Setting the Record Straight on School Choice and Student Performance

November 12, 2013

By Casey Given

Advocates of educational freedom are all too familiar with the accusations. Threatened by the poor public record of America’s government-run education system, opponents of school choice have taken a liking to attacking charters and vouchers as a means of deflecting attention from the tyranny of the status quo. One of their favorite claims that catches the most media attention is that students in school choice programs on average perform just as well or worse than students in traditional, district-run public schools. While measuring academic achievement is a difficult endeavor in education policy, the overall record of school choice indubitably points to the speciousness of this claim.

To the credit of school choice’s opponents, there are numerous charter schools and voucher programs with students who underperform their district school peers on standardized tests. In a country as large and diverse as America, it should come as no surprise that some school choice options underperform – just as many (if not most) public schools do.

However, standardized tests have long been accepted as an imperfect measure of students’ knowledge in the education community. Indeed, it’s hypocritical that many of the education special interests who rightfully critique standardized tests in public schools should suddenly give so much weight to them for choice programs. Nevertheless, the majority of school choice studies have shown students enrolled in charters and vouchers to outperform their district school peers on standardized tests.

Regarding the former, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has regularly conducted a meta-analysis of charter school achievement over the past decade. Their latest report, released in 2009, discovered that 34 of the 49 studies (69%) on charter school math achievement conducted after 2001 found similar or larger gains than district schools. They found a similar result with reading achievement, where 30 of the 45 studies (67%) found similar or larger gains. Considering that the meta-analysis took all studies conducted between 2001 and 2009 into consideration, it can hardly be accused of cherry picking.

Regarding the latter, The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice conducted a meta-analysis of gold standard studies on voucher program performance. To measure the effects of random assignment, these studies followed the academic progress of both students selected for a voucher to attend their private school of choice and students who applied but did not receive such a voucher, remaining in a public school instead. Eleven of the 12 gold standard studies (92%) concluded voucher programs have a positive effect on student learning. Even more interesting, 22 of 23 gold standard studies (96%) that measured the effect of vouchers on public school performance found that the presence of school choice competition has a positive impact on learning in government-run schools as well.

Besides these two powerful aggregates of school choice performance, there are numerous anecdotal cases of charters and vouchers dramatically improving student achievement. New York City’s Success Academy is one of the most well-documented examples of school choice working. Last year alone, the Harlem-based charter collective scored in the top 1% of New York schools in math across the state, 7% for English, and 100% of their students in second through fourth grade passed science. Vouchers in other metropolitan areas like Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. have similarly been shown to increase its students’ chances of graduating high school and enrolling in college – the latter by the U.S. Department of Education itself. Furthermore, one Stanford University study that made waves in the early 2000’s for being critical of charter school performance revised its thesis in an updated edition after tracking great gains over the past decade.

Granted, not all school choice programs are perfect, and those that underperform should be held accountable. But, the record of educational freedom is clear that infusing competition in the educational marketplace leads to student flourishing.

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