The Major Error in Our Current Discussions About the Merit of School Vouchers

Read almost any article about the merit of school vouchers, and you so often find critics who point out that test scores in communities with vouchers increased only modestly or not at all. That is the opening critique of vouchers. By all means, look at the test scores, but we must consider more factors when we are measuring the quality and humanizing impact of a learner’s education.

School is and must be about more than test scores. I’m sure there are some parents who, if interviewed, will tell you that their top priority for a school, is to help their child score as high as possible on the standardized tests, but I’m quite sure that is a minority viewpoint. As parents, the first thing that we want is for our children to be safe. If you can’t provide a safe environment, then we definitely do not care about test scores.

Second, we want a school that will prepare our children for what comes after school. Maybe it is preparation for the next level of school. If that is the case, then we have ample research to show that standardized tests are a bad measure. GPA (as much as I dislike grades) is a far better measure. If post-school is going into the workforce, then job preparation and nurturing the necessary traits to do well in the job is probably a priority. Again, standardized tests don’t measure for this.

So, the first priority of parents is safety and the second is preparation for what is after school. In both cases, standardized test scores are a lousy measure. Then why do we keep discussing the merit of school vouchers on the basis of standardized tests? I’m baffled by this.

The answer, unfortunately, is because we don’t measure much else of value and standardized tests scores are easy to reference. We settle for measures that do not even align with our highest goals and priorities just because they are easy data points, and that is a problem. Data like this can quickly draw us away from what really matters to key stakeholders.

Let’s talk about stakeholders for a moment. Do parents prioritize standardized tests? Which teachers think standardized test scores are the gold standard measure of a great schooling experience? How about students? What about employers? None of these stakeholders, people who have a major stake in the quality of education and its outcomes, think that standardized tests should be the focus.

I have yet to find a strong argument for making standardized test the best way to measure the quality of a school or the efficacy of the school voucher program. We need to move beyond this narrow conversation so that we can make progress. Let’s start looking more closely at measures for school safety, student perception of safety, school culture, student sense of belonging and being part of a caring and nurturing learning community, student agency, measures about the nurture of key traits and skills that consistently show up as important factors in future success and well-being. We can measure student readiness for goals after that level of school, not just test score measures. We need a more substantive and well-rounded set of measures. Then maybe we can move beyond political positioning. Let’s get data that aligns with our shared goals so that we can have better conversations about vouchers and any other such innovation.

While we are at it, how about if we also measure the efficacy of vouchers on the basis of parent and student wants and stated needs as well? Shouldn’t they have significant voice in the nature of the education that impacts that lives? If they have priorities, then I contend that we should find them and come up with measures of schools based upon these priorities as well.

We are not there yet. People on any and every side too often pick and choose data points that support their individual preferences. We report on what helps us win. We have to find a way to be about empowering individuals and collective wins. When it comes to the discussion of voucher, that calls for revamping the way that we talk about the issue and the way that we measure school quality and success.