Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Free to Choose

Today's New York Times features a bizarre op-ed by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that describes its scholars as "committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise."

Murray summarizes the results of head-to-head comparison of standardized-test performance for students in public and charter schools. The charter-school students, he admits, "generally had 'achievement growth rates that are comparable' to similar Milwaukee public-school students. This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away."

"So let's not try to explain them away," Murray says.

This makes good sense. This kind of experiment has been done many times, as described by Diane Ravitch in her thought-provoking 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The results are clear in their lack of clarity: some charter schools are excellent, others are terrible. The data don't support the vision that non-public schools are automatically superior, although some no doubt are. In addition, the data show no indication that public schools faced with competition respond by cleaning up their act, another frequent argument for school choice.

So do these conclusions shake the confidence of a school-choice advocate like Murray? Hardly: "Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?" he says.

Murray is correct, of course, that tests scores have serious flaws. Ravitch, who admits that she was once a strong proponent of both choice and testing, spends much of her book describing the problems with standardized tests. Especially troublesome are the tests that states devise to show that they are meeting the goals of the "No Child Left Behind" act. Ravitch laments both the limited range of skills being tested--essentially basic math and reading--as well as the distortions that inevitably occur when tools meant to monitor progress start to be used to enforce it.

Ravitch forcefully argues that school improvement is a hard slog, not achieved by silver bullets like charter schools or by extensive data collection like that promoted by the Obama administration's "Race to the Top." Instead of statistical analyses modeled on business practices, she advocates a rigorous (voluntary) national curriculum and on-the-ground assessments by professional educators, not business managers.

Murray acknowledges the failures of previous silver bullets: "whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype." But he concludes is that the problem lies with testing, and that choice is still a social good, because it allows parents to choose schools whose teaching styles the parents find appropriate.

It will be interesting to see whether Murray's fellow school-choice advocates follow his recommendation to admit that there is no measurable benefit of charter schools, but policy should support them anyway on ideological grounds. Somehow I doubt it.