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

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