U.S. Institute of Education Sciences Weighs In on Voucher Impacts on College Enrollment

Last summer, we  released the first experimental study of the effect of school vouchers on college enrollment.  Our study, which is published in the current edition of Education Next, generated significant controversy.  We followed students who participated in a voucher experiment in New York City in the 1990s, and found that African-American students who won a voucher were more likely to go to college than those who were not offered the opportunity.  We did not detect a significant impact, either positive or negative, for Hispanic students (or for all study participants considered together).

Today, the What Works Clearinghouse declared the study to be “a well-implemented randomized controlled trial.”  We are grateful for that endorsement, because it should put an end to a line of criticism that has managed to obtain coverage in some portions of the electronic media.

Specifically, a review of our report from the National Education Policy Center purported to raise methodological concerns with our study.  We found their criticisms wanting and responded to them accordingly, but it is in the nature of methodological discussions that a specialized background is generally required in order to assess them.  As a result, even when there clearly is a correct answer in such debates, it will often appear to a journalist or another lay reader to be a “he said, she said” exchange.

This is exactly why the Institute of Education sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, created the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC): “to be a central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education.”  The WWC does its best to review studies objectively and to rate the quality of the methodology used, thereby helping policymakers and practitioners sort through the mounds of education research produced in the U.S., much of which is of low quality.

In the full review released today, the WWC found that our report on the effect of school vouchers on college enrollment “meets WWC evidence standards without reservations,” its highest possible rating.

Of course, policy should not turn on the results of any single study, as issues are complex and outcomes can vary over time and place. But policy should be informed by a body of high-quality research, and the U.S. is fortunate to have the WWC as an independent arbiter of quality.

-Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson

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