Article On School Choice Ignores Key Evidence


University of Kansas Professor Yong Zhao has jumped into the school choice debate together with his recent essay in the Phi Delta Kappan. Welcome, Dr. Zhao.

Zhao makes several important claims about private school choice. He says that researchers who're proponents of school choice exaggerate the positive tilt from the findings. He claims that the debate over the achievement effects of school choice has largely ignored substantial variation in those effects across student subgroups. Finally, he concludes that we know almost nothing about the effects that school choice has on civic outcomes but should expect those effects to become negative.

School choice is new academic territory for Zhao, a Distinguished Professor who specializes in education technology and virtual learning. Permit me to provide him some friendly advice from someone who has studied the topic for more than 20 years.

First, don't call someone names. Zhao labels school choice researchers as either “proponents” (a.k.a., “advocates”) or “independent researchers.” He doesn't inform us how he arrived at those determinations, but two possibilities immediately spring to mind. A scholar may well be a school choice “proponent” if their intention would be to promote choice and an “independent researcher” if their intention would be to arrive at the truth about choice. To judge accurately who's which, Zhao would need to possess the ability to look within the hearts of his fellow people and for that reason observe their intentions. He would have to possess the God-like ability of comedian Woody Allen's character in the movie Annie Hall, who said:

Human beings in general, and social scientists particularly, are terrible at judging other's intentions. We're best classifying school choice researchers in line with the rigor of their methods, not really a feigned ability to be aware of deepest desires of the hearts.

Zhao might, instead, be classifying school choice scholars as “proponents” or “independent researchers” based on the nature from the findings that we report. It appears that, in Zhao's view, a college choice “proponent” is any scholar who reports that a school choice program has results on student achievement. In contrast, an “independent researcher” is any analyst who agrees with Zhao that school choice is bad. Zhao's claim that school choice “proponents” report “more significant positive effects than independent researchers” (p. 64) thus reduces to some tautology. Proponents report more positive effects because reporting more positive effects means they are proponents. A better method for Zhao yet others would be to forgo the arbitrary and unscientific labels he foists around the researchers and concentrate, instead, around the quality and findings of the research itself.

Second, get your facts right. Zhao criticizes the body of research around the achievement effects of school option for focusing “only around the average effect of faculty choice around the students who see it.” Really? Few education interventions have been evaluated with greater focus on their possibly varied effects on different subgroups than has private school choice. The first study published about a school voucher enter in the U.S. examined differences in the achievement results of this program across student subgroups. Nearly every certainly one of more than two dozen major private school choice evaluations within the subsequent 21 years has examined the extent that voucher achievement effects vary by student characteristics. The main focus from the three-city evaluation that informed William Howell and Paul Peterson's seminal book The Education Gap: Vouchers and concrete Schools (see “Vouchers in Ny, Dayton, and D.C.,” research, Summer 2001) was the discovering that Black students experienced larger and more consistent achievement effects from soccer practice choice than students of other ethnicities. It's possible to easily find additional peer-reviewed publications of the possible heterogeneous results of vouchers in New York City here, here, here, and here; in Washington, DC here, and here; in Milwaukee, here and here; in Indiana here and another one under review; and in Louisiana here and here. Contrary to Zhao's claim, examining possible variation in voucher achievement effects has been an obsession of faculty choice researchers, not really a blind spot. Who and does not benefit academically from school vouchers has been central towards the debate.

There is a scientific method for determining when the results of an intervention vary across subgroups that Zhao seems not to use. Zhao claims that voucher programs have heterogeneous achievement effects when the impacts are positive and statistically significant for many subgroups but not statistically different from 0 (i.e. null) for other subgroups. He makes the same claim regarding voucher effects that are null for many subgroups but statistically significantly negative for other subgroups. Zhao is making much of nominal differences in the pattern of voucher achievement effects which may be due to statistical noise endemic towards the small subgroup samples in most of those studies. A program has a single, general impact on participants unless its effects on different subgroups are, themselves, significantly different from one another based on statistical tests. The only statistically valid heterogeneous pattern to date uncovered inside a study of the achievement effects of school vouchers may be the positive and statistically important effect from the private school choice program in New York City on African American students, which itself was significantly not the same as the program's null impact on non-African American students. School choice scientific study has uncovered few scientifically valid variations in the impacts of school choice on achievement for various subgroups of students, though not for insufficient trying.

Third, know the subject which you speak. Zhao concludes his essay with the declare that, “Little, if any, empirical evidence has been collected concerning other essential outcomes of schooling, such as preparing students for civic engagement and betterment of a shared society.” Actually, there's a deep and broad research literature on the mostly results of school choice in general and schooling in particular on civic values for example political tolerance, volunteering in one's community, political knowledge, political engagement, social capital, and patriotism. I co-edited a book, Educating Citizens, on the subject in 2005. Rigorous studies demonstrating the positive private school effects on enhancing civic values are available here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, okay you receive the picture. A lot of studies of the relationship exist-when Zhao claims you will find “little, if any”-that comprehensive peer-reviewed summaries from the evidence have been published in these pages (see “Civics Exam,” research, Summer 2007) and elsewhere.

The evidence supporting the non-public school advantage in promoting civic values is really compelling that one would think it would be a settled matter by now. So long as doubters like Professor Zhao still ignore the wealth of published evidence on the contrary, empirical research on school choice and civic values will continue. Many commentators, however, insist on trusting their ideological preferences on the matter of school choice and civic values rather than their lying eyes. I would say that “proponents” of the public school advantage in promoting civic values present a different picture “than independent researchers”, however i tend not to call people names.

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