House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) Cantor was speaking recently at the release of the Brookings Institution's latest report on Education Choice and Competition. Calling these policies "an education revolution," the House leader baldly stated, "school choice is the surest way to break [the] vicious cycle of poverty."
Not "a solid education." School choice.
The Brookings' report ranks 100 large districts on their school choice policies. Their report came out in advance of National School Choice Week whose organizers boast 5,500 scheduled events across the country beginning January 26, 2014. Both share a goal to drum up more support for funneling tax dollars into educational options -- whether they be charters, magnets, private, or virtual schools. The rationale is that a free marketplace will force schools to innovate in order to compete for students. Popular schools will equate with good schools and unpopular ones will close. And thus, in Brookings words, we will raise "the quality of the product."
Unfortunately, that's one mighty big assumption.
Most choice advocates defend their position by pointing to successful charter schools in New York City and elsewhere. Others extol the promise of virtual learning. What they all provide, for the most part, is anecdote, intuition and belief. When they do cite data, it basically shows that choice policies work in some places with some students some of the time. Truth is, the evidence is much spottier than the champions for choice would have us believe.
Charter schools, for example, are the most studied "choice" reform. Charter schools are public schools that have certain requirements waived so they can try out new ideas. There is much to commend successful charters and what they are learning about effective practices. But according to a 2013 study from Stanford researchers, these are the exception. Only one in four charter schools outperforms its traditional public school counterpart in reading. About one in five performs significantly worse. In math, it's nearly one in three.
The quality of research on voucher programs is notoriously uneven and often contradictory. Nonetheless, there seems to be general agreement that vouchers may have had a modest impact on some low-income and minority youth in some urban districts. But the findings are inconclusive as to their effect overall. And the general efficacy of virtual schools is a big unknown, largely because districts lack the infrastructure to sufficiently track student performance in online environments.
Ironically, the Brookings report card itself illustrates the disconnect between choice policies on one hand and student performance on the other. One does not necessarily follow the other.
Only three districts earned A's on Brookings choice and competition rankings: Louisiana's Recovery District, Orleans Parish and New York City. Along with its Brookings "A," Orleans Parish earned an "A" on Louisiana's report card for district performance. Yet the state gave the Recovery District an F. New York City's A- from Brookings bears little relation to its math scores on NAEP, a national assessment. The city's scores were at the average for large cities, and below average in terms of gains over the last decade.
Then there's the low end of the rankings. Atlanta was given an "F" by Brookings. Yet the city boasts fourth-graders who perform above the national "large city" average in reading and posted more than twice the gains their peers made nationwide. Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, are among the highest performing urban districts in both math and reading. Brookings gave them a C and D respectively (go here for full data tables showing the comparisons).
So what does this tell us? That high-achieving, high-gaining districts can have "choice and competition" or not. Either way, it shows it's a mistake to claim, as Rep. Cantor does, that choice is "the surest way to break the cycle of poverty."
Contrary to popular perception, public schools have been steadily improving over the last twenty years. Math performance and graduation rates, in particular, are at all-time highs. Neither are public schools the monolithic creature some of the choice advocates make them out to be. Many districts across the country already offer alternatives in the form of charter and magnet schools, and continue to diversify instructional programs in traditional neighborhood schools, too. But parents and students need assurance that the choices they are offered are good ones, something choice for choice's sake has not done, as the research shows.
In addition, it's one thing to offer alternatives. It's quite another to encourage public schools to compete with each other for students which could send the wrong messages. We need only look to our colleges and universities who, in their race to attract students, build football teams and state-of-the-art facilities at the expense of investments in teaching. I really doubt that's the kind of marketplace we want to create for public schools.
Far from an education revolution, the political attention given choice and competition is diverting us from the hard work of making sure public schools prepare every child for their next steps after graduation. This means continuing to invest in those things that an abundance of evidence shows consistently work -- access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, effective teachers, rigorous curriculum and individualized instruction for students. It also means learning from successful schools -- including schools of choice -- about what works with different students in which situations, and bringing those practices to scale. When we get that right, districts will earn the grades that really matter.