The Very Brief Educational Debate

I missed the debate last night and also what seems like the only national discussion of education in this entire marathon of a campaign.

Five minutes, at the very end, out of thousands of hours of talk (hundreds of thousands if you count beyond the candidates) hardly seems like enough for an issue most everyone declares to be vital to our future.

Even worse is that a chunk of the discussion centered around vouchers.

McCain: Well, sure. I’m sure you’re aware, Sen. Obama, of the program in the Washington, D.C., school system where vouchers are provided and there’s a certain number, I think it’s a thousand and some and some 9,000 parents asked to be eligible for that.

Because they wanted to have the same choice that you and I and Cindy and your wife have had. And that is because they wanted to choose the school that they thought was best for their children.

And we all know the state of the Washington, D.C., school system. That was vouchers. That was voucher, Sen. Obama. And I’m frankly surprised you didn’t pay more attention to that example.

McCain unjustifiably praises the voucher program forced on the District of Columbia schools almost five years ago.

Studies have shown little if any improvement among DC students in the holy grail of American education in the 21st century, the standardized tests in reading and math.

In fact, most of the kids who used the federal money to move from public schools to private were not failing those tests in the first place.

In any case, it’s likely that the small differences in student achievement could be attributed to the novelty factor and that the kids’ parents were move involved with their education than others who didn’t go through the hassle of moving them.

Even worse, all the money spent on vouchers, in DC and elsewhere, has not done a thing to improve public schools, something which supporters of those programs claim will be a primary benefit.

Fortunately, some voucher fans are now beginning to realize they just don’t work.

However, although the concept is appealing to politicians needed an easy education sound byte, the major problem with vouchers is that for the students who use them, nothing fundamentally changes.

With rare exceptions, they move from one traditional classroom to another, from one situation when the primary goal is passing standardized tests to another with the same objectives.

Students are still lumped into learning groups based on their chronological age and expected to progress at the same rate as others in the same lump.

In the price range of the private schools in which DC kids (and those in voucher programs elsewhere) are using their money, the learning structure is pretty much the same, using the same teaching methods and materials.

If we are going to make any substantial improvement in American education, we need to rip apart the entire system and create something which addresses the fact that not every child learns the same way.

An educational program which takes into consideration that not every student will – or should – be going to college after high school graduation.

Voucher programs, like most charter schools, only recycle an instructional format mimicking an assembly line from 60+ years ago and try to make it mesh with a very different world.

Unfortunately, from reading what was said in this debate as well as the policy statements on their web sites, Obama and McCain don’t seem to differ much in their understanding of what is needed to reform our schools.

I can only hope that Obama is as good a listener as he seems and will pay attention to some forward thinking advisors, people who will help create something far better than the train wreck of a national education policy we currently have.

Maybe even some teachers?

No Profit in Vouchers

The voucher program that was imposed on the District of Columbia with great fanfare four years ago is set to expire at the end of the next school year.

It’s also not likely to be renewed, which has set off a whole lot of howls by the fans of school privatization around here, including some high priced television ads.

But does it deserve to continue? Just how effective* has the voucher program been? In terms of things like student learning and not political advancement, that is.

For the second year in a row, researchers have found little to no overall difference in the standardized-test scores of students who are enrolled in private schools under the District of Columbia’s federally funded voucher program and their peers who attend public schools in the nation’s capital.

Specifically, for students who had attended public schools deemed to be failing before the students took part in the voucher program–a high-priority target for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program–the new federal study shows no statistically significant impacts on their test scores.

The researchers did find some improvements in reading skills in three subgroups making up the vast majority of students in the program.

Those three subgroups constituted 88 percent of students who are participating in the voucher program and included: students who attended schools that were not labeled as failing when they applied for vouchers; students who had relatively higher academic-performance levels before entering the program; and students who were voucher applicants in the program’s first year of operation, the 2004-05 school year.

In other words, most of the kids receiving these “scholarships” are not the ones for whom the creators of the plan claimed it would be helping, namely students from the worst schools who weren’t learning in the first place.

One more example of an effort to pay for private schools with public money producing mixed results at best.

Most voucher supporters want us to believe that applying business-style competition to schools will lead to better student learning (aka higher test scores)

However, the first goal of business-style competition is higher profits, not better products.

Kids are not products. The objective of school is not profit.

And we will not improve public education by shifting students from one traditional 1950’s style instructional setting to another, even if it is privately-owned.

[* I think this link will work without registering. If not, the gist of the information is also here.]