Tag: education policy

Science: ‘All Kids Different’

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in last week’s State of the Union address President Obama celebrated the spread of national curriculum standards that’s been fueled largely by the federal Race to the Top. Of course, he didn’t actually call them “national standards” because no one is supposed to think that these are de facto federal standards that states have been bribed into adopting. The point, though, was clear to those in the know:

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.

Despite the celebration of national standards by both the President and lots of other supporters, there is essentially zero evidence that such standards will produce better educational outcomes.  Much of that has to do with the reality of democratically controlled, government education: Those who would be held accountable for getting kids to high standards have the most clout in education politics, and they naturally fight tough standards. It also has a lot to do with human reality: All kids are different. It’s an inescapable observation for anyone who has ever encountered more than one child, but the national-standards crowd prefers to ignore it.

Maybe science will help them see the light. According to the BBC, new research comparing identical and fraternal twins reveals that genetics – something that exists before standards and schooling – has a lot to do with how much and how quickly someone learns:

The researchers examined the test results of 12-year-old twins - identical and fraternal - in English, maths and science.

They found the identical twins, who share their genetic make-up, did more similarly in the tests than the fraternal twins, who share half their genetic make-up.

The report said: “The results were striking, indicating that even when previous achievement and a child’s general cognitive ability are both removed, the residual achievement measure is still significantly influenced by genetic factors.”

In light of this confirmation of the obvious, isn’t it clear that a single timeline for what all children should know and when they should know it makes little sense? And doesn’t it point to the best system being one that gives kids individualized attention?

Of course it does, but that would require “experts” of all stripes to stop trying to impose their solutions on all children. It would also, ultimately, necessitate a system in which parents would choose what’s best for their children, and educators would specialize in all sorts of different curricula, delivery mechanisms, and teaching techniques.  

Unfortunately, few in the education policy world are willing to adopt that utterly logical – but power relinquishing – solution.

Education, Science, and Humility

U. of Ark. political scientist and education scholar Jay Greene has been blogging about the proper role of science in education policy, and his thoughts (continued here) are well worth reading. In particular, he warns that trying to scientifically find “the one best way” of evaluating teachers or of teaching reading and then attempting to impose that putatively best solution on all children is ultimately misguided and destructive.

I’d add that it is also unscientific. Science is humble. You have to be willing to rethink and potentially discard theories that repeatedly fail to coincide with reality. Well, the theory that governments can operate effective, efficient, innovative education systems from the top down was never supported by the evidence in the first place, and that theory is now buried beneath a vast pile of contrary findings. The system best supported by the empirical evidence is a parent-driven education marketplace such as the one Greene recommends.

Diane Ravitch Is Right on Republicans and NCLB

Writing in yesterday’s WSJ, education historian Diane Ravitch laments that Republicans have abandoned their earlier defense of federalism and limited government in education, embracing vast and expanding powers for Washington over the nation’s schools. In particular, she faults the No Child Left Behind act for demanding public school improvements that have not been forthcoming and for imposing “corrective” measures that will not correct the problem.

Though I depart from Ravitch on most education policy matters – and not just on conclusions but also methodology – she is right in both of the above observations. Over the past decade, many Republicans have championed new federal powers in education that have no basis in the U.S. Constitution, no plausible empirical justification, and no evidence of success. NCLB demands higher achievement without creating the market freedoms and incentives that would actually allow it – asking, in other words, for the impossible.

With the current resurgence of public interest in limited government, Republicans have an excellent opportunity to rekindle their commitment to the limited federal role in education laid out by the U.S. Constitution. Phasing out NCLB would be a good place to start.

PDK: Charter Schools Finally As Popular as Education Tax Credits Have Been Since Before Clinton’s Impeachment

The new PDK/Gallup education poll for 2010 is out, with the standard problems we can expect from this pro-government school/anti-choice outfit. Randi Weingarten even gets some column space! Oh Randi, you proud yet humble teacher. The “Commentary” sidebars in general were cringe-inducingly hackish and treacly.

It is interesting that there was a big spike in the percentage of people saying the biggest problem schools must deal with is a lack of funds. They’ve done a great job convincing folks there’s no money.

Of course, the way the question is worded, it encourages respondents to think about the difficulties schools are facing, which despite their flush accounts probably is dealing with funding issues. I’d like to see the answers to “What do you think are the biggest problems preventing the public schools of your community from increasing student achievement?” or some such question. And they certainly should ask how much people think is being spent. “The Research Organization formerly known as Friedman Foundation,” or TROFKAFF, has some great state polls showing how horribly misinformed most people are about the spending issue.

PDK is still boycotting the voucher question for a few years running.

But what is really indefensible is that they haven’t asked about education tax credits since 1999, just when the policy took off. There are now 12 credit programs in 9 states. Maybe support was far too high for their taste? In 1999 support was in the high 60’s, even after a battery of questions about vouchers and pitting public reform against private choice.

Good news for charter schools, which have finally pulled ahead of the support credits enjoyed during the Clinton administration, thanks no doubt to an increase in support among Dems/liberals courtesy of Obama lip-service. PDK; update please.

Georgia on My Mind

Rick Hess has written recently about education policy in the republic of Georgia, describing it as “guaranteed to bring smiles to my friends at the Cato Institute.” Hess characterizes it as a “market-driven system,” and “a seemingly elegant market design,” that has been undermined by a lack of autonomy for schools, “incoherent governance,” and “the reluctance of state officials to keep their hands off the schools.”

Can’t say that this description has me cracking open the bubbly. To the problems Hess has already identified, we could add the fact that there is a national curriculum that even the nation’s voucherized schools must apparently use as the basis for their plan of instruction. The secondary system is also compromised by a central government test suite that determines admission to the nation’s universities. These tests, apparently having little to do with the national curriculum, have led to mass absenteeism among 11th and 12th graders – who cut most of their classes to study for them. The state also seems to require students to take 12 years of schooling before being eligible to enter college, even if they could (and wish to) pass the admissions test earlier.

We could also add to this the fact that a shadowy government agency can and does fire principles from supposedly autonomous voucher-funded schools. Even if it randomly selected the schools to be inspected and applied academic criteria in its decisions, such an agency would not be part of any “elegant market design.” As it happens, though, it does not use academic criteria in deciding whom to fire. According to a Georgian report Hess refers to, a principal could be fired for having playground trees that “are not balanced properly.” [So now we know what Adrian Monk is doing after his show wrapped….]

Georgia, it seems to me, has not yet taken a genuinely laissez-faire approach to education, but I wish them well and hope that they will eventually manage to ensure that all families have access to an unfettered education marketplace.

NB: Ray Charles’ interpretations of “Georgia on My Mind” are wonderful, but consider giving one of Jay McShann’s a listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

Fed Ed on the Move

There’s a lot to learn about what’s going on in federal education policy today, and none of it is good.

First, Steven Brill offers a revealing look at the Race to the Top evaluation process in a piece that can be added to the ever-growing pile of evidence that Race to the Top isn’t even close to the objective – or, I’d add, powerful – catalyst for meaningful reform that the Obama administration insists it is.

Second, it appears that congressional Democrats are preparing to pass a Harkin-proposed, Obama-endorsed, $23 billion bailout for teachers by attaching it to an “emergency” appropriation for the war in Afghanistan. (Passing major – and highly suspect – education legislation by attaching it to something totally unrelated? Sound familiar?) And what’s the nice thing about “emergency” legislation? No need to worry that the outlay would add to our already insane federal deficit; that can’t be allowed to interfere with saving the world (or public schooling lard).

Finally, looming on the horizon is the release of final standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Obama administration is trying to coerce all states to adopt the standards by linking adoption to Race-to-the-Top competitiveness and, potentially, Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding.

The good news is that on June 2 – potentially the very day the standards will be released – you can catch what has sadly been a rarity so far in the push for national standards: a real debate about whether national standards will actually improve educational outcomes.  My answer is that there is no meaningful evidence that national standards drive superior results, but joining me to debate that right here at Cato will be the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke, Sandra Boyd of Achieve, Inc., and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli. It will be a debate that must be replicated across the country before we make any further move to adopt one standard for every public school in America. You can register here to see our debate live, or catch it online at Cato.org.

The feds are on the move in education, and the more we learn about their plans, the more obvious it is that they must be stopped.

Failures in Ed. Policy Analysis—Misunderstanding Milwaukee

To the extent education policy commentary actually affects policy, it has the potential to do great good or great harm. Several recent commentaries in this field fall into the latter camp, and it’s important to understand why – so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.

The one I’ll discuss here is this blog post by Matthew Yglesias, in which he draws broad conclusions about the functioning of education markets from a recent study of a tiny school choice program in Milwaukee as well as from some older unspecified research [for the latter, Yglesias linked here, but the body of that page doesn’t discuss school choice]. The Milwaukee study is part of a vast literature. Over the past quarter century at least sixty-five studies have compared outcomes in public and private schools around the world, reporting 156 separate statistical findings.

The evidence of this literature is starkly one-sided. The vast preponderance of findings show private schools outperforming public schools after all the normal controls. What’s more, when we focus on the research comparing truly market-like systems to state-run school monopolies, the market advantage is found to be even more dramatic (see Figure 2 in the paper linked above). To draw policy opinions from a small, selective handful of those studies while ignoring the rest is policy malpractice, and it is dangerous to children.

Even the recent Milwaukee result described by Yglesias as a failure shows voucher students in private schools performing as well as public school students who receive roughly 50% more government funding. How is a program that produces similar academic results to the status quo at a much lower cost to taxpayers a failure? And what of the research suggesting that students in the Milwaukee voucher program graduate at higher rates than those in public schools?

More importantly from a long term policy perspective, how is a program limited to 20,000 or so children in a single city, being served almost entirely by non-profit entities, a test of market education? Would Apple have spent hundreds of millions developing the iPhone or the iPad if its market were limited to the same customer base? Of course not. The dynamism, diversity and innovation we have come to expect from competitive markets in other fields relies on the prospect of ultimately scaling up to serve mass audiences. Without the prospect of a large-scale return on investment, there is no incentive to invest in the first place.