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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 06/26/2010

Scary things in U.S. report on school vouchers

By Valerie Strauss

This isn’t actually about vouchers. It’s about a new government report on a school vouchers program in Washington, D.C., that reveals just how perversely narrow our view of “student achievement” has become.

Issued this week by the Education Department, the report is the final evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program ordered by Congress.

The program was the first federally funded private school voucher program in the country. Since 2004, more than 3,700 students -- most of them black or Hispanic -- have been awarded scholarships, each worth up to $7,500 tuition. Since Congress refused to reauthorize the program, no new students are being accepted.

The new evaluation of the program is remarkable for how it describes student achievement. It says: “There is no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement.”

What is student achievement? In this report it is all about standardized test scores. The evaluation says:

“On average, after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships.”

But later, separately, it goes on to say that, in fact, there was a result that could be deemed positive: “The Program significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school.”

Well, that sounds like student achievement to me, but in today’s education world, achievement apparently only means an improvement in test scores.

Except when it doesn’t. When is that? That’s when today’s “school reformers,” the ones who use standardized test scores as the central and often sole measure for student and now, increasingly, teacher, achievement, learn that their pet projects don’t actually produce higher results.

Then, suddenly, the tests don’t really matter. High school graduation does. Parent satisfaction does. (The evaluation also said that the voucher program raised parents', but not students’, ratings of school safety and satisfaction.)

Except, of course, when they don’t. When is that? That’s when public schools don’t improve standardized test scores.

It doesn’t much matter if a public school manages to help more kids graduate, or read better, or read at all; if the test scores don’t rise, the schools are labeled failing, and are subject to punitive “restructuring measures” supported by President Obama’s Education Department, led by Secretary Arne Duncan.

At some point, the great hypocrisy has to become clear even to the people who espouse it. At least, I think.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 26, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Tags:  d.c. voucher program, private school voucher program, standardized tests and student achievement, voucher program  
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Comments

seems simple to me but dc students attending private schools via the voucher program should still take the DC CAS or whatever the standardized test is to compare their growth. not to determine if they grew but to measure their growth.

seems all these educational studies are always biased and intently subjective.

Posted by: simplewords999 | June 26, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

So, test scores don't matter when it comes to judging the effectiveness of vouchers. But it does matter when closing down a public school and turning it over to charter school?

And we teachers are the bad ones?

Posted by: aby1 | June 26, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

"At some point, the great hypocrisy has to become clear even to the people who espouse it."

From your mouth to God's ear. Let us hope. Before public education is completely destroyed.

Posted by: nan_lynn | June 26, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Vouchers and other attempts at school "reform" become understandable when you realize the true purpose is privatization for personal or financial gain. See this article on accountability:

http://www.anurbanteacherseducation.com

Yes, it is scary.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 26, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Valarie, honey, just go on home, get back in bed, and feel better another day.

this article is full of bad mouthing with nothing much to say. So, she doesn't like using test scores to measure success except using test scores is what justified charter schools in the first place.

Yes, better graduation rates for charter schools is good news, but much more was expected. If the only advantage is better graduation rates, it just may be worth it to keep charter schools. Maybe.

The standard of improving test scores to prove a school is doing better is a hallmark of the Bush and Republicans school reform. Of course it is absurd, but lets be clear where blame for implementing the idea came from. It is not just Obama and Duncan, it is/was Bush and whoever the ineffective school head was at the time of the Bush administration.

Go back to bed, honey.

Posted by: amelia45 | June 26, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

The most fundamental lack in our educational system is so utterly basic and has persisted for so long that it seems lost in the sands of time. Around the beginning of the 1900s we stopped teaching our children to differentiate between the things they believe, and the things they know.

We didn't mean to. Yet when the industrial revolution began and vast numbers of folks moved from field and farm to the cities, we soon needed many more workers with more than a basic education.

'Till that time, a high school education was for the affluent few. The curriculum then included both Latin and classical Greek. The readings in these languages, the logic of the Greeks and the penchant of the Romans for applying that logic, taught students the bases of logic and rational thought. With hordes of new students entering the system, a requirement for Latin and Greek soon became an option and, by the 1940s, both had largely disappeared.

I am not suggesting we return to Latin and classical Greek, but some tincture of fundamental logic must be added to the curriculum if we are to have a reasonably educated populace. A mere high school course won't do it!

To be truly effective, the basics of clear thinking must start early. The words used for thinking clearly, words like fact, objective, subjective and rational, should be part of vocabulary lessons in first and second grades. There should be a continuing emphasis that, "The reason you kids are forced to attend school is to learn how NOT to be fooled by the crowds of nonsense-talkers that infest this world." Give a bunch of examples from current events, so students can recognize the sellers of snake oil when they meet.

Finally, educators must cease graduating students who fail to demonstrate some moderate proficiency in distinguishing between ideas that are knowledge and those that, unsupported by fact, are mere belief!

Posted by: dunkberg | June 26, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

The most fundamental lack in our educational system is so utterly basic and has persisted for so long that it seems lost in the sands of time. Around the beginning of the 1900s we stopped teaching our children to differentiate between the things they believe, and the things they know.

We didn't mean to. Yet when the industrial revolution began and vast numbers of folks moved from field and farm to the cities, we soon needed many more workers with more than a basic education.

'Till that time, a high school education was for the affluent few. The curriculum then included both Latin and classical Greek. The readings in these languages, the logic of the Greeks and the penchant of the Romans for applying that logic, taught students the bases of logic and rational thought. With hordes of new students entering the system, a requirement for Latin and Greek soon became an option and, by the 1940s, both had largely disappeared.

I am not suggesting we return to Latin and classical Greek, but some tincture of fundamental logic must be added to the curriculum if we are to have a reasonably educated populace. A mere high school course won't do it!

To be truly effective, the basics of clear thinking must start early. The words used for thinking clearly, words like fact, objective, subjective and rational, should be part of vocabulary lessons in first and second grades. There should be a continuing emphasis that, "The reason you kids are forced to attend school is to learn how NOT to be fooled by the crowds of nonsense-talkers that infest this world." Give a bunch of examples from current events, so students can recognize the sellers of snake oil when they meet.

Finally, educators must cease graduating students who fail to demonstrate some moderate proficiency in distinguishing between ideas that are knowledge and those that, unsupported by fact, are mere belief!

Posted by: dunkberg | June 26, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

The students who won admission to the program are, by definition, a select group, since they had parents who took the time and bothered to apply for these placements. Naturally, the children of such caring parents are, to begin with, more likely to graduate from high school. College, too.
I can get the same results by giving out a meaningless survey in any public school, and telling the students that it is very important that their parents sign and send it back by the next day. A study of the achievement levels of the ones which do in fact bring it back signed and on time will invariably show that their achievement is higher than the achievement of students who didn't.
Let's face it. Some families are conscientious strivers and some are not. When we separate out the strivers with a process like applying for school choice, they are bound to do better than those who just drift along with the current of life.

Posted by: jrsposter | June 26, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Vouchers are a matter of simple justice and must be available to all. Families — not politicians, not bureaucrats, not social engineers, not union goons — are responsible for a child's education and must decide for themselves what is in that individual child's best interest.

The only thing that will bring desperately needed reform is the total and absolute separation of school and state. Nothing will get better until we accept that truth.

And then we must outlaw the goddamn unions once and for all and put the union bosses behind bars.

Posted by: thebump | June 26, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Linda/retired Teacher is right. None of this matters. They are intent on privatizing schools and only put out various reports to make it look like they they are doing some kind of work to back up their stand.

These reports are a lot of political blah blah blah in which someone presents a "fact" that isn't a fact at all. When someone else presents evidence to refute the "fact" the information is ignored and they move the target.

Reports like this are for appearance's sake to create a smokescreen. There will never be a good faith open discussion about improving public schools because the agenda has nothing to do with improving public schools; it's about getting taxpayer money into corporate pockets.

Posted by: aed3 | June 26, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

To earn either an 'A', 'B,' or ,'C' in my Algebra 1 class a student must demonstrate competence, i.e. 'get the right answer' in at least 73% of their attempts at every standard I teach. You can 'do all the work,' come to class every day, but ultimately you must 'put the ball in the basket' or "Get in the hole!" at least 73% of the time to earn at least a 'C.' Unscientifically, 90-100% of my former students who've done that AT LEAST have graduated from high school, and the majority of them are either in or have finished college, and recall I've only taught in your archetypal urban school. The grade a student earns in my class means something, which is the crux of the testing issue we have in public schools.

For far too many students their grades may not represent what they do or do not know/can do, Thus the drive to standardized tests. The Chandra Smith Consent Decree drives Special Education in California because young Chandra was passed on through HS without being able to READ. While I've never seen a teacher do it actually, I've heard too many tales from too many students of teachers who 'gave them a 'C' because they 'tried' or 'were quiet in class' whether or not they could solve a system of linear inequalities. In the words of Charles Barkley, "turrble."

For teachers to take control of this hostile testing environment they must reclaim the importance and worth of what they do in the classroom. When the grade a student earns in our class reflects their knowledge, skills, and reasoning, this insidious assault on our professionalism (incessant testing) becomes irrelevant.

Posted by: pdfordiii | June 26, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

the bump--See my previous post. My point about ignoring facts applies to you. The unions have no power over firing teachers. Rhee demonstrated that earlier this year. The only thing that unions can do to protect teachers is to make sure they get due process when they are accused of something. That point has been brought out many times in these discussions. Blaming unions is another irrelevant point.

And you don't really need to resort to cussing.

One more point; vouchers are government money. I care about who gets that money and whether it is being used responsibly. Maybe you would prefer it if there were no education-related taxes (no vouchers) and you paid out of pocket for education.

Posted by: aed3 | June 26, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

aed3: "[V]ouchers are government money. I care about who gets that money and whether it is being used responsibly."

Translation: You're afraid you may not approve of other people's choices. Well, that's the cost of living in a free society. A government-monopoly regime imposes the values of the majority (more realistically, political elites) and disenfranchises everybody else. Thus in the current system, not only are dissenting taxpayers paying for things they disapprove (your complaint), but dissenting students are denied taxpayer-funded services on an equal basis. I'd rather take politics out and just trust the family who knows and loves the individual child.

aed3: "Maybe you would prefer it if there were no education-related taxes (no vouchers) and you paid out of pocket for education."

Absolutely. That would obviate the difficulties inherent in a taxpayer-funded system that you yourself point out.

Posted by: thebump | June 26, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I realize you can't have it both ways, but think of it this way:

1) If you are using standardized test to measure student achievement, then the logical thing to do is find the cheapest way to meet that achievement.

2) If you want to use graduation rates as your benchmark, then again find the cheapest way way to meet that achievement.

If you're going to claim that neither are good indicators, then it's going to be hard to justify the salaries and benefits that public school teachers get (3/4th's pay for retirement at age 55!)

I know that doesn't sit well with many of you, but you can't keep justifying higher salaries and not have metrics to back up those high salaries.

In almost every professional endeavor and occupation, you are judged constantly by your boss and dismissed without hesitation when you cannot meet the requirements of the job.

If you want to be considered a professional on the level of doctors, engineers, etc., then drop the unions, stop insisting work be 8-3, and stop insisting on so many perks. Nobody else gets them.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | June 26, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Last night I went out with a group of my teacher friends, most of whom are still employed. I asked anyone if they knew about "Rubber Rooms" and one said, "Yes, in my district they are called "File Rooms." She said that one of her fellow speech therapists was in this room because of "very inappropriate behavior on the job." I asked if the therapist was mentally ill and my friend answered "probably."

I told my friend I didn't understand why the district didn't dismiss the teacher and this is what she told me:

"None of the principals at her schools wants to do the paperwork. They all say, 'It's not my job.' and so no one will commit to it."

In accordance with state law (NOT union law) a teacher cannot be dismissed unless "due process" can be proven. If no principal consents to do this, there can be no dismissal. By the way, it's the same for firefighters, police officers, librarians, social workers and a slew of other public servants. It might even be true of many workers in the private sector. Just try firing a doctor or nurse at a private hospital without any paperwork.

This is pretty much what I witnessed during my tenure as a teacher. As I said in a previous post, almost every teacher at my schools got a "satisfactory" or better rating from the principal. This is a matter of record and it's consistent across the United States.

So why do unions, which can't hire or fire, get the rap for ineffective teachers keeping their jobs? I'm not certain, but I think it's because journalists interview principals who place the blame on "the unions." Of course, unions do come to the defense of the teacher, but this only happens AFTER the dismissal. In my district that meant that the union would provide an attorney and pay for it. Any dismissed employee can do the same but might have to use their own funds for legal representation.

After Michelle Rhee leaves for Sacramento, I believe her legacy will be that she proved the "teacher for life" story to be a myth. Whoever follows her can continue to evaluate teachers without bashing them. Now everyone knows that a teacher CAN be dismissed.

Valerie, I hope you investigate this and set the record straight. Unions do not hire, fire or evaluate teachers. Administrators do.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 26, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

For the good of the country, we must STOP all voucher programs to private schools. Diverting desperately needed money from PUBLIC education has weakened it almost beyond repair. We are well on the way to a two-tiered educational system, just like England of the 1900's -- well educated rich people, and everybody else.

And you can imagine what "everybody else" gets.

I am not a teacher. I do not have any children, but only a political goon can see that funding PUBLIC education is the only means of ensuring a good education for all.

The children are the future of this country, undermine their education and you undermine the future of this country.

Posted by: ethanquern | June 26, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Ombudsman1 wrote:

If you're going to claim that neither are good indicators, then it's going to be hard to justify the salaries and benefits that public school teachers get (3/4th's pay for retirement at age 55!)

If you want to be considered a professional on the level of doctors, engineers, etc., then drop the unions, stop insisting work be 8-3, and stop insisting on so many perks. Nobody else gets them.
------------------
I love these claims about benefits. They differ according to state and local districts. Please get that through your head.
1. In MD, teachers earn about 35% of their salary after 30 years of employment. I will earn about 38% if I retire at 62 with 40 years of full time employment.

2. No teacher insists that work is 8 - 3. Those are student hours. Lessons don't plan themselves. Data doesn't study itself. Papers don't grade themselves. When do you think these tasks are completed? Years ago I read that the average teacher in MD worked 55 hours per week. That sounds about right. I know the parking lot at my school is full at 7:30 a.m. and it is still full after 5:00 pm when "official" hours are 8:30 - 4:00. People still take home hours worth of work.

Posted by: musiclady | June 26, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

bump-
So it's okay with you if poor people do without education? What about people who are temporarily unemployed or are hit with unexpected medical expenses and have no money for tuition? Maybe their kids can pick up cans off the roads or do yard work to save money for tuition.


Your screed is so poorly thought out, it's hard to take you seriously.

Posted by: aed3 | June 26, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

aed3: We provide all manner of social assistance to the needy, so I don't know where you got the idea they would not be provided for. The real question is why you think they have less of a right to self-determination in educating their children than the more fortunate do.

What's hard to take seriously is those who would defend the current system.

Posted by: thebump | June 26, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

When achievement is discussed in the education world, it always means the same thing: standardized test scores. It's been many, many years since it was seen as anything else.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | June 27, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

bump-
Where does "all manner of social assistance for the needy" come from? Taxes and charities.

Where would tuition assistance for people who can't afford school come from under your scenario? Not from taxes, according to you.

You seem to be making up things as you go along.

Posted by: aed3 | June 27, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

bump-
Where does "all manner of social assistance for the needy" come from? Taxes and charities.

Where would tuition assistance for people who can't afford school come from under your scenario? Not from taxes, according to you.

You seem to be making up things as you go along without thinking about the big picture.

Posted by: aed3 | June 27, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

aed3, your original question did not say anything about means-based assistance for the needy.

I'm afraid I have thought about the big picture. The present system is antiquated, dysfunctional and unjust.

Posted by: thebump | June 27, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I think you're right on target, as usual: an end-of-year standardized test should not determine overall student achievement; teachers and principals should not be punished for low end-of-year test scores. We need to start taking multiple measures of student achievement data into consideration and then we need to ponder on why schools exist in the first place: to develop students' cognitively, emotionally, physically, socially, and morally. Everyone should be playing a responsibility role in the process of educating children—that is, parents, communities, schools, and educators.

Posted by: rasheeedj | June 27, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Bump-
As usual, you have nothing of substance to back up your own statements. You brought up the issue of means-based assistance, not me. I responded with a question about how this would be funded, since it was your solution to having no tax base to pay for education.

Keep moving that target and evading questions. Generic comments and accusations accomplish nothing.

Posted by: aed3 | June 27, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

thebump has offered skads of substance, but is unsure what we're actually trying to accomplish. Not exactly an enlightened bunch around here.

Posted by: thebump | June 27, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

His royal highness, speaking of himself in the third person: thebump has offered skads of substance, but is unsure what we're actually trying to accomplish. Not exactly an enlightened bunch around here.
---------
The word "skads" does not mean what you think it means, apparently.

Posted by: nunovyerbizness1 | June 28, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Testing is the only valid measure of achievement, unless we are testing students who attend private schools using vouchers.

This double-standard that Valerie points out reminds me of my son's favorite line from Animal Farm.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"

Posted by: Nemessis | June 29, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

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