This is an interesting time in the world of school choice. On the one hand, there’s a growing body of research examining the effectiveness of choice, most often comparing achievement in charter schools or voucher plans to traditional public schools. But the lack of consensus among some prominent studies has left many in the public confused. Add to that recent expressions of disillusionment by early choice advocates such as Diane Ravitch and debates about the success of school choice become even more complicated.
One long-time choice advocate is taking a stab at explaining the sources of disillusionment and suggesting different ways to frame the debate. In a new essay and blog post, both entitled “Does School Choice ‘Work’?”, Rick Hess, writes that, for starters, whether choice “works” is the wrong question. Framing the question that way, he says, creates expectations that charter schools or voucher programs have the power to quickly raise test scores and cure problems across the wide range of American schools. Instead, Hess, who is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, advocates focusing on larger organizational issues, such as whether the creation of school choice has brought market forces to education. Has it, for example, introduced innovations and competition that have forced public schools to change and diminished the power of their bureaucracies? “The key,” he writes on the Education Week blog,“is to stop fixating on ‘choice’ and start talking about ‘deregulation’.” The post is based on a longer essay on the National Affairs site that explains his opinions more fully.
Hess also tosses a few barbs at some of his fellow choice advocates, arguing that part of any current disappointment can be traced back to overpromises by early choice advocates, citing particularly John Chubb and Terry Moe who use of the word “panacea” in their influential book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. “The search for that panacea, and the insistence that it must be just around the corner, have been destructive distractions,” Hess writes, because they have led to narrow judgments of success based on test scores and ignored bigger questions about how market forces play out in a domain shaped by large public bureaucracies. “Since reformers have suggested that the mere presence of choice will bring about dramatic improvement in schools, the expectation has been that the simple fact of having an alternative — even inadequately funded vouchers, or charter schools hog-tied by regulation — should yield demonstrable gains in academic achievement,” he writes. In this environment, he challenges reformers and researchers to shift the focus to what market forces should look like in American K-12 education, the extent to which these forces exist at this point, and how their success should be assessed. “The questions to focus on are when, how, and why deregulation and monopoly-busting improve the quality and cost effectiveness of goods and services,” he writes, “and whether they can do the same for K-12 schooling.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
One hallmark of the National Center on School Choice’s research has been a mission to investigate the effects of choice within broader contexts. Some examples:
- The project Opening the Black Box in Choice and Regular Public Schools: A Study of What Makes Schools Work surveys teachers and principals in schools of choice and traditional public schools about a wide range of topics, from working conditions to instructional climate, to assess similarities and differences between different types of schools and see whether those differences affect outcomes like student performance or teacher turnover.
- The Indianapolis Charter School Study looks at a many aspects of charter school creation and operation in a city where the mayor has independent control over charter school authorization and accountability and examines how this setup affects the broader capacity for education reform in the city.
- NCSC’s fall 2009 conference School Choice & School Improvement: Research into State, District and Community Contexts included papers on a wide range of topics, from the competition effects that choice has on traditional public schools to close examinations of how parents choose schools, in locations across the United States and abroad.