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Dorothy Sayers, school choice, and long run student success

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Today’s Wall Street Journal article on education choice, “New Evidence on School Vouchers,” might look oddly familiar for those of us who have read Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning.

The WSJ piece refers to two new studies that investigated student performance in states with voucher programs: Louisiana and Indiana. In Louisiana, a state with a program that allows for vouchers for private schools, 7,100 students attend private or religious schools. Meanwhile, over 34,000 students utilize Indiana’s statewide voucher program. Studies done in both states show that English and math scores of the students who used vouchers to attend private school declined in the two years immediately following their switch from public schools. However, after these studies were expanded, by the third year, the difference disappeared; by the fourth year, voucher students were surpassing their public school peers, most notably in English.

In other words, the longer the students were in private school, the more excellent their performance.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that the time it takes a student to assimilate to a new environment accounts for this trend. Another explanation was given by Dorothy Sayers more than 60 years ago. Sayers predicted that if parents were allowed to choose a proper education for their children, one she believed included training in the Trivium, “the children [would] probably seem to be far behind their coevals brought up on old-fashioned ‘modern’ methods, so far as detailed knowledge of specific subjects is concerned.” However, she goes on to predict that after this lag, “they should be able to overhaul the others hand over fist.”

To conceptualize this, picture two mathematical functions on the same graph: A and B. Function A (blue line) has a high y-intercept, but a slope of one. Function B (red line) has a low intercept, but a slope of three. At first, the value of Function B will appear below that of A. However, it will not take long for the value of B to surpass that of A because it has a steeper slope.

Perhaps an education in which parents are able to choose what best fits their children increases the slope of their educational progress. It allows their tools of learning to be sharpened, so that in the later years of education—when education goes beyond memorization games and requires students, as Sayers says, “to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems”—they will far surpass what they could have otherwise accomplished.

Photo credit: Dorothy Sayers, fair use, Wikipedia

 

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Elizabeth Yeh

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