The Promise and Perils of Education Reform

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of an Urban Affairs Forum’s Scholars Series on “What the Trump Administration Should Know About Cities.”  This essay is by Vladimir Kogan who is a Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Ohio State University.  He is co-author of Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego with Steve Erie and Scott MacKenize.  In 2015 he published with Katherine Einstein the article “Pushing City Limits” in UAR.

By Vladimir Kogan (The Ohio State University)

Many early indicators suggest that big cities are unlikely to get much love from the incoming Trump administration. At an early January press conference, for example, the president suggested his administration would focus on rewarding “places that I won” — and most big cities backed his Democratic opponent by large margins, as they have done for many decades. In addition, President Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, not only lacks government experience but is also openly hostile to some of the agency’s programs and efforts.

One policy area that that does seem to be high on the president’s agenda is education, however. Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has a long — and contentious — record of advocacy on behalf of school reform in Michigan, and her appointment will likely shape the president’s approach in important ways.

On this score, Trump and his top advisers would benefit from examining the successes and failures of the previous two administrations. Their records suggest that there is significant room for federal policy to improve student achievement — but also that well-meaning reforms can backfire, exacerbating the very problems they hope to solve.

Blame Struggling Families, Not Failing Schools, for Poor Achievement

Getting education reform right requires correctly diagnosing the root causes of today’s problems. On this score, much of the ongoing debate misses the mark. In particular, the temptation to blame “failing schools” for dismally low student achievement in most big urban school district is almost certainly misplaced.

Consider this striking fact: By the time they reach their eighteenth birthday, kids will have spent only ten percent of their life in the classroom. Schools have no control over what students do in the early years of their lives, after school, on the weekends, and over the summer — but these experiences shape their academic aptitude and influence their performance on test scores. The main reason urban students fare poorly is because they are far more likely to come from economically disadvantaged households. Indeed, research suggests that much of the achievement gap between disadvantaged and well-off children is already present by age three, long before students set foot in a classroom, and grows only modestly during their years in school. Thus, comparing student achievement between urban and suburban schools and attributing all of the observed differences to education quality makes as little sense as comparing differences in survival rates of patients seen by family physicians and doctors treating the terminally ill and claiming that gap is due exclusively to doctor quality.

To his credit, President Obama’s approach to education reform recognized this reality. Obama advocated forcefully for expanding pre-school access and ensuring that early education programs are high quality. (Too many of the existing options are unfortunately not.) Equally importantly, the Obama administration focused its efforts on the aspects of the in-school experience that are documented to have the biggest impact on student learning: the curriculum used in the classroom and the quality of teachers.

The No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s signature education policy, mandated that all students achieve proficiency in math and reading and threatened harsh sanctions for schools that fell short of the mark. In response, many states simply dumbed down their definition of what it means to be “proficient” to make the goal more attainable.

Using first the Race to the Top program, and later executive authority to issue NCLB waivers, the Obama administration incentivized states to reverse this trend by adopting challenging standards and to tie teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement growth over time (which, unlike achievement levels at a single point in time, deals effectively with pre-existing, baseline differences in achievement).

Although these efforts were successful in achieving their goals of spurring the adoption of the president’s preferred policies, they generated widespread backlash across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives resented growing federal influence over local schools, and many liberals (and teachers unions) disliked the increased emphasis on test scores. Unfortunately, the Obama administration failed to anticipate these backlashes or offer a convincing response.

Does School Choice Work?

 President Trump has given little indication he will continue or build on the Obama administration’s efforts. As a candidate, Trump said very little about early-childhood education and bashed the Common Core standards. Both his rhetoric and the record of his nominee for education secretary suggests that the Trump administration will shift its focus from improving existing public schools to providing better alternatives for families, including charter schools and private school vouchers.

To date, the research on the impact of school choice is mixed. On one hand, early voucher experiments in places like Milwaukee and Washington, DC, were generally encouraging. Studies using charter school admission lotteries in places such as New York and Boston have also shown that big-city charters can significantly outperform the neighborhood public schools — not only in terms of raising test scores, but also in their impact on attainment-based outcome such as high school graduation rates and college admissions and completion.

More recent findings, however, paint a more pessimistic picture. School voucher programs in Ohio and Louisiana have been disappointing, with students attending private schools through these state’s voucher programs falling short of their comparable public school peers on standardized test scores. Moreover, the quality of charter schools is uneven — although, on average, the charter schools operating in big urban districts seem to outperform their public schools counterparts.

Aside from its impact on the achievement of individual students, however, it is also important to think about how school choice may reshape the educational marketplace and influence the dynamics of local school elections.

In Ohio, for example, there is some evidence that the availability of private school vouchers led to modest improvements in the quality of public schools with which the private schools compete for enrollment. (A large-scale field experiment in India failed to find similar effects, however.) Equally important, if charter and private schools compete for enrollment by raising the salience of public school performance ratings, this might produce beneficial electoral pressures on local school boards.

On the other hand, there is also strong evidence that families who take advantage of school choice options are not representative of all families served by local districts. These students tend to be higher achieving to begin with, and their parents tend to be particularly concerned about their kids’ education. If these families opt out of the local public schools, this may lead to the loss of some of the most attentive and vocal watchdogs, with detrimental consequences for local democracy (and the students who remain in the public schools). To date, there has been little systematic research on these political consequences.

Measuring Performance

For parents to make effective use of school choice options, they need high-quality, valid measures of school performance. And it is in this area that the Trump administration will likely have its biggest impact as it passes regulations to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB two years ago.

Although the new law dismantled much of the NCLB regime, it left in place the requirement that states publish annual measures of school performance. How states ultimately choose to implement these provisions, and the regulations the federal government adopts to set the bounds for their policies, will be consequential. NCLB offers a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when the federal government gives its blessing invalid measures of school quality.

Under the law, every state was required to identify schools and districts that failed to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” toward full student proficiency, a highly complex and ever-changing metric. Although designed largely as an administrative measure designed to identify schools that would face escalating sanctions under the law, AYP was widely disseminated and highly salient. For example, the failure to make AYP was widely interpreted as being labeled a “failing” school by the federal government. If this happened, property prices in the neighborhood fell.

There were two problems with this measure, however. First, failing AYP did not actually reveal much meaningful information about school quality. Many schools providing subpar education made AYP, and many outstanding schools fell short, in large part because they served disadvantaged students who needed to make up a lot of lost ground to reach the proficiency threshold. Second, voters did not react to AYP failure by improving local schools. Instead, our research shows, they actually punished the local districts by withholding tax dollars, only exacerbating inequalities and achievement gaps — exactly the opposite of what NCLB’s authors intended the law to do.

Lessons for the Trump Administration

 The main lesson from recent education reform efforts is that getting the policy right is only half of the challenge. The administration must also anticipate the political consequences of these policies, and ensure that they do not work at cross-purposes with the stated goals. For every policy action there is a political reaction, and sometimes these reactions can cause even well-intentioned reforms to go very wrong.

The “What the Trump Administration Should Know” Scholars Series was developed and edited by Scott Minkoff (Forum Editor) and Jered Carr (UAR Managing Editor).

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