Martin R. West and Paul R. Peterson, Program on Education Policy and GovernanceHarvard University
What gets schools moving faster - the threats of vouchers or the stigma of being labeled "failing," a la NCLB? To find out, West and Peterson compared the performance of Florida schools that were facing a voucher threat (meaning they received an "F" under the Florida Comprehensive Accountability Test, or FCAT) to "D" schools that face no voucher threat but still have the stigma of receiving a low grade, and then compared those "D" schools to similar "C" schools. Thanks to their access to student-level data and demographic characteristics, they were able to adjust for socio-economic status, mobility, and other variables. The results make sense: "D" schools, motivated by the stigma of their low letter grade, outperformed "C" schools significantly. But the growth was even greater for "F" schools facing a voucher threat, which raised student learning by the equivalent of three to four months above the performance of students in the "C" schools. The authors found no impact at all, however, from the threat of public school choice under NCLB as implemented in Florida. Policy implication: being labeled a failure can shame some institutions to improve, but to spur real reform you have to incentivize them with consequences. Only in education is this rather mundane insight novel - or contentious. Check out the report at http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/pdf/papers/West_Peterson_ChoiceThreats.pdf.
Power of the voucher," by Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, New York Sun, April 11, 2005