Reactions to “The Lottery”

Let’s open up discussion on this topic of charter schools, and reactions to The Lottery.  I thought it was a thought-provoking movie, yet clearly one-sided (as I said at the Schooling the World event, no one makes movies about folks who hold a balanced perspective.  I guess it’s too boring.)

I know that I was brought to tears by the situations presented in the movie.  Some of those families had rough lives to say the least.  Yet they dream so much for their children.  Heartbreaking and touching all at once.

But, I couldn’t help but feel manipulated by the movie.  Are the teachers’ unions in NYC really that evil?  What about the parents who felt so strongly about keeping their school building?  And, what about charter schools that are failing too?

I think it is clear that SOME charter schools have made GREAT GAINS in otherwise failing school districts.  What they’ve done proves that students from these neighborhoods CAN succeed.  Other charter schools have ended in scandal, or they continue to be funded even if they are failing as well.

Dr. Lenkowsky (and our wonderful Hani) offered this publication as one to expand our discussion on the topic:  http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/does-school-choice-work.  It seems to give a more balanced view on the topic.

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4 thoughts on “Reactions to “The Lottery”

  1. Hmm, I’m not completely sure that Hess’s article is trying to provide a balanced perspective so much as say school choice doesn’t work because it doesn’t open the “education market” enough, which I think a lot of folks would not agree with at all.

    Hess does point out that many studies suggest that vouchers and charter schools work about the same as their peers:

    And this summer, two long-awaited studies on school vouchers and charter schooling issued their final analyses. In July, the Institute of Education Sciences released the multi-year “Evaluation of Charter School Impacts” study, which examined student performance in 36 charter middle schools across 15 states. The study found that, on average, the charter schools were “neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress” (though admission to a charter did “consistently improve both students’ and parents’ satisfaction with school”). The study also found that “charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students — those with higher income and prior achievement — had significant negative effects on math test scores.” It is worth noting, too, that in order to participate in the study, the charter schools needed to have enough excess demand to require an admissions lottery — meaning that the charters evaluated were those that parents most wanted their children to attend. If oversubscribed schools are typically better than charters with available seats — which seems a perfectly plausible assumption — then the study may actually overstate charter-school quality.

    In June, the federally mandated study of the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program — another evaluation led by Patrick Wolf — also issued its final report. Established in 2004, the Washington scholarship program provided vouchers for up to $7,500 per child per year, which could be applied to tuition, transportation, and other fees required to attend the participating private school of a family’s choice. Supporting between 1,700 and 2,000 low-income D.C. children a year, this was the first federally funded voucher program in the nation.

    Wolf’s team tracked educational outcomes over four or five years for 2,300 public-school students who applied for the scholarships, which were awarded by lottery. The researchers found that the reading and math scores of lottery winners were not statistically different from those of the control group at the conventionally recognized 95% confidence level (though their reading scores were higher at a 94% confidence level). As Wolf has explained, “A reasonable person would conclude that the voucher students made small gains in reading due to the program…[even if the] gains were modest and somewhat fragile.

    However, Hess uses these results in support of his argument that the system hasn’t gone far enough. Here’s his three-part solution (sorry for the lengthy block quotes):

    First, they should get serious about markets as a way to promote cost efficiency. Given the fiscal straits school systems now face — and given that the country has just been through a monumental health-care debate that focused on the problems with third-party purchasing and the lack of incentives for consumers to think about costs — it is peculiar that the power of markets to engender price competition remains so unexplored in education. School spending entails no direct contribution from parents, and parents currently gain nothing from choosing a more cost-effective school; as a result, administrators in charter, district, and private schools have less reason to take tough steps to adopt cost-saving technologies or practices. And yet the choice agenda neglects mechanisms that could reward price-conscious parents by permitting them to save dollars for other educational expenditures (such as college or tutoring) if they chose lower-cost school options.

    Second, reformers should broaden the educational-choice discussion beyond “school” choice. The narrow vocabulary of school choice made more sense 20 years ago, when online tutoring and virtual schooling were the stuff of science fiction, and when home schooling was still a curiosity. But in 2010, this language is profoundly limiting. In the health-care debate, even the most ardent single-payer enthusiasts believed that patients should be free to make a series of choices among physicians and providers of care. Yet in education, the most expansive vision of choice asks parents to decide among schools A, B, and C. This kind of choice may appeal to urban parents eager to escape awful schools; it does little, however, for suburban parents who generally like their schools but would like to take advantage of customized or higher-quality math or foreign-language instruction. A promising solution would be to permit families to redirect a portion of the dollars spent on their children through the educational equivalent of a health savings account. Such a mechanism would help families address children’s unmet needs (such as extra tutoring in difficult subjects, or advanced instruction in areas of particular aptitude); it would also allow niche providers to emerge, would foster price competition for particular services, and would make educational choice relevant to many more families.

    Third, champions of market-based reform should stop downplaying the role of for-profit educators. The Obama administration has been particularly guilty on this count, enthusiastically championing charter-school expansion even as its Department of Education radiates hostility toward for-profits in K-12 and higher education. The result is entrenched funding arrangements, policies, and political currents that stifle for-profit operators — organizations such as National Heritage Academies, which operates 67 charter schools in eight states, or EdisonLearning, which operates schools and provides supplemental education services across the United States and overseas. If choice-based reform is to yield more than boutique solutions, for-profits are a critical piece of the puzzle.

    I guess this makes sense, economics-wise. And Hess is careful to say that competitive markets require certain things, like adequate information. But I just don’t buy it.

    I don’t buy it because I don’t think low-income parents would have the information they needed to make those choices. Yes, there’s a lot more information available now about how schools perform on tests. But there’s also a lot of research indicating that some schools do really terrible things in order to make sure their scores look good, not to mention the run-of-the-mill things I’d encounter when I was teaching: trying to “bounce” kids who weren’t going to pass the tests or had behavior issues, referring kids to special education who were way behind, telling teachers to teach “social studies through grammar lessons” (which meant practicing for the language arts test during the time allocated for social studies), and focusing mostly on the “bubble” kids (the kids who were on the verge of passing) instead of worrying about the kids way behind or the kids ahead. So how do parents determine that?

    I don’t buy for-profits as a great piece of the puzzle because recent Senate hearings on for-profit colleges indicate that those institutions are really good at taking students’ money without giving them much for it, and I’m not too eager to start subsidizing PK-12 for-profit schools with public money just to learn (what seems to me) to be a basic lesson: for for-profits, the bottom-line is more important than anything else.

    I don’t buy that all this choice is going to be so much more cost-effective precisely because I would agree that good teachers are the most important determinants of a child’s educational outcomes. However, a lot of folks in The Lottery were complaining that there aren’t enough good teachers in the public schools (they said because of the teacher’s unions; I think that is highly debatable). If we’re going to be saving all of this money, where is it going to be saved from while still allowing EdisonLearning and associates to make a profit? Isn’t a large part of costs labor costs, i.e. teachers’ salaries? Aren’t people like Michelle Rhee arguing that we need to pay good teachers more, not less, in order to recruit more and better qualified people into teaching in low-income schools? My friend who teaches at KIPP (a very high-performing charter) saw his salary jump by about 20% when he moved from a traditional public school to KIPP, so I’m not so sure that all these cost savings are truly going to be realized unless we’re really scrimping on a lot of other stuff.

  2. Very interesting article in the NYT about the Harlem Charter School Zone Project (involving the whole community), as well as its criticism as voiced by the Brookings Institution – Grover Whitehurst.

    Definitely a topic that needs more discussion!

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