If taxpayers were not already frustrated enough by the performance of public schools, their mood was probably not improved by the release of contrasting manifestoes in June by two prominent organizations dedicated to improving education.
Whether the case made by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) or the one by the Education Equality Project (EEP) prevails depends in large part on the willingness of voters to put aside their personal biases and confront the evidence.
At issue is the academic achievement gap between racial groups. Despite protracted efforts in the past decade, this problem continues to plague the nation. The policy debate takes on special urgency during this summer of presidential conventions, and special meaning as the US struggles to compete in the new global economy.
On one side are those who agree with the EPI. Its "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education" initiative maintains that the best schools with the best teachers cannot do the job expected of them without help. This group points to the disproportionate influence of factors beyond the control of educators in the performance of students.
Data from the US Department of Education, for example, show that disadvantaged children enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and math skills – and never catch up. These children bring huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development to class that simply overwhelm teachers and schools.
On the other side are those who agree with the EEP. They insist that schools can overcome these setbacks if they are reformed through stiffer measures aimed at making them more accountable. By using strategies that provide greater parental choice, for example, schools will be forced to improve or will eventually find themselves without students.
This side argues that the proper use of carrots and sticks – the same incentives that shape behavior of other professionals – can lead to positive results for students.
Which is right?
To decide, it's vital to examine the hard data available, rather than rely on intuitively-appealing proposals. Washington D.C. serves as an ideal laboratory in this regard because it is known for having the worst schools of any urban district in the country. Its students score at the bottom among 11 major city school systems, even when poor children are compared with other poor children.
On June 16, the US Department of Education released the results of a study of the first federal initiative to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition. It found that students in the Washington voucher program overall did no better on reading and math tests for the second year in a row than their public school counterparts.
Both groups took widely used standardized math and reading tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, yet the study reported no statistically significant differences in performance.
This conclusion is crucial because parents who used the vouchers presumably enrolled their children in schools that were structured and operated quite differently from regular Washington public schools. If the schools chosen were not different, then why would parents pull their children out in the first place?
Yet despite the ostensible differences, the latest data suggest that schools are limited in what they can accomplish alone with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This observation comes as no surprise in light of what the landmark Coleman report found as far back as 1964: The quality of schools attended by black and white students has little influence on the difference in average achievement between the two. What is far more predictive of how a student will do in school is the socioeconomic background of his family.
This fundamental finding, supported by multiple studies over the past few decades, calls into question the claim made by the EEP about the potential of school reorganization and the adoption of rigid measures to close the academic achievement gap.
Instead of naming and shaming, it will take intervention on a scale unprecedented in US educational history to close the gap.
Whether we have the will to make the necessary investment in child healthcare, parental support, and community involvement as the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education" urges is another story entirely. But too much is on the line to close our eyes to the reality of the classroom.