The case for content cannot be made too often or too emphatically, but it’s also been made repeatedly for thirty years, to little avail. Natalie Wexler’s new book, "The Knowledge Gap," offers a strong argument for offering a knowledge-rich education to every child, but also documents our frustrating lack of progress. It's one hell of an indictment of American education.
The most important point raised in Natalie Wexler’s new book, The Knowledge Gap, is nearly an afterthought. It’s in the book’s epilogue. After a compelling, book-length argument in favor of offering a knowledge-rich education to every child and documenting our frustrating lack of progress in doing so—to raise reading achievement, promote justice, even, she suggests, to end school segregation—the author makes a surprising observation.
“I’d love to point to a school district, or even a single school, and say: This is how it should be done,” Wexler writes. “Unfortunately, I have yet to see an American school that consistently combines a focus on content with an instructional method that fully exploits the potential of writing to build knowledge and critical thinking abilities for every child.”
That is one hell of an indictment of American education, and to Wexler’s credit, a brave one, since arguably it calls into question the mission of her thoroughly reported and briskly readable book. On the one hand, the case for content cannot be made too often or too emphatically, and Wexler does it well. By setting so much of the book in actual classrooms among real teachers and children she does E.D. Hirsch, Jr. better than Hirsch himself. However, it is telling—and a little depressing—that more that thirty years after Hirsch burst nearly by accident onto bestseller lists with Cultural Literacy, the urtext in the knowledge-rich schooling canon, Wexler cannot name a single school or district doing it right. Thus The Knowledge Gap cannot be viewed as a wake up call for American education. The alarm has been ringing for more than three decades. We have hit the snooze bar and rolled over. And that’s, well…alarming.
Wexler is the latest in a line of advocates—myself included—who have variously shaken their fists or their heads, sadly, at American education’s unaccountable inability to come correct on content. The reasons schools and districts have not gone all-in on knowledge and established a coherent, cumulative, and carefully sequenced core curriculum are not hard to discern, and Wexler enumerates them fully and capably. First and foremost, schools, teachers, publishers, and others remain stubbornly attached to the demonstrably incorrect idea that reading comprehension “is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content,” she writes. Education is a state-level matter under our Constitution, which makes a national curriculum, a common feature in other nations, a nonstarter, “and in any event,” Wexler notes, “our country is probably too diverse for such an effort to work.” Indeed. Then there are the common beliefs that “young children are primarily interested in subjects that relate to their own lives,” that academic content is “’developmentally inappropriate’ for the early grades,” and “that education should be child-centered” prioritizing students’ interests and abilities, and giving teachers less authority in curricular decision-making. That these gauzily Romantic ideas about childhood and Piaget’s “stage theory” are subscribed to uncritically in American schools can be attributed to the field’s poor grasp of “the basic science about how we learn.” Then there is also a perception among teachers that any set curriculum “infringe[s] on their freedom to teach whatever and however they wanted.” Beyond the four walls of the classroom, parent activism “has focused on getting rid of or reducing testing rather than on what the curriculum should look like if testing disappeared,” Wexler writes. And, of course, there’s the immovable object of The Tests themselves which “sent the message that subjects other than reading and math aren’t important” while reinforcing—nearly demanding—a view of reading comprehension as a content-neutral suite of skills.
“It’s hard to understand why a problem as fundamental and pervasive as the lack of content in elementary school—and in some cases, middle school as well—has gone unnoticed for so long,” Wexler writes. This is my only significant point of disagreement with the author. The lack of content has not gone unnoticed. It’s gone unaddressed.
If the capacity and will to get this right existed, there should be not one example of schools and districts who are implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum well and faithfully. There should be lots of them.
Washoe County, Nevada, was one such example and Wexler devotes a fascinating chapter to the Core Task Implementation Project, or CTIP, in Reno—a grassroots, teacher-led initiative that emerged almost organically following the state’s adoption of Common Core, far from well-funded battles over the standards in Washington, and away from the glare of media coverage. “Keeping CTIP going felt like a game of whack-a-mole: One constituency would be placated, but then another would pop up with objections,” Wexler writes. Crucially, resistance to curriculum and content wasn’t the issue. “The problem was more that the district kept undertaking new initiatives, some of which seemed to be working at cross-purposes, and those initiatives took precedence over CTIP.” Sobering stuff but illuminating: Even with awareness of the need for knowledge, committed personnel, and a reasonable level of administrative support and promising results, it still fell apart. Having worked for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, I have seen this myself. Today there is a model school. Tomorrow there’s a leadership change, a new initiative, or staff exodus. Change is hard. Maintaining it is harder still.
Wexler takes care not to blame teachers. The idea of teaching reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills rather than an effect of knowledge and vocabulary, for example, is “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even notice it.” That is both correct and unsatisfying. At some point—perhaps now—teachers, the administrators who hire them, the colleges that train them, districts, charter management organizations, and whole states simply must raise their level of sophistication about all this. There is no other way forward at scale. It is lovely if individual teachers, and even entire schools and districts, get this (however briefly), but only insofar as this contributes to the only thing that can close the knowledge gap: a wholesale change in the culture of education and greater sophistication about practice, reinforced by thoughtful policy that rewards a patient investment in knowledge. Nothing else will do.
Without question there is greater appreciation for the essential role of background knowledge in reading comprehension than in 1987, when Cultural Literacy spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. Where there used to be none, there are several English language arts curricula, both commercially available and freely accessible “open educational resources” designed to build knowledge coherently, cumulatively, and sequentially, such as Great Minds’ “Wit and Wisdom,” and, from Hirsch’s own nonprofit organization, “Core Knowledge Language Arts.” So there is awareness, even progress, just not as much as we intellectual sons and daughters of Hirsch would like. Wexler notes that early elementary teachers “spend an average of only sixteen minutes a day on social studies and nineteen on science.” A nation that understood the clear and compelling links between background knowledge and literacy that she unpacks would be embarrassed by these figures and demand more: not just more history and science, but more art, music, and the full range of enlivening content that would “restore elementary school teachers to their rightful place as guides to the world,” as David Coleman winningly puts it.
“Teachers efforts will bear fruit only if they understand what to look for,” Wexler observes. Alas, not even then. For the full benefits of a knowledge and language rich education to reach its full flower, it requires not one teacher to understand this, but all of them, and for them to coordinate their efforts to guard against gaps and repetitions. I’m less than sanguine this is in the offing, which is why school choice has moved to the top of my own preferred policy options. Better for advocates of knowledge-rich schooling like Wexler and like me to convince one school to do it right than to spend the next thirty years pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back over dedicated and earnest educators like the folks in Washoe. If simple logic and the vast weight of cognitive science cannot inspire changes in practice, perhaps successful models might generate greater demand. School choice is not mentioned as a lever for change in The Knowledge Gap, although Wexler rightly takes issue with ed reformers and charter operators who have been historically no less culpable than “status quo” educators in overlooking the evidence on the importance of knowledge. She notes that some charter management organizations, including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First, “noticed that a few schools with a more content-focused approach hadn’t suffered the same drop [on more rigorous Common Core aligned tests starting in 2013]. So they began retooling their elementary curricula to focus more on content,” she writes, another indicator that the essential role of knowledge as a driver of student outcomes has not gone “unnoticed.”
Let me close by praising Wexler’s work, for it is praiseworthy, and make it clear that she has made a first-rate case for content. We are in passionate agreement on the need for a knowledge-rich curriculum for all children, particularly the disadvantaged. If you are among the uninitiated on the value of content knowledge for kids, buy a copy. If you’re already among the true believers, buy two copies and put them in the hands of persuadable educators. But young ones, please. As Max Planck observed of science, education advances one funeral at a time.
The Knowledge Gap is a first-rate addition to the literature in support of content-rich curriculum. It is not criticism to wish it could also be the last.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by Education Next.
This essay is part of the The Moonshot for Kids project, a joint initiative of the Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress. This is the last of three installments. The first introduced the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP)—one of the largest and more successful examples of government-supported education R & D. The second explained its creation and chronicled its early years.
Looking at this array of subprograms and grantees, one might suppose that Uncle Sam is driving the charter bus. But look at it another way. Federal funding for CSP reached a peak of $440 million in FY 2019—and the Trump administration budgeted $500 million for FY 2020 (though at this writing House appropriators have approved just $400 milllion). Set those numbers alongside the thirty-plus billion dollars that states are currently spending to support the operations of their charter schools, plus much more by way of facilities, authorizing, monitoring, etc. The federal dollar share is barely one percent. To be sure, most charters also get other federal funding—for disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, subsidized breakfasts and lunches, and more. But those are dollars that all public schools receive. Within the “charter bucket,” the federal CSP is chickenfeed alongside the resources supplied by states, not to mention private philanthropy and schools’ own fundraising.
It’s true that here, as always, the strings attached to federal funding have consequences that may dwarf the direct impact of the dollars themselves. It’s surely true that some of the big CMOs and national organizations in this sector would struggle financially if their CSP support dried up entirely. And it’s probably also true, as Ms. Wolfe wrote, that over the decades CSP “has played a critical role” in expanding the charter sector.
Yet what that really means is that the federal program has had remarkable leverage, i.e., it has incentivized and lubricated multiple parts of the charter realm. Unlike so many federal education programs, which provide ongoing subsidies for the day-to-day operation of activities and services that Congress has deemed worthy of such subsidy, CSP is more like a fuse than an explosive or (if you prefer a more sedate image) more like the yeast than the flour in a well-baked loaf of bread. One could fairly say that it has performed remarkably well at helping to develop America’s charter school sector—develop in the sense of “R & D” develop. It’s true that not every single start-up grant produced a viable school, and not every single school that opened with CSP help has been a great academic success. Not every grant to a state has yielded a high-quality charter program. Not every replication has worked out as well as the original (though some turned out better). Not every dollar has had the hoped-for impact. Not all the “innovating” that Congress intended has occurred, and when it has, the traditional public education system has often been loath to embrace charter-incubated reforms and innovations.
Yet the United States today has a robust charter-school sector that has become an enduring and important, albeit still relatively small, part of American K –12 education. Unlike the New American Schools venture that commenced around the same time and mostly out as the grant dollars dried up and participants were left to make it on their own, the charter sector is now deeply embedded in our education system; it’s the most conspicuous element of that system’s gradual shift from one that assigned children to more-or-less identical district-operated schools near their homes, to one that welcomes a measure of diversity and accepts a large amount of parent-driven choice—a profound and lasting change in how Americans view public education.
It’s also worth reflecting on some key ways that CSP differed from New American Schools (NAS), beginning with the fact that they operated on two quite different theories of change. NAS invested in school “models” that were meant to be innovative, but it didn’t alter governance arrangements, such as district bureaucracies, control by elected local school boards, and binding union contracts. It assumed that the established system could and would embrace and accommodate new models, provided they were sufficiently appealing—and it concentrated on selecting a handful of such models and linking them up with districts game to try them. That means New American Schools also took for granted that its new models would generally be imposed on existing schools—existing schools, that is, within the existing structures of public education and its familiar mode of governance.
The Charter Schools Program, by contrast, was agnostic about the type of innovation that its schools embraced—Waldorf or No Excuses, Montessori or personalized learning, classical or progressive—but instead focused on governance. Its schools were almost all new, not conversions of extant schools, and they had to be independent—free from the district bureaucracy—and chosen by families and teachers. Most also were, and remain, union-free, though that was not a federal requirement.
The financing strategies differed, too. Most obviously, NAS subsidized the developers of models while CSP assisted with the creation of actual schools. And New American Schools drew its subsidies from a finite pool of private dollars while CSP had access to recurrent federal appropriations. (This difference fades when one also associates NAS with the recurrent federal funding that came with Comprehensive School Reform and School Improvement Grants, though those cost Uncle Sam considerably more money than CSP, which took for granted that charter schools, once up and running, would have their operating costs met by states.)
In retrospect, mulling the fates and legacies of these two federally-inspired school reform initiatives of the early 1990s, New American Schools largely withdrew from the scene as its funding dried up and its early clients changed their minds or found school conversions too challenging. Yet some of the ideas and approaches that it sponsored turned out to linger and sometimes morph. Examples include Success For All’s approach to literacy, James Comer’s holistic approach to kids (an antecedent of today’s obsession with social-emotional learning), as well as at least one prominent organization—Expeditionary Learning, now EL—that evolved from its Outward-Bound origins into a source of curriculum design, professional development, and a network of schools spanning the district, charter, and private sectors.
By contrast, the federal Charter Schools Program is very much still with us, and the charter movement that it abetted now directly benefits millions of children. It has also contributed to a wider education revitalization—the right to choose one’s school—even as we acknowledge that its impact on district schools has been less than many hoped. Moreover, the competition that it poses to those districts (and their unions) has engendered hostility that seems to be intensifying and attracting more political interest as the 2020 election heats up.
It’s a pity that the politics of the Trump era, the pressures of the upcoming presidential race, and changes within both our major parties (but—when it comes to charter schools—most vividly among Democrats), has caused the bipartisanship that characterized charter policy for more than a quarter century to erode, and with it some of the support for CSP. I hope that CSP remains strong and decently funded, for there’s still much “developing” to do in the charter sector, not just more quantity, but also now heightened attention to quality. The sector itself, however, is now well enough established and self-reliant that shrinking (or even scrapping) CSP would prove painful to it but in no way fatal.
Meanwhile, there are at least two other lessons to be derived from the CSP saga. One is that any R & D effort that doesn’t take into account the rigidities and often dysfunction of local school districts is not going to accomplish much. Going around those constraints, as with charter schools, is one approach—and one I generally favor. Those engaged in education R & D ventures that they are bent on placing “within the system,” however, must deal with its realities. Innovations in curriculum, pedagogy, and technology, for example, have to be able to be implemented by ordinary teachers, many of them not exceptionally well educated, many with lifetime tenure, and all of them bound by the system’s rules, norms, and practices. School improvement initiatives have to work with school leaders who may not be as strong as reformers wish. Policy changes must be devised to survive the hurdles placed in their way by bureaucracies, local politics and multi-year contracts—or else be limited to the handful of places where circumstances occasionally lower those hurdles.
All of that is far harder to make happen successfully than to launch something new on the system’s periphery. And it’s harder still when the dollars flow via formula to every state and, sometimes, every district, rather than in response to convincing proposals. Scarcity and competition are stronger incentives than abundance and universality. But even they can (and usually do) founder when the changes promised in those proposals have to be implemented within a stodgy, rule-bound system.
I won’t claim that CSP has fostered much research, but when it comes to development, the fact that it’s mostly about “something new on the periphery” has enabled it to have quite an impact, certainly more than most R & D ventures in education can boast.
This essay, which first appeared on Marc’s blog at the National Center on Education and the Economy, illumines the problems addressed by The Moonshot for Kids project, a joint initiative of the Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress.
Many years ago, in 1971, I was asked to join the White House unit set up to plan for the establishment of the National Institute of Education (NIE), a new federal agency to be exclusively focused on education research. Since then, the people of the United States have spent tens of billions of dollars on education research in today’s dollars.
When NIE was established, the aim was explicit: To have an agency that would do for education what the National Institutes of Health were doing for medicine, to make scientific discoveries that would lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement. But there have been no advances in the achievement of our high school students at all…in fifty years. Is it possible that our researchers have been looking in the wrong place with the wrong methods?
When NIE was founded, it was easy to take U.S. dominance in education for granted, and therefore to assume that we would find the world’s best policies and practices at home. After all, whereas we had a mass system of elementary education, secondary education and even post-secondary education, most of the world’s adults were illiterate, few were in secondary school and college was only for the world’s elites. The rest of the world was coming to the United States to figure out how to build effective education systems.
We were still resting on our laurels when NIE was founded in 1972. In the following year, the teachers college in Singapore, founded when that little country was still part of the Malaysian federation, became the Institute of Education, later to become Singapore’s National Institute of Education. Only a dozen years earlier, Singapore had been on its knees. The Malaysians had thrown them out of their federation, the English had closed down their big naval base, the economy was in tatters and various ethnic groups were fighting each other in the streets. Most Singaporeans were illiterate. There were fewer than 1,000 university graduates in the whole country.
Things are different today. Singapore has one of the most highly educated workforces in the world and is home to one of the world’s highest standards of living and most successful economies. Singapore’s students graduate, on average, with the equivalent of at least two and a half years more education than ours, even though they are in school the same number of years. They score at the top of the global charts. Our students score right in the middle of a distribution of about seventy countries.
What Americans do not seem to grasp is the fact that the world is not illiterate any more. Country after country has been able to match us in producing students who leave school with what we call the basic skills, countries whose adults charge much less than our workers with the same skills. Not only have many formerly illiterate countries caught up with us on basic skills, but a whole host of other countries have zoomed right by us, like Singapore. Not satisfied with catching up with us on basic skills, they, like Singapore, are far exceeding us on advanced skills.
None of this is news to alert Americans who try to keep up. These facts are well known. People now yawn when I trot them out once again. There is something weird, almost surreal, about this observation. What I’ve just said is that many Americans realize that other nations are greatly outperforming us in education and most know that this could have disastrous effects on our national economy, on our children’s prospects and even on the stability of our political institutions, but are doing nothing about it.
There are lots of reasons for this. I want in this blog to focus on only one of them. That is the way our education research community thinks about the way in which education research contributes to gains in student achievement.
This is a story that reminds me of the old joke about the drunk and the light. The drunk’s friend sees him circling the streetlight and asks what he’s doing. The drunk says that he’s looking for his car keys, which he just dropped. The friend asks whether he dropped them near his car. The drunk says yes. But, says the friend, you are not looking near your car. You are looking over here. Yup, says the drunk. That’s where the light is.
I told you that other nations have high-performance education systems that greatly outdistance ours. If you want to know how to match the performance of a first-class skier, mechanic, chess player, actor, investment bank or university, go and study a first-class skier, mechanic, chess player, actor, bank or university. Why on earth would you spend good money studying a skier, mechanic or chess player that was once great, but is now middle of the pack?
You object. You say that we have highly acclaimed researchers on say, reading, school finance, teacher professional development and school leadership right here in the United States. What difference does it make if they choose to do their research here, rather than, say in Singapore, or Finland or Shanghai or British Columbia? In fact, you say, we know that those places have different systems, different values and different cultures than ours. So, how do we know that anything that our researchers find works there would work here? If we do the research here and it reveals something that works, then we don’t have to wonder whether it will work here…period, end of argument. Right?
Well no, that is not the end of the argument. It is only the beginning. The fact that these are different systems is not a reason to ignore them, but to focus our attention on them.
It turns out that the top-performing systems are top performing mainly because they have better designed systems, the parts and pieces of which are working in harmony with each other. When they change any part of their system, they look first to make sure that the new piece will work as well or better with the other parts and pieces than the part that is being replaced with the new policy or practice. We almost never do that.
This is very abstract. Let me give you an example. When the federal government virtually mandated that states implement the Common Core State Standards, what happened almost everywhere was that teachers were held accountable for the performance of their students against the new standards. But, almost everywhere, student achievement was measured by the same cheap, multiple choice tests it had always been measured by, tests that had nothing to do with the Common Core and, in fact, violated the spirit of the Common Core. Teachers either had to use textbooks issued before the Common Core was written or textbooks that had a gold seal that said they were aligned with the Common Core but were not. Teachers knew that actually teaching to the Common Core would require a new curriculum but were given no time or other resources to create one. When confronted by his own staff with the risks this approach entailed, Secretary Arne Duncan, by his own admission, told them to go ahead anyway, because the only alternative was doing nothing, since there was no guarantee that future Secretaries of Education would follow in his footsteps. He was certainly right about future Secretaries of Education, but no top-performing country would have dreamed of designing or implementing a major reform this way.
The problem of avoiding a systems-level view runs deep. It is rooted in our shared conception of the best way to improve student performance. That conception is based on the way we do education research and evaluation. The idea is borrowed from clinical medicine, the way we do medical research: Identify a disease or condition, identify possible treatments and then conduct controlled experiments to measure the effects of the treatment on the condition or disease, having controlled for all the other possible factors that might have produced the observed effects. But the adoption of the clinical medicine model has proven to be a terrible handicap.
“What’s wrong with it?” you ask. “It has produced enormous improvements in the health sector, why not in education?” Because there is an enormous difference between education and health. In the case of human health, the design of the system is a given. It is the design of a human being. The purpose of medical research is not to design a better human being. It is to address disorders within that system. So, it makes sense to isolate specific disorders and isolate treatments of those disorders and look for treatments that will reliably address the disorders under stated conditions.
In the case of education, the issue is the design of the system. NCEE’s research on education systems all over the world makes this abundantly clear. There is very little magic in the “treatments.” Everyone knows, for example, that students will perform better if they come to school ready for the curriculum the school offers, if that curriculum is set to high standards and taught by highly-qualified teachers who have high expectations for their students. Those points are not in dispute. The question, rarely asked in the United States, is how to design and implement well-constructed, highly-integrated systems that run that way, reliably, for all students.
We are just like the drunk looking for the keys under the streetlight. We are looking in the convenient place, which happens to be the wrong place. What’s worse is we may be looking for the wrong thing to begin with. We look for silver bullet solutions, using a research paradigm that was brilliantly designed to produce information about the effectiveness of silver bullet solutions, but we fail to realize that what we are doing is finding out which silver bullets will produce marginally better results in a highly dysfunctional system, a system that was designed more than a century ago for a very different world. Those silver bullets may or may not work in a more functional system. We’ll never know because we would find out only if we had a better functioning system.
What we should be doing is researching high-performance systems in countries, states and provinces the size of American states, so we can learn what we need to learn to build and run high-performance systems that are as good as the world’s best. But the American education research establishment, caught up in a model of education research that is highly inappropriate, has exhibited no interest in doing that.
Why? Because the social structure of the American education research establishment rewards people who have developed a high level of technical mastery of the methods that the establishment has blessed and validated and because policymakers are socialized to act on the findings from that kind of research. After decades and billions of dollars of expenditure, the education research establishment, by and large, does not know how to reliably identify the factors that account for success in large-scale education systems. That’s where the keys are. So, it walks over to the kinds of problems it does know how to address. That’s where the streetlight is.
I am not making an argument for reducing the amount spent on education research or eliminating studies of domestic initiatives. I am making an argument for redirecting how that money is spent. Guess what? When we look at how the top performers got to be so good, without exception, they tell us that they carefully studied the global leaders. Maybe they were on to something. After all, they found the keys, didn’t they?
As with most education issues, the research on private school choice is a mixed bag. Some studies indicate positive effects, while others suggest neutral or negative effects. What the vast majority of studies have in common is a focus on short-term outcomes—mostly student test scores. But thehas published several reports over the last few years—three of which they recently updated—that examine longer-term outcomes, such as college enrollment and graduation. These studies are a critical addition to the canon of private school choice research, as people with stronger post-secondary attainment levels are likely to lead healthier lives, earn more income, and avoid the welfare and criminal justice systems.
One evaluation focused on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program (FTC), which began providing scholarships to low-income students during the 2002–03 school year. To study FTC’s impact on college enrollment and graduation, researchers used data from the Florida Department of Education that were linked to records from Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that administers FTC, and the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that collects data on post-secondary enrollments and outcomes. Analysts studied the outcomes of just over 16,000 FTC participants who took standardized reading and math tests in a Florida public school, then participated in FTC the following year. Each of these students was matched to five nonparticipating students enrolled in the same baseline school, grade, and year, and with similar characteristics such as test scores, race, and free lunch participation.
Results indicate that students participating in FTC during elementary and middle schools are 6 percentage points more likely to enroll full time in a two- or four-year college. Those who participated in FTC for the first time in high school were a whopping 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than their non-FTC peers. Results also found modest but positive estimated impacts on bachelor’s degree attainment: Students who entered FTC in elementary or middle school showed an increase in completion of 1 percentage point, while those entering in high school showed an increase of 2 percentage points. The estimated impact on enrollment and degree attainment tended to increase based on the number of years students participated in FTC.
Another evaluation looked at the Milwaukee Parental Choice program (MPCP), which was created in 1990 and has grown to serve nearly 29,000 students in 2018–19. For this report, the dataset included a sample of 1,926 MPCP students in grades three through eight, as well as 801 ninth graders, for a total of 2,727 students. Each MPCP student was matched to a similar student enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in 2006 based on grade level, neighborhood, initial test scores, and demographic variables. Data on college enrollment and graduation came from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Findings indicate that ninth grade students enrolled in MPCP and MPS attended two-year colleges at nearly equal rates, but MPCP students were significantly likelier to enroll in a four-year university. Estimated graduation rates for two- and four-year institutions were about the same for both groups. Students enrolled in MPCP in 2006 in grades three through eight, meanwhile, were 5 percentage points more likely to enroll in any type of college by 2018. In terms of completion, only 3 percent of students from both MPCP and MPS graduated from a two-year college by 2018. At four-year colleges, however, MPCP students graduated at a rate 3 percentage points higher than their public school peers—a statistically significant difference.
The third evaluation looked at Washington, D.C.,’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP)—the nation’s only federally funded voucher program. Available to D.C. residents who attend participating private schools, it has enrolled 1,000–2,000 students annually since its creation in 2004. Researchers used a different methodology than what was employed for the Florida and Milwaukee studies, and examined the college enrollment patterns of participants in OSP’s first two lotteries. They worked with OSP’s current administrator, Serving Our Children, to reconstruct baseline files from the original lottery applications of 1,776 students who applied for a scholarship in 2004 or 2005 and are now old enough to have enrolled in college. Their resulting estimates are referred to as “intent to treat,” since they measure the effect of being offered a scholarship.
The resulting estimates, none of which were “statistically distinguishable” from zero, show that students who were offered a scholarship were somewhat less likely to enroll in college within two years of expected graduation from high school. The pattern holds for two- and four-year colleges, and for four-year public and private colleges.
Overall, the findings are encouraging. Students who participated in private school choice programs in Florida and Milwaukee were more likely to enroll in and graduate from college than their public school peers. Results from Washington, D.C., however, show few differences in college enrollment between students who won and lost the voucher lottery, though the small sample sizes make the results less precise.
Still, two things should be kept in mind. First, even with the positive impact of private school choice, low-income students in the studied areas and nationally still have discouragingly low college-completion rates. Second, while studying long-term outcomes is valuable, the results are from students who participated in these programs many years ago—and all three of these programs have changed significantly since then. This makes it exceedingly difficult to draw conclusions about what is or isn’t currently working.
SOURCE: Matthew M. Chingos, Daniel Kuehn, Tomas Monarrez, Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte, Brian Kisida, “,” The Urban Institute (July 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss whether we should change the conjunction in “college and career readiness” to “or.” On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how teachers and principals view social and emotional learning.
Amber’s Research Minute
Laura S. Hamilton et al., “Teacher and Principal Perspectives on Social and Emotional Learning in America's Schools: Findings from the American Educator Panels,” RAND Corporation (July 2019).