Speaking at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday evening, Donald Trump Jr. offered a harsh critique of the American education system:
“Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class; now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students. You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school.”
Trump Jr. touched on a familiar Republican theme that is perhaps one of the most contentious issues of American education – the school choice debate.
So what does the research say?
As The Conversation’s archives attest, this is a complex topic with no easy answers.
When answers depend on the question asked
“School choice” describes policies that allow families to enroll their children in schools other than the ones assigned to them by the public system.
In certain cases parents may receive state funding - known as school vouchers - to send their children to schools of their choice.
Views on school voucher programs vary widely. As Cornell University’s Glenn Altschuler explains, there have been school voucher programs since the 19th century but it is in the past 20 years that the movement has gained steam.
The question is, do school vouchers improve student outcomes?
“What we know about school vouchers depends on what we ask. And what we ask should be informed not only by traditional academic outcomes, such as test scores, but also by a new understanding of the many different ways that schools can contribute to student success.”
Are charters good or bad?
Charter schools offer another way of providing options to parents. These public schools are more autonomous than traditional schools. They are often organized around an educational mission or philosophy.
But, as Cowen writes, not all charter schools are created equally:
“Charters' governance structure – who can operate a charter and what kind of oversight they face – varies by state. For example, while charter schools in some states are managed by nonprofit organizations, in other states they are run for a fee by for-profit companies.”
Success rates vary. As Cowen points out in a second article:
“One recent study of schools in 27 states containing 95 percent of the nation’s charter students found charter advantages overall, but not necessarily in every state. … Such differences are at least partly due to differences in state laws defining what constitutes a charter school.”
As to Donald Trump Jr.’s call to look to other countries, Pasi Sahlberg gives us an insider’s look at classrooms in the country that is deemed to have the best school results in the world: Finland.
“In my previous job as director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education in Helsinki, I had an opportunity to host scores of education delegations from the United States. … A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States to help students to learn and feel well.”
“Imagine a police officer pulls you over and tickets you for speeding. She tells you she measured you going 50.5 MPH in a 50 MPH zone. No, you reply, my speedometer shows that I was going exactly 49.5. The entire discussion would be absurd, since neither your speedometer nor the officer’s radar gun is sufficiently accurate to support the opposing claims, and a 0.5 MPH difference is not practically meaningful.”