Parental Choice, Really?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.

In the late 1990s, I once found myself in a social conversation with a member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, a small agency of leading economists charged with providing the Executive Office with objective analysis and advice. When I asked about her views on education policy, she offered up a set of policy solutions largely based on the traditional economic viewpoint that a more market-based approach to education would lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes. She supported a menu of policy solutions that clustered around the concept of “school choice.”

I then inquired which Washington, D.C., schools her children attended. She replied that her kids had remained back in her hometown, attending a private school. When I shared that I happened to know the school because a friend had once taught there, she asked in an unsure voice, “Oh, is it a good school?” In return, I asked her, “With all the resources at your disposal you are still not sure whether you made the right choice for your kids. How do you expect that in a free market, with many less resources at their disposal, low-income parents will be able to confidently make a decision that you cannot?”

I remembered this conversation as I read the recent op-ed in The New York Times“Why School Choice Fails.” It chronicles the challenges faced by the author, Natalie Hopkinson, in finding a good middle school for her 11-year-old in Washington, D.C.–one of the hotbeds of the school choice movement. In Hopkinson’s view, the district’s policy that students in failing schools be allowed to “transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school” is a failed one. She believes that as a result of these policies the educational outlook for D.C.’s working- and middle-class families is “bleak.”

Not surprisingly, there are those that disagree with Hopkinson’s analysis and her conclusion that there is “lack of proof that school-choice policies work.” Education Week Blogger Sara Mead addressed the fundamental attribution error in the Hopkinson op-ed, and later followed up with a thoughtful piece on why pure school choice cannot be left entirely up to parents.

As economists may tell you, consumers must be well-informed for market-driven education reform to succeed. As was clear from my conversation with the professor who was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, even well-educated, highly trained professionals with time, access to all available information resources, and high-level decision-making skills have a hard time making choices in the education “marketplace.”

Market-driven education reform will continue to be challenged as an education improvement strategy until the average parent has more and better information, improved access to this information, and support to sort through the options. Only then will parental choice be real.

Breaking Down Red-Tape Barriers to College


As college application season is coming to a close, parents and kids are embarking on a more daunting task: figuring out how to pay for college. Unfortunately, difficulties in navigating the financial aid process can result in many students forgoing college altogether. Could there be a better way to help kids get beyond this single but life altering barrier?

Stanford researcher Eric Bettinger did a study recently in which H&R Block took data from peoples’ tax forms to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for their high school seniors. The cost of doing this was trivial, yet the benefits were huge. Children of parents randomly assigned to have their FAFSA done by H&R Block were significantly more likely to go to college than kids randomly assigned to a control group. To my knowledge, there is no more effective way of increasing the college attendance of kids who might or might not go, and this one costs almost nothing.

It so happens that my son was going into a Master’s program in Florida and had to fill out a FAFSA. Knowing about the H&R Block study, I suggested he take it to H&R Block office near him that had just done his tax forms. Needless to say, they didn’t provide the service. I’ve since learned that even though H&R Block paid for Bettinger’s study (with the help of grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and other sources), their offices rarely offer the FAFSA service.

I tell this story because I think it speaks volumes about inequities and idiocies in American education. First, it exposes one of the many enormous benefits kids get if they just have the good sense to be born to middle-class, literate parents (who can help them fill out a FAFSA). Second, why is it that school districts or colleges themselves cannot provide the service H&R Block was experimenting with (but later decided not to offer)? Third, if it does take H&R Block or other tax preparers to do a FAFSA, then why can’t every low income parent of a high school kid hoping to go to college get a voucher to have their local tax preparer help them fill out a FAFSA form?

This is not my field, so perhaps all of these things are being done, BUT I STRONGLY DOUBT IT. Instead, my rather confident guess is that the system is happily cranking along, effectively barring deserving, capable, and promising young people from a brighter future because it’s no one’s job to solve this little FAFSA problem. We spend billions, by the way, in financial aid and elaborate programs to help able, disadvantaged kids go to college. It’s not that we’re unwilling to spend money. It’s just that we’re unwilling to follow the evidence until we find solutions to the core problems of our society.

Researching Classroom Realities

I recently saw a remarkable article in Education Next, Studying Teacher Moves, by Michael Goldstein, the founder of a charter high school in Massachusetts and of a teacher residency program that supplies teachers to schools like KIPP. The article criticizes educational research for its failure to study “teacher moves,” the day-to-day, minute-to-minute decisions teachers make to solve the predictable problems of teaching: how to call on students, assign homework, create a positive environment for learning, and so on. Why, he asks, should Microsoft spend 15% of its revenues on R&D, while the education enterprise nationally spends about 0.03%? And within the small amount that is spent on research, why is so little of it useful to teachers or principals? He proposes a system of research that would involve educators deeply in identifying “teacher moves” worth studying, doing exploratory research, and ultimately evaluating combinations of moves that promise to improve student outcomes.

Goldstein’s argument is right on the mark, in my opinion. In fact, back in the 1970s and ’80s there was a substantial effort to study teaching, particularly represented by process-product research. But enthusiasm for this type of research waned, and today, the journals are full of research that does not address basic realities of classroom practice. I write an educational psychology text, and I am always looking for high-quality research on, for example, classroom management, teaching methods, means of motivating and engaging students, and so on. Yet a tiny proportion of the hundreds of articles I read every time I revise my text address issues of practice.

I hope Goldstein’s article will be widely read and will make a difference. If research continues to ignore the daily realities of teaching, teachers will continue to ignore research, and that leaves the field spinning its wheels. Both teachers and researchers know how to do better, but they’ll need support and encouragement to link up and move the field forward.

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Illustration: Slavin, R.E. (2007). Educational research in the age of accountability. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Reprinted with permission of the author.

How Education Innovation Can Thrive at Scale

In a recent blog, Rick Hess explains “Why Education Innovation Tends to Crash and Burn.” His analysis of why promising innovations so often flame out does a good job of describing the situation as it has been for many years. He notes that many innovations depend initially on exceptional funding, rare expertise, temporary enthusiasm, or one-off policies unlikely to be maintained for long, and discusses the problems of trying to innovate in entrenched institutions.

These factors may all be important in explaining how things have been. Where I take issue with Hess is in his suggestions for building support for innovations going forward: Keeping innovations simple, inexpensive, and located outside of traditional institutions. None of these characterize the few proven innovations that have made a difference for many years, and changes now happening in this arena may greatly improve the chances that today’s proven innovations will also thrive. For example, our Success for All whole-school approach celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and works with about 1,000 schools and has impacted over 2 million children. Reading Recovery, a tutoring model for struggling first graders, is even older, and continues in hundreds of schools.

Across effective innovations and programs that have “beaten the odds” to maintain scale amid changing policies and trends, there are several common factors:
1. They have strong evidence of effectiveness.
2. They can be funded by stable funding sources not dependent on philanthropy
(mainly, Title I).
3. They are invariably supported by strong organizations, and committed networks of dedicated educators.
4. They communicate a very clear vision of what must be done to improve student outcomes and a clear path to achieve this vision.
5. They provide intensive professional development in the early years of implementation and then follow up to maintain quality over time, usually indefinitely.

These factors are much at variance with those Hess suggests. Remember, we’re talking about innovations that make a meaningful difference for children, not just better AV equipment. Proven approaches tend not to be cheap or simple. The successful innovations I know about are relatively complex (because they provide a lot of PD), and mostly operate in ordinary Title I schools.

The handful of successful innovations have, as Hess suggests, had to overcome considerable obstacles, and they have survived as much despite as because of the current system. Many others are no longer among us. Yet the conditions that doomed many promising innovations are readily changeable, and are changing.

The essence of the change is increasing respect for evidence in education and related fields, at least at the policy level. When evidence of effectiveness becomes a basis for program adoption, then innovators with proven solutions will thrive. A dynamic of this kind is apparent in Investing in Innovation (i3) and in similar programs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These federal initiatives target funding to programs with strong, replicated evidence of positive outcomes. A policy culture supporting evidence does not require new systems of governance, new (unsustainable) funding, or other changes. Existing school systems and existing funding sources can support innovation if government simply provides information and incentives to use existing resources for proven approaches. For example, encouraging schools to use (existing) Title I, SIG, or special education funding on proven programs could make a world of difference in the dissemination and maintenance of innovations – and in outcomes for children. Innovations that can improve student achievement will rarely, if ever, come in the form of a simple, low cost silver bullet. Pretending otherwise only distracts from our focus on innovations that are truly scalable and sustainable.

Editor’s note: Dr. Slavin’s organization, the Success for All Foundation, is a recipient of a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) fund grant.

Topsy-Turvy Logic in House Proposal

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for mad hatter 12611.JPGIn last Saturday’s New York Times, Annie Lowrey wrote about a proposal in the House Appropriations Committee to cut funding for five of six Education and Health and Human Services programs that provide support to proven programs. One of these is Investing in Innovation (i3), which funds the development, validation, and scale up of proven and promising education programs. Education is not alone in the possibility of dramatic cuts to effective programs. Nurse-Family Partnerships have not only been found in rigorous evaluations to be effective in improving the development impoverished mothers and their children, it has also shown to reduce the mother’s need for other government services including welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. Despite saving the government more than the program’s cost, Nurse Family Partnerships are on the chopping block too. The House cuts are in contrast to the proposals put forward in the Senate in recent weeks to maintain i3 and other evidence-based programs.

In a time of shrinking resources, one might argue that everything has to be on the block. Yet the evidence-based programs are a tiny proportion of federal funding for education and health, totaling just $1.2 billion in the $670 billion in non-military discretionary spending, according to Lowrey. Popular but unproven programs (including those found repeatedly to be ineffective) are being maintained.

A recent Brookings Institution paper by Ron Haskins, a former Republican senate aide, and Jon Baron, President of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, contrasts the evidence base for programs maintained in the House proposal and those proposed for cuts. They say, “Only in the topsy-turvy world of Washington would programs that do not work get major funding increases, while programs that do work get cut.”

Beyond the immediate damage to students and families that would follow on cutting of proven programs, such an action would seriously set back the entire evidence-based reform movement, one of the greatest hopes we have for across-the-board improvements in education, health, and human services. All of the programs proposed for cuts in the House plan not only fund existing programs with strong evidence, but also encourage the identification of additional programs over time.

This is not a partisan issue. It is a question of good government and wise use of resources–which is more important than ever in today’s economy. What could be more conservative, in the best sense of that word, than an insistence that federal programs prove their worth in rigorous evaluations?

The Senate proposal is a bold statement that evidence matters, and must matter more over time. The House is supporting business as usual.

If you believe that evidence of effectiveness should be a basis for government funding, this is the time to make your views known.

Illustration: The Mad Hatter, John Tenniel, 1865

Editor’s note: Mr. Slavin’s organization, Success for All, is a recipient of a federal Investing in Innovation fund grant.