This is actually funny. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute for years has been a big promoter of “school choice,” meaning he thinks parents should get vouchers so that taxpayers can pay for their private school education. He has an op ed in today’s New York Times called “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test” about the effectiveness of the Milwaukee voucher program, which has been in effect since 1990.
A recent comprehensive study found Milwaukee “voucher” kids, many of whom attend charter schools, do no better on standarized tests than kids who stay in the public schools. Reports like this come out from time to time, and righties always explain them away. But for once Murray seems willing to accept defeat –
This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away.
Then comes the next paragraph –
So let’s not try to explain them away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?
And from there, Murray goes on to extol the glories of “school choice,” free of the need to weigh down the sales pitch with tiresome stuff about “facts” and “proof.” Charter schools are better just because they must be better.
If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason that school choice is a good idea.
The real reason seems to be that charter schools teach what parents want their kids taught. The “greater good” of tax money supporting an educated public doesn’t enter into it, he admits. “The supporters of school choice need to make their case on the basis of that shared parental calculation, not on the red herring of test scores.”
Test scores don’t mean anything, anyway, he says –
This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.
From here he goes to a study done in 1966 that shows all of these factors don’t change test scores. Of course, when someone has to go back more than 40 years to find a study that matches his conclusions, there’s probably a rat around to be smelled. Sure enough, a few seconds of googling turned up a whole bunch of studies done since 1966 that showed a strong correlation between smaller class sizes and higher test scores.
He also argues that the biggest determinant of how well a kid does in school is his home environment, anyway.
What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.
But if a “good” school cannot prove by any objective measure that it is better than a “lesser” school, what then is the real difference between “good” and “lesser”? Other than the subjective views of the observer, of course?
Murray’s final pitch is that it doesn’t matter whether vouchers increase the quality of education. What matters is that the purpose of tax money for schools is to fulfill the desires of parents, not to benefit society by providing an educated population.
Charles, fail is fail. Deal with it.