“Instructionist” School Reform and School Choice

Low-income kids being left further behind in places where instructional reform doesn't include choice

In a Winter 2008 City Journal essay, “School Choice Isn’t Enough,” the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, a well-known critic of progressive education, former editor of the radical left magazine Ramparts, and previously a strong supporter of school choice, says that school vouchers are a failed experiment and competition has not led to public school improvement.

He argues that the school choice movement needs “a realistic Plan B for the millions of urban students who will remain stuck in terrible public schools?” His suggestion is to focus on instructional reform as the best way to improve public schools for the urban poor. This is significant to the school choice fight because Stern is abandoning a central theme of the choice movement: “Competition lifts all boats.”

Instead, Stern offers us a vision of centralized top-down content management as the next panacea for education reform. Stern insists that an “instructionist” approach, which focuses on content standards and accountability, is a better route to school reform.

Stern cites Massachusetts as an exemplary example for other states to follow. He credits “instructionists” that “pushed the state’s board of education to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, created demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisted that all high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam,” with much of the student achievement success in Massachusetts.

Stern talks up the “Massachusetts miracle,” where the state scored first in the nation in the latest 4th and 8th grade math and reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card for student achievement and standardized benchmark for every state. The state’s average scores on the NAEP have also improved at far higher rates than most other states. However, there is a more nuanced explanation for the uptick in student achievement in Massachusetts. We might ask, “Miracle for which students?”

To be sure, having the highest scores in the nation and highest gains on the NAEP, as Massachusetts does, is an admirable achievement. For a fuller picture of what is happening, however, Education Week’s 2008 Quality Counts report for Massachusetts offers more context. Quality Counts notes Massachusetts ranks very low in terms of progress on the student achievement gap between low-income and higher income students. Massachusetts ranks 46th and 50th for the poverty gap-the difference in NAEP scores between students eligible for the free-lunch program and non-eligible students. In 4th grade NAEP reading scores, for example, Massachusetts has a 29.1 point gap compared with the national average of 26.8 points. In fact, the reading gap in Massachusetts has grown by almost 3 points between 2003 and 2007 on the NAEP. For 8th grade NAEP math scores, the state has a 31.4 gap compared to the 26 point national average.

In Massachusetts, middle class and wealthy children have clearly benefited from a focus on content and standards. However, it is less clear how this curricular focus has benefited the most disadvantaged students in the state, who are now being left even further behind.

Other data underscore Massachusetts’ ongoing struggle with the most challenging students. According to Standard & Poor’s, Boston’s 2007 reading proficiency scores on state standardized tests show that white students in Boston scored 67 percent proficient while black students scored 35 percent proficient, Hispanic students scored 35 percent proficient, and economically disadvantaged students scored 37 percent proficient. Every disadvantaged group in Boston has a larger achievement gap in 2007 than in 2004. Across the state the gap is similar. Seventy-six percent of non-disadvantaged students are proficient in reading while 42 percent of economically disadvantaged students are proficient-a 34 point gap, two points larger than in 2004. For low-income and disadvantaged students, then, Massachusetts’ instructional reforms have proven far less than miraculous.

A second important point about Stern’s advocacy for instructional reform is that other states that have undertaken similar efforts have not seen a Massachusetts-style pay-off in test scores. If content-based curriculum were a panacea, California and Indiana should, like the Bay State, be showing much larger gains on the NAEP. The 2008 Quality Counts report gives Indiana and California an “A” on standards and accountability. Both these states have had a very intensive curriculum and standards-based approach, very similar to Massachusetts, over the last decade.

Yet this focus on strong content and accountability has not translated into large student achievement gains. Indiana has produced a respectable seven-point gain in 4th grade math on the NAEP between 2003 and 2007. However, reading scores have remained flat. And like Massachusetts, Indiana’s poverty gap remains large with higher-income students being largely responsible for any gains.

Since Indiana ranks first in the nation in terms of content standards, we should expect to see a stronger effect on student achievement for disadvantaged students as well as advantaged ones. In urban cities in Indiana such as Indianapolis, the achievement gap has widened not narrowed in recent years. Beating the Odds, a May 2007 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, details how urban school districts have closed their achievement gaps in the past six years. In Indianapolis, the most disadvantaged students have lost ground since 2001. The achievement gap in reading on the I-Step for low-income 8th graders was 36 points in 2001; five years later it had grown to 45 points. About 75 percent of white students passed the English portion of the I-Step exam in 2006, compared with 48 percent of black students and 51 percent of Hispanic students.

In California, content standards and standards-based reform have had essentially no effect. California ranks near the bottom, 45th and 48th in 4th grade reading and math on the NAEP. The Quality Counts report ranks California 49th in terms of the “poverty gap” with a 30 point gap in 4th grade reading scores between low and high income students. The fact that California and Massachusetts rank similarly, 49th and 50th respectively, should give everyone pushing an “instructionist approach” pause, considering the demographic differences between the two states. Quality Counts ranks Massachusetts first on their “chance for success” index which includes variables like family income, parental education level, and parental employment. Massachusetts ranks 5th in the nation in terms of family income with 75 percent of parents earning more than 200 percent of the poverty level, while California ranks 39th. Massachusetts also ranks number one in the nation in terms of parent education with more than 60 percent of parents earning a college degree. In California only 38 percent of parents make it through college. The point of all this is that Massachusetts, a high income state, where 90 percent of parents are fluent in English, and 60 percent are college educated has just as large of an achievement gap as California which ranks 51st in terms of English fluency for parents, and 39th in terms of parent education. An “instructionist” approach has not closed the achievement gap in either state.

The bottom line is that content-based reform has not been a panacea in California or Indiana or even Massachusetts. Students with wealthier and higher-educated parents are thriving under a strong standards-based regiment. But content standards have had little impact on one of the most intractable of education dilemmas. It has not closed the achievement gap between lower and higher income students, where not even 50 percent of these students score proficient in reading or math.

That’s the major reason why school reformers shouldn’t place too many eggs in the “instructionist” basket. Families still need school choice. Public schools, especially in low-performing urban districts, still need competition, which gives students a right of exit to higher performing schools and gives public schools an incentive to improve in order to keep students enrolled.

Stern is too quick to dismiss the impact of school choice on urban school districts. Stern’s best case for dismissing the effects of school choice on public schools is Milwaukee, where public schools face competition from vouchers and charter schools. Yet in Milwaukee, test scores have been slowly moving up in every grade since 2004. Reading proficiency for all students is up by seven points on state tests since 2004. It is up by six points for blacks, eight points for Hispanics, and up by seven points for economically disadvantaged students. In addition, the achievement gap has been shrinking. For example, Hispanics have closed the achievement gap in reading proficiency by 10 points with their white counterparts since 2004. While perhaps not revolutionary change, Milwaukee’s data do not seem enough to throw in the towel on the entire school choice movement.

Stern is also overly dismissive of the impacts of robust public school choice programs where money is attached to the backs of children. He claims that in New York City the “Bloomberg administration and its supporters are pushing markets and competition in the public schools far beyond where the evidence leads.” Considering that 2007 was the first year that any market reforms were implemented in New York City on a district-wide basis, it is yet to be determined what the future effects of these reforms might be.

In California, Oakland Unified has seen rapid improvements for disadvantaged students on multiple performance measures under its New York City-style school choice plan. In 2003-04, for instance, the city’s high schools offered 17 advanced placement classes; last year, the district offered 91. About 800 high school students studied first-year physics last year — nearly triple the number taking the course in 2003-04. Since 2003, the number of graduates qualified to enter the University of California and California State University systems has nearly doubled.

In 2006 Oakland had the highest student achievement gain of the 30 largest districts in California. Oakland has also shrunk the performance gap for low-income students in 4th grade reading who qualified for the free lunch program. They went from a 45 point gap to a 25 point gap between 2002 and 2006.

To date there have been very few school choice programs that have offered public schools real competition in terms of actually losing students or dollars. Yet as more districts have higher concentrations of students enrolling in various school-choice programs, we may yet get to test the important idea that “competition lifts all boats.” Until then, it’s wrong to bet on instructional reform becoming a cure-all for disadvantaged students left behind in terrible public schools.