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Daily Howler: Voucher schools could help some kids. But would they solve the Big Problem?
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ALLEGEDLY, MILWAUKEE’S FINEST! Voucher schools could help some kids. But would they solve the Big Problem? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 2006

MUST WE BE LIKE THEM: The campaign against Chris Matthews continues, first in this Prospect piece by Todd Gitlin, then in this Media Matters complaint. But readers! Media Matters cadges a perfectly sensible mini-statement from the Wednesday evening Hardball —during which Matthews battered Bush’s Iraq policy for almost the entire hour. And when Gitlin makes the following point, he shows no sign of knowing where Matthews has been for the past three-plus years:
GITLIN (4/06): Matthews is most interesting, though, when his heroes collide. Whenever he finds a rugged vet at odds with Republican policy, his circuits jam. So he bent over backward to encourage crusty old Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha to thump Bush the day after the State of the Union address. “Mr. Murtha,” he said, “do you think the president’s consciously trying to confuse the American people as to who attacked us on 9-11?” The two Purple Hearts Murtha earned in Vietnam made Matthews wonder aloud more than once just whom Bush meant by his reference to “defeatists.”
Did Matthews “bend over backwards” for crusty old Murtha when he asked that question? In fact, Matthews has been criticizing Bush’s sleight-of-hand about who attacked us for years; he did so all Wednesday night, for example, as you can see by reading the transcript. Gitlin presents a list of Matthews’ Stupidest Statements, then acts as if this question to Murtha was some sort of outlier. But this theme has been standard fare on Hardball for years—during which time Matthews has presented cable’s longest-running, most intelligent critique of the war in Iraq.

Matthews says a lot of utterly foolish, embarrassing things; Gitlin has a long list of them in his piece. (His abject fawning to Giuliani continued last night, although Gitlin skips this embarrassing theme—understandably, since he had many to choose from.) But more and more, the liberal web and liberal journals have begun to cherry-pick and distort claims in the way the pseudo-conservative world has done for these past many years. And the progression concerning Matthews has been especially weird. When Matthews was an unvarnished, unalloyed nightmare for Dems, the liberal world stared into space and said nothing. Now that he presents a weirdly mixed bag, we have begun to complain—and to put our thumbs hard on the scale as we do. Media Matters gimmicks a pointless complaint from a program where Matthews went after Bush hard. And Gitlin betrays no real idea of what Matthews has done for three years.

Matthews says a lot of embarrassing things. In the past few years, he has fawned to Republicans on personality issues—while going after Bush’s defining policy. But then again, what about us? Do we have to be so much like the crackpots we all used to criticize? Can’t libs and progressives be a bit smarter? Or are we really just secret Sean Hannitys, deep in our cherry-pickin’ souls?

Special report: Allegedly, Milwaukee’s finest!

PART 4—MILWAUKEE’S BIG PROBLEM: For the record, voucher proponents say that vouchers can be helpful in two different ways. First possibility: A student attending an inadequate public school can move to a private school which is better. Second possibility: The pressure exerted by this competition can force the public schools to improve. And it’s obvious that both these things could happen. At TPM Café, Greg Anrig challenged John Tierney’s glowing appraisal of the Milwaukee voucher program (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06). But as he did, he gave this tough-but-balanced account of the Brew City situation:

ANRIG (3/7/06): Tierney loves warm and fuzzy stories. I could go to Milwaukee and just as easily tell a few of my own about some of the good public schools there. But that would be presenting a dishonest portrait, just like Tierney’s, because the public school system in Milwaukee is a mess. It’s not surprising that parents have been jumping at the opportunity to try out vouchers there. But unless the Journal Sentinel’s reporters were hallucinating, there’s little reason to think that moving students from high-poverty public schools to high-poverty private schools in the city is going to improve their education.
According to Anrig, parents may sensibly want to flee some of Milwaukee’s public schools; at least some of these schools are “a mess.” But if that’s true, his conclusion is hard to credit; in fact, the Journal Sentinel’s reporters (Alan Borsuk, Sarah Carr) found that there were some “excellent” voucher schools in Milwaukee, along with others which were “alarming”—which seemed to come screaming straight out of hell (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06). If some of Milwaukee’s public schools are “a mess”—and if some of its voucher schools are “excellent”—why wouldn’t a low-income kid be thrilled by the chance to make that switch? Indeed, why wouldn’t parents think that the switch might change the course of their child’s life? If Anrig, Borsuk and Carr are right, then surely some low-income kids in Milwaukee have “improved their education” by making the switch. Vouchers may be a bad idea on balance; there are many moving parts to the program. But opponents shouldn’t overstate the facts or the logic of the case, as Tierney seems to have done when he alleged that Milwaukee’s vouchers have produced heaven on earth.

For ourselves, we’ve never thought that vouchers (or charters) were likely to answer Milwaukee’s Big Question—why are our low-income schools such a “mess” in the first place? We’re not experts on Milwaukee’s public schools; we don’t know how many we’d describe as “a mess” (perhaps none). But the nation’s schools continue to look for ways to defeat the “achievement gap”—for ways to give our low-income kids the same skills and sense of achievement that middle-class students routinely enjoy. Why has that such been a formidable task? We’ll return, today and many times after this, to that important capsule statement from that latest new study:

THE CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
It’s very important to keep this in mind; children who come from low-literacy backgrounds are significantly “behind” their middle-class peers on the day they first enter school. (Jonathan Kozol, in The Shame of the Nation: “[I]n urban neighborhoods, large numbers of children have received no preschool education and they come into their kindergarten year without the minimal social skills that children need in order to participate in class activities and without even such very modest early-learning skills as knowing how to hold a pencil, identify perhaps a couple of shapes or colors, or recognize that printed pages go from left to right.”) It’s common for these low-income kids to be several years behind by fourth grade. It’s conventional to call our schools “a mess” if they fail to erase this gap. But uh-oh! Though public schools have often failed to address the Big Problem presented by kids from low-literacy backgrounds, we’ve never thought that voucher or charter schools were likely to solve this one, either.

What must we do to reduce that gap? To help low-income kids achieve? Conventional wisdom has routinely said that we’re asking too little of low-income kids. But our teaching experience suggested the opposite; in fact, kids who are three years behind in fourth grade are constantly asked to do too much, and their much-discussed “failure to thrive” routinely stems from that knotty problem. They’re asked to read textbooks they can’t possibly read. (Often, no other books are available.) They’re asked to keep up with instructional programs for which they’re simply unprepared. (The results are predictable—go ask Gabriela. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06). So now, let’s take ourselves to Milwaukee: Suppose a child who is three years behind in fourth grade transfers to a competent voucher school. Is there any reason to think that that school will be well-equipped to address that child’s problem? To give her the textbooks that she can read? To give her instructional programs built for her profile, not for somebody else’s? We’d like to see the research on that—research which, most likely, doesn’t exist—but we’ve never seen the slightest sign that private schools are inclined to diagnose or address this grinding problem with any more skill than our public schools do. If you’re teaching kids who are far behind, where do you go for the textbooks ands supplementary materials which they can actually read? These kids should be reading (and learning) all the time. But public schools have a hard time understanding this basic Big Problem—and those appropriate books are hard to get even when the Big Problem has been understood. Private schools are no more likely to diagnose—and solve—this Big Problem.

We think Anrig’s conclusion, in the passage above, misstates the logic of vouchers. Surely, some students are being helped by moving to Milwaukee’s voucher schools. But if those kids are years behind, will voucher schools know how to help them? Will voucher schools be equipped with appropriate books and instructional programs? We’re doubtful—and the matter is never discussed. Borsuk and Carr wrote an outstanding seven-part series—and they never discussed this Big Problem.

What do schools do when deserving children fit the profile of that latest new study? In Los Angeles, they make them take algebra anyway. But what do they do in Milwaukee’s schools when kids are three years behind in fourth grade? And should such a child get her hands on a voucher, will they know what to do at that “excellent” new school when she finally arrives?

STUDYING HOXBY’S STUDY: By way of correction and amplification, we note what an e-mailer told us about that study by Caroline Hoxby.

Background: In his original New York Times column, Tierney mentioned the Hoxby research. In her study, Hoxby claimed that Milwaukee’s public schools improved after 1998 because of the competition from vouchers:

TIERNEY (3/7/06): In fact, the students in public schools have benefited from the competition. Two studies by Harvard researchers, one by Caroline Hoxby and another by Rajashri Chakrabarti, have shown that as the voucher program expanded in Milwaukee, there was a marked improvement in test scores at the public schools most threatened by the program (the ones with large numbers of low-income students eligible for the vouchers).
According to Hoxby, test scores in the public schools rose in response to the challenge from vouchers. In his critique of Tierney’s piece, Anrig challenged this notion:
ANRIG: Tierney mentions an analysis by Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby that claims to show that public schools in Milwaukee that were subject to the greatest degree of competition from vouchers performed better—suggesting that market forces have a positive impact on the schools. But Hoxby herself has acknowledged that if the students moving from the public schools to the private schools had lower than average test scores in the first place, that alone would help to elevate the public school test scores. A recent RAND report on charter schools found that the students moving out of public schools were indeed more likely to have lower scores. (If true, that would indicate that previous concerns that private and charter schools would “cream” the best students from public schools didn’t transpire in practice. But it also would undercut the validity of Hoxby’s conclusions).
Has Hoxby “acknowledged” that public school scores would rise if low-scoring kids left with vouchers? Yes, she has—right in her study. And she also addressed this possible factor—click here, then scroll to page 26. Here’s a basic excerpt:
HOXBY (2003): Assume that the voucher students were the very worst in Milwaukee prior to their departure—that is, the vouchers literally cut off the bottom tail of the Milwaukee score distribution. Even under this extreme assumption (which is far too extreme, given what we know about the scores of actual voucher takers), the departure of voucher students could not account for more than 25 percent of the actual improvement in Milwaukee public school achievement.
In her study, Hoxby notes a rise in Milwaukee public school test scores after the voucher program became fully established by a 1998 court decision. Did Milwaukee’s test scores rise at this point? If so, did they rise because of improved instruction, brought on in reaction to vouchers? We can’t say, and Hoxby’s conclusions have been challenged by other researchers. (We can, of course, imagine inappropriate ways in which public schools’ reaction to vouchers could have produced higher scores.)

For the record, other researchers have challenged Hoxby’s conclusions. In this brief part of that seven-part series, Borsuk discusses the Hoxby study. And uh-oh! He describes the Chakrabarti study in a way which contradicts Tierney’s account. But Hoxby does seem to have addressed the point which Anrig raised against her.