Tag: education policy

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.

School Choice, Realpolitik, & Brookings

Jay Greene has responded to my review of the new Brookings Institution school choice report which he co-authored, raising a crucial issue for the education policy and research communities. Jay points out that the report is a work of realpolitik rather than scholarship, and as such contends that it must find a compromise between the policies best supported by the evidence and those that have a real chance of being implemented. He makes the related argument that incrementalism is the only realistic path to success.

I agree with Jay that it’s good for analysts to find ways of improving current policy even when the ideal policies are not politically feasible. But these realpolitik recommendations must be clearly distinguished from the ideal policies themselves. Analysts should report both viable compromise reforms AND ideal policies, explaining to policymakers the likely costs and risks associated with the compromises–the reasons why they are inferior. Failing to do this leads to two serious problems:

First, presenting only the compromises robs the public and its elected representatives of crucial information, making it more difficult to build support for the ideal policies and leading to guilt by association when the compromise policies prove disappointing for reasons that should have been – but were not – clearly laid out in advance.

Second, when analysts don’t present their ideal policies and the evidence (if any) on which they are based, there is no way for the public or policymakers to judge the wisdom of their realpolitik compromise recommendations. This is particularly problematic when the analysts’ recommendations conflict with what the available evidence shows to be ideal policy.

As to the need for incrementalism in U.S. policy reform, the evidence is not entirely one-sided. The Emancipation Proclamation did not give slaves a 50 percent share in themselves, rising gradually to 100 percent over time. When women won the franchise, it was not at a discounted rate – one female vote equal to 1/3 or 1/2 of a male vote. They won the right to vote outright. Prohibition was not undone gradually, with beverage categories being re-legalized in order of alcohol content.  I’m sure we could think of other major policy shifts in U.S. history that were not incremental.

In all of the above cases, major social movements were necessary to win the day, and if scholars and advocates who knew better had championed only half-measures instead of the policies they knew to be right, it surely would have delayed the eventual victories. Scholars who know what kind of school choice is necessary to best serve children should clearly advocate such policies, especially in any context in which they also offer any interim recommendations they deem more politically feasible. 

And even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that all school choice policies must be incremental, there are incremental policies already in existence that are highly consistent with ideal policy. Existing scholarship donation tax credits such as those in PA, FL, RI, etc., and personal use education tax credits such as those of Illinois and Iowa, are expanding organically over time. Eventually, as that expansion continues, they could be combined and thus ensure universal access to the education marketplace without needing to impose regulations on private schools that the research shows to be intrusive and counterproductive. By contrast, it is hard to see how introducing federal regulation of virtual schools (a Brookings Report recommendation) moves us close in the direction of the minimally regulated parent-driven markets supported by the evidence.

So, yes, let’s be realistic in our policy recommendations, but let’s also be clear about the ideal policies indicated by the empirical evidence, so that policymakers and the public hear a consistent message about where we need to go.