Monday Reading List: Vouchers Don't Work, Computer Science, and Diversity as Strategy

At the end of last week, Kevin Carey wrote in The New York Times about recent data on school voucher programs:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading. The next results came a few months later ... They found large negative results in both reading and math ... This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

Ouch. In light of this data, it's hard to see how support for a broad-based, federally-funded voucher program is anything but ideological. One pernicious idea in the realm of public policy is that, "We should try radical things, because it couldn't get worse." Well, it turns out that, if you send vulnerable kids and families to unaccountable, cut-rate private schools that take government handouts as their primary source of revenue, yes, it can get worse. I will reiterate my challenge: if the Trump administration crafts a voucher plan that uses a progressive taxation scheme to fund vouchers at the level of the median price of the most elite private schools in the country, I will gladly support it.

Cassi Feldman and Eric Gorski at Chalkbeat look at another Trump administration priority: slashing the AmeriCorps program:

President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs ... AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them. The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

This is the wrong way to apply the principles of fiscal conservatism. Cutting AmeriCorps would eliminate jobs in vulnerable communities and leave schools without critical supplemental services. In the meantime, its elimination will have a negligible effect on spending. To use an extended metaphor, let's say you spend the national average $150 per week on food for your family. Cutting .03 percent would mean spending 4 cents less every week. Extending this argument, even if you completely eliminated twenty other programs like AmeriCorps, you still would not have saved a single dollar from your weekly budget.

In other news, Emily DeRuy of The Atlantic looks at computer science teaching in Finland:

Coding and programming are now part of the curriculum in the Scandinavian country, and they’re subjects kids tackle from a young age. But unlike in some parts of the United States where learning to code is an isolated skill, Finnish children are taught to think of coding and programming more as tools to be explored and utilized across multiple subjects. That mindset aims to accomplish a couple of things: to make coding and programming accessible to kids with a variety of interests, and to show students why understanding how technology works is relevant to their lives by linking its use to a multitude of activities.

This approach makes sense to me, and I saw something similar in action at the Wild Rose school in Massachusetts, where children used wooden balls and tubes to learn binary. Computer science is about computational thinking; coding is the language in which that kind of thinking gets translated to a machine. Schools should think holistically about teaching the relevant theories and skills of this domain.

Finally, Emmanuel Felton of The Hechinger Report looks at the intentionally diverse Bricolage charter school in New Orleans:

[Principal Josh] Densen is convinced that there’s widespread demand for a school like Bricolage across the racial and socioeconomic fault lines of New Orleans. While designing his school, he held community meetings in predominately middle-class, black communities in New Orleans East, in poor black sections of town like Central City, in diverse communities like Mid-City and in more affluent white neighborhoods Uptown. But, he recognizes, he can’t just build a school and expect a cross section of New Orleans to come; that’s why he has spent a lot of his time recruiting since launching Bricolage ... In the school’s first year, white children made up roughly 45 percent of the student body. As Bricolage parents began to rave about their experiences, the school grew even whiter — white students now make up 55 percent of the student body. Hoping to maintain a diverse school, Densen now exclusively focuses on selling Bricolage in the city’s poor and black neighborhoods.

Felton does a nice job of laying out the technical, and political, complications of managing the diversity of a school's student body. Whereas real estate is one of the biggest barriers to diversity for a traditional public school with neighborhood boundaries, recruitment and retention are the nuts to crack in the charter domain. There's no shortcut to running an academically exceptional public school, nor is there an easy way to hasten racial and socioeconomic integration. Both, however, are worthy endeavors. Have a great day!