Monday, December 10, 2007

Vouchers in Florida -- More Evidence of Improvement

A team of respected education researchers -- Cecilia Elena Rouse, Jane Hannaway, Dan Goldhaber, and David Figlio -- has just released a study of how public schools improved due to Florida's accountability program (which, among other things, allowed students trapped in failing public schools to obtain vouchers).* The study is called, "Feeling the Florida Heat? How Low-Performing Schools Respond to Voucher and Accountability Pressure." It's based on what the authors deem a "remarkable" five-year survey that attempted to elicit responses from every public school in Florida, "coupled with detailed administrative data on student performance."

The main finding:
We analyze the impact of the accountability system on Florida’s students and schools using a three-part analysis. First, we estimate the effect of the accountability system and the threat of becoming voucher eligible on student test score performance, both in the short-run and in the longer term. Second, we study the effects of the reform on school policies and practices. Finally, we attempt to determine if the policies appear to affect student achievement or explain the change in student performance. We find that student achievement significantly increased in elementary schools that received an “F” grade by between 6 to 14 percent of a standard deviation in math and between 6 to 10 percent of a standard deviation in reading in the first year. Three years later the impacts persist.

Importantly, we also detect specific school policy changes implemented by the schools that explain part of these increases. Specifically, when faced with increased accountability pressure, schools appear to focus on low-performing students, lengthen the amount of time devoted to instruction, adopt different ways of organizing the day and learning environment of the students and teachers, increase resources available to teachers, and decrease principal control. These, combined with other policies, explain more than 15 percent of the test scores gains of students in reading and over 38 percent of the test scores gains of students in math, depending on the model specification. As such we find evidence that schools respond to accountability pressure in educationally meaningful ways.
This seems to be an important confirmation of earlier results by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters, Chakrabarti (three papers: here, here, and here), Sandstrom and Bergstrom, Belfield, Auguste and Valenzuela, West and Peterson, and Caroline Hoxby.

Of course, if vouchers put pressure on failing public schools to get their acts together, then that could complicate any attempt to figure out whether the voucher students had improved. They may indeed have improved, but if the public schools improved to the same degree, it could misleadingly look as if there were no effect from vouchers at all.

*The voucher aspect of the Florida program was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court on the absolutely Orwellian ground that it violated the Florida constitution's guarantee that the state should provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." I say Orwellian because vouchers would never have been triggered in the first place unless a given public school had hopelessly failed to meet those qualifications.



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