By Michael J. Petrilli
Congratulations on your new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. It’s fantastic, and should be read widely by wonks and teachers, young and old, and everyone in between. Its major themes are spot-on: That we in reform need to be more respectful (of reformers who came before us, of the critical role that parents play, and of teachers in the field) and more humble (about what we don’t know, what our reforms might reasonably accomplish, or how they might backfire). I especially appreciate your twenty-five-year-long crusade against hitting schools with one damn reform after another, which breeds cynicism, induces burnout, and ultimately doesn’t work.
So I’m with you on 98 percent of what’s in the book. But I see a blind spot. And it’s a surprising one for you, what with your own considerable prowess as a political scientist, and your previous body of work: Politics. At times you come close to denigrating the people who are doing the work of political advocacy on the reform side. Yet, as I think you would acknowledge, their labors are essential, too.
What’s missing, in particular, is any discussion of the efforts of the teachers unions and their allies to maintain the status quo. I found two passing references to teachers unions—one factual, and one sympathetic. Really? That’s it?!?
You take pains in the book not to embrace any particular big-R Reform, but you’re also honest in Chapter 13 about your interest in charter schools as means to “create room to innovate, problem-solve, and build. They can empower educators and families to create and choose better schools.”
Yet, as everyone knows, charters are under relentless attack in most state capitals, with traditional education groups working to eliminate them outright, stop their growth, or kill them with a thousand cuts. Seeing this, charter schools and their friends in “Big Philanthropy” have invested in charter school associations and broader education reform advocates to fight to keep the world safe for chartering.
These organizations, staffed by many of the young reformers who are the primary audience for your book, spend their days in the trenches of political warfare. And in that world, the nuanced and reasoned debate beloved by those of us in the think tank stratosphere just doesn’t cut it. Taking a position and sticking with it, rebuffing other arguments, using evidence as a weapon, testing messages in order to move public opinion—all of this is the coin of the realm. Those are coins that need to be in young reformers’ pockets. And like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, we want these people on that wall, in this case protecting the “room to innovate” that you and I both see as so important.
I worry, then, that you throw too much shade at these advocacy groups. In the preface you say you wrote your book in part for “advocates who wonder why their sensible ideas encounter fierce resistance.” But you don’t acknowledge that much of that resistance is from unions and other groups protecting jobs, money, and power! You later deride “this or that group of reformers” for settling “on an agenda and then dismiss doubters as troublemakers.” If we researchers and pundits are causing them trouble in state legislatures, giving ammunition to the other side, they are right to be frustrated! You ridicule efforts to develop a stronger communications “message,” arguing that reformers should spend more time designing smart policies than selling dumb ones. But you downplay plenty of evidence that, in a politicized, polarized arena, substance alone rarely wins the day.
Yes, this causes major tensions within the ed reform universe. I know this personally, since the Fordham Institute tries to be both a think tank at the national level and a research and advocacy organization in Ohio. This is not easy. I’ve had to learn from painful experience that my own spouting-offs can make it harder on my Buckeye State colleagues when they are fighting for the Big-R reforms that provide space for little-R Reforms to flourish. As you wisely say about other areas of tension and trade-offs, all we can do is manage it the best we can.
This doesn’t mean we should give reform advocates a pass when they push for ill-guided policies. You are right to criticize efforts like top-down teacher evaluation mandates that were practically guaranteed to backfire once they hit the real world. You are absolutely correct that too many of our friends who toil in the fields of politics and advocacy are too quick to dismiss the legitimate concerns of educators, and too slow to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before them. You give good counsel when urging them to worry about whether their beloved reforms can be implemented effectively—otherwise they shouldn’t be pushing them.
What I’m calling for is a greater appreciation of the pressures these advocates face, and of their important role in the ed reform ecosystem. So to your letters to young reformers, Rick, please consider adding this postscript: If you work in an education advocacy organization and have a legislative agenda to push, set this book aside until the session is over. Pick it up again this summer, give it a “close read,” and think hard about what a smarter, more teacher-friendly, more humble legislative agenda would look like next year. In the meantime, go team win!
When I moved from California to Texas at age four, I was reading full books and writing at a first-grade level. After being iced out of one upscale community that wasn’t keen on having a single black mother as a neighbor, my mom moved us into a different district, specifically for its public schools. But when she went to enroll me in kindergarten, she was told that under no circumstances would I be allowed to enter kindergarten as a four-year-old, no matter what grade level I tested into.
School staff recommended I attend preschool for a year to wait it out. My mom did not accept that recommendation. Instead, she sent me to a nearby private school where I was welcomed into kindergarten with open arms. I excelled, and instead of falling behind a year, I stayed in private school through fourth grade. Then I transferred to public school, where I took part in programs for gifted students. When I graduated from high school at seventeen and went on to the Ivy League, it looked like the public education system had served me well, but the real reason I made it was the commitment of my mother.
Earlier this year, Vanderbilt University researchers published a study showing that even with the same test scores, black students are offered entry into talented and gifted programs far less often than their white peers. When a friend of mine who works in higher education posted the study on her social media feed, I was reminded of my own story, and how my mom’s advocacy landed me first in private school, then in the talented and gifted program in public school years later. I shared my story in the comments section, and scrolled through the comments her other friends made. It was all there—a self-selecting group of high-achieving people of color, all with their own stories of being pushed under by the education system, and only making it out because of the advocacy of their parents.
The stories were so similar, and so relevant, that I decided to collect them. All of them share the similar experience of having their intellect questioned by the educators who were supposed to guide them. These stories, told in each person’s own words and lightly edited for style, span the country geographically and are not limited to black students. But the majority are black. Most graduated from Ivy League schools.
Brandon. I remember when my mom had to move me from a school in Manhattan to a school in Brooklyn at the start of the second grade. The first school was an extremely high performing school. At the second school, upon registering me, they placed me in a low-level class for developmental students. After about two weeks, my mom noticed me coming home finishing homework in a breeze and complaining about the class. When she realized what kind of class I had been put in, she marched up to the school and demanded answers and that I be tested for the magnet program. At this time my mom was pretty young, and I guess the assistant principal thought he could bully her around. He insisted she had no idea what she was talking about and assured her I was tested when I was registered. It wasn’t until she dropped that she was a teacher, knew the system, and would be contacting folks from the district that his face dropped. He brought out the principal to fix the situation, and I was placed in the magnet class. As others have said, I can only imagine where I would be now if my mother hadn’t been aware, knowledgeable, and willing to intervene.
C’ardiss. I was in advanced classes in elementary school, but because I changed schools often, it didn’t always carry over. In high school, teachers wanted me to go into the Advanced Placement track, but I didn’t want to leave my friends, so I said no. And that was the end of it. Why was there no follow-up or anything with my family? I may have been able to get to Yale at eighteen instead of twenty-eight.
Denise. After years of more than qualifying for gifted and talented and getting some B.S. excuse about how they “weren’t quite sure I was ready socially,” my mom got fed up and switched me to a new school that saw my grades and scores and welcomed me, no problem.
Hanae. Similarly, I got kicked out of honors English (despite having straight A’s the year before) because it didn’t “seem like” I spoke English as my first language… It’s my only language.
Jarrell. I was put on a bad behavior program in elementary school for talking in class after I’d finished my work. But for my mom and one black vice principal that was willing to risk her reputation on me, I would have been put on the “problem student” track instead of moving to the “gifted student” track. I even had my (white) third grade teacher write a letter of formal protest against the decision to allow me to take the test and move to the “gifted and talented” school. Almost every day I think about how my life would be radically different but for two black women who were willing to fight the world for me. And then it’s even crazier that almost every black kid I know who has been able to access elite programs has a very similar story.
Jesse. I was in a gifted program in school, as well, but the irony was that the gifted program was really where students my age should be in their education, and the standard program was always behind. This was a majority black school district.
Pamela. I was told that my son failed the kindergarten test. I told them to give him another test for higher grades. They did, and he scored at the third-grade level. By second grade, he scored in the ninety-eighth percentile nationally, which translated to seventh grade math. You have to advocate for sure.
These examples are from the lucky ones, people of color whose parents had the resources and confidence to advocate on their behalf. Despite these advantages, they still found themselves navigating an education system that did not and does not value them equally.
Parent savvy should not be a prerequisite for kids to have their needs met in the education system. Until these disparities are remedied, this country will hemorrhage vital human capital, especially as demographics continue to shift and the majority of school children are not white.
Our mosaic of a country desperately needs diversity in our C-suites, in production companies, and in state houses and Congress, so we have to make sure all our students have access to what they need in school. Unfortunately, it remains largely up to parents to make sure educators stay on their toes. Parents, especially black parents, must make educators aware that, if their children’s needs are not being met, they will advocate for the education they deserve.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared on courtneymckinney.com.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
NOTE: This piece originally appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer in a slightly different form.
A recent Cincinnati Enquirer editorial by contributor Sarah Stitzlein sharply criticized Ohio’s current private-school scholarship programs and savaged Senate Bill 85, which would expand them. The recently introduced bill would open choice opportunities to working-class families by offering them partial tuition scholarships (aka vouchers) while continuing to offer full scholarships for pupils from low-income families.
Sadly, voucher critics distort private school choice and mislead the public as to why it’s worthwhile and how it works. They also distort or overlook key elements of the relevant research and make questionable claims about private schools.
Why vouchers? It’s no secret that wealthier parents enjoy a greater choice of schools for their children. They can afford to purchase homes in high-status suburban districts or cover the costs of private school education.
Yet few low- and middle-income families have similar opportunities. They typically send their kids to a public school that is assigned to them based on residential address. Many times, this works out fine. But when it doesn’t, students with limited means are stuck in schools that don’t meet their educational needs.
School choice, including private-school scholarships, opens opportunities and levels the playing field for less-privileged families. In Ohio, more than 35,000 youngsters already use publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools of their choosing. The overwhelming majority come from low-income and/or minority households or have a special need such as autism.
Skeptics contend that this accomplishes nothing because private schools don’t perform as well as public schools. In terms of academic outcomes, however, most studies across the nation have uncovered positive results for scholarship recipients. The Friedman Foundation’s literature review informs us that 14 of 18 “gold standard” experimental studies found that private-school scholarships had positive effects.
In recent months, choice objectors have ignored those decades of research and pointed to two studies – one from Louisiana, the other from Ohio – indicating that voucher students underperform their public school counterparts. (The Ohio study was commissioned by my organization.)
Disappointing as they were to choice boosters, everyone should recognize that both studies have important limitations. In Louisiana, the results were based on just the first two years of the statewide voucher program, too soon to gauge its longer term impact. Though rigorous in method, the Ohio research was limited in scope. Lead author David Figlio, a first-rate researcher from Northwestern University, was able to analyze only the test-score trajectories of voucher recipients who left relatively functional public schools – akin to D-rated schools. Due to methodological concerns, he could not examine students from F-rated schools. Those students – who arguably had the greatest need for vouchers – may have made significant progress (or may not have), but there was no statistically reliable way of studying their outcomes.
Importantly, Figlio also found positive competitive effects—the introduction of vouchers modestly improved public school performance. Critics routinely omit this finding as it undermines their frequent assertion that vouchers damage public schools.
Skeptics also assert that voucher programs are harmful to school integration efforts. Research has found little to support their claim: A 2010 study from Milwaukee finds that vouchers had a neutral impact on racial integration. And a more recent analysis from Louisiana found that voucher transfers reduced segregation in public schools and had no effect on the receiving private schools.
Keep in mind also that African-American leaders such as Howard Fuller and Polly Williams ignited the voucher movement almost 30 years ago in Milwaukee. Their goal was to give more low-income, minority students access to high-quality schools, regardless of who operated them. Figlio’s Ohio research found that more than three in five EdChoice voucher students are African-American or Hispanic. While diverse schools are desirable for several reasons, we ought not to stand in the way of minority families who want a good education for their children with or without integration.
Finally, critics claim that private schools may, in Stitzlein’s words, “teach undemocratic values.” Yet analyses by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf show that students attending private schools are more civically minded than public school pupils. Based on his review of 21 empirical studies, Wolf concludes: “The statistical record suggests that private schooling and school choice often enhance the realization of the civic values.” It seems likely that private schools’ moral direction, disciplinary practices, and academic expectations help to instill stronger civic values.
District schools may well continue to educate the majority of students, even in choice-rich areas. It’s the arrangement most of us know best – including myself, a public school graduate. Yet familiarity and tradition are no substitutes for what is just and right. With or without choice, prosperous families will continue to purchase their way into high performing school districts, or pony up for private tuitions. But without choice programs, such as vouchers, working class families won’t have those same opportunities. That’s an injustice – and one that choice initiatives strive to solve.
On this week's podcast, special guest Matt Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss what recent voucher studies mean for the current evidence base on school choice. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines lessons from Massachusetts about whether states can take over and effectively turn around school districts.
Amber’s Research Minute
Beth E. Schueler et al., “Can states take over and turn around school districts? Evidence from Lawrence, Massachusetts,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (January 2017).
A new report examines whether the effect of a teacher’s value added persists over one to two years and across subject areas. In particular, it asks if the impact of an English language arts teacher has any bearing on a student’s math achievement. Prior research has provided some evidence that ELA instructional effects may be generalizable across subjects, given the applicability and transferability of reading and language skills.
Using data from the New York City and Miami-Dade school districts, Benjamin Master and colleagues use student records in grades four through eight, where current and prior year achievement data are available for students. They investigate the persistence of teachers’ value added effects on student achievement in the first and second year after they teach a student, distinguishing between short-term, test-specific knowledge and longer-term, generic knowledge that accumulates. The methods are complex: They attempt to isolate teacher-specific value added that persists both in the same subject and into another subject (either ELA or math), and to isolate this from teacher spillover effects that stem from same-year instructional collaboration with peers—while also estimating how much typical “decay” one might expect of student’s prior long-term knowledge—and also controlling for various student, school, and classroom characteristics.
The results are thankfully easier to follow than the methods. First, most of the previously assessed long term knowledge within the same subject area that students learned in the prior two years persisted into a third year. Second, 26–29 percent of a teachers’ within-subject value added on student learning in New York City persisted into the subsequent school year, with somewhat higher percentages in Miami-Dade. Third, however, ELA teacher effects persisted at a much higher rate for students across both subjects one and two years later. For example, in New York City, the two-year cross-subject ELA persistence rate is approximately 42 percent of the within-subject two-year persistence rate estimate; whereas the comparable figure for a math teachers’ cross-subject persistence rate is less than 1 percent, which is not that surprising, since we don’t expect math learning to contribute to ELA learning.
The authors summarize their study this way: “Learning due to ELA instruction appears to impart long-term knowledge and skills that are reflected not only in short-term ELA scores but also in future test scores in both subject areas.”
They also caution that ELA teachers’ contributions are diffuse and a large portion of their instructional impact in current value-added models may be going undetected or ascribed to other teachers in other subject areas or years. Their solution is to pay more attention to team-level measures of value-added or models that simultaneously account for multiple teachers’ contributions in multiple subjects. We’re all for precision, but talk about making value-added calculations even more complicated and hard for educators—and the rest of us—to understand!
SOURCE: Benjamin Master et al., “More Than Content: The Persistent Cross-Subject Effects of English Language Arts Teachers’ Instruction,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (February 2017).
This study examines the impacts of the most recent iteration of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was first established by Congress in 2003 but was allowed to expire in 2009 before being reauthorized again in 2011.
Overall, the study finds that participating in the program for one year reduced achievement in math and reading by 7.3 and 4.9 percentile points, respectively. However, because the study only includes data from the first year of program participation, these numbers should be interpreted with caution.
Interestingly, for the 68 percent of students in grades K–5, participating in the program reduced achievement in math and reading by 14.7 and 9.3 percentile points, respectively; whereas, for the 32 percent of participants in grades six through twelve, it was associated with statistically insignificant increases of 7.6 and 4.9 percentile points. Across all grades, the program had a little apparent impact on the 71 percent of students applying from low-performing “schools in need of improvement” (SINI), who were given priority in the scholarship lottery. However, for the 29 percent of students enrolled in a non-SINI school, it reduced math and reading achievement by 18.3 and 14.6 percentile points, respectively. Finally, on a slightly more positive note, the study finds that the program had a statistically significant positive impact on parents’ perceptions of school safety. However, it finds no significant effect on parental satisfaction.
The study’s broadly negative findings stand in sharp contrast to the positive results of an earlier study of the first version of the program, which found that the program boosted graduation rates by 21 percentage points after four years, and had a marginally significantly positive impact on reading scores, but no statistically significant impact on math scores. Since both studies used an experimental design that compares winners and losers of the scholarship lottery and included an identical number of private schools (fifty-two) that accounted for a similar fraction of all D.C. private schools (roughly 55 percent), the differences in their results probably aren’t attributable to differences in the sample, the research design, or program participation.
That leaves two plausible explanations: First, the negative results of the latest study may reflect the “transition costs” associated with switching to a new school, which numerous studies have demonstrated can be erased by the second or third year after the switch, assuming the new school is higher performing than the old one. Second, it’s possible that the performance of D.C.’s public schools—including both its district schools and its many charter schools—may have improved between the first study and the second. Indeed, an analysis of NAEP scores in twelve major urban school districts found that Washington, D.C., showed the most improvement between 2005 and 2013, after controlling for student demographics.
Coming as it does on the heels of similar studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio—all of which found negative effects for program participants—the D.C. study has added more fuel to the already fiery debate over private school choice. However, like the Indiana and Louisiana studies, this one is highly preliminary, so it probably makes sense to reserve judgment until more years of data are available.
SOURCE: Mark Dynarski et al., “Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program Impacts After One Year,” Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (April 2017).