STUDY: School Choice Shown to Improve Test Scores

July 19, 2017

STUDY: School Choice Shown to Improve Test Scores Maryland GovPics / CCL

Whether you are liberal, conservative or something in-between, there is universal agreement on one thing: our children are our future, and their education determines its trajectory. As the great American scientist and educator George Washington Carver put it:

Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.

How to provide educational opportunity is a matter of some dispute. Liberals, as usual, believe more government involvement and more spending is the answer. Conservatives favor free market options, privatization, and school choice.

The stakes are high and our country’s future and the success of our children hangs in the balance. That’s why it’s important to rely on scientific data to guide educational policy. And the data is clear: Multiple randomized studies show that school choice improves test scores and overall school performance for all students, including disadvantaged ones. 

School choice debate

School choice is a contentious political and social issue. Expanding free choice and privatizing education is a fundamental shift in education policy. Consequently, any form of public funding for private schools, and especially voucher programs, are strongly opposed by liberals and teachers’ unions.

These opponents of free choice argue that school choice programs divert money from the public schools needed to educate the poorest and most disadvantaged students.

But what alternatives do they present? Throwing more money at the problem has not solved it. The US spends 28% more per student than most developed countries in the world but still lags far behind Japan, Finland, Poland, Vietnam, Canada and many other developed countries in math, science and reading achievement.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump emphasized the obstacles low-income families face in getting access to quality education. There are significant gaps in achievement between students in low-income, largely minority areas and other more affluent areas.

Such gaps are costly in terms of lost economic potential and welfare costs. Additionally, these gaps are especially harmful to minority students. For examples, more than 40% of black males do not graduate from high school and lack the basic skills to be productive and successful in the job market.

So if liberal policies are failing, what does the data say about alternative proposals?

Hard data shows school choice helps

Data from numerous scientific studies clearly show that choice programs benefit poor and minority students. Data also shows the fallacy of the “diversion of funds” argument.

Three randomized field trials in Washington D.C., Dayton, Ohio and New York City showed statistically significant improvement in student performance in students using vouchers to fund private school education.

After 2 years, black students in the three cities who moved from public to private schools gained an average of 6.3 National Percentage Points on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, compared to their public school peer group.

The gains for each city were: 4.2 points in New York City, 6.5 in Dayton, and 9.2 in Washington.  The effects for black students were statistically significant in all three cities.

The study goes on to state that the actual cause behind the results still remains in question, but points out that parents who send their children to private schools show a high level of financial and parental commitment of their children’s education. Accordingly, it remains unclear whether the improvement is due to the quality of the schools themselves or the characteristics of the students who attend them.

Another study, this one from Harvard, examined the empirical effects of the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) on student achievement on high school graduation. The OSP is funded by the federal government and has been in place since 2004. Due to its lottery selection system, it allows for a randomized evaluation method and therefore has statistical significance.

The Harvard analysis showed “compelling evidence that the DC voucher program had a positive impact on high school graduation rates, [and] suggestive evidence that the program increased reading achievement.”

Results from an earlier University of Wisconsin-Madison study of Milwaukee’s pioneering school voucher program were reanalyzed in a follow-up study by the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston (CPP) and the Program in Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University (PEPG).

The CPG/PPEG study examined performance in reading and mathematics. The study showed that students in Milwaukee’s choice schools did better on standardized tests in math and reading than their counterparts in Milwaukee public schools. Students in their fourth year in choice schools were 5 percentile points higher in reading and 12 percentile points higher in math than comparable public school students.

In 2008 Chile revised its 27-year-old Preferential School Subsidy law (SEP), which is a school voucher system. The change dramatically increased voucher amounts by 50% for the bottom 40% of income earners.

An analysis of results published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (BER) reported that:

  1. Student test scores increased markedly and income-based gaps in those scores declined by one-third in the five years after the passage of SEP.
  2. The combination of increased support of schools and accountability was the critical mechanism through which the implementation of SEP increased student scores, especially in schools serving high concentrations of low-income students.

BER concluded:

We interpret these findings as more supportive of improved student performance than other recent research on the Chilean policy reform.

Finally, a satisfaction study of parents with children in the Cleveland Scholarship Program (CSP), who had previously attended public schools, showed higher overall satisfaction and higher achievement at the private schools than for the public schools.

According to the report:

Significant differences in satisfaction were noted for teaching skills, the teaching of values, school discipline, and class size. Test scores from two private schools with large enrollments of CSP students rose.

The results of these highly scientific studies and analyses show a statistically significant and often substantial effect due to the availability of school choice programs. The empirical data supports school choice as a part of overall education policy.

If achievement really matters, then school choice is the right thing to do.

Charter schools – busting the performance gap myth

Charter schools are publicly funded, but much more autonomous and exempt from many of the regulations applied to regular public schools. There are over 2,700 charter schools with an attendance of nearly 700,000 nation-wide.

A  study in eleven states analyzed the performance of charter schools compared to nearby traditional public schools. That study also showed higher performance for charter schools compared to nearby traditional public schools.

The study excluded “targeted schools” that specialize in programs for juvenile delinquents, handicapped, and at-risk students. It focused on those schools whose students were comparable to those traditional public schools. In that sense, it was a true apples-to-apples study.

The results of the study showed that charter students outperformed their peers in reading and math by as much as  8 percentile points.

The amazing success of Los Angeles, Synergy Charter Academy (SCA), is a true victory for inner-city education and charter schools. Jennifer Epps was the founding teacher and is now principal. Under her leadership, SCA was awarded a national blue ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education; the highest award any U.S. school can achieve.

Additionally, SCA was also named the “best urban elementary school in the US” by the National Center for Urban School Transformation and is ranked as the No. 1 school in California as by the University of Southern California.

How did she do it?

Epps is passionate about showing that inner city children can perform as well or better than students from anywhere, in spite of their disadvantages of poverty and even cultural differences.

The results have been phenomenal; according to Meg Palosoc, USC administrator who recruited Epps:

What Mrs. Epps has achieved is phenomenal because typically only 20 to 30 percent of students in this area score proficient or advanced in English language arts or math, … In Mrs. Epps’s class alone, 90 to 95 percent of all her students score proficient or advanced in these areas.

Epps takes all the praise in stride, explaining that she simply requires transparency and engagement, sets high expectations and accountability to get students and teachers to excel.

High-performing alternative schools dispell the myth that disadvantaged minority students cannot excel. They do not have all the answers, but clearly, there are common themes in their success stories.

Their methods are different than lower performing schools. Specifically:

  • They provide a rich curriculum
  • The instruction is intense and focused
  • They demand engagement and performance from students, teachers, and parents
  • They set high expectations for all students and teachers, and hold them accountable.
  • They use metrics data to track student progress and individual needs.
  • They invest in professional development to grow teacher competency.

In other words, they set expectations and give students and teachers the resources and support they need to achieve.

A new direction

Betsey DeVos is a long time proponent of school choice. Accordingly, her nomination as Secretary of Education was strongly opposed by Democrats and the liberal media. Her confirmation was so close that it required that Vice President Mike Pence cast the vote to approve her appointment.

Ms. DeVos has been subject to harassment and boorish behavior at her speaking engagements. She has been prevented from entering a school by aggressive protesters and even received threats. But she remains unmoved and committed to improving the nation’s education system.

Doing the right and moral thing

School choice is the right thing for students and the education system. It is not the only solution, but it is proven to raise achievement, especially among poor and disadvantaged minorities.

Opponents charge that school choice will destroy the educational system, and hurt the poor and disadvantaged minorities.

But the U.S. educational system already ranks well below other developed countries, even though we spend significantly more than the average spent by other countries. Furthermore, the current system has already egregiously failed the poor, the disadvantaged, and minorities.

Teacher’s unions are continuing their decades-long fight to maintain the status quo. They fear that opening up the education system to competition will force schools to prioritize the needs of students and their families, and not just school employees.

Studies of charter schools show that their students perform at a higher level than students in traditional public schools. Furthermore, there are impressive examples that show very high levels of achievement in inner-city charter schools, apparently overcoming the performance gap.

The argument that public funding of private and charter schools takes funding from the poorest and most disadvantaged has been debunked since the scholarships or vouchers given to fund choice schools are less than half the amount needed to pay for the tuition. Therefore, school choice actually provides more money on a per student basis.

In the end, the liberal argument is not about education quality and the students. It’s all about teacher’s jobs and union dues.

School choice is the right and moral thing to do. Let’s put the politics aside and invest in this country’s future and the success of our children.


Raymond O'Lenic

Raymond O'Lenic is a Conservative Institute Staff Writer. He is a former business executive with a background in Finance. He writes on politics, economics, business and technology.