Monday, May 18, 2009

But Does School Choice Work?

As Vercingetorix recently pointed out, there exists a video that makes Obama look really bad on the issue of school choice. I, for one, support the DC voucher program, mostly because I'm in the "try something different, see what works" camp. The video, however, has its problems, to say the least.
First, it portrays Obama as the leading force behind ending the program. As in "working with congressional Democrats, Obama has effectively killed the program." Let's be clear that it's the congressional Democrats who have been leading the charge to end it. Obama actually pushed through a compromise that allows students currently in the program to graduate. Maybe he's not forceful enough in his support, but let's not pretend he's the evil bogeyman actively trying to destroy little kids' lives.

Second, in fine Michael Moore fashion, Reason.TV — in lieu of honest statistical analysis — throws around nice sounding numbers as if they somehow prove their point. The video claims that students gained "19 months advancement in reading" from joining the program. Actually, it was 3.7 months. The "19 months" was for one particular subgroup. The folks at Reason looked at all the data, picked the subgroup that did best and said, "Look — it works!" As Michael Moore has proved, one can "prove" anything by looking at a giant chart of numbers and picking out the biggest.

If you actually read the Department of Education's analysis of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, you'll find there was a slight, but (apparently) statistically significant improvement in reading scores for participants, but no corresponding improvement for math, safety (except as "perceived" by parents), or satisfaction. Weighed against loss of funds for public schools and using tax dollars for religious institutions (liberals' complaints), it's hardly a slam-dunk winner. But, sure, if I were king I'd let it run longer so we can gather more evidence before shutting it down.

The "argument for school choice is pretty basic," claims the narrator. Choice forces competition and therefore better services. It sounds nice. And it might be true. But so far the empirical evidence for this proposition is pretty thin.

This issue of school choice was dealt with pretty well in Freakonomics, and there's a recent follow-up. The authors compare students who wanted to change with those who did change schools and found that the "wanting" makes all the difference, not the school they end up in. To be fair, the Chicago lottery system they examined is not quite the same as the DC voucher program. But it's hardly a done deal that "school choice" works as the video would have you believe.

A recent article in The Economist catalogs the failures of school choice in Britain. Again, this doesn't mean it doesn't work in any fashion and shouldn't be tried, but let's not pretend for a second that it's proven to work. Reason.TV faults Obama for promising to support programs that "work" and then "failing to live up to his rhetoric." Sorry, fellas, but first you have to convince us that it actually does "work."

The good thing about videos like this is that it reminds the Michael Moore fans out there how easy it is to make a tear-jerking video that cherry-picks statistics to make a convincing emotional argument against a particular policy.

The Democrats' crime on education is that they're beholden to teachers' unions whose knee-jerk reaction is to smother any attempt at reform (to be clear: love the teachers; hate the union). In this respect, best wishes to new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as he takes on the "blob."

1 comment:

Phutatorius said...

[This space reserved for Vercingetorix's response, once TigerHawk has written on the subject.]

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