New study shows that competition and choice do not raise student achievement

At the heart of the Rudd Government’s policy of reporting individual school results is an assumption that competition between schools will raise student achievement. The theory is that reporting school results will better inform parent choice of schools and the competition between schools for enrolments will act as an incentive for schools to improve student achievement.

New research does not support this assumption. A study recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago provides a comprehensive review of the empirical studies in the United States on the impact of various forms of competition between schools on student achievement.

It concludes that the best research to date indicates that there is little evidence of any overall improvement in tests scores for students as a result of increased competition between schools.

One set of studies has examined the impact of publicly and privately funded voucher programs on student achievement. The review found that achievement gains for students selected for education vouchers are mostly statistically insignificant. The evidence from publicly funded voucher programs is mixed while there is little evidence of overall improvement in test scores in privately funded voucher programs.

Moreover, the little evidence that exists about the likely impact of a large-scale voucher program on the students who remain in the public schools is also mixed. The review concluded that there is no conclusive support for vouchers to spur public schools to improve.

The evidence on other forms of competition such as charter schools is no more promising. Studies of the effect of charter schools which compare a student’s achievement in a charter school to his or her achievement in a traditional public school found slight negative impacts of charter schools on student achievement.

Other types of studies which use random assignment of students to charter schools have mixed results with one finding no overall gains and the other small gains. In addition, there is no substantive evidence that the achievement of students who remain in the nearby traditional public schools improves with the presence of charter schools

Another group of studies is of district-wide school choice where students are not assigned to their neighbourhood school, but can choose a school within the district. Once again, there is no overall improvement in academic achievement among those who make a choice.

Thus, overall, there is little robust evidence that school choice and competition between schools improves the achievement of students who exercise choice or improves the performance of traditional public schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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