voucher verdict

Do vouchers help students get to college? Two new studies come to different answers

PHOTO: Micaela Watts

The debate around school vouchers has exploded in the last year with the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That also means recent studies showing that student achievement drops, at least initially, when students use public dollars to attend private schools have gotten a lot of attention.

But supporters have countered that test scores only say so much about student performance. The real test is how students do over the long term.

Two studies out Friday offer new answers — and some ammunition for both sides.

The research looks at how students from Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. fared after using a voucher to attend private school. It found students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to attend four-colleges, but not necessarily more likely to actually graduate. In D.C., voucher recipients were no more likely to enroll in college.

Here’s what else the studies tell us.

Disappointing results for D.C. voucher program

The D.C. analysis, conducted by Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute, found that 43 percent of students who won a voucher enrolled in college within two years of graduating high school. That’s 3 percentage points lower than similar students who lost the lottery, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The research relied on that random lottery for allocating vouchers in the first two years of the program. This meant the study could confidently show that any difference between lottery winners and losers was caused by the program, which was created in 2004 and has been a source of controversy ever since.

The study notes that because the sample size of students is fairly small, it can’t rule out the possibility that the program either boosted or hurt college attendance to some degree.

The results are surprising in light of past evidence that the first groups of D.C. voucher participants were more likely to graduate high school and scored higher on reading tests. (A more recent study on the program, focusing on students who participated in later years, found that it caused substantial drops in math test scores.)

Milwaukee voucher recipients more likely to attend — but not necessarily graduate — college

The Milwaukee study offers a more positive story for voucher advocates.

Voucher students were generally more likely to enroll in college, particularly four-year universities, than students with similar test scores from the same neighborhood who were not participating in the program in 2006. For instance, among students who used a voucher in elementary or middle school, 47 percent enrolled in college, compared to 43 percent of similar students.

When it came to actually completing college, though, the results were less clear. The researchers estimated that voucher recipients had a small edge — 1 or 2 percentage points — but the difference was not statistically significant.

MPCP is the Milwaukee voucher program; MPS is Milwaukee Public Schools

In contrast to the D.C. study, the Milwaukee researchers — Patrick Wolf, John Witte, and Brian Kisida — weren’t able to use a random lottery, meaning the results are less definitive. And although the researchers try to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the estimates may be skewed if more motivated families, or students who were struggling in public schools, used a voucher.

The latest results are consistent with a previous Milwaukee study by some of the same researchers. It’s also similar to a recent Florida study suggesting that vouchers led to increases in two-year college enrollment, but had little or no effect on whether students earned a degree.

(Both the Milwaukee and D.C. studies were funded by a number of groups that support school choice, including the Oberndorf Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Walton is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

What we still don’t know

Like the research before it, these studies won’t come close to ending the debate about school vouchers. Opponents will likely highlight the results in D.C. and the inconsistent impact on college completion in Milwaukee. School choice advocates will point to other parts of the Milwaukee study, and the fact that the D.C. voucher programs appeared to keep pace with public schools while spending less per student.

Meanwhile, these studies tell us most about these programs as they existed more than a decade ago. That’s the disadvantage of studies like these of longer-run effects, even as they provide more information about metrics more important to most policymakers and parents than test scores.

“The problem with these long-term studies is that these are the right outcomes to look at, but by the time we know it, it’s of more questionable relevance,” Chingos said.

pencils down

Three things to watch as the release of New York’s test scores draws near

PHOTO: Getty Images

New York’s English and math scores are scheduled to be released this week — at long last. Compared to prior years, the state has delayed their release by a month.

But when the scores arrive, they will come with a big asterisk.

This year, as in the past, the numbers will not be directly comparable to the previous year because of changes to the test itself. Under pressure from teachers, students, and parents who argued that classrooms are too focused on preparing for the exams, the state shortened the tests from three days to two — which means this year’s scores will not allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, state officials said.

By contrast, last year was one of the rare instances in the last decade when the tests did not change, allowing observers to identify trends. New York City posted small gains in reading and math, narrowing the gap with the rest of the state. But with a new test, determining if this pattern has continued will be hard to judge. Here are some questions we’ll be asking as this year’s scores come out.

If the tests aren’t comparable, can they tell us whether students or schools are improving?

The short answer, according to Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, is not really.

State officials will continue to report the share of students who are considered proficient in reading and math, as in previous years. But because the way the exam is scored must change to account for shorter tests, it will be difficult to know whether the tests reflect real changes in student learning.

If scores improve, “Does that mean they did better, or is that an artifact of the changes in testing?” Pallas said. “The state is probably not going to be able to answer that this week.”

That means it will be difficult to use the scores as an overall barometer of the health of the city’s school system and to see what impact some Mayor Bill de Blasio’s biggest education initiatives are having (or not). This lack of clarity will be especially evident, for example, when trying to gauge improvements among schools in the city’s $750 million Renewal turnaround initiative. The city is making final decisions about the 50 schools that remain in the program this school year.

Still, it’s possible city officials will seize on the results if they show gains. When scores rocketed up 8 points in English and one point in math in 2016, de Blasio said the improvements were “pure hard evidence” that his policies were paying off — even as state officials said the scores, when judged against the previous year, were also not an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

How strong is the opt-out movement?

In recent years, roughly one in five students have opted out of the state tests in protest. But in New York City, that percentage has historically been much smaller: just 4 percent of students sat out at least one exam last year, a slight increase from the year before.

Still, the opt-out rate serves as something of a bellwether of attitudes toward state education policy. The movement grew in response to a series of reform initiatives, including a law that became controversial because one of its provisions tied state test scores to teacher evaluations, an element that is currently on hold, and in reaction to the adoption of the Common Core learning standards. After the state rolled out new tests aligned with the standards, scores plummeted.

This year, partly in response to parent opposition to testing, state officials have taken steps to lessen its role (and the time testing takes) in schools. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more leeway than they enjoyed under No Child Left Behind, New York policymakers have shifted some of the focus from standardized exams to other metrics such as chronic absenteeism and have introduced interventions, generally seen as less harsh, at the lowest-performing schools.

Will these changes temper some of the fury that prompted the opt-out movement in the first place? So far it’s unclear. But officials said the opt-out numbers will be released alongside the annual test scores.

What about test-score gaps among different groups of students?

Richard Carranza has repeatedly talked about some of the structural and historical  disadvantages found in the nation’s largest school system since taking its helm, and if history is any guide, this year’s test scores will continue to demonstrate these inequities.

Black and Hispanic students have historically performed far below their white peers, a divide that did not narrow significantly last year. We’ll also be on the lookout for trends among English learners and students with disabilities.

But once again, because of changes to the test, how these disparities are narrowing (or widening) over time may not be clear. Nor will there be a full sense of whether the scores reflect the city’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which is largely designed to give schools extra resources, but has drawn criticism for not tackling systemic disparities.

State officials said that the tests should now remain the same for the next two years, meaning this year could serve as a baseline to measure Carranza’s new approach— including his promise to address school segregation — even if the verdict this year remains murky.

listening tour

These parents won’t stop chipping away at literacy and the language barrier in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent groups have already demanded that the Detroit district hire more bilingual staffers. On Tuesday, it was clear that the same problems exist at charter schools.

If you think it’s hard to navigate Detroit’s troubled school system, try doing it when no one speaks your language.

The latest stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour took a parent’s-eye-view of the obstacles facing English language learners, who graduate from high school at lower rates than their English-speaking peers.

One observation: The parents, who play a key role in helping children learn to read, face plenty of obstacles themselves, especially when it comes to communicating across a language barrier.

“You feel that you don’t have value,” said Gloria Vera, describing her interactions with English-speaking school staff. “You feel that you have fewer chances to ask questions. It scares me.”

Several mothers worried about the effects of Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law, which will hold back third-graders if they aren’t reading on grade level by the end of next year. By one count, 70 percent of English learners in the state could be forced to repeat a grade.

One mom said she wanted to help her daughter learn to read, but worried her English skills were too limited.

Another, Delia Barba, suspects that her daughter has a learning disability, but says her school in mostly Spanish-speaking Southwest Detroit has been slow to investigate because of the language barrier.

Like virtually every parent present, Barba said a few more bilingual staffers would go a long way.

“We don’t know who to talk to,” Barba said, speaking in Spanish. “They don’t speak Spanish.”

At each stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour, parents take center stage to tell us the stories we should be covering. (See the results of our last stop here.) This time around, Chalkbeat joined with organizations that work with Detroit parents to hear  from dozens of mostly Spanish-speaking mothers. They traveled through a Tuesday morning rainstorm to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit that provides social services like literacy training to families around Detroit.

Some of the parents on hand had already worked with neighborhood organizations like Congress of Communities and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation to push leaders of Detroit’s main district to provide more access to Spanish-speaking parents, noting their concerns have been brushed off by previous administrations.

“Community residents feel frustrated in 2018, because they have expressed the need for language access repeatedly over the years and a resolution is continually brushed aside,” said Elizabeth Rojas, a community advocate and parent in the district.

round table 2
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents traveled to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit through a rainstorm Tuesday morning to share their experiences with Detroit schools.

At a meeting last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti agreed to establish a Spanish hotline and ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish, among other promises.

After surveying  families in the neighborhood, parents are turning their attention to the issue of safety in schools. They’re hoping that schools will hire more bilingual security guards, and that undocumented parents will be allowed to enter school buildings with an alternative form of ID, such as a Mexican passport, a state ID, or even an ID issued by the district itself.

Parents on hand Tuesday reported similar access issues at charter schools in Southwest Detroit. Angelina Romero, who arrived with her family from Mexico within the last two years, worried that her first-grade son wasn’t picking up English at a neighborhood charter school, and that she had trouble communicating with his teacher.

“I’m hoping that the families who came here realize that it’s not just parents at their school that are concerned and active on this issue,” said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, which co-sponsored the listening session with Chalkbeat.

For Gloria Vera, the language barrier added to the challenge of navigating a broken special education system. After her daughter was diagnosed with autism, officials at a local school told her they didn’t have enough space.

“They told me, no you can’t enroll your child here,” Vera said, speaking in Spanish.

Staff at the school gave her a phone number to call — presumably to the district’s enrollment center — but Vera worried that it wouldn’t do her any good.

“I didn’t know English,” she said. “I felt lost.”

Looming over the conversation was Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which lends a sense of urgency to the already daunting challenge of helping a child read in a second language.

Yesenia Hernandez said she reads to her second-grade daughter in English, but worries that she can’t pronounce words correctly. In these moments, she said in Spanish, it seems that “she’s learning, but I’m just confusing her.”

Working with a group of five other mothers, Hernandez listed out the ways her school could help her to help her daughter. In another  room, other small groups worked on wish lists of their own, and when they compared results, there were striking similarities: The parents wanted to communicate with their children’s schools in Spanish, and they wanted the tools — like classes in English for adults — to help their children learn. One group gave an approving nod to the “parent room” at Priest Elementary-Middle School, where Spanish-speaking parents gather and share information and resources.

wall list
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents broke off into small groups to discuss their English language learners’ educations.

Even as they hurry to help their children build reading skills, parents are uncertain about how their children might react to flunking a grade when the state’s high stakes reading requirements go into effect next school year.

Delia Barba thought the policy made sense: “What if they keep saying pass, pass, pass, and he doesn’t know how to read?” she asked.

But Gloria Vera wasn’t so sure. In her neighborhood, an estimated 8 in 10 students spoke some Spanish at home. How many would be held back?

“In this part of Detroit, there should be a solution,” she said.