Archives: June, 2008

What Fordham Can’t Say, But Does Anyway

Yesterday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act has encouraged schools to focus on the lowest-performing students and neglect the highest-performing. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis: National Assessment of Educational Progress data suggest it could be true, though the results are mixed and Tom Loveless, the author of the report’s NAEP analysis (the report also includes some interesting survey results), makes it clear that it is impossible to say what, if any, test-score changes have been caused by NCLB.

Unfortunately, the spin put on the “good news” in the report by Fordham president Chester Finn and vice president Mike Petrilli is not nearly as measured as Loveless’ caveat about NCLB. On National Review Online today, Finn and Petrilli write with total certainty that government-driven “standards and accountability” regimes have produced gains for low-performers.

“NCLB and state-level efforts to impose standards and accountability on the schools are plainly boosting the kids who need it most — surely a good thing,” they pronounce.

Rising achievement surely is a good thing. That government standards and accountability produced it, however, is far from sure.

First, compare the period that contains NCLB, which was passed in 2002, to score changes in the period preceding it. In reading, the lowest 10 percent of 4th grade performers saw a much bigger increase in scores immediately before 2002 than after, and 8th graders saw their scores drop under NCLB. In math, we have to start with 2003, the earliest testing year within the NCLB timeframe. Again, for the lowest performers, in both 4th and 8th grades scores increased faster in the period right before NCLB — 2000 to 2003 — than after.

Loveless notes in the report that it is impossible to be sure what effect NCLB had on math in the 2000 to 2003 period — where the fastest gains are seen — since NCLB was passed in 2002. He’s right. However, in light of long delays in issuing NCLB regulations, and the unlikelihood of a huge jump in just one year of NCLB, it is more reasonable not to ascribe improvements to the law than to give it credit. More importantly, one definitely cannot say, as Finn and Petrilli nonetheless do, that the law “plainly” has something to do with rising low-achiever scores.

To be fair, Finn and Petrilli say NCLB and “state-level efforts” — not just NCLB — boosted those scores. On what basis do they split credit?

In his analysis, Loveless examined states’ NAEP score changes for the highest and lowest performers, controlling for whether or not states had their own standards and accountability regimes before NCLB. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t list which are considered “accountability” and which “non-accountability” states, so it is impossible to search for other common characteristics — charter schools, private-school-choice programs, increasingly affluent populations, new curricula — that could have driven states’ performances. Even more damaging to Finn and Petrilli’s pronouncement, the data the report does make available simple cannot support their all-too-firm-sounding conclusion.

For one thing, for the four subject-grade combinations presented, only between 34 and 37 states are analyzed, leaving out one-third of the country. More important, while in three of the four subject-grade combinations the lowest performers in states with accountability regimes did see greater score increases than low perfomers in states without them, when you only have four comparisons you simply cannot declare uncontestable victory, much less when only three of the comparisons support your conclusion. Change one, and you’ve got a coin flip. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Petrilli and Finn.

In the end, Fordham’s new report doesn’t tell us anything definitive about the effect of NCLB or any other standards and accountability regimes. It offers some reason to believe that NCLB might help low scorers and leave high scorers behind — and it’s well worth reading just for that — but it provides nothing close to proof. It also suggests that standards and accountability regimes might help raise low-performers’ scores, but again has far too many holes and far too little information to support what Finn and Petrilli declare: that government-imposed standards and accountability “plainly” help low-achieving kids.

The Dangers of Dilettantism

I’m sometimes amazed at the ability of generalist pundits in Washington to inveigh on a host of issues ranging from gay rights to foreign policy to constitutional law. I find it hard enough to keep track of the various facets of my own field, American foreign policy. But sometimes there are instances where the presence of the dilettantes is damaging to the discourse. For example, here is The New Republic’s James Kirchick sneering at Matthew Yglesias’ suggestion that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map,” he might not have envisioned the genocide of the Jewish people.

I don’t like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I think he is a dangerous simpleton who should not be in charge of anything more portentous than perhaps municipal garbage collection in Shiraz. But he does enough repulsive things that he need not be accused of additional ones.

French television followed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad, doing an interview with him in 2007, in which the reporter asked him about this controversial remark. (Clip is in French, exchange begins about 6:00 into the clip.) In it, the interviewer references the quote and asks Ahmadinejad about whether he can understand why people are afraid of Iran’s nuclear program in its context. Ahmadinejad responds:

Why are you worried? Where is the Soviet Union? It has disappeared, has it not?

Ahmadinejad goes on to demagogue the issue, talking about democracy across all of Palestine, which for obvious reasons would cause Israel to be “wiped off the map.” But the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union did not involve the genocide of the Russian people, or even any military action against the USSR. Instead of haranguing about analogies to Poland, Kirchick would be better served researching what analogy Ahmadinejad himself has used on the matter.

Now, maybe Ahmadinejad is lying. That’s a fair debate to have. But since the discussion is about what Mr. Ahmadinejad said, it seems relevant to pay attention when someone asks “hey, what did you mean by that remark?” and the speaker responds.

I think this is the danger of having generalists parachute into all manner of debates over national policies. As I said, it’s hard just to keep track of my little world. I can’t imagine thinking I had the breadth to contribute to the debate on many more issues than my own.

Certifiably Misleading

The FISA “compromise” I alluded to earlier today has now been released. I haven’t yet had time to analyze the text of the bill, but one thing that’s clear from the accompanying summary is that the immunity provisions are as bad as civil libertarians feared. Here’s Steny Hoyer’s summary of the “improvements” to the immunity language:

This new standard [for granting immunity] provides for meaningful review by the District Courts, where the cases are currently pending, of whether companies received written directives from the government requesting post‐9/11 assistance.

It seems to me that this misses the point rather badly. Under our system of government, searches are conducted pursuant to warrants or other court orders. This is an important check on the executive branch’s surveillance powers because it ensures an independent magistrate will review any surveillance activity and block those that aren’t conducted pursuant to the law.

To treat a “written directive from the government” as a substitute for a court order is to abandon this fundamental principle. Once we accept the premise that the executive branch can “authorize” surveillance without judicial oversight, the standard of review for analyzing the resulting “written directives” is entirely beside the point. I don’t care if the Bush administration wrote letters to telecom companies “certifying” that participation in the warrantless spying programs was legal. That’s not how the law works. These are large companies with plenty of lawyers on staff who know this area of law as well as anyone in the executive branch. They could and should have done what Qwest’s former CEO says he did and told the Bush administration to come back when they had a relevant FISA warrant.

It’s a safe bet that no matter what “standard of review” is chosen, the courts will find that the companies did, indeed, act pursuant to a “certification” from the executive branch. Therefore, directing the courts to dismiss the lawsuits if the companies can produce such a “certification” is functionally no different from no-questions-asked immunity. It will mean no real consequences for breaking the law, and no real incentive for companies to be more careful about following the law in the future.

Foreign Policy without Foreign Policy Theory

In a post seemingly designed to enrage academic realists, Atlantic Monthly blogger Ross Douthat says the war in Iraq tells us nothing about theories of foreign policy:

The chief lessons of the war have to do with issues of prudence and practicality, and more specifically with the question of when the costs of war, in lives and treasure, are worth the risk involved and the gains that might be won. Put another way, I don’t think the lessons of Iraq necessarily discredit liberal internationalism, or realism, or neoconservatism, or any of the many theories of U.S. engagement with the world that were invoked to justify support for the war.

The trouble here is that efforts to weigh the costs of war inevitably involve theories of how the world works. As my Professor Steve Van Evera likes to point out, foreign policy makers can use good or bad theories to guide their actions, but if they attempt the slightest foresight, they cannot have none. In other words, there is no such thing as foreign policy without foreign policy theory.

Beyond that, the idea that the war tells us nothing about the relative merits of realism and the brand of idealism we call neoconservatism is just silly.

Neoconservatives weighed the costs and benefits of the war using their theory of how the world works – how democracy spreads, how states react to conquest, the efficacy of military force in social transformation, and so on. Realists weighed the costs and benefits differently because realism contains competing ideas about how the world works. Realists were right; neoconservatives were wrong.

Liberal internationalists, I’d submit, were confused about the war because their school of thought is largely another brand of idealism – one that substitutes the question of whether a war involves what they want, which is multilateral cooperation, for more probing questions about whether it is wise.

Democrats Determined to Capitulate on Warrantless Spying

In February, the House Democrats won a key victory in their struggle with the Bush administration over amending FISA. Republicans had tried to stampede House Democrats into supporting the Senate’s bad spying bill by sending the bill to the House at the last minute and blocking a temporary extension of the Protect America Act that would have given the House time to have a full debate about the Senate legislation. An exasperated House leadership decided to call the president’s bluff and let the Protect American Act expire. As I wrote at the time, this was the right decision on the merits; the Protect America Act eviscerated judicial oversight of domestic spying activities, and its expiration would leave the president with ample spying authority. Indeed, the president said as much in 2001, saying that the Patriot Act’s revisions to FISA “ ‘recognize the realities and dangers posed by the modern terrorist.”

To be sure, some adjustments to FISA would be beneficial, and the House has twice passed FISA reforms that make the necessary changes. These bills have been stopped by presidential veto threats.

February’s lapsing of the Protect America Act was a victory for Americans’ civil liberties. It was also a political victory for the Democratic party. Once House Democrats began staking out a clear, pro-civil-liberties position and backing up their words with actions, press coverage became a lot more favorable. Whereas earlier press coverage had described Democrats being “outmaneuvered” by Republicans and facing “enduring challenge” on the FISA issue, the coverage began to change once they began standing up to the president. Suddenly, the Democrats were “standing up to President Bush’s fear mongering.” Newspapers reporters began talking to experts (including yours truly) who pointed out that the lapsing of the PAA would have little impact on the Bush administration’s ability to spy on terrorists. It turns out that politicians who speak and act with conviction get better press coverage than those who repeatedly capitulate to their political opponents.

So the House Democrats’ apparent desire to capitulate now leaves me scratching my head. If press accounts of the impending “compromise” are accurate, the president and lawbreaking telecom companies will get essentially everything they’ve asked for. Rather than ordering the courts to dismiss spying lawsuits, the courts will instead be ordered to dismiss the lawsuits if the president asks them to. That’s not much of a difference.

House Democrats won February’s FISA showdown, and they passed a solid FISA bill in March. They ought to stick to the sensible position they’ve held for the last nine months: yes to judicial oversight of domestic spying, no to retroactive immunity for lawbreaking telecom companies.

Suburban Opposition to Choice and the Money Misperception

Andrew Coulson has a great response to a recent “Best of the Web” column by WSJ’s James Taranto, which notes that there is widespread and self-interested opposition to vouchers from wealthier parents and homeowners.

I just wanted to add a bit about two things Taranto suggests are a major concern limiting school choice success; property values and taxes. He’s wrong on property values, but correct about taxes.

Coulson notes that the property value effects of choice are not as predictable as many political elites think, and that might help explain one interesting finding from my doctoral research.

In a large-scale survey of close to 2,900 respondents, I found that property value concerns were a negligible consideration in regard to school choice. In fact, around 40 percent of respondents think that property values will increase with school choice. Most of the rest think choice would have no impact at all on property values. And even high-income respondents without school-aged children believe, by 30 percent to 16 percent, that the adoption of school choice policy will increase property values in their area. 

Property values, in other words, do not seem to be an important drag on support for school choice. Coulson points to what does seem to be the major concern for higher-income suburbanites; cost.

Most people think that school choice will increase academic achievement and have other beneficial effects. But most people also believe, incorrectly, that choice will substantially increase costs. And why wouldn’t they? What new government program promising substantial improvements in anything ever cost taxpayers less?

Regression analyses reveal that cost concerns are the biggest drag on support. It should therefore come as no surprise that exposing respondents to an argument for school choice that emphasizes the cost savings was the most effective in increasing support for school choice.

If we want to make inroads with those who are skeptical of school choice, we need to do more to educate them on the fiscal benefits of choice.

Supreme Court Stands Up for Free Speech in California

Today, by a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court overturned a California statute that prohibited employers from speaking out on issues relating to unions and labor policy.  The restriction even applied to the payment of salaries, speaking about unions to employees working on state contracts, and meeting with employees on state property to discuss union-related issues.  The statute, passed after intense lobbying by the AFL-CIO, applied to any employers who received over $10,000 in state program funds – including everything from MediCal reimbursements to payments for building roads and schools.  The only significant exceptions all relate to employer speech favoring union activity.

Cato filed a brief supporting the petitioners in this case – the Chamber of Commerce and a group of small business owners – to argue that 1) the case should be decided on labor law grounds because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clearly prohibits state regulations of this kind; but 2) if the Supreme Court reached the First Amendment issue that the Ninth Circuit took it upon itself to decide (and decide erroneously), the statute should be struck down because it imposes an unconstitutional condition on the receipt of state funds and burdens private speech in an area unrelated to the programs for which the funds are given.  In the end, the Supreme Court correctly decided the case on NLRA preemption grounds – that California intruded on an area that is properly left to Congress’s authority –  noting its own 1976 determination that Congress had left unionization activities to be “controlled by the free play of market forces.”  As Justice Stevens aptly stated, California’s statute acted to regulate within “a zone protected and reserved for market freedom” and thus had to be struck down.