NEPC Reviewer Finds Continuing Problems with WILL Charter School “Autonomy” Report

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Key New NEPC Rejoinder Takeaway: We must ask challenging questions of reports claiming to provide useful evidence.

Research can inform policy, but it must first be vetted and publicly debated. A recent exchange illustrates the value of such a public deliberation.

On May 19, 2016, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released a report called Bang for the Buck: Which public schools in Milwaukee produce the best outcomes per dollar spent?, which purports to show that the most efficient public schools in Milwaukee are charter schools that experience greater autonomy from the district. The report’s authors created “efficiency scores” for Milwaukee schools and, on the basis of those scores, draw conclusions about the relative efficiency of Milwaukee’s charter and traditional public schools.

The report was then used to promote the growth of charter schools. For example, one co-author placed an opinion article in the Journal Sentinel, Study: Schools with the most autonomy do best for students. While the study was being put forth to influence policy, it seemed unlikely that it had gone through any form of peer review.

NEPC asked University of Connecticut professor Casey Cobb to conduct an expert independent review of the WILL report. That review revealed that the study was ill-conceived, based on a weak premise, and misleading. Most NEPC reviews end at this point, but the WILL authors in this case published a response, which Professor Cobb welcomed. He offered a rejoinder that takes up each of the response’s points.

This sort of exchange exemplifies the sort of rigorous debate that greatly increases the usefulness of studies and policy proposals. A reader of the initial report or perhaps the Journal Sentinel opinion piece will, after reading the full exchange, have a much better understanding of the overall landscape as well as the strengths and weaknesses of this particular study.

Sound policy must be guided by research evidence, but we must ask challenging questions of every report claiming to provide useful evidence.

Find Casey Cobb’s original review and his follow-up rejoinder at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-WILL

Find Bang for the Buck: Which public schools in Milwaukee produce the best outcomes per dollar spent?, by Will Flanders & CJ Szafir, published by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, at:
http://www.will-law.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Bang-for-the-Buck-FINAL.pdf

Find Will Flanders and CJ Szafir’s response to the original review at:
http://www.will-law.org/will-blog-will-responds-criticism-colorado-group/

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) Think Twice Think Tank Review Project (http://thinktankreview.org) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: http://nepc.colorado.edu

Find Documents:
Press Release: nepc.info/node/8156
NEPC Review: nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-WILL
Report Reviewed: will-law.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Bang-for-the-Buck-FINAL.pdf

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William J. Mathis

Casey D. Cobb
University of Connecticut
(860) 486-0253
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