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Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet?

November 6th, 2007 · 8 Comments

I’m not sure why Ezra Klein thinks it’s especially significant that studies don’t find obvious academic benefits accruing from D.C.’s voucher program in its first year of operation. Yes, the greater flexibility enjoyed by private actors is one part of the argument for choice, but the real core of the argument is about the market process, not about anything inherently magical about private status. Actually, coming from a status quo in which public school is free and tends to vary in quality with neighborhood property values, I’d expect many preexisting private schools, especially the religious ones, to have been selected for fulfilling the specific goals of parents reluctant to place their kids in a secular system, not for special academic excellence.

Rather, the idea is supposed to be that, while there will be a mix of good and bad schools to start, over time price signals and market pressure will spur the formation of new schools to meet demand, force existing ones to adapt in whatever way attracts parents, and eventually eliminate the ones that fail to deliver the goods. Maybe there are overheated voucher boosters out there promising instant improvements, but there’s relatively little reason to expect a market for education to show its advantages right out of the starting gate. If a broad, well-designed, and generous voucher program shows no advantages a decade in, then obviously that’s more telling—though ceteris paribus I’d think there’s some independent, intrinsic value to parental choice. In any event, I don’t think you get to pat yourself on the back for your rigorous empiricism if you cry “Nothing to see here” after a year of vouchers, then return to insisting that urban public schools that’ve been wretched for a generation will finally turn around, if only we Care Bear–stare hard enough.

Tags: Academia



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ezra // Nov 6, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Sigh. I’ve also posted about the absence of positive results from the multiyear, multimillion dollar systems created in Dayton, Milwaukee, and New York.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Nov 6, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Right, and as I say in the post, those results are, if not yet dispositive, perfectly reasonable to introduce as evidence. First-year results, not so much.

  • 3 Stuart Buck // Nov 6, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Ezra is also cherry-picking a bit. In his post responding to this one, he says, “I’ve posted the conclusions of books, studies, and RAND monographs.” Well, no.

    His previous post did link to the RAND book that reviewed voucher evidence, but only to quote a single paragraph on Pat Wolf’s recent study of the federally funded voucher program in DC. Anyone who reads just a few pages further in that book will be told — precisely contrary to what Ezra says — that “the most compelling evidence available on the achievement effects of vouchers” is a series of randomized experiments from New York, DC, Dayton, and Charlotte showing that black kids improved by “one-third of a standard deviation — fairly large in terms of most educational interventions, equal to about one-third of the average racial gap in achievement in the country.”

  • 4 Stuart Buck // Nov 6, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    To be sure, those positive results are for black kids, and the results of those experiments are more ambiguous if you look at whether all students improved. But to those of us who spend a lot of time worrying about how to remedy the black-white achievement gap, a policy that seems to help primarily black students is ideal. Or at least worth more exploration, experimentation, and expansion.

  • 5 Stuart Buck // Nov 6, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Also, Ezra cites the Krueger/Zhu paper as finding that there were no positive results from the New York vouchers. Here is a persuasive view that Krueger/Zhu were wrong.

  • 6 Randy // Nov 7, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Tell the truth Stuart – you were practicing your Care Bear Stare while posting, weren’t you? I mean, how else to explain Ezra’s disappearing act? It couldn’t be that you had the goods on his slight-of-hand reference to the voluminous RAND study. Unfortunate that someone actually read the damn thing, I guess.

  • 7 Stuart Buck // Nov 7, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Also, Julian, one complication with this:

    If a broad, well-designed, and generous voucher program shows no advantages a decade in, then obviously that’s more telling . . . .

    Not necessarily. Note that there are a few studies indicating that vouchers may put competitive pressure on public schools to improve or else. If you had a broad and generous voucher program (rather than a pittance of a program), then if there is indeed pressure from competition, that effect would presumably be greater. Thus, if it turns out that, after 10 years, a voucher program had improved performance in both public and private schools, it might not look like the voucher students had improved relative to the public school students (indeed, it’s conceivable that voucher students could get relatively worse even if everyone was improving in an absolute sense!). Voucher researchers are currently trying to figure out a way to correct for this potential complication, but it’s worth noting.

  • 8 Jon // Nov 23, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    The impatience here is not only somewhat wrongheaded, but (more obviously) incredibly ballsy. 50 years of a relatively undisturbed, steadily degrading status quo, engineered from the ground up by a long-standing political monopoly, would, you’d think, chasten defenders of that system a little. Especially when so many school choice skeptics (excepting the broad-minded Ezra Klein in this case) often appear totally mystified by the fact that this brilliant arrangement fails to churn out thousands upon thousands of Mini Spinozas year after year.

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