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Choice, Vouchers and the Trump Education Agenda

President Donald Trump has, in the selection of Betsy DeVos for his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, made it clear that he is a strong supporter of the school choice education reform agenda.  The question on the table is whether, how and under what conditions this agenda could contribute to the improvement of American education.

I look at issues like this largely through the lens of what we have learned about the strategies pursued by the countries whose students perform at the highest levels, with the greatest equity, on the OECD PISA surveys.  One might reasonably ask whether the countries with the most successful education systems have used choice, charter and voucher policies as key drivers of their success.  I am looking, in other words, for evidence that these strategies can power a country to the front ranks of education performers.

We've found top-performing countries like Australia and Hong Kong that fund private and parochial schools with tax funds and we have found top achievers like the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium that have systems in which all public schools are a form of what we would call charters in the United States.  So one can reasonably conclude that aggressive choice systems are not, per se, inconsistent with high student achievement. 

It is also true, however, that many high performers do not have aggressive choice policies in place, so it would also be reasonable to conclude that countries do not need to have aggressive choice policies to become or remain high performers. 

I said a moment ago that it is not hard to find countries with aggressive choice policies that have high achievement.  But there is no evidence anywhere that a country can lift itself from the middle ranks of performers to the top ranks by using aggressive choice strategies.  Nor is it clear that countries with aggressive choice strategies and high achievement can also produce high equity.  Helen Ladd and her colleagues have done research in New Zealand and the Netherlands that is instructive on this point.  In the case of New Zealand, they found that wealthier parents were more likely to take more advantage of the choices that were available because they had more time to research those choices and more time and better options for taking their children to schools other than their local schools.  The result was that students from low-income families became more concentrated in low-quality schools and wealthier students became more concentrated in better schools. 

The Dutch have long placed a very high value on the ability of parents to choose schools from a wide range of school sponsors, public and private, religious and secular. People from different religious groups tended to live and go to school in separate communities.  But, in each community, there were substantial differences among the inhabitants in income and social status, so that the schools enrolled children from all socio-economic backgrounds and provided a setting in which the students could experience a lot of social mobility.  But, in the 1960s, when the Netherlands invited many people from their former colonies and from North Africa to come as guest workers in what had become a booming economy, new communities formed in which low-income, poorly educated people of a different racial and ethnic background than the established families became highly concentrated.  The result was very poor performing schools and low social mobility in those communities, which has proven to be an enormous challenge for the Netherlands.  The government's hands have been tied in this matter because the Dutch place a very high value on choice for parents; achieving greater equity for their former guest workers would require them to compromise on that point and they are unwilling to do that.

Mike Petrilli has suggested that aggressive choice policies are not, in theory, incompatible with high equity.  If strong accountability systems of the kind used for the best charter systems were to be coupled with aggressive choice policies, one could have both choice and equity, he says. But this just begs the question—what kind of equity results do we get from the best charter accountability systems?  Many charter advocates point to New Orleans as a leading example of charter regulation that works.  But a very careful study by Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at Stanford of the New Orleans system shows, in excruciating detail, how low-income, minority students are pushed out of the better schools and find their real choices reduced to a handful of the worst-performing schools in the New Orleans system.  This turns out to be just another version of the story that Ladd and her colleagues tell about choice in other countries. 

Summing up to this point, we can say that there is no evidence anywhere that a country, state or province can enter the ranks of the top performers using choice strategies alone.  There are certainly countries that have both high achievement and strong policies favoring choice. However, there appears to be a trade-off between choice and equity, and, crucially important, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find examples of countries that have high achievement at scale in which government does not play a very strong role in both designing and running the system using a broad spectrum of strategies.

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That is because truly effective high-performance education systems at the scale of a nation, state or province are very complex systems, with many moving parts, that must work in harmony to produce the results they get.  Government at the state or national level in the top-performing countries typically sets high student performance standards and creates curriculum frameworks, and even course syllabi, that the schools are required to use, producing an environment in which expectations are high and uniform for all children, regardless of the type of school they attend.  Government makes sure that the examinations that are used are few in number, high in quality, aligned with the standards and reasonably accurate measures of what the syllabus says students are supposed to learn.  The stakes on the examinations are largely for the students, not their teachers.  Government also makes sure that teachers are sourced from the top half, not the bottom half, of high school graduates, go to research universities and not diploma mills and, when in college, are taught how to teach the official curriculum to kids of many different backgrounds.  Government also makes sure that the resources available for schooling are fairly distributed, that opportunities for kids not going to four-year college are strong and lead to rewarding careers.

This is not an arcane or complicated message.  What really makes a difference is the expectations for student performance, the strength of the curriculum, the skill and knowledge of the people who teach it and the fairness with which the resources available to the schools are distributed.  Put that way, our research has simply confirmed what most people have believed for a very long time. 

But note that choice of school is not on this list.  Leave these things to chance or to the determination of individual parents or schools and the results are almost always mediocre, on average.  Lightly regulated, aggressive choice systems are essentially anarchic, the very opposite of what we see in countries with the highest student achievement and the greatest equity in results. 

If, as a policy maker, you hold choice as a strong democratic value and want to offer it to all parents, by all means do so—but not in the expectation that charters, vouchers, home schooling or other choice strategies aggressively pursued will produce dramatic improvements in student performance at scale.  There is no evidence that, by themselves, these strategies will lead to the kind of improvements in student performance at scale that the United States needs in order to catch up to a growing list of other countries.  To do that, government must do the things I just listed.  And, if government is doing those things in ways that promote both high achievement and high equity, regulation will be strong and not weak.

That's the rub.  In the United States, choice as an educational reform strategy is embraced most strongly by the very people who are most likely to reject a strong government role in education at either the state or the national level.  They are the people most likely to view teachers unions, the education bureaucracy and government regulation in general as the enemy and not the solution.  So they reject out of hand the very condition that is most likely to improve the performance of their students and most likely to create an environment in which choice would be likely to succeed for the most students.

We look forward with more than casual interest to see how the new administration addresses these issues.  The administration has some very important strategic decisions to make.  If the United States places a higher value on choice in education than it does on achievement or equity, then the policies evidently advocated by the Trump administration would no doubt help to achieve that goal.  If the United States wants both choice and achievement, but does not care as much about equity, then it should look closely at the Netherlands—where the state plays a very strong role in matters normally left to the school districts in the United States. If the United States wants both high achievement and equity, then the desire for choice will have to take a back seat, and, once again, the state will have to take on a much stronger role, as it has in every jurisdiction that has reached the top of the world's league tables in education system performance.

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