Evidence on School Choice

Economists, long inspired by Milton Friedman and others, generally embrace the concept of school choice. But actual evidence on its efficacy has been thin.

A new working paper by Justine S. Hastings, Christopher A. Neilson, and Seth D. Zimmerman, using data from a low-income urban school district, offers some encouraging news for choice advocates:

[W]e use unique daily data on individual-level student absences and suspensions to show that lottery winners have significantly lower truancies after they learn about lottery outcomes but before they enroll in their new schools. The effects are largest for male students entering high school, whose truancy rates decline by 21% in the months after winning the lottery.

How do the authors interpret this finding?

We interpret this as students exerting more effort towards academics at their current school due to an increase in intrinsic motivation from knowing that they will be able to attend a school of their choice in the subsequent school year.

Furthermore, test scores seem to bolster the argument:

We then examine the impact attending a chosen school has on student test score outcomes. We find substantial test score gains from attending a charter school and some evidence that choosing and attending a high value-added magnet school improves test scores as well. Our results contribute to current evidence that school choice programs can effectively raise test scores of participants. Our findings suggest that this may occur both through an immediate effect on student behavior and through the benefit of attending a higher-performing school.

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  1. Bill says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Paul says:

      There is only a lottery because there are not enough slots for all the students who applied. The lottery method is a better one to study to look for this effect since it is less biased. In other words, the charter schools are not just taking the “best performing” kids from the regular school. They are taking a random group from those who have applied. The effect here is not of the “lottery”. The effect here is having one’s choice confirmed, and then BELIEVING that you have a shot at improving yourself, so you work harder.

      It seems same motivation as later in life. People work harder when they believe that their hard work will pay off with a chance to improve their situation (whether a promotion, a raise, or whatever).

      It seems a good allegory between a “dead-end job”, and a “dead-end education”. Neither of these prospects inspire people to do their best.

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      • Mike B says:

        That’s not entirely true. Students still have to have parents motivated enough to enroll them in the lottery which means said parents also care about that student’s education. Charter schools don’t siphon off the “best” students, but the students who have a commitment to education. The truth that school choice masks is that under the current system of crippling poverty and dysfunctional homes is that for some greater proportion of students to succeed, others must be left behind.

        A system in which those that want to learn can learn is low hanging fruit that simply cannot scale beyond the point when the students who care about their education is exhausted. At that point you will either have the non-caring students concentrated in the failing schools or of said failing schools are closed, the problem children will be moved to non-failing schools prompting a new round of exodus.

        Schools can’t solve the myriad social problems that plague our poor communities. How much our society wants to spent to combat poverty is a matter for debate, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves thinking that letting the deck chairs choose where they want to be shuffled will stop the boat from sinking.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        “Students still have to have parents motivated enough to enroll them in the lottery which means said parents also care about that student’s education…” but in this experiment, 100% of the students had that kind of parent.

        The two groups in this study are:

        (1) Students who have parents motivated enough to enroll them in the lottery because they care about that student’s education AND who happened to win the enrollment lottery, and

        (2) Students who have parents motivated enough to enroll them in the lottery because they care about that student’s education AND who did NOT happen to win the enrollment lottery.

        Since this is a straightforward, single-variable, randomized, controlled experiment, we assume that winning the enrollment lottery is responsible for the differences seen between the two groups.

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      • Mike B says:

        I didn’t say it wasn’t, the problem is the conclusion that allowing all students to choose their schools will increase the results for all students. When you allow students who want a better education to get a better education and escape those they don’t care about education they do better. Duh!

        What the study masks is that the improvement is caused by one group of students being allowed to self separate from another group of students. I don’t necessarily want to pass judgement on this approach, but people need to realize that it amounts to a “Some Children Left Behind” policy.

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  2. Alex in chicago says:

    Hmm. More evidence that teachers really don’t affect student performance that much.

    Is anyone surprised?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 14 Thumb down 17
  3. nobody.really says:

    Haven’t read the paper, but the data in the abstract does not obviously support the conclusion in the abstract.

    Classic problem: When two groups behave differently, is it because of selection bias (i.e., Members of each group were not picked randomly)? Or differential role expectations (e.g., A group of people picked up in a church may well be dressed differently than a group of people picked up at the beach – not because the two groups differ in any meaningful way, but only because people play different roles at church than at the beach)? Or because there is some causal difference between the two groups (e.g., Test scores for some schools are higher because the teachers are better)?

    The abstract says that there was a lottery to get into a school. But where ALL people in the comparison group entered into the lottery, or (as is commonly the case) only the most motivated? That would create selection bias.

    The abstract pretty clearly finds a change in role expectations, with absenteeism declining for kids that win the lottery – even though they had not yet entered the new school. And this complicates the abstract’s conclusion that “Our findings suggest that this [improved test scores] may occur both through an immediate effect on student behavior and through the benefit of attending a higher-performing school.” Perhaps another way to state the conclusion is that improved scores may occur from EITHER the immediate effect on student behavior (reduced absenteeism, etc.) OR attendance at the new school OR some combination of the two.

    In short, it’s unclear from the abstract that the “higher-performing school” actually demonstrated that it is performs higher. For all I know, the increased test scores result purely from selection bias and/or changed role expectations.

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  4. Steve S. says:

    This is interesting, as it suggests that choice affects student motivation. Its important to consider the ways that choosing ones school would also affect the behaviors, dispositions and attitudes of parents whose children were accepted into the school of their choice.

    The counter argument is that all schools are schools of choice; assuming families can choose where they live (thus, move to the neighborhood where the school matches your educational philosophy, curriculum, values, etc.). There’s also the consumer psychology paradox between choice and happiness; surely a happy student would have greater motivation and achievement gains.

    For full disclosure: I’m a choice advocate:)

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  5. Andreas says:

    Free schools in sweden has lead to increased segregation.


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  6. Tom Fid says:

    It seems like this could be evidence that choice works for the students who enroll in magnet schools, but it’s not clear that that translates to a performance improvement for the system as a whole. There are certainly some reasons to think that it might, e.g., if the system tailors to individual needs better, but there are also reasons to think that this could be a selection effect, and that performance of non-participating students or schools would fall to compensate.

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  7. Paul M. says:

    Never mind the fact that the lottery is a self-selecting system. These 14 year-olds aren’t making a choice for a different school; These parents are choosing to put their child in another school. You mean when parents start participating in a child’s education, truancy rates go down and test scores go up? Shocker.

    So, while a lottery may remove selection bias on the part of the student, it exemplifies a selection bias towards parents. The parents most likely to be involved in their child’s education are the most likely to enter the lottery. These means that every one of those lottery winners has a parent who entered them into that lottery and participates in their child’s education more so than parents who didn’t enter them in the lottery.

    This doesn’t show that charter/voucher/magnet schools work better, it just shows that increased parent participation in education generates better results. Not exactly a mind-blowing idea.

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    • EmW says:

      Paul M. argues that the increase in child performance was due to parental involvement. However, the study showed the student scores went up after winning the lottery, but before entering the new school. Parental involvement was the same before and after this effect. It cannot be explained by parental involvement. The only thing that changed was they were going to a new school.

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      • Paul M. says:

        What changed was that the parents had a choice in where they sent their child to school. Parents made an investment of time and effort into their child’s education and saw that it “paid off” by a lottery win. While the most involved would enter the lottery, it can be reasonably assumed that parents, encouraged by their “victory” in winning the lottery, would increase their participation because they felt like they were having an effect on their child’s performance and opportunities.

        This study was in low-income urban areas, meaning that these parents are often the ones who feel like they have the least control over the direction of their child’s lives due to meager resources in both their homes and school districts (property tax funding of school districts is nearly universal in the US). With this victory in the lottery these parents are getting a “See, you can make a difference!” pat on the back and are being encouraged through this to involve themselves more.

        Also, many of these charter schools that open spots through lotteries have attendance and performance guidelines to stay enrolled in those schools. If a parent worked to get their child into a school, and knew that they had to meet performance guidelines, lest their work be undone, these parents now have an active investment in their child’s performance. It’s in the best interest of the parents now to ensure that their investment of energy in this endeavor pays out its returns.

        Maybe this means we need to find ways to encourage parental involvement into education, so that parents have a real investment in it, but it doesn’t mean that just getting some good news is the game-changer.

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      • Steve S. says:

        Who is to say that the parents didn’t become more involved upon the results of the lottery?

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  8. Andy says:

    Likewise, I have not read the full paper (charging for access to academic papers is for a separate comment thread), but I don’t see the clear evidence for school choice here.

    The “winners” – whether through a lottery or selection criteria – do better than they would otherwise have done…seems intutive. However, does this mean better outcomes across the population? And what constitutes the best outcomes across a population. In the very long term, you could argue that the supply of schools ends up matching the range of demands, but the market here will be slow to respond and many kids would fall through the cracks when a poor quality school “fails”.

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