since 1998.

Public schools face varying levels of competition depending on the percentage of their students who are eligible for vouchers. In 2001, Hoxby compared 4th-grade test scores across the school system and in a control group of high-poverty Wisconsin schools outside the district.

“In every subject,” wrote Hoxby, “achievement grew most in the schools that faced the most voucher competition, a medium amount in schools that faced less competition and the least amount in the schools that faced no competition.”

In Michigan and Arizona, charter schools have competed with public schools for students since 1994. Hoxby found that achievement increased the most at traditional schools in districts where competition was high—meaning at least 6 percent of students were enrolled in a charter.

A study on the impact of school choice in Florida had results similar to Hoxby’s. Since 1998, Florida has provided private school vouchers to students whose neighborhood schools receive two failing grades in a four-year period, based on the results of a state-wide exam.

Between 2002 and 2003, failing schools that lost students posted test score gains significantly above the statewide average, according to a study by Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who also supports choice.

“People for a long time have told a plausible story, which is that choice threatens to take money away from public schools that need the money,” says Greene. “But there’s an alternate plausible story—that schools need incentive to use their resources more effectively to achieve better results.”

Long-term impact of school choice

Since most voucher and charter school programs are relatively young, research can show only the short-term effects of choice. In Maine and Vermont, however, a form of choice has existed for more than 100 years. In small rural communities without a public school, parents are given vouchers for private or public schools in nearby towns.

The more school choices available, the higher students perform on standardized tests, according to the 2002 study by Christopher Hammons, an associate professor of political science at Houston Baptist University. “When there were dollars out there to be won,” he says, “schools competing for those dollars did better.”

The magnet cluster program in Chicago already gives students choices, says Erin Roche, principal at Ravenswood School, which is in the same North Side neighborhood as Passages Charter School. As the number of charters and other Renaissance 2010 schools increases, Roche says traditional public schools will feel increased competitive pressure.

He was not surprised that research showed competition pushed traditional schools to raise achievement levels, but noted that there could be other reasons for schools’ improvement. “There are so many factors involved,” he says. “It’s hard to say it’s just because of choice.”

One possible downside to choice is increased segregation, says Orfield of Harvard. A study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2002 showed that in 16 states charter schools were more segregated than were public schools, with the segregation worse for black students than for Latinos.

To avoid stratification, Orfield says that districts like Chicago may need to provide transportation to choice schools, prohibit them from admitting students based on test scores and conduct recruiting drives in multiple languages.

As competition increases, Chicago’s neighborhood schools may need to step up their efforts, as well, says Hill. They might need a change of leadership, better marketing strategies or a magnet program, he suggests.

“Another possibility,” he says, “is to close the school right away and [get] into the charter business yourself.”

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor.

E-mail her at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.