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School Choice Lifts Underachieving Students

This article appeared in the Otago Daily Times today, 6 October 2006.

School Choice Lifts Underachieving Students

Among those returning to school for their final term next week, we know that Maori and Pacific Island students will be heavily over-represented in the groups who leave school early and with little or no formal attainment.

Last year nearly half of Maori and 37 percent of Pacific Island school leavers did not reach a Level 1 qualification. Only 59 percent of Maori boys were still at school at 16, compared with 90 percent of non-Maori boys. Far too many students in low socioeconomic groups of all ethnicities will also fail and be failed by our school system.

While it delivers a good education to many, there is a large gap, by OECD standards, between children at the bottom and at the middle of our achievement range, and we have a long ‘tail’ of underachievers.

There are many complex factors behind these statistics, but we know that some schools get better results from these groups of students than others. Schools matter, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds. We also know that many parents, given a choice, vote with their feet and move their children from failing schools to more successful ones.

One such failing school closing this year is decile 1 Sunset Junior High School in Fordlands, the Rotorua suburb made famous by Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors. Parents dissatisfied with the school’s offerings have progressively shifted their children to other local, more successful intermediate schools, and the roll has fallen from a peak of 700 to 70.

The freedom to open, expand and close in response to increased or reduced demand is one of the three essential design elements of successful school choice policies outlined by Harvard University Professor Caroline Hoxby, in a report released last month by the Education Forum and the New Zealand Association of Economists.

The two other critical factors Hoxby identifies in School Choice: The Three Essential Elements and Several Policy Options, ( are: funding following the student, so that all schools (public, private, for-profit, non-profit) are on the same footing; and independent management, so that schools are free to innovate in areas such as teaching practices, teacher pay, and school organisation.

The quality of New Zealand’s school choice policies has been patchy, to say the least. They include among other things the Tomorrow’s Schools initiatives of the 1980s which increased school autonomy and parental involvement; some up and down changes to funding of independent schools; and the abolition in 1991 of school zoning, now partially re-imposed.

Interestingly, research (from the 1990s Smithfield Project) tells us Maori and Pacific Island families made the greatest use of choice when zoning was removed. The proportion of Maori attending ‘non-local’schools rose from 21 percent in 1990 to 39 percent in 1995 and for Pacific Island students from 18 percent to 38 percent.

Another New Zealand initiative that perhaps came closest to including the three critical elements identified by Hoxby was the Targeted Individual Entitlement (TIE) scheme, a small scale voucher scheme introduced in 1996, which provided government funding for children from low income families (earning under $25,000 per year) to attend an independent school of their choice. The scheme, which was oversubscribed and seen as highly successful by parents, students and teachers, was abolished in 2000.

Further evidence of the gains that can be made in student achievement through sound choice policies can be found in Hoxby’s report. It draws on, amongst other work, a study of the impact of Chicago’s charter schools on student achievement.

These are public schools that are independently managed, fee-based (each student brings 75 percent of what a regular school receives), participate in state-wide testing, and can admit students from anywhere in Chicago. They are free to innovate, can apply to expand if they are oversubscribed, hire and reward teachers as they see fit, and can extend the school day and year.

The schools in Hoxby’s study were in inner-city neighbourhoods serving disadvantaged children. Students in the study and an almost identical control group were 74 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 81 percent poor.

After two years the students in charter schools had mathematics and reading achievement about 6 percentile points higher than the students who continued in regular schools. To put it in context, that’s equivalent to more than half the difference in achievement between very disadvantaged students in the United States and typical US students.

Debate about the merits of choice and competition in education will no doubt continue. Those who are confused about the claims and counter-claims should ponder two basic questions. When have we ever seen a quasi state monopoly perform as well as a market with competing suppliers? And, as a moral issue, why should parents not have the freedom to make their own decisions about their children’s schooling, regardless of what educrats might think is best for them?

Roger Kerr is the executive director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable


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