Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Lawsuit in CA, a TFA critic, vouchers in CO and more


Ted Olson:

Ted Olson recently attended the Excellence in Education conference to speak about Vergara v. California, a lawsuit to ensure low-income students gain more equitable access to high quality teachers.

The reality is, low-income students are statistically more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers. Some of those teachers simply lack experience and others are truly ineffective no matter their experience level. (See these studies from the Center for American Progress and the Urban Institute and National Bureau of Economic Research for a few examples. Other researchers, like Eric Hanushek at Stanford University, suggest this can be inferred by other research on teacher quality in relation to experience and certifications).

The lawsuit argues that the student’s due process is being violated by a host of education policies including tenure and seniority privileges. These protections make it a) hard to fire bad teachers and b) more likely that it’s young teachers – who are more likely to be teaching low-income students – who are terminated. The lawsuit argues, correctly, that these rules disproportionately impact low-income students.

Olson is himself a pretty interesting character. He’s Republican lawyer who helped lead a lawsuit challenging Proposition 8, which banned same sex-marriage in California. At the conference he relayed his experience in this case and argued to the audience that winning education reform battles – like reforming teacher employment practices – requires winning over American public opinion just as was done with the gay rights movement in California.

Grade: Satisfactory


Catherine Michna – Tulane University

Catherine Michna is a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University and a former Teach For America (TFA) teacher. She’s also a TFA critic. She refuses to write letters of recommendations for her students applying to TFA unless they are education majors.

Catherine really believes TFA is doing damage to students in urban public schools, and she cites four studies on her blog to prove it. But she leaves out several studies that show TFA corps members are no worse than and sometimes better than their traditional teacher peers – including the most recent research by Harvard and Mathematica Policy Research.

Michna is also concerned about TFA’s impact on teachers, arguing TFA “deprofessionalizes teaching.” She worries TFA corps members are more concerned about padding resumes rather than seeing teaching as a long-term career. Indeed, few TFA corps members remain in the teaching profession after four years.

But TFA works in low-income areas with a chronic shortage of teachers. These are school districts where turnover is already high and where students are more likely to be exposed to ineffective teachers. Taking away TFA would likely leave these students worse off.

Opposing TFA because it “deprofessionalizes teaching” would be like opposing Habitat For Humanity because it deprofessionalizes carpenters.

Grade: In Need of Improvement


Douglas County School Board:

Douglas County, Colo. is the first school district in the U.S. to offer vouchers so its own students can attend private schools. So the Nov. 5 school board election, with four members up for re-election, is especially important.

The district is not the typical majority-minority urban district where decades of struggles prompted desperate parents to push for alternatives and major reforms. No, Douglas County is a white, affluent suburb of Denver with high-achieving students and an 87.4 percent high school graduation rate.

Simply put, it is not the sort of place you’d expect innovation in education. But in a bid to achieve even higher goals, the school board added vouchers to its list of high quality options. The response: intense fire from local and national unions; challengers who promise to roll back all the reforms; money pouring in from around the state and country; and charges of a Republican coup in a nonpartisan election process (the county is heavily Republican).

It remains to be seen what voters think. But support for the incumbents is cropping up in unexpected places. The Denver Post editorial board even wrote a column favorable to the reformers, urging voters to keep them and the innovation. Hopefully, a majority will give the incumbents credit for a progressive vision for a 21st century school district – a place where leaders worry more about student achievement than who runs the schools where students attend.

Grade: Satisfactory


Schools Matter Blog:

In a recent article, John Thomson of Schools Matter called into question research highlighted in Michael Petrilli’s piece “Rain of Error.” Thomson called Petrilli’s source a “compendium of pro-voucher studies” and its claims about the positive individual and systemic effects of vouchers an “exaggeration.”

The source was a Friedman Foundation report, “A Win-Win,” which includes a collection of ALL the random assignment studies on vouchers. Random assignment studies are the gold-standard of scientific research. (Note: Non-random assignment studies on the impact of vouchers were excluded from the Friedman report. These studies are more mixed, but generally find small positive impacts from vouchers.)

The Friedman report also reviewed studies on the “systemic effects” of vouchers (that is, how vouchers impact public schools) but only included reports which were “empirical studies using any scientific method.” Thus, lower quality studies were excluded.

The bottom line: The Friedman review found the reports overwhelmingly found small but positive gains for voucher participants, and that public schools improve when vouchers were an option for students.

Not convinced by Petrilli’s sources, Thomson hunts for his own and finds three “reputable” studies from the Institute for Education Studies, the Chicago Federal Reserve and the National Center for Education Statistics. Thompson says these studies support the claims of Diane Ravitch, not Petrilli or the Friedman Foundation.

Interestingly, two of the authors cited by Thomson (Cecilia Rouse and Patrick A. Wolf) had other research reviewed by Friedman (that source of exaggeration, remember?). Their other, random assignment research found statistically significant gains for at least one subgroup using vouchers.

One of the three studies cited by Thomson actually has nothing to do with vouchers (it’s a 2006 study about public vs. private schools). Another simply looks to discover what type of student exits the Milwaukee voucher program and concludes that vouchers work well for some, but not all students.

The only one that can remotely come close to supporting Ravitch is the one 2008 by the Chicago Federal Reserve. A literature review on school choice, it claims the research on vouchers is “mixed.”

(By the way, Diane Ravitch doesn’t use the word “mixed” to describe the research. In a recent interview with Sara Scribner, Ravitch claimed “vouchers have absolutely no impact on student achievement.”)

The Chicago Federal Reserve review includes a small assortment of voucher research of varying degrees of quality, and does not explain why certain studies were selected and others left out. It also examined fewer studies than the Friedman report criticized by Thomson.

Nevertheless, it actually found generally positive effects for voucher participants, and for public schools impacted by vouchers. That is the opposite of what Thomson claims.

Grade: In Need of Improvement


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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


John ThomPson

I cited just three off the top and intentionally selected for the short post a couple of studies by people who support choice. After all, the longer list was provided by Petrilli et. al. Vouchers got small gains for some by creaming and hurting, not improving, other schools,

When you say “statistically significant gains for at least one subgroup,” you aren’t saying much. The studies mostly argued that vouchers are unlikely to be scaled up. (that’s where the relative effectiveness of private school came into the discussion of vouchers in the report you question) I cited Ravitch’s written work, not an interview I didn’t hear.

Let’s put it this way. Vouchers are likely to do much more harm than good. Ravitch adds to the overwhelming case for that position.

She doesn’t cherry-pick evidence and just quote herself and other true believers.

Here’s where we fundamentally disagree. I taught in the inner city and celebrated my students who escaped by any means. But, I saw the way that choice damaged most students. You say that studies are “mixed, but generally find small positive impacts from vouchers,” and you want to expand a dangerous experiment using my students as lab rats based on such evidence.
I say, First, do no harm.

Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi John,

Thanks for writing. That is not at all what the research says. It neither says that the schools are creaming the best students nor does it say that schools or students are being harmed. Your experience, while terrible for those students, does not appear to be the case nationwide.

Statistically significant for a subgroup is saying a lot (please note, there are some studies that find benefits for all subgroups). Generally that subgroup are low-income African Americans. It would be strange for anyone to argue that a few months extra learning gains in reading or math or even a 21 point gain in graduation rates, really “isn’t saying much.” That is going to be a big deal for these students.

Ravitch has been very clear about her reading of the research. She says “absolutely no evidence” (and she’s said this many times over) and that is factually wrong. The evidence is mixed but generally small and positive. Mixed is very different from “no evidence.” These findings are also impressive considering we live in a real world and not a lab (and that makes the edu research difficult to do since kids come and go through voucher schools, charter schools and traditional public schools. Additionally, every state has varying rules and regulations that may positively or negatively impact the quality of education).

What the research clearly shows (in the worst case) is that some students benefit and others do not. That is not sufficient to condemn a program.

As to the last point, the US was already experimenting with the fate of children’s lives by declaring there was only one true path to education and that there would be no options. That is the wrong approach to education.

About TFA wouldn’t a better solution be to get our most experienced and best teachers to work at our most struggling schools, which we could do rather than to rely on some poorly trained hobbyists working what amounts to be an extended camp counselor gig, saying, I will give that a try?

TFA is insulting to professional teachers everywhere.

Patrick R. Gibbons

The irony is, at worst, a TFA teacher’s 6 weeks of training leaves them no worse off than a traditionally certified teacher (many of whom got a four degree in education).

As far as I can tell, the only people “insulted” are the people defending traditional teacher training methods.

As or vouchers, they were sold as saviors to poor kids so they could flee failing public schools. Since voucher schools basically haven’t done any better, despite advantages mind you, the right has decided to change the narrative. That makes vouchers disingenuous at best.

Patrick R. Gibbons

That actually isn’t true. The original idea of vouchers was that they would be available for all kids, regardless of income and regardless of the quality of the public school (and could be used at public schools). You can read this right from the originator of the idea himself, Milton Friedman.

The reason why voucher programs focus on poor (and/or special needs, and/or foster care) students is because it helps ease the fears of opponents who worried that the programs wouldn’t help the most needy students.

Perhaps, ironically, opponents hopped that limiting the size and scope of the program to half the funding for the most difficult to teach students would lead to failure but much research continues to show small but positive benefits for these students,

Also note, the “failing schools” component is not present in most school choice laws.

John ThomPson

“Statistically significant” has a defintion. Most of your research claims that vouchers don’t hurt other schools. But, most research does. You can choose to ignore definitions and researchers conclusions if you want. Vouchers have never been a biggie for me. They would drain money away from better uses, but nothing wastes money like the Duncan/Gates reforms.

Being a liberal, I am most offended by the spin of liberal reformers. The reason why I had recently reread your research is that Mike Petrilli invited me to a Friedman Institute conference in OKC. So, I reread your studies with bridging differences in mind. Actually, I didn’t have that many differences with the conference participants. You all make a basically philosophical argument. Everyone has a right to embrace whatever philosophy that you want.

And, you’ve got the right to spin research the way you want.

We’d be better off remembering, however that it is easier to kick a barn down than to build one. If you want to help kids as well as beat your political opponents, I’d ask you to think twice about the claim that the words “statistically significant” justify risk-taking.

Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi John,

Sorry to be late to respond to your post. Yes, “statistically significant” has a specific definition. Gains can be very small but statistically significant, meaning they are different from the control group (negatively or positively).

As for hurting schools, I’m not sure how you define schools. If you mean the kids within, the answer is certainly no. There is plenty of junk research out there (often cited by opponents of vouchers which don’t take into account race or income) but the higher quality (especially random assignment studies) show no harm to positive gains for both voucher students and students remaining in public schools.

As for risk-taking…I’m guessing you also oppose vocation, special needs, alternative schools, tech schools, gifted schools, and magnet schools? Those were obvious deviations from the common school. Big risks by public school systems to try something different to meet the needs of diverse children.

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