Tuesday, February 27, 2007

does choice matter? Compton vs. Oakland

I'm empirically minded when it comes to school choice: if vouchers lead to better education for all students, then by golly let's adopt vouchers. (I don't buy arguments that they're inherently going to gut public schools. Maybe--and maybe only in some places--but where I live, the public schools are well-established, quality outfits, as they are across most of the country, apocalypticists be damned. If we had to compete for students, we'd do just fine.)

Early returns haven't been terribly favorable toward vouchers, but a contrast between changes in Oakland and Compton might point in a new direction. Lisa Snell and Shikha Dalmia report:
In short, the two districts have similar student bodies, similar challenges, and—until now—a similar history of failure. But Oakland is beginning to break away from this history, and the reason is the weighted-student-formula program it embraced some years ago and fully implemented last year.

Under this program, kids are not required to attend their neighborhood school, especially if it is failing. Rather, they can pick any regular public or charter school in their district and take their education dollars with them; more students therefore means more revenues for schools. Furthermore, as the name suggests, the revenues are "weighted" based on the difficulty of educating each student, with low-income and special-needs kids commanding more money than smart, well-to-do ones. Schools have to compete for funding, but the upside is that they have total control over it.

Compton has stuck to a completely different approach that does not involve empowering parents—or decentralizing control to schools. Instead, it has tried to fix its failing schools by mandating "classroom inputs." To this end, all Compton schools over the last few years have been ordered to reduce class size by 12 percent, improve teachers' credentials, adopt a tougher curriculum, and even clean up bathrooms.

What are the results so far? Oakland schools have shown a remarkable flexibility in responding to student needs, while Compton has stagnated. In 2003-04, for instance, Oakland's high schools offered 17 Advanced Placement classes. Last year, they increased this total to 91, or about one AP class for every 143 students. By contrast, Compton's AP offerings went up by two that year, to one class for every 218 students. Oakland students also are taking high-level math and science courses more frequently. About 800 high school students studied first-year physics last year—nearly triple the number taking the course in the 2004 school year.

More to the point, of course, are student-performance measures. Oakland kids have shown major improvement on the California High School Exit Examination, which all students must pass in English and math before graduating from high school. Sixty-two percent of high school students passed the English-language-arts portion, compared with 57 percent in 2005—a 5-point gain—and 60 percent passed math, a 6-point jump from the year before. By contrast, Compton showed no gains in English—staying stuck at 58 percent—and posted a 2-percentage-point drop in math, from 50 percent to 48 percent.

Similarly, Oakland's score on the state's Academic Performance Index—a numeric grade that California assigns to its schools based on the performance of their students on standardized tests—went up by 19 points. Compton, in contrast, gained only 13 points. Yet even this overstates Compton's performance, because almost all of its gains came at the elementary level, where students are not so intractable. Compton's middle schools lost an average of 6 points, while Oakland's gained an average of 16 points. Meanwhile, half of Compton's high schools lost points on the API score—including Compton High, where now fewer than 6 percent of males are proficient in reading, and fewer than 1 percent in algebra. Conversely, Oakland high schools gained, on average, 30 points. Even Oakland's economically disadvantaged and limited-English students have shown major improvements. In 2006, its economically disadvantaged students gained 60 percent more on the performance index than Compton's, and its English-language learners gained 120 percent more.
Note that it's not that students can take the money and run to the nearest private school. Public funds stay within the public system, so this isn't a classic voucher system. Maybe that's why it works as well as it does.

There's much more--the whole thing is worth reading--but the description of the changes is compelling. I'm provisionally skeptical, only because such short-term results sometimes confuse statistical noise for useful data, but the article points out that San Francisco has used the modified voucher system for six years now, with positive results.

In the broader context, though, opponents will see the last paragraph as only more fuel for conspiracy charges that NCLB is all about gutting public education:
Nationwide, close to 10,000 schools are considered to be failing under the No Child Left Behind Act, hundreds for more than five years. Yet less than 1 percent of students in these schools manage to transfer to a higher-performing school, even though they have that right under the federal law. Political leaders can change this by building on Oakland and San Francisco's modest experiment in school choice. No student deserves anything less.
Ironically, what Snell and Dalmia miss is that NCLB is acutely centralizing--i.e., Frenchifying--education.

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