Graduation Rates Higher at Milwaukee Voucher Schools



By 01/10/2011

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Like many a critic of No Child Left Behind, I do not believe that test score performance is what really counts.  Graduating from high school and then pursuing a college diploma or acquiring a skill for a promising career is vastly more important. Test scores are just an initial glimpse at how well students and schools are doing.  Once longer term data on what is really happening to young people begins to arrive, that should be given pride of place.

Now we are finally beginning to get a series of studies that give us an idea of the longer-term impact of school choice programs.  Repeatedly the evidence is showing that schools of choice are compiling a consistently better record than that of traditional public schools.

The Institute of Education Sciences study headed up by Patrick Wolf found students more likely to graduate from voucher schools in Washington, D. C. Kevin Booker, Tim R. Sass, Brian Gill and Ron Zimmer found the same for charter schools in Chicago and Florida.  Now a new report from John Warren shows similar results for voucher schools in Milwaukee. In 2009, Warren estimates, 82 percent of 9th grade students in voucher schools graduated from high school, while just 70 percent of 9th graders in the Milwaukee Public Schools did.

Both systems have seen a marked increase in high school graduation rates since 2005. For the Milwaukee Public Schools, the rate has moved steadily upward from 54% in 2005 to 57% the next year, then to 60%, then up, again,  to 65%, and, finally. to 70% in 2009, a healthy trend that should be applauded.

But that upward trajectory for the public schools still does not keep up with a slightly-less-steady voucher school trend line —62% in 2005, 64% the next year, then a jump to 87% in 2007, down to 77% in 2008, and, finally, up to 82% in 2010. (The fluctuations are not surprising, given the number of voucher students (less than 300 graduates each year).)

Just why schools of choice produce higher graduation rates—even when, as in Milwaukee and D. C., test score results are not noticeably different—remains a puzzle.  One possibility is that the social context for learning at a choice school is much more supportive, and therefore students persist even if their academic record is lagging.  But it also possible that choice is particularly effective in high school (as compared to elementary school, where test score data typically comes from).  It is the American high school that seems to be the most obviously broken component of the American public school system.

Whatever the causes, the findings themselves are genuinely significant.  It is time for the evaluation debate over school choice to begin shifting its focus to real world outcomes, like high school graduation and college attendance rates.

-Paul E. Peterson




Comment on this article
  • Butch Trusty says:

    I am a fan of choice programs, but I am not sure I buy the statistics here.

    In both MPS and MPCS schools, the grad rate is up about 30%. Where the evidence that this program is altering the trajectory of students. Yes, the grad rate is higher but it does not seem to be improving at a rate that is substantially different from traditional schools. The graphs in the report bear this out (the lines have the same slope).

  • paul peterson says:

    Mr. Trusty,

    Don’t let the voucher school slope discourage you. When it starts from at a higher point and yet continues to move equally steeply as the public school slope beginning at a lower point, even though the voucher slope is coming closer to the ceiling (in this case 100 percent), it suggests that the voucher schools may be doing a better job at getting better, even though they were better to begin with.

  • Deborah Perkins-Gough says:

    Just why schools of choice produce higher graduation rates—even when, as in Milwaukee and D. C., test score results are not noticeably different—remains a puzzle. One possibility is that the social context for learning at a choice school is much more supportive, and therefore students persist even if their academic record is lagging. But it also possible that choice is particularly effective in high school (as compared to elementary school, where test score data typically comes from). It is the American high school that seems to be the most obviously broken component of the American public school system.

    Are the studies comparing overall graduation rates in the two sets of schools? If so, a more likely possibility is that families who excerise the voucher option are statistically more likely to be supportive of their children’s educational aspirations.

  • Roger Kramp says:

    As an administrator of a Milwaukee choice school, I would propose several other possibilities for why high schools seem to show better progress than elementary schools. First, since its inception, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) has attracted people willing to make a cheap buck off the government by offering less-than-acceptable education. The test scores form these schools temper the results of the dedicated schools that have been educating well for many years. This happens almost exclusively at the elementary level. Few try to start a new high school without being dedicated to educating teens. Secondly,at the elementary level, there are many choices in any given neighborhood which encourages movement between schools, sometimes often. We have a student on their third school this year. This means two things. One is that the mandatory fall testing done on large numbers of new students who don’t even know where all the rooms are located is all about their previous education, not about the school they have been in for a month and a half. This does not happen as often at the high school level since there are not as many choices, and even fewer “choice” seats available. The same then is also true for students who start a school, get into trouble either academically or behavioraly, and simply run to a new school. They are much more likely to stick it out a the “choice” high school and so make it to graduation. Our longitudinal statistics tell us that the longer a student stays in our school, the more we are able to do for him or her.

    Finally, the government’s success in convincing the public that raw test scores indicate teacher or school performance widens the gap between public and non-public schools. Public schools are now obligated to spend enormous amounts of time teaching to the tests. Dedicated non-public schools not bound to those scores can both spend more time teaching academic subjects, and use the test scores to diagnose and help students improve. This shift from focus on the school or teachers to focus on the students makes a huge difference in almost every operation of the school. Advantage – “Choice”

  • Paul Nevins says:

    Another possibility for higher voucher school graduation rates is lower standards. The voucher schools having a higher grad rate than they have a pass rate on the WKCE tests that are supposedly required for graduation suggests we may have an accountability problem.

  • [...] 2009, referring to researcher John Warren, Education Next’s Paul Peterson wrote that an estimated 82 percent of 9th grade students in voucher schools graduated from high [...]

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