Choice around the world

Around the world, school choice improves outcomes, argues The Economist.

Harry Patrinos, an education economist at the World Bank, cites a Colombian programme to broaden access to secondary schooling, known as PACES, a 1990s initiative that provided over 125,000 poor children with vouchers worth around half the cost of private secondary school. Crucially, there were more applicants than vouchers. The programme, which selected children by lottery, provided researchers with an almost perfect experiment, akin to the “pill-placebo” studies used to judge the efficacy of new medicines. The subsequent results show that the children who received vouchers were 15-20% more likely to finish secondary education, five percentage points less likely to repeat a grade, scored a bit better on scholastic tests and were much more likely to take college entrance exams.

Voucher programmes in several American states have been run along similar lines. Greg Forster, a statistician at the Friedman Foundation, a charity advocating universal vouchers, says there have been eight similar studies in America: seven showed statistically significant positive results for the lucky voucher winners; the eighth also showed positive results but was not

Sweden is giving parents choice as well, which is a bit surprising.

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  1. “an almost perfect experiment, akin to the “pill-placebo” studies used to judge the efficacy of new medicines.” As much as I like the comparison of regular public schools to placebos, whoever wrote that really doesn’t understand double-blind studies. The kids and their parents certainly knew which got vouchers and went to private schools.

    In the medical studies, neither the patient, the people administering the pills, nor the people evaluating the results know which are the placebos and which the real pills. You can’t do that with people. At least, I hope researchers never get the idea that they have to blindfold the kids from when they step onto the schoolbus until they are locked in a generic classroom with nothing to identify which school it is…

    I think the real claim is that they eliminated the “committed parents” factor by comparing kids that won the drawing and got vouchers to private schools to kids whose parents also put in for vouchers but lost the drawing. It would also be possible to eliminate bias in rating the results by bussing kids to a third place for testing, and keeping which busses were from which schools from the testing staff, but I doubt they went to that much trouble. The unavoidable and much greater weakness is that commitment still wasn’t equal; parents and kids stuck with the “placebo” public schools might have slacked off because they didn’t expect much.

    Finally, does “vouchers worth around half the cost of private secondary school” mean that the parents were paying the other half? Having to pay for it would increase commitment.