If the question is, "How do we give parents greater flexibility in selecting schools for their children?" there's one clear answer: School Choice. But if the question is, "How can we improve the quality of education in America?" we probably need to look elsewhere. School choice doesn't seem to lead to increased school achievement, based on nearly every credible study.
Here's a new study about school choice in Louisiana
. A few years back, the state instituted a lottery to decide which students get vouchers to attend private schools. That's a golden opportunity for an educational researcher ever there was one. You have a significant number of students who receive vouchers to attend private schools, and you have the same number in a nearly perfect control group: students whose parents wanted them to get the vouchers for their children but lost out in a random lottery. Here's what happened, according to a study by three economists.
In 2014 12,000 students from low-income families applied for more than 6,000 vouchers to attend 126 private schools. . . . The three economists found that those who received vouchers and moved to private schools had worse test scores in maths, reading, science and social studies than those who missed out.
The study is far from conclusive. It only covers a one year period, and all kinds of other factors could have contributed to the voucher students' lower test scores. But this is only one of a string of similar studies which have been conducted in recent years.
Washington, D.C., has a significant voucher program, courtesy of the Republican-majority Congress which makes the rules for the city. Conservatives have studied the academic impact of vouchers in D.C. and haven't been able to point to a significant difference in achievement between voucher and non-voucher students. One analysis of the data was so desperate to find something positive to say about the vouchers that it praised the fact that parents of voucher students felt their children were safer at the private schools than in the public schools they left. The students, by the way, saw no difference.
The results were similar in an in-depth study of the effect of vouchers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where vouchers have been in force for over twenty years. Try as they might, a group of conservative researchers couldn't find a significant difference between the achievement of voucher students and similar students in public schools. They went over the data a second time and discovered that the high school graduation rate was higher among the voucher students, which they used as evidence that vouchers work. That's not nothing, but it doesn't say the private school students got a better education. It only says that something about the private schools made students stick it out to the end.
Charter schools, the other leg of the school choice movement, have shown mixed results in studies comparing their students to similar students in schools run by school districts. Sometimes in some places they're up, sometimes in other places they're down, but in the end, it's pretty much a wash.
So, is there anything that looks like a reasonable answer to the question, "How can we improve the quality of education in America?" In fact, there is, but it has less to do with classrooms and schools than society in general. Every indicator in every reasonable study around the world points to the fact that students' achievement improves as their economic status and their parents' educational level rises. If we spent more money and effort working to lessen the negative effects of poverty on children and their parents, if we removed some of the stressors on children raised in poverty which make it so hard for them to learn in school, we would see improvement in student achievement even if we didn't change a thing about their schools. If at the same time we invested more in our schools and our teachers, the improvement would be even greater.
In one of those studies of identical twins where researchers look at people with identical genetic makeup growing up in different circumstances, the conclusion was, the difference between one twin growing up in poverty raised by parents with little education and another raised by higher income parents with more education can be as much as 14 I.Q. points. Forget that old myth that I.Q. scores represent innate abilities. That was long ago proven false. However, the correlation between I.Q. scores and student achievement, while not absolute, is very strong. So if you have two genetically identical children and the one raised in poverty gets an I.Q. score of 98 while the other raised in middle class or better circumstances gets a score of 112, it's likely the difference in the achievement between those two genetically identical children in school will be dramatic. School choice programs don't even come close to those kinds of results.