fordham institute

Educational Choice: Getting It Right

Over the last couple weeks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been holding its second annual Wonk-a-thon. In the wake of Nevada enacting a groundbreaking, nearly universal education savings account (ESA) law, Fordham asked practitioners, scholars, and policy analysts what Nevada must “get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers.”

Readers can vote for the wonk who offered the wisest analysis here. For a summary of the various recommendations, see here.

ESAs have the potential to radically remake the education landscape. Rather than choose just a single school, parents can use ESA funds for a variety of educational goods and services. Students may spend part of a day in a classroom, part on a computer, and part with personal tutors. Someday, students may even learn in “education malls” where they will choose from among numerous education providers for each subject, each with a different approach or focus. Or perhaps there will be explosive growth in full or partial homeschooling or blended learning. Frankly, we cannot predict with any certainty how education will change over the next few decades in a robust market.

Core Misinformation: Bad News for the Blame Obama Crowd

A favorite refrain of Common Core advocates is that their opponents are peddling “misinformation.” Well Core fans are quite adept at doing the same thing, and as a new Washington Post article reinforces, no case of this is more egregious than pretending that Core adoption was supposed to be “state-led” and “voluntary,” and federal coercion was just unwanted Obama administration interference.

The Common Coring of Private Schools

Today, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.

Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools

First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.

During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:

As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year.  In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.

But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:

A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.

In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.

Pushed into Common Core? Thanks For Volunteering!

If someone pushed you into a wall, would you turn around – after you regained consciousness, of course – and say, “it’s fine. I totally smashed my face voluntarily”? No, you  wouldn’t, but it seems Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, would. After all, he just wrote the following about how state adoption of Common Core national curriculum standards has been “totally voluntary”:

Look at No Child Left Behind. See, No Federal Control. Wait…

In what is either a case of blinders-wearing or just poor timing, today the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee has an article on NRO, co-written with the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, in which she and Stern take to task national curriculum standards critics who assert, among other things, that the Common Core is being pushed by President Obama. Yes, that’s the same Kathleen Porter-Magee whom it was announced a couple of days ago would be on a federal “technical review” panel to evaluate federally funded tests that go with the Common Core.

The ironic timing of the article alone is probably sufficient to rebut arguments suggesting that the Common Core isn’t very much a federal child. Still, let’s take apart a few of the specifics Porter-Magee and Stern offer on the federal aspect. (Other Core critics, I believe, will be addressing contentions about Common Core content).

Some argue that states were coerced into adopting Common Core by the Obama administration as a requirement for applying for its Race to the Top grant competition (and No Child Left Behind waiver program). But the administration has stated that adoption of “college and career readiness standards” doesn’t necessarily mean adoption of Common Core. At least a handful of states had K–12 content standards that were equally good, and the administration would have been hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

Ah, the power of parsing. While it is technically correct that in the Race to the Top regulations the administration did not write that states must specifically adopt the Common Core, it required that states adopt a “common set of K-12 standards,” and defined that as “a set of content standards that define what students must know and be able to do and that are substantially identical across all States in a consortium.” How many consortia met that definition at the time of RTTT? Aside, perhaps, from the New England Common Assessment Program, only one: the Common Core.

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