Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vouchers Win

A series of studies have been completed in which the performance of students who were selected in lotteries to receive vouchers to attend successful schools were compared to students who were not selected in the lottery. By comparing these two cohorts comprised of students similar in every relevant way except that one won the lottery and the other didn't the study eliminates all variables except the quality of school the student ultimately attended.

A column by Gary Jason at The American Thinker discusses the results:
Greg Forster ("A Win-Win Solution: the Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers"), reviews the literature on voucher programs, and it is quite positive. He notes that of the ten "gold standard" studies of vouchers -- that is, studies that look at the performance of kids who won the lottery to go to voucher schools versus those who entered the lottery but lost (so had to attend public schools instead) -- nine show statistically significant gains in academic performance, and the one exception did show gains, just not at the level of statistical significance.

By comparing students who got the vouchers with those who tried but didn't get them, these studies effectively rule out other possible explanations for the academic gains, such as parental or student ambition.

Forster also reports that of the 19 empirical studies of the impact voucher schools have on the surrounding public schools, 18 confirm what one would expect a priori, viz., that competition from the voucher schools would force the public ones to improve their services. The remaining study shows no impact -- but no harm, either.

Another study by Matthew Carr ("The Impact of Ohio's EdChoice on Traditional Public School Performance") provides yet more evidence of the validity of the voucher concept.

Carr's study focuses on the crucial claim that voucher schools make public schools improve their quality of service through the force of competition (what he terms "the voucher threat"). Carr found that the public schools facing the voucher threat showed statistically significant gains in reading compared with those who didn't.

Interestingly, the gains are most concentrated in the "tails of the Bell-shaped curve" -- that is, the most advanced and least advanced students. As he puts it, this suggests that the public schools facing voucher competition put their focus on improving their services to the two groups they view as most likely to flee to private schools.

Even more exciting is the recent work by researchers investigating the effects of voucher programs on such non-academic but still vitally important phenomena as graduation rates and rates of campus violence. Here the results are even more dramatic.

The 2010 study of the D.C. voucher program done by the U.S. Department of Education -- a study that President Obama shamefully suppressed while he killed the D.C. voucher system (even as he was finding the best private school for his own privileged children) -- shows that the students who went to voucher schools had a 21% higher graduation rate than students who applied for vouchers but lost the lottery (91% versus 70%).

A similar study of the Milwaukee voucher program showed an 8% higher rate of graduation among voucher students than among the voucher applicants who went to public school (77% versus 69%).
Having taught in a fine public school for thirty five years I long ago came to be of the opinion that the problems of many schools has nothing to do with money, the quality of teachers, or the schools themselves, and everything to do with courts and legislatures that have piled so many restrictions and mandates on what schools can and cannot do that it's almost a miracle that as many kids succeed as do.

The opportunity every child should have is not to escape the public school in their school district but to escape the conditions that have been created in those schools by a panoply of overbearing laws, regulations, state school boards, teacher's unions, and lawyers.

Watch the documentary Waiting for Superman and weep for the students who want desperately to escape this system but find themselves trapped with no way out.

The Greater Miracle

An article at New Scientist opens by wondering how engineers might replicate the sophistication of the human brain. It answers by noting that:
IBM thinks it's found a way, and to prove it has built and tested two new "cognitive computing" microchips whose design is inspired by the human brain.
Now imagine that. Intelligent agents have engineered a microchip based on the design of the human brain which, according to materialists, is not actually designed. The design of the microchip surely required intelligence and would never have existed without the genius of the people who made it, but the brain upon which it is patterned didn't itself require any intelligent agency and is instead just the lucky product of blind, impersonal physical forces acting randomly over the span of a billion years or so.

Which is the greater miracle, that a mind engineered brains or that blind luck and chemistry did?