Schools of Choice: Expanding Opportunity for Urban Minority Students

By West, Martin R. | Education Next, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Schools of Choice: Expanding Opportunity for Urban Minority Students


West, Martin R., Education Next


THE STUDY for which James S. Coleman is best known today makes no mention of private education. The 1966 "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (EEO) study--better known as the Coleman Report--focused exclusively on the distribution of resources and student achievement in America's public schools.

But the report's ink was barely dry before Coleman injected the issue of school choice into the discussion. "The public educational system is a monopoly," he wrote in 1967, offering choice only to "those who [can] afford to buy education outside the public schools" and thereby amplifying the influence of family background on student achievement. Later, he amended that observation, noting that the opportunity to choose one's residence permits school choice within the public sector as well. But in reality, only the middle class and the affluent can fully exercise that choice, he pointed out. "Public schools are no longer a 'common' institution," Coleman wrote. "Residential mobility has brought about a high degree of racial segregation in education, as well as segregation by income... and it is the disadvantaged who are least able to select a school... that continues to function reasonably well."

With such concerns in mind, Coleman jumped at the opportunity when the U.S. Department of Education in 1979 asked him to lead another national survey of American students, known as "High School and Beyond," that would follow young people as they progressed from 10th to 12th grade and on into college. Unlike the EEO study, "High School and Beyond" was to include both public and private schools. The study team looked closely at Catholic schools, since Coleman deemed the sample of non-Catholic private schools too unrepresentative to warrant close analysis. They reported that students in Catholic high schools both learned more and had higher graduation rates than their public-school peers. Minority students in particular appeared to benefit from the Catholic school experience.

Both Coleman's methodological approach and his conclusions about the superior effectiveness of Catholic schools sparked controversy at the time and remain contentious today. Yet Coleman's work triggered an avalanche of research comparing the success of public, private, and (later) public charter schools in preparing students for college and adulthood. The best of this work has taken advantage of the lottery-based admissions processes used by many school-choice programs, enabling researchers to draw far stronger conclusions about how schools affect student outcomes than the methods Coleman employed, which relied on simple regression techniques to adjust for differences in students' family background. By comparing students who won the opportunity to attend a school of choice to applicants who missed out, scholars have provided experimental evidence roughly akin to that generated by the randomized clinical trials used in medical research.

This research does not show that private or charter schools are always more effective than district schools in raising student performance on standardized tests--the indicator that is often put forth as a measure of a school's success. In fact, there is little evidence that using a voucher to enroll in a private school improves student test scores, and any differences in the average performance of charter and traditional public schools by this metric are modest relative to the amount of variation in performance within the charter sector.

The modern literature on school choice does, however, confirm two promising patterns that Coleman was the first to document: First, the benefits of attending a private school are greatest for outcomes other than test scores--in particular, the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school and enroll in college. Second, attending a school of choice, whether private or charter, is especially beneficial for minority students living in urban areas. These findings support the case for continued expansion of school choice, especially in our major cities. …

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