Tag: education spending

All That NAEP Tells Us Is Things Ain’t Good

Yesterday, another round of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – came out. They revealed flattened 4th-grade math achivement between 2007 and 2009, and a two point (out of 500) increase in 8th grade.

So what do these bits of data portend? Ask the experts:

“The trend is flat; it’s a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important,” said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, according to the New York Times. “That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved, and now we’re five years from the deadline and we’re still far, far from the goal.”

Next, former National Center for Education Statistics commissioner Mark Schneider concluded that “either the standards movement has played out, or the No Child law failed to build on its momentum. Whatever momentum we had, however, is gone.”

And then there’s Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, a leading national-standards proponent, who opined in the Baltimore Sun that “there is a hardly any change. There is hardly any difference. How could we as a nation let that happen?” His solution to the problem: National standards, of course.

So what do I think about all this? As a long-time critic of NCLB, I am glad to see people seizing on the latest results and declaring the law a failure. It helps to advance my goal of ending the greatest federal education intervention to date, and I think NCLB supporters kind of deserve these attacks on their law. They have repeatedly given NCLB credit for positive things the evidence couldn’t come close to supporting, and it’s nice to see them on the defensive after all their overreaching.

That said, just as previous NAEP results couldn’t prove that NCLB was working, the latest NAEP scores don’t prove that it is not. We simply don’t have sufficient information about the myriad other variables affecting education to do that.

Which leads me to a much bigger problem: People using ambiguous  NAEP scores to push their favorite reforms. Some “standards and accountability” proponents, for instance,  argue that achievement improvements came as a result of states implementing standards-and-testing regimes during the 1990s. And William Schmidt suggests that the latest NAEP results demonstrate a need for national standards.

Now, NAEP simply cannot be used in any reasonable way to justify the national-standards assertion. We’ve never had national standards, so we obviously can’t measure their outcomes with NAEP. We can, however, attempt to use NAEP to assess the assertion that the push for state standards and testing in the 1990s drove real improvement. We can attempt, that is, but any conclusions will be riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the NAEP exam from which yesterday’s results came, the “main” mathematics exam. After that, we’ll look at some “long-term” NAEP results.

Take a look at the chart below. It is the 4th-grade trend line for the main math NAEP, with vertical lines separating what I’ll call the pre-accountability period (1990-1996), the state-accountability period (1996-2003), and the NCLB period (2003-2009). The numbers below each period are the per-year changes in scores for the periods above them.

RegMath41996

What do the numbers show us? At first blush, the message seems to be that scores were improving slightly faster in the pre-accountability period than the vaunted state-accountability period, and appreciably faster than under NCLB. But this breakdown may beg more questions than it answers.

At what year, for instance, should you peg the start of the state-accountability period? I chose 1996 because by then, according to a count by Hanushek and Raymond (Table 1), twelve states – a pretty large number – had some sort of accountability mechanism in place. I could, however, have chosen 1992, because by 1993 three states had such mechanisms and the accountability movement could certainly be said to have been underway. Similarly, NCLB was enacted in 2002 – is it right to start the NCLB period in 2003? Obviously I couldn’t start the period in 2002 because there is no data for that year, but why not 2005? After all, though enacted in 2002, NCLB took a few years to be fully implemented.

Let’s make an adjustment. I’m going to keep the start of the NCLB era at 2003 because that’s pretty close to the enactment year – though it could very well produce misleading results – but will move the end of the pre-accountability period, and hence the start of the state-accountability period, to 1992.
RegMath41992

Now what should we conclude? Again, it appears that the pre-accountability period had the best results, but this time by a much bigger margin. That said, that period included only two years – hardly sufficient data to identify a trend. Also, the NCLB period fared better than previously against the state-accountability years.

Of course, the main NAEP gives us data for less than two decades. So what does the long-term NAEP show for 9-year-olds (roughly 4th graders) in math?

Here’s a long-term trend chart, which like the main NAEP charts above is broken into periods with score-change-per-year noted below. I’ve broken it into the period before the 1983 publication of the landmark A Nation at Risk report, which scared people silly about the schools; the post-ANARbut pre-state-accountability period; the state-accountability period; and the NCLB period.
longterm96

What do these results show?

In contrast to the main NAEP scores, the greatest improvement on the long-term test occurred during the state accountability period, and the second greatest under NCLB. But again, this raises more questions than it answers: Why the difference between the main and long-term results? When is best to start each period? Does it make any sense to start a period with A Nation at Risk? Should the NCLB period start in 1999, well before the law was enacted, or in 2004, two years after it’s passage? And the questions go on.

Like we did with the main NAEP results, let’s once again look at a different start date, 1992, for the state-accountability period, this time on the long-term exam.

longterm92

Once again we get a whole different story. Now it is the pre-accountability period, not the state accountability period, that shows the best outcomes. And so the ambiguity continues…

All of this, of course, goes to show that NAEP results cannot be used with any confidence to conclude that any particular reform that occurred within the NAEP time span worked better or worse than any other reform within that span.

That said, there is one thing that we canuse NAEP to demonstrate very powerfully: As Andrew Coulson’s chart below vividly illustrates, if moving the achievement needle as measured by NAEP is the goal of education spending, then we have really been getting robbed! Moreover, to the extent that standards-based reforms have been a major national phenomenon since the 1990s, it is impossible to conclude that they have done very much good. Indeed, if we are to conclude anything, it is that it is time to focus on reforms that are completely different from the top-down “solutions” that have given us so little, and taken so much.

andrew-coulson-cato-education-spending

Paul Krugman vs. The Daily Show

In a recent New York Times column (“The Uneducated American”), Paul Krugman writes that, “for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” As a result, Krugman continues, U.S. education has been “neglected” and “has inevitably suffered.”

Readers who put their trust in Krugman might thus conclude that per pupil spending has stagnated or declined. In reality, as the chart below reveals, it has more than doubled since 1970, after adjusting for inflation.

Paul Krugman may not be an “uneducated American,” but he’s certainly a badly misinformed one.

andrew coulson cato education spending

Much more troubling is the fact that Krugman and the Times are spreading this misinformation on a grand scale. And that got me thinking about Jon Stewart. When Time magazine recently asked Americans to name their most trusted newscaster, the comic and Daily Show host won in a landslide.  Many pundits have taken this as a sign of the Apocalypse, worrying that so many Americans are getting their facts from a presumptively unreliable source. But is the Daily Show really less reliable than Paul Krugman and the New York Times?

To find out how they stack up on this particular question, I Googled the Daily Show’s website for any discussion of education spending. The most relevant hit was an exchange in the show’s on-line forum. In it, a commenter claims that spending per pupil has risen by a factor of 10 since 1945, after adjusting for inflation. That’s not too far off the mark. The actual multiple is just under 8. So folks who get their facts from the Daily Show’s website will be better informed on this subject than those who trust the Nobel Prize winning New York Times economist.

Not only is Krugman wrong to claim that public schools have been financially “neglected,” he is wrong to imagine that higher public school spending spurs economic growth – which is the central point of his column. Better academic achievement does help the economy – but, as the chart above illustrates and many scholarly studies have demonstrated, higher public school spending does not improve achievement. And by raising taxes without improving achievement, it may actually slow economic growth.

Media elites have been wringing their hands over the collapse in public demand for their products, over the two thirds of Americans who now doubt their credibility, and over the fact that more people now get their information from the Daily Show’s website than the New York Times’s.

Perhaps the media might attract more readers and rebuild trust if they were to stop publishing material less reliable than the blog discussions on a comedy show’s website. Just a thought.

We Are not Seeing the Bell Curve’s Toll

Ben ChavisLast week, I posted a chart on this blog showing the percent change in federal education spending and student achievement since 1970 (achievement has been flat while federal education spending has nearly tripled).

After laughing out loud when he saw it, IQ expert and Bell Curve author Charles Murray mused that “such a huge proportion of a child’s educational prospects are determined by things other than school (genes and the non-school environment) that reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

But consider the accomplishments of Ben Chavis, who spoke at Cato last Friday. When he took over the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland in 2001, it was the worst school in the district. Under his leadership (imagine a hybrid of Socrates and Dirty Harry), the school’s scores rose dramatically year after year. Within seven years, it had become the fifth highest-scoring middle school in the state – though continuing to enroll a student population that is overwhelmingly poor and minority.

It was not a freak occurrence. Chavis did it again, and again: creating a second AIPCS middle school as well as a high school, both of which are also among the top schools in the state, and both of which also enroll chiefly low income minority students.

Murray has made a compelling case over the years that IQ is real, strongly tied to academic achievement, and determined in significant measure by nature and home environment. But academic achievement is also powerfully determined by schooling. Typical U.S. test score data camouflage the significance of schooling because so many schools are so amazingly bad at maximizing academic achievement – especially for poor minority students.

But Chavis – and others before him and alongside him today – have shown how to do it: instill in the school environment those cultural characteristics necessary for academic success that are missing in the home.

In a free enterprise school system that would automatically disseminate and perpetuate great schools like Ben’s, average test scores would rise dramatically above their current levels. The Bell Curve would be shifted dramatically to the right.

Fretting about College Costs? Don’t Forget K-12!

There’s been much interest in the blogosphere recently over spiraling college costs. Niraj Chokshi kicked things off at the Atlantic, and the discussion was picked up by Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein, among others.

We’ll be hosting a debate on the causes of and solutions to this problem at Cato on the 6th of October, but in the meantime, it’s worth noting what the blogosphere has thus far overlooked: the epic productivity collapse in k-12 schooling over the past 40 years.

As I noted in Investors’ Business Daily last month, k-12 spending has risen by a factor of 2.3 since 1969, while achievement at the end of high-school is flat. The scary details can be found here.

If public school productivity had merely stayed where it was in 1970, instead of collapsing as it did, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300+ billion annual tax cut.

State-run schooling has become so profligate and inefficient, in fact, that one recent study finds higher public school spending is associated with LOWER subsequent economic growth.

Oh, and regarding the education vs. health care debate that started all this: k-12 productivity trends seem worse than those in health care.

Is $19,000 Per Student Enough to Run a School?

Time for another “THE SCHOOLS HAVE NO MONEY!” report from the WaPo:

The largest-ever infusion of federal cash is flowing into public school classrooms this year in the form of new programs and thousands of restored jobs. The stimulus package – $100 billion over two years – comes with similarly sized expectations…

Even with the extra cash, the survey found, many schools are focused on survival…

In Fairfax County, stimulus funding saved about 274 positions, but class size ratios still increased by half a student

Poor schools!

And Fairfax. Desperate, struggling Fairfax only has about $3.3 billion to play with this year. How are they supposed to keep the system running with just $19,000 per student?

Considering the fact that the estimated national median private school tuition is around $4,800 $6,200, maybe they could just let parents and taxpayers keep, say, a third of that money to spend on education themselves.

Voila, no budget problem!