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Lecture examines public schools

Brigid Fenlon | Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cecilia Rouse, economist and professor at Princeton University, delivered the Provost Distinguished Women’s Lecture last night. Her speech “Making Schools Accountable: Effects on Students and Schools,” discussed the two dominant methods for improving public school systems in a monetarily efficient manner.

These “two basic flavors of school accountability,” Rouse said, refer to test-based and market-based systems. These models intend to provide families with the appropriate information in order to make informed decisions about the best schooling for their children.

The test-based method, “holds the institution accountable and heavily considers test scores as a means of measuring a schools’ success and merit,” Rouse said.

The market-based method, conversely, “allows the marketplace to decide which schools are most successful, largely based on popular demand.”

Despite the different premise from which each method stems, the two have many similarities, including standardized testing, the public release of school-level test scores, rewards for high-performing/improving schools and sanctions for low-performing schools, Rouse said.

Rouse addressed some of the hypothesized effects of test-based school accountability systems.

“Efficiency of all schools will increase, and, in turn, the outcomes and degree of achievement will improve for all students,” she said. “Market-based accountability systems, on the other hand, involve greater parental choice through school vouchers or public school choice.”

Rouse emphasized that this “increase in parental choice within the system improves efficiency of the school because the schools are afraid of losing students.”

In order to make higher-quality schools available to all students of varying economic backgrounds, vouchers often serve as an effective and appealing option, Rouse said. Rouse illustrated their direct and indirect effects. Vouchers enable students to attend better, safer schools and allow for higher family satisfaction with their educational choices.

“Vouchers directly improve the outcomes for a student’s education and indirectly improve the outcomes of non-voucher students by increasing the efficiency of public schools,” she said.

With more efficient schools, comes an increase in the desire to attend these schools. The goal of this healthy competition, Rouse said, is to stimulate the improvement of all schools, providing a variety of sought-after options for children. This competition, however, is dependent on parental decisions.

“If parents chose a school for their children based on location or convenience, rather than academic strength, we will not see any significant improvement in the school system at-large,” she said.

Rouse also referred to the Bush administration and its emphasis on educational opportunities nationwide. The No Child Left Behind Act, which reflects the test-based method, was implemented to improve schools and close the achievement gap between minorities and others.

“Bush claims that the No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in improvements in all students, particularly those of minority races,” she said.

The results of the act, Rouse said, are based in the National Association of Educational Progress [NAEP], which takes into account the test scores of college-bound students, but fails to measure the achievement levels of those students who are not planning on higher education.

“Everyone in the country was subject to this law, so we lack a counter-factual so we can not know if it was due to ‘The No Child Left Behind Act,’ or other strict rules that were put into place” Rouse said.

While both the test-based and market-based methods should work in theory, they each have pitfalls and “mixed empirical support,” she said. Therefore, it is exceptionally important to hold schools accountable for their success by implementing standards, incentives and sanctions.

“At the heart of the matter is the need for good teachers,” she said.