NY Choice Lifts Achievement in All Schools

Published April 1, 1998

As if in response to a recent tirade against competition in education from a prominent teachers’ union official, New York researchers in February published evidence showing that a long-running public school choice experiment in East Harlem has not merely pleased parents: It has also produced higher student achievement in all schools, including those in the lowest-performing neighborhoods.

The improvements from choice were widespread and not just driven by creating a small number of elite schools filled with the best students–the “creaming” that critics said would occur with choice. Schools in the choice district–which was the lowest-ranking district in New York City when the experiment started–are currently performing better than similar schools in other districts where choice is not as widespread.

The public school choice experiment began in East Harlem’s District 4 in 1974, when parents were permitted to choose which school their child attended and the district’s 22 large schools were restructured into smaller, alternative ones. Over the next 24 years, the experiment spawned more than 20 new schools for the district’s 14,000 students in pre-kindergarten through ninth grade.

Within the experiment’s first eight years, improved reading and math test scores had moved District 4 from last place to 15th out of the city’s 32 districts. The district currently ranks 21st and is performing at more than 80 percent of the citywide average, nearly double its 1974 level.

To examine the effects of choice on District 4 in more detail, an independent study was commissioned by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation. Researchers Paul Teske and Mark Schneider of the State University of New York at Stonybrook found:

  • Choice = Higher Scores. When factors such as poverty, immigration, transience, and limited English speaking were controlled for, District 4 schools in 1996 performed significantly better than schools in other districts on sixth-grade math and reading tests.
  • More Choice = Even Higher Scores. As the number of choice schools in District 4 increased, so did reading and math scores.
  • Choice = More Top Schools. After controlling for poverty and other student characteristics, 1996 reading tests showed that District 4 had more high-performing schools than any other district.
  • Choice = No “Loser” Schools. Even the ten lowest-performing non-choice schools in the district have improved since choice was established.
  • Choice = Satisfied Parents. Parents who make active choices are more knowledgeable and satisfied, and more likely to become actively involved in their child’s school activities.

Teske and Schneider’s scholarly findings support a growing body of evidence that competition is a potent catalyst for change in education. (See “Public Schools Benefit from Competition,” School Reform News, February 1998.)

The study’s findings also provide an effective response to American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman, who recently argued that the free-market system shouldn’t be applied to what she calls a “free and compulsory” K-12 system. “With a free-market system, winning and, especially, losing are built in,” she contends.

Teske and Schneider disagree. “The data show quite clearly that choice in District 4 has not produced any ‘loser’ school,” they write. In fact, they continue, “Our data show most of these schools have improved over time, suggesting that choice has put competitive pressure on all schools to improve.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].