Enlow: Other States Trying to Emulate Indiana on Vouchers, Charter School Law

The following guest blog is part of our weeklong celebration of National School Choice Week:

Around this time last year, the national spotlight was on Indiana because of a battle in the state capital. No, not right-to-work – the Super Bowl. But in the absence of that spectacle, the nation continues to keep a watchful eye on Indiana for the transformative changes made to its education system – particularly in the area of school choice.

Our state continually ranks at the top in the educational opportunities it provides Hoosiers. With vouchers, Indiana has the largest eligibility window of the other 11 voucher-providing states: 530,000 low- and middle-income students statewide, 9,324 of whom opted for vouchers in the program’s second year. The state has the sixth-best charter school law in the nation, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And in the Center for Education Reform’s “Parent Power Index,” which compiles a number of education reform measures that empower families, Indiana ranks number one.

Hoosiers should know that other states have tried for years to adopt pieces of the package Indiana approved. And make no mistake, other states need to pass those measures because our country has been woefully lagging, and overspending, in attempting to prepare our young people for college, careers and life.

In 1966, the federal government provided $2 billion for public education (using 2006 dollars). In 2005, that number increased to $25 billion. In 2010, total federal spending on K-12 education reached $47 billion. Meanwhile, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show a history of education outcomes not keeping pace with those increased expenditures. In 1971, the average score for eighth graders on NAEP’s reading exam was 255 (on a 500-point scale). In 2011, that number stood at 265. For fourth graders over that same time period, the average score bumped from 208 to 221.

School choice, on the other hand, has proved its positive effect on increasing student outcomes at around half the cost. Of the 10 random-assignment studies – considered research’s “gold standard” – conducted on school vouchers, nine showed they positively impact student performance; one found no effect. And among the empirical studies examining school choice’s effect on other schools, all but one found competition improves traditional public schools; again, one found no effect. None concluded there is a negative impact.

That’s why states – this year’s list includes Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas – are trying to emulate Indiana. And they must. Such policies may not be as fun as the Super Bowl, but their effects are certainly game-changers for taxpayers, schools, parents, and those who matter most: students.

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Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which is participating in National School Choice Week, January 27-February 2. More than 100 Indiana schools are holding events during the weeklong celebration for school choice.

Students Get the Answers, But Not the Reasons

Scientists! We need more scientists! But they may not be coming from current students, according to a report based on a highly regarded 2009 national science assessment.

The State Science & Technology Institute provides the analysis:

When testing fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-grade students on their ability to conduct science experiments and thoughtfully explain the results, investigators made three key discoveries that policymakers say may be troubling for future workforce needs. The National Center for Education Statistics Science in Action report found that when using limited data sets, students could make straightforward observations on the data. However, most struggled to explain the results and were challenged by parts of investigations that contained more variables to manipulate or involved strategic decisionmaking.

More than 2,000 students participated in interactive computer task assessments and updated hands-on tasks that involved more open-ended scenarios. These activity-based tasks were administered for the first time as part of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science assessment. NAEP reported that such tasks require a deeper level of planning, analysis and synthesis, thus allowing researchers to understand not only what students know, but how well they are able to reason through complex problems and apply science to real world situations. Topics included predicting how seeds travel, determining what materials make up four metal bars in magnetic properties, and determining what type of plant pigments certain organisms contain.

Researchers made the following three key discoveries from student performances across the tasks:

  • Students were successful in conducting experiments with limited sets of data and making straightforward observations of that data;

  • Students were challenged by investigations that contained more variables to manipulate or involved strategic decision making to collect appropriate data; and,

  • The percentage of students who could select correct conclusions from an investigation was higher than for those students who could select correct conclusions and also explain their results.

While science was heavily integrated in daily schoolwork for fourth- and eighth- graders, only about half of twelfth graders reported that they were enrolled in a science course and only 28 percent were writing reports on science projects at least once a week.

The results could be troubling for policymakers and educators working to ensure a competitive U.S. workforce. David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, expressed concern that students are only grasping the basics and not doing the higher-level analysis needed to succeed in higher education and compete globally. 

Students Lacking in Civics Basics

Poor results on national or international education tests are nothing new. The latest is The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010. For a straightforward analysis of what it means, check this out from the Fordham Institute:

The nation’s report card assessed some 26,000 fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students; across all grades, about one quarter of pupils scored proficient, and 2 percent advanced. Alarming—though not terribly different from NAEP results in other subjects. So what do these numbers signify?

At the fourth-grade level, it means that barely one quarter of students could identify a function of the military and only 2 percent could offer up two rights of American citizens. The 76 percent of twelfth-grade students who failed to score proficient could not, for example, define the term “melting pot” or explain whether or not it applied to the U.S.

And only one percent of eighth graders could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court. Still, there is some positive news to report. Notably, since 1998, the white-Hispanic and black-white achievement gaps have narrowed, while all sub-group scores have risen. But on the whole, the picture is bleak, especially for our twelfth grade students—the very people who will be eligible to vote in next year’s elections.