Archives: 04/2009

Conservatives, Public Schools, and Pedagogy

I’ve received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration’s Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.

Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It’s possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.

Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?

The answer is: not much. As I’ve noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.

But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than “progressives.”

And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.

And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I’m simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.

If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen… or get used to disappointment.

So Much for the Promise of Financial Transparency

President Barack Obama promised transparency and accountability for how the federal government spends the trillions – or is it quadrillions (I’ve lost count)? – in bail-out money, stimulus outlays, and expanded government programs.  Alas, his administration doesn’t seem interested in living up to his promises.

Reports ABC News:

The watchdog for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s financial rescue plan, said today that the Treasury Department has not been cooperating with oversight efforts up to this point.

“We do not seem to be a priority for the Treasury Department,” the Congressional Oversight Panel’s Elizabeth Warren told a Senate Finance Committee hearing today.

“We have sent letters. We have requested that there be someone named so that we can get technical information. And so far, we have not been a first priority,” Warren said. “We use what you give us, and we will exercise the leverage given to us by Congress. In part, that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to talk to you about what’s happened so far, what we have discovered so far, the inquiries that we have in mid-stream and for which we continue to await responses.”

Warren, visibly frustrated with a lack of cooperation from the administration, emphasized, “This problem starts with Treasury.”

Obviously, this isn’t the first time that a presidential commitment has gone aglimmering.  But given the extraordinary opportunity for pervasive waste, fraud, and abuse in the tsunami of new federal spending, few presidential commitments have been as important.

New York’s ‘Not Austere’ Budget

“Not Austere” is how the New York Times is describing the state’s $131.8 billion budget for 2009-2010.  As a colleague pointed out to me, “how bad does a budget have to be for the New York Times to call it ‘not austere’?”  Apparently, pretty bad.

In addition to an estimated $7 billion in tax and fee increases, total state spending would increase almost 9% when federal “stimulus” money is included.  Supporters dismiss the inclusion of bailout money in the totals, but for those who think the “temporary” federal bailout money won’t foster otherwise higher state spending going forward, I’ve got a lot for sale in Poughkeepsie.

The Albany Times-Union reported that Gov. Paterson cited public employee labor contracts as a reason for the budget increase.  Once again, the needs of the productive class (i.e., taxpayers) take a back seat to the bureaucratic class living at their expense.  Of course, New York’s policymakers were also able to find money for critical expenditures on “gun clubs, churches, a yoga foundation and the Wantagh American Legion Pipe Band, among thousands of other projects.”

The biggest tax increase is a surcharge on personal income taxes paid by “the wealthy” that is supposed to net state coffers $4 billion.  (Note to New York personal income tax payers: New Hampshire doesn’t have one.)  But other tax increases will hit all walks of New York life including an increased assessment on utilities, a motor vehicle registration fee increase of 25 percent, an increase in driver’s license fees of 25 percent, increased taxes on beer and wine, a tax increase on auto rentals of 1 percent, and possibly the most insulting – a new $100 fee on tax preparers (guess who’s going to ultimately pay that one?).