Thursday, October 25, 2007

WPRI and school choice

A few quick points about the WPRI study on public school choice.

1. The Journal Sentinel article reporting on the study seems almost certain to have led readers to think that the study loooked at the voucher program for private schools. It used the term "school choice" and discussed other aspects of the voucher program. It wasn't until we get down to the description of methodology at the bottom of the piece that we learn that the study was focused on public school choice. Indeed, local blogger Jay Bullock to wrote a post arguing that the study vindicates his views of the voucher program.

2. Another blogger, the Public Policy Forums's Anneliese Dickman, picks up on the nature of the study but seems to want to say that it tells us something about private school choice as well. She may be right but there are a few obstacles in the way.

First, the study doesn't really measure what parents in Milwaukee actually do. As the authors say, "the basic approach was to identify the determinants and frequency of parental choice and parental involvement using a national data set, and extrapolate those results to Milwaukee, relying on the particular demographics of the MPS district." In other words, they take national data on how households with particular demographic characteristics act with respect to choosing schools and becoming involved with the schools and then assume that people with those characteristics in Milwaukee would act the same way. They then look at the characteristics of families in MPS and run the numbers.

That's a respectable approach, although it would not catch the effects of any local efforts to improve decision-making or increase parental involvement.

Second, it seems less plausible to extrapolate from these data to families who choose voucher schools. The demographics of that group may be different. In addition, opting out of the public schools may itself reflect a higher degree of involvement with a child's education (it presumably takes more effort) and a population that does that may differ from others with same socioeconomic characteristics. Jay acknowledges this, writing that "many students whose parents are most likely to push them to achieve have left the district, leaving us with students whose parents are more likely to come to school to beat up other kids, if they come at all."

3. Jay makes an interesting point, consistent with what I have heard from other teachers in MPS. He writes "[i]f just a few more of my students in any given class could have the kind of parental backing that is so important to student success, the culture and climate of my classes and the school could change in a positive direction."

I don't doubt that but what are the implications? Should we deny parents the choice of a better educational option for their children so that those kids can be the raw material that makes Jay's classroom a better place? If, in fact, what happens at home is so critical to what happens in the classroom (and I suspect it is), then maybe solutions that believe schools can do for children what their families will not are destined to failure. I shouldn't think WEAC would want that idea to get around.

4. When the WPRI says something that my friends to the left of me don't like, I often hear that it is a right wing think talk paid for by the Bradley Foundation and businesses, yadda yadda. By way of full disclosure, I have done stuff for WPRI in the past and am working on something now, but I am still going to suggest that this is a teachable moment. When WPRI asked me to look at a certain legal hypothesis, the question was not "can you support it" but "is it right?" Obviously the folks associated with it have a more conservative perspective, but that doesn't mean that they subvert professional standards and intellectual integrity to that perspective. The next time, respond to the message and not to the messenger.


Jay Bullock said...

Rick, my post was much broader than just about the voucher program. It figured in, in part because of the study's use of terms like "educational marketplace" and statements in the JS article by people like Howard Fuller, who made the same connections between the voucher program and this study that I did.

Rick Esenberg said...


I am not criticizing you. In fact, I think that you are being rather candid about some of this stuff. What I am interested in is what the implications of that candor are.

Terrence Berres said...

"[i]f just a few more of my students in any given class could have the kind of parental backing that is so important to student success, the culture and climate of my classes and the school could change in a positive direction."

I have the impression a lot of choice participants figure it's more likely the culture and climate of those classes would instead more than offset their efforts for their own children.