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School Choice is No Guarantee to Improve Results

Monday November 2, 2015

School choice does not necessarily deliver better results for students according to a new research brief. The brief reviewed research on various alternatives to public schools in the United States and found that the impact of school choice on student learning generally shows mixed results with studies typically showing little or no difference in overall performance compared to traditional public schools.

In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools. [p.2]

The brief, published by the Centre for Public Education, says that there is no reason to conclude that choice in itself will produce better outcomes. “If the research shows us anything, it’s that school choice does not come with a guarantee,” said Patte Barth, director of the Centre.

The brief reviewed research studies on choice within the public school system which includes magnet schools, charter schools, and inter- and intra-district transfers to other public schools; choice outside the public system including private schools, vouchers and tax credits, and home schooling; and online schools which can be either public or private.

It found that 71 per cent of school students in the US attend a traditional public school while 16 per cent attend public schools of choice. Only four per cent of students attend charter schools. Ten per cent of students attend private schools and three per cent are home schooled. Less than one per cent are involved in voucher and tax credit programs.

Charter schools are the fastest growing choice sector in the US. However, their results overall are not significantly different from those of traditional public schools. The brief found that about one in four charter schools outperforms its traditional public counterpart in reading, and one in five does worse. Most charter schools are no better than their traditional public school counterparts.

The results for magnet schools are also mixed. Some show higher performance while others show similar results for magnet and non-magnet students.

Private schools tend to outperform public schools on national assessments. However, when researchers controlled for family background and location they found the reverse – public school fourth- and eighth-graders scored higher than their private school peers in maths.

Some studies of vouchers and tax credits report test score gains for low-income, African American students, but most show similar performance as public school students for other student groups. Some studies have found that voucher recipients are more likely to graduate from high school. However, generalized findings are difficult because programs tend to be small and many students use vouchers for only a few years.

The brief notes that there is little reliable research on the impact of home schooling. In 2012-13, only 33 per cent of online schools with state performance ratings were deemed academically acceptable.

Trevor Cobbold

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