Schools Are Not the Key

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By Holden Karnofsky

For most of my life, I assumed that education is the key to equality of opportunity. Put all children in reasonably good schools (I reasoned), and the achievement gap will disappear. But reviewing the facts has changed my mind.

The New York City Voucher Experiment is probably the largest-scale, most rigorous look at what happens when lower-income children get better options for schooling.

  • Low-income students entered a randomized draw to win vouchers to the private school of their choice.
  • Students who won the draw mostly (75%) enrolled in private schools of their choice.
  • Students who didn't mostly (89%) stayed in public school.
  • Both sets of students were followed for several years.

Satisfaction surveys showed that families found the private schools to be far better than the public schools.

But there was barely any difference in academic performance.

Different scholars disagree on the full details of what the study shows – some believe a small effect was shown specifically for African-American children and some do not – but the widespread agreement is that any effects of vouchers were very small, if they were present at all.

Similar studies have shown similar results (you can read more at our discussion of voucher studies).

Next time you're thinking of giving to a tutoring program, ask whether a tutor can possibly help a child as much as changing their school – which doesn't necessarily seem to help much at all.

Next: If it's not the schools, what is it?