Students who leave neighborhood public schools for private or magnet schools tend to fall behind academically in the year after they transfer, according to a new study of school choice in Indianapolis.
Students who move to charter schools don’t fall behind, but neither do they move ahead. Their performance is about the same as if they had stayed in their neighborhood school, the study finds.
The authors of the study, Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, say the findings don’t discredit the potential benefits of school choice, but they raise questions about the conditions under which choice might be a strategy for improving academic achievement.
“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, that school choice is not a panacea,” said Berends, a professor of sociology and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.
The study, “School Choice in Indianapolis: Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools,” has been accepted for publication and posted by the journal Education Finance and Policy.
Berends and Waddington analyzed several years of ISTEP test math and English/language arts scores for Indianapolis students in grades 3-8. The students attended neighborhood and magnet schools in public school districts as well as charter schools and private schools in the city. Magnet schools are public schools organized around themes, such as international engagement, foreign language immersion and Montessori education; students typically apply for admission to the schools.
Berends described the drop-off in test scores for students who exercised school choice as modest but noteworthy. Generally speaking, students who moved to magnet schools, Catholic schools or other private schools fell behind their public-school peers by 0.1 to 0.2 standard deviations in test scores.
By comparison, a 2015 study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University touted as significant its finding that students in urban charter students moved ahead by about half that much. The CREDO report was widely cited as evidence that charter schools were superior.
Berends and Waddington found some demographic differences in their results. African-American students who switched to charter schools experienced some gains in achievement. But Latino students who moved to Catholic or magnet schools had larger-than-average losses in learning.
Why would students lose ground when they move to a private or magnet school? One possibility, the authors said, is that students who transfer tend to be low-achieving, and it may take time to catch up with higher-achieving classmates. While the data in the study don’t allow for long-term analysis, students don’t generally fall further behind in the second year after they transfer.
Indianapolis made for an ideal place to conduct the study, the authors said. Promotion of charter schools by the Indianapolis mayor’s office and the Mind Trust, along with Indiana’s school voucher program, means that a lot of school choice has taken place. Private schools, including religious schools, must give the same ISTEP tests as public schools if they participate in the voucher program.
“In a time when a lot of cities are moving to greater school choice options, it’s timely to look at different choices and assess what the impact is on students,” Berends said.
School choice could also get a boost from the federal government. President-elect Donald Trump has proposed spending $20 billion to promote choice, including paying private school tuition.
The Indianapolis study suggests more choice won’t boost achievement and may hurt it. But Waddington notes that families choose schools for a variety of reasons. Some may find a private or magnet school a better fit. Evidence from Indiana’s voucher program suggests parents choose private schools for religious instruction, raising questions about whether the state should support sectarian education.
Berends and Waddington said the Indianapolis study provides more evidence that the key to improving student achievement doesn’t lie with a particular type of school. They said research suggests we should get past the “horse race” question of whether public, charter or private schools are better and seek a better understanding of the characteristics that make some schools more effective than others.