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    Researcher praises threat of vouchers

    The poorest-performing schools showed academic gains when faced with vouchers, a study says.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


    A researcher gave a boost to Gov. Jeb Bush's school accountability plan Thursday, releasing a study that concludes that Florida's lowest-performing schools have improved because of the threat of vouchers.

    "The F schools showed tremendous gains because they faced a particularly concrete outcome that they wished to avoid: embarrassment, loss of revenue, vouchers," said Jay P. Greene, the author of the study and a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

    Greene said his research is particularly timely, given President George W. Bush's school accountability proposals.

    The study got immediate response: an endorsement from a voucher advocate in Congress, praise from the governor and skeptical questions from critics.

    U.S. Rep. John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, hailed the study Thursday and urged his colleagues to read it in light of the education proposals facing Congress. Boehner is the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

    Critics questioned the findings and timing of the study.

    "This comes when (lawmakers) are trying to expand the voucher program; come on, we're not political neophytes here," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association. "I think it's insulting that the governor and the Legislature feel they need to hold this hammer over teachers' heads. Teachers want to see their students do well. That's their motivation."

    Vouchers and school accountability have been popular subjects for research, but findings tend to be all over the board. A voucher program in Milwaukee has been declared a success and a failure by different studies.

    And in a bizarre twist, members of the same Rand Corp. team of researchers studying test scores in Texas reached different conclusions in two different releases last year.

    In the Florida study, Greene examined test scores for Florida schools during the last two years and found that those starting with the lowest scores showed the greatest gains.

    There was little difference in the improvement among A-, B- and C-rated schools. But D-rated schools improved dramatically, and F-rated schools even more so.

    Greene ruled out several possible explanations for the gains. He rejected the statistical phenomenon called "regression to the mean," in which numbers at the high and low extremes gravitate toward the middle over time.

    He rejected the argument that low-performing schools simply had more room to improve. For one thing, low-scoring F schools showed the same improvement as high-scoring F schools. Also, high-scoring F schools showed much greater improvement than low-scoring D schools, despite having much in common in terms of raw scores and student populations.

    "Schools had some motivation to improve," Greene concluded, "simply to avoid the embarrassment of low FCAT scores. But schools with F scores had a second and very strong incentive to improve to avoid vouchers."

    Another researcher studying Florida's accountability efforts read through Greene's report, characterizing it as a "good first cut," but adding that for his study it will take another two years of data collection before he reaches any conclusions.

    "It's such a charged political environment now; there's a tremendous hunger among policymakers and journalists to draw conclusions," said David Figlio, an economics professor at the University of Florida.

    Explaining his more long-term approach, Figlio recalled an old commercial that popularized the saying, "We will sell no wine before its time."

    "It's still grape juice, in my opinion," Figlio said.

    Greene agreed in the text of his study that these early results "cannot be considered definitive. The A+

    Program is still relatively new and its effects might change, for the better or worse."

    Greene added in an interview: "I can't say how it will go in the future, but this is how it's going right now. The information is there for us to study now and in the long term."

    The study, paid for by a grant from the Florida Department of Education, was co-sponsored by the Askew School and DeVoe Moore Center at Florida State University; the Manhattan Institute, an influential non-profit think tank based in New York; and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

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