Monday, May 3, 2010

More on school choice

This post is inspired by comments generated by the Becker post:

Another point: I don't read enough of the "litature" about these matters to speak with much confidence, but I have a vague sense that people try to reduce the arguments about vouchers and charter schools to very narrow economic/social science studies. I wonder how much a study of, say, the effect of 5 years of one voucher program on the test scores in one city can really tell us about vouchers in general. Maybe these private schools are better for some other reason. Maybe they have better marching bands or something. Maybe they do raise math scores, but it might take many years for the effect to happen. It seems unfair to me that these alternative school models must justify themselves based on a few narrow criteria. I'm not accusing Matt of this. But this is the vibe I get from many school opponents. E.g. "We found that X program had no statistically significant effect on reading scores in Y city, so what's the point of even having the program?" Did desegregation improve reading scores? (I don't know.) If it didn't would we scrap the whole desegregation project? Some economists are way too narrow-minded. Freedom to educate your child in diverse ways is valuable, and we shouldn't put some great burden of proof on its proponents.


  1. Your point about narrow criteria is interesting. I think liberals and conservatives can agree that school is about more than test scores, no matter how well tests can measure learning. Another important thing schools can do is to help kids develop morally. Given the realities of family life right now, kids seem to need some such influence from schools. (This is one reason school choice is important, so that if you don't agree with the way teacher in public schools handle moral issues, you can put your kids elsewhere.) I know that there are problems with actually achieving this kind of goal, but the question I want to ask is this-- how can we take this kind of 'soft' factor into account when evaluating the effectiveness of schools, since it isn't as easily measured as test scores?

    And just a quick point about school desegregation: the goal surely wasn't to improve educational outcomes in the narrow sense (test scores and the like)-- otherwise 'separate but equal' wouldn't have been overruled by Brown. An important thing desegregation might do (here again, a 'soft' factor) is help kids not be as racist as their parents.

  2. Good question. I wouldn't mind a pretty laissez-faire voucher system: just let people choose and don't try to tweak the system in favor of "effective" schools. I think people, without the help of gov't, can figure out what the different schools are like. We know plenty about Harvard, U. Chicago, or even some tiny liberal arts school, not from gov't, but from reputation or US News & WR, or various other books and studies, or word of mouth.

    This is the beauty of markets. There doesn't have to be some genius planner somewhere. People try different things and the customers vote with their feet and pocket books. I'm not saying that you only care about effective studies insofar as the gov't can use such studies. But I am suggesting that in a more laissez-faire system, the studies matter less.

    When your parents and you picked a school, they probably made an informed, reasonable choice without relying on very sophisticated social science papers. People in your area had a rough sense about which schools were good and which were bad. And I think the bad ones can imitate the good ones. Maybe the imitation will fail, and they will need to try something else. It's all about "bold, persistent experimentation", to steal a phrase from FDR. And by experimentation, I mean the kind that the local deli does, not a rigorous scientific one.

    I wonder if FDR would've favored school choice?