Longitudinal study will not end the debate over education in Milwaukee. More work is still needed to improve education for disadvantaged kids.
A multiyear study tracking students in both Milwaukee’s private voucher schools and Milwaukee Public Schools found that the voucher schools were exceeding the public schools in several key areas. The report’s findings may be significant, especially on reading, but there are still questions, and the bottom line is that improvement and strong accountability are still required for all schools in Milwaukee.
The final installment of an examination of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program shows that voucher schools made significantly higher gains in reading in 2010-’11 than those of a matched sample of peers in MPS. And there also were indications that kids in the choice schools finish high school and go on to college at higher rates than do those in MPS.
The results of the five-year study by Patrick J. Wolf, the study’s lead author and a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, have been challenged (see op-eds on the cover of Crossroads and “Another View” below), so the waters certainly are far from crystal clear.
To the evaluators of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, vouchers are like a vaccine. Once students are “exposed” to the voucher program – even if they subsequently leave – that “exposure” somehow accounts for any good things that happen later on.
And leave they did – a whopping 75% of them.
Here are the details: The evaluators began by following 801 ninth-grade voucher recipients. By 12th grade, only about 200 of these students were still using vouchers to attend private school. Three of every four students had left the program.
Given this attrition, the researchers had to estimate graduation rates (as well as college attendance rates and persistence in college) by comparing Milwaukee Public Schools students to students who had been “exposed” to the voucher program – even though most of those students appear to have actually graduated from an MPS school.
In 2006, the State of Wisconsin passed a law mandating that the School Choice Demonstration Project evaluate the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the nation’s first private school choice program. The law required that we track a representative sample of choice students for five years and compare their results with similar students in Milwaukee Public Schools.
We did so using an innovative and reliable student matching system in 2006 to create a panel of 2,727 voucher students in grades three through nine and a comparison panel of 2,727 MPS students in similar grades, neighborhoods and with similar initial test scores.
We carefully tracked both groups of students and measured student outcomes from 2007 to 2011. The key outcomes were “attainment,” graduating from high school and enrolling and persisting in college; and “achievement,” measured by growth estimates on state of Wisconsin standardized tests. On Monday, in Milwaukee, we released the final reports from that evaluation.
Our most important finding was that choice students outperformed public school students in educational attainment. We call our attainment results the most important in our study because attainment is a crucial educational outcome. Students who graduate from high school live longer, earn more money during their lifetime and are less likely ever to be divorced, unemployed or incarcerated than students who do not graduate.
Good intentions are important, but they don’t ensure reliable information.
The latest privately funded report on academic achievement in the voucher schools, despite good intentions, is ultimately both unreliable and irrelevant.
The report, the final in a five-year longitudinal study, is unreliable for several reasons. First, while it touts findings such as increased high school graduation rates, it buries the fact that most ninth-graders left the voucher schools by their senior year.
Second, the figures on special education numbers are inflated and do not hold up to scrutiny. The only solid data at this point is based on the special-ed participation rate in the state’s standardized tests.
Last year, when for the first time the private voucher schools were required to give the state test, only 1.6% of voucher students were identified as students with special needs. The report can make whatever claims it wants, but that doesn’t mean its claims are legally or educationally legitimate.
Students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are more likely to graduate from high school, get into college and stay in college than students in Milwaukee Public Schools. This is just one of the findings from the nation’s leading scholarly experts on school choice, the School Choice Demonstration Project, in the release of its final reports last week on programs in Milwaukee.
The project used rigorous methods to compare students in the choice program with MPS students.
The comparisons show that the choice program as a whole has higher graduation rates and superior growth in reading scores than MPS. While this is good news for choice students, we need to expand those gains across all sectors of the Milwaukee education market.
One step in that direction is being prepared by a coalition of traditional public, charter and private schools to create a common accountability report card for Milwaukee schools. The effort is led by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and others. School Choice Wisconsin and the Choice Schools Association have both been involved in its creation, and it will cover all sectors – traditional public, charter and choice.
The complexities of equitably comparing a wide variety of schools are challenging. Once finalized, the comparative information on schools in the report card will empower parents and community leaders to make better education decisions.
Significantly lower per student spending (voucher vs. traditional public schools) is a material factor in these discussions.