I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Good" Schools or "Good" Students?

Well, this is depressing:
You won't find a call for school vouchers on Elizabeth Warren's campaign website. Education is listed first among the candidate's top priorities, but the website sticks to safe, poll tested platitudes calling for "good public schools, good public universities, and good technical training" as the key to a having a competitive workforce.
Yet in her 2003 book, The Two Income Trap, Warren and co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi cite the traditional public schools system, in which children are assigned to a school based on their residence, as a key source of economic pressure for families with children. Warren and Tyagi call for system-wide reforms to break the link between where a child lives and where they go to school, and specifically make the case for a fully-funded voucher program that would enable children to attend any public school. 
Is it too much to ask that we have just a few progressives advocate on the side of real reform? Or is everyone - even on the left - now drinking the corporate reformy Kool-Aid?

Warren's a very smart woman, but this... well, I just don't follow this at all:
Written during the housing-value boom, Warren identifies the competition for slots in "good" public schools as fueling the rise in real estate prices. While home prices were rising across the board, families with children were outpacing the rest of the public in paying more for homes, because, Warren argued, a home in the right location was the price of getting into that coveted school. Over-paying for houses required great financial sacrifices from families, and created the potential for severe hardship if housing prices fell—which of course they did, effectively wiping away the savings of millions of Americans.
Warren aptly exposed the lie behind the concept of public schools as a great equalizer: "Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled 'public,' but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district." How to relieve the pressure on families? "At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home...A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly." [emphasis mine]
Look, there's no doubt that people pay a premium to live in a "good" town with a "good" school system. But what makes that system "good"? The teachers? The administration? The buildings? Yes, that's all important, but what primarily determines whether a school district is "good" are the students.

Once again: only 20% of student achievement can be attributed to schools. Yet another study came out last month that confirms again that family characteristics are far more important than school-based effects.

When a family moves to a town with "good" schools, they are demonstrating both the economic wherewithal to be able live there, and the value that they place on education. They are deliberately surrounding themselves with people who share both their values and their means. They want to pay this premium, because they want to be surrounded by others who also can and want to pay; it's how people with aligned values and circumstances find each other.

A voucher system is useless for these people; they'll just jack up the price of schools more, because they want to differentiate themselves and others like them from the rest of the population. They want to pay more for their schools, and they pay through increased real estate prices. They want to send their kids to schools with parents who can and will pay more. The entire suburban real estate market is predicated on this.

One of my frustrations with the current reformy debate is how dishonest we're being with ourselves about this phenomenon. We keep trying to convince ourselves that schools have nothing to do with the students themselves. We mindlessly parrot reformy bromides like "All children can learn!" as a way of ignoring the fact that socioeconomic status is correlated to student achievement in every country in the world.

Can these "good" schools still have bad leadership, bad instruction, bad curriculum, bad funding - even bad teachers? Of course, and all of that will affect student performance - but not nearly as much as student and family characteristics. This isn't an excuse; it's a fact. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can have an actual conversation about what's going on.

Further, all of those in-school effects are much more likely to be solved when families who've come to expect great schools exert political pressure on to the system. And that pressure is far more potent than any imagined competition from private schools:

Warren might have also noted how changing the structure and incentives faced by school officials could also lead to better quality schools. If administrators could no longer count on a captive clientele of neighborhood children, they would have to compete to attract students. Current road blocks to reform—such as the tenure system and inability to fire bad teachers—might be tackled more aggressively if school officials had to fear that they would lose students, and therefore lose funding, if counter-productive policies remained in place.
Research confirms what is considered common sense in every other aspect of life: Competition among schools leads to a more efficient use of resources and better outcomes. According to a meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Greg Forster, 18 of 19 empirical studies measuring the competitive effect of school vouchers found that offering families vouchers spurred public schools to improve. Forster similarly reported that most studies show that choice improves student performance. For example, the U.S. Department of Education's analysis of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program revealed that vouchers boosted students' test scores and graduation rates. [emphasis mine]
I took a quick look at Forster's study, and it most decidedly is not about private school pressure on high-performing schools in affluent neighborhoods (and according to this NEPC brief, the study has many other problems). The fact is that public schools in affluent towns feel very little pressure from private schools, because the only "competition" they face is from extremely competitive, expensive, and elite private schools - schools that will never be large enough to accommodate more than a few students from these towns, and are too expensive for most families, even in these communities.

Put another way: yes, Livingston may lose a few kids to Newark Academy each year, but never enough to exert pressure on the district to perform. That pressure, again, comes from the community, which is made up of mostly like-minded parents who demand excellence from both the schools and their children.

This is a key to the entire "choice" debate, whether it's about vouchers or charters. I find it completely dishonest when a reformyist tells us that a charter found the "secret sauce" in shredding union contracts, or having a different management structure, or using some new curricular method. Because, while what happens in the school has importance, it will never be as important as which children are attending the school.

I've pointed out before that when you start really listening to the parents and kids who are "saved" by attending high-performing charters or voucher schools, you hear the same story: the school is better because the other students and their families share similar values about education. Even professional reformyists, when pressed, will acknowledge that the issue is largely about student and family populations.

This is a serious issue and it deserves a serious response. Some of you will pretend to be surprised by this, but I am actually very sympathetic to the argument that children in poor-performing schools ought not to be stuck in environments that do not allow them to succeed. New Jersey, for example, has highly segregated schools; this is a serious problem, and it most certainly affects student achievement. We should be having an adult conversation about this.

We aren't. Instead, we pretend that the teachers unions, tenure, merit pay, charters, vouchers, and teacher evaluations through standardized testing are the important issues in American education. The evidence that any of these factors has any significant, large-scale impact on student achievement is practically nonexistent - yet it's taken over the entire debate.

The real issues in American education today are inequity in funding, student lives outside of school, segregation, and the degradation of the teaching profession. We, as a society, are apparently too juvenile to speak seriously on any of these topics, so we waste our time debating vouchers.

How sad.

(h/t Leonie Haimson via Twitter)

ADDING: Warren is the one who used the term "good" schools, not me. I'm keeping it in quotes to address her point. I think all students can be good students, even if I think it's stupid not to differentiate instruction based on what the student is capable of doing at any particular time.

ADDING MORE: Once again, Matt DiCarlo says it better than I can.


Tom Hoffman said...

I think you should hold off on this until reading more of Warren's context. It seems like she's using the loaded term "voucher" here in a non-standard way with an economic purpose unrelated to education reform.

Letting students from lower-income neighborhoods attend schools in higher-income neighborhoods and/or districts, and vice-versa, is a progressive policy. It looks to me (having not read Warren's book) like the US News article is intentionally distorting Warren's position.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

Whatever Warren's intent (which I'll withhold judgment on because I haven't read it), it's certainly true that the segregation of public schools - socioeconomic and racial - is a major problem, especially here in NJ. But to suggest that the solution lies in privatization of the system, through vouchers, charters, or something else, is foolish. There are ways of addressing the problem while keeping public schools public - and one of the key elements isn't even an education issue, it's affordable housing. I'd be surprised if Warren didn't agree. Surprised and disappointed.

Tom Hoffman said...

A "voucher" to attend any public school isn't really a "voucher" as the term is commonly used in education politics. If anything, it may just be aggressively co-opting the other side's rhetoric.

In Providence, I can apply to any elementary school in the city -- you could go through the motions of giving me a "voucher" at some point in the process, but it wouldn't change how it works.

Anonymous said...

Just curious....if every homeowner in inner city Camden was given vouchers that allowed their kids to attend any public school in New Jersey, what would be the effect on Camden real estate?

Dave said...

Poverty matters? Who'd a-thunk?

You nailed it again, massive thanks for all you do.


Anonymous said...

Question for Jazzman:

If you had the choice of lowering class sizes by ten percent, or having the state give every NJEA member a special Christmas pony of their very own next year, which would you do?

Follow up: what if the pony was worth $10,000, immediately redeemable in cash.

Second followup: in addition to your vote, how do you think the NJEA and Babs and Vinnie would vote?

Anonymous said...

Question for anonymous 8:30 PM:
If you had the choice of being merely inane or being an attention craving narcissistic troll....oh, wait, you are already all of the above. You really do enjoy all the negative attention as it inflates your ego.

Teacher Mom said...

Man I wish I had a copy of this blog last week during a heated Teacher room discussion. Trying to explain to a much older educator why the school down the street in "that" neighborhood is such a failure. She believed poverty wasn't the cause because the very white staff sitting around the table also grew up poor. Being the only teacher at that table who yes grew up poor but also taught in "that" neighborhood, I got out my soapbox and rang her bell to the applause of the one African-American at the table, but I like what you said better. I tend to be too emotional about the topic ;)

Teacher Mom said...

oooh let's play the hypothetical game. Let's use Wake county schools as a guide. They cross neighborhood lines to make their schools as balanced and diverse as possible both racially and socioeconomically. THey even maintain property values because VERY kid gets to go to a great school. They even have great outcomes for the kids, but the big bad money men don't like people mixing together. So they pay for the elections of people who think like them, "people shouldn't mix and damn the consequences, we want separate classes and separate races." elected to the school board in an attempt to end the diversity program that has served all the children so well.

What if any child in the state could go to any public school, or better yet, we scrapped property taxes and mixed everybody up for the purpose of education. Not saying it's a good idea, but consider it a moment.

I live in a melting pot community because it's that kind of diversity I want for my own kids, and I would love for my students to have it as well.