Tag: education system

Wisconsin: Post-Mortem & Predictions

Last night’s vote by the Wisconsin-based portion of the Wisconsin Senate has received enormous attention. The scope of collective bargaining by school district and other government employees has been narrowed, and the state will no longer automatically garnish workers’ wages to pay union dues.

This was the right thing to do. But how much of a difference will these changes actually make to the state’s bottom line? As I’ve noted, the presence or absence of collective bargaining is not strongly correlated with school district spending. Instead, unions have won their massively (42%) above- market compensation through well-funded political action; which brings us to the question of automatic paycheck deduction of union dues.

Without automatic dues withdrawals, will public school unions still be able to afford their fantastically successful political activities? There’s no reason to doubt it. Given the huge compensation premium public school employees enjoy over their private sector counterparts, they have a powerful incentive to voluntarily keep funding the political action that helped win it.

Indeed, we can see this already in right-to-work states like South Carolina. Public school employees there have no collective bargaining rights and there is no automatic union dues withdrawal, but the Palmetto State nevertheless has a teachers’ union and an administrators’ association that have spent large sums of money on political action. It’s worked. Despite not being the wealthiest of states, South Carolina still spends roughly $12,000  per pupil on its public schools, and its public school teachers earn more than the state’s median household income. The teacher and administrator groups have also successfully defeated every legislative effort thus far to open up the state’s education system to private sector competition and parental choice.

The only way to rein-in out-of-control public school spending is thus to give both families and taxpayers an alternative to the government monopoly status quo. Cut taxes on folks who pay for their own children’s education, or who donate to non-profit scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition for the poor. Many states are doing this already on a small scale. By so doing so on a larger scale, families will have much greater choices and taxpayers will reap enormous savings.

Education and Society

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss asserted yesterday that “public education is a civic institution” and laments that it is seldom talked about as such (kindly citing our upcoming Cloning “Superman” event in the process).

Certainly the way children are educated can have a powerful impact on the kind of society they go on to build. And there are many social goals on which Americans strongly agree: that schools should prepare children for the responsibilities of citizenship as much as for success in private life; that they should encourage harmonious relations among people of different backgrounds (or at least not foment conflict); and that they should ensure that every child, regardless of background, has access to a quality education.

But does anyone seriously believe that our existing school system is doing a satisfactory job in any of these areas? I doubt that Ms. Strauss herself believes that, and suspect that she was merely expressing the view that our education system should do these things rather than claiming that it already was. Consider the hundreds of community conflicts around the country documented by my colleague Neal McCluskey as having been caused by public schools in a single year. Consider, too, the literature review performed by the University of Arkansas’ Patrick Wolf showing that the civic outcomes of freely chosen (usually private) schools are consistently superior to those of public schools, after controlling for differences in student and family background. And one needn’t have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman to realize that public schools have been failing far too many children, especially poor and minority children, for far too long.

If we are to remedy these profound shortcoming in American education, our best hope is to set aside our preconceptions about what kind of school systems should produce the social goods we seek, and instead ask which systems actually do produce them.

Having reviewed the worldwide econometric literature of the past 25 years, I’ve found that it is the most marketlike education systems that have consistently done the best job of serving disadvantaged children (indeed, all children) both here and abroad. Wolf’s literature review also favors private schools in their civic outcomes. And when people can get the sort of education they value for their own children without being compelled to impose their preferences on their neighbors, the conflicts caused by public schooling are avoided. Even with regard to meaningful integration among children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the private education sector performs as well or better than the state sector.

If Ms. Strauss or anyone else has compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll be interested to hear of it. And if she or anyone else would like to know what the social impact of decades of private school choice has been in a communitarian nation like Sweden, they’re welcome to come to Cato and ask Peje Emilsson on the 28th of this month.

Reply to Samuelson: It Is an Engineering Problem

In today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson argues that the performance of U.S. public schools is at least adequate, and that the relatively low achievement of black and Hispanic students is to be attributed to history and culture rather than to our education system. These claims are not new, and I might well have ignored them if he hadn’t got my Irish up with the off-hand comment that “what we face is not an engineering problem.” (More on that in a second.)

First, let’s dispatch the claim that public schooling is off the hook for the poor performance of low-income minority children. I’m currently undertaking a statistical study of the performance of 78 separate charter school networks in California, relative to one another and to the state’s traditional public schools. To foreshadow the results, the performance differences within socioeconomic groups are enormous even after controlling for school-wide peer effects. Among low-income Hispanic students, across grades, schools and subjects, average scores at two of the top charter networks (American Indian Public Schools and Oakland Charter Academies) are roughly 4 standard deviations above the statewide traditional public school mean. Quatre. Quattro. FOUR.

To put that in perspective, effect sizes in social science research are normally evaluated based on Jacob Cohen’s rule of thumb that 0.2 standard deviations is “small”, 0.5 is “moderate”, and anything bigger than 0.8 is “large.” To put it further in perspective, the low-income Hispanic effect sizes of two of California’s most elite and academically selective public schools are closer to 2 S.D. So the top charter networks, which accept every student who applies, massively outperform elite public schools that actively select their students based on prior test scores. Consistently. Across grades and subjects. [Note that there’s also wide variation in performance among charter school networks, with many performing below the mean of traditional public schools. Further details when the paper is published in a few months].

So, no, public schooling is not off the hook. We know it is possible to dramatically raise the achievement of low-income minority students above the current public school level. The problem is that we lack a system for reliably replicating the good schools and crowding out the rest. And what kind of problem is that? Even Wikipedia knows the answer:

Engineering is the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build… systems… and processes that safely realize solutions to the needs of society.

Engineering is just a broad set of tools for finding practical solutions to complex problems. One of the most useful of those tools is an aversion to reinventing the wheel, so engineers always ask how the kind of problem they’re addressing has been approached previously, in other places, even in other fields. When possible, they adapt proven solutions to the problem at hand.

So let’s all be engineers for a day on January 28th and hear what education experts from Sweden and Chile have to say about how their nations have been encouraging the replication of good schools. You can register for this unique lunchtime event here.

“Dear Foreigners, You Do the Math” —USA

A brand new Harvard University study finds that American students perform very poorly in math compared to their peers in other nations.

What’s that? You’ve heard this all before? Not quite.

This study compares the percentages of students scoring at advanced levels across countries, and it controls for the confounding effects of differing populations of disadvantaged groups. When the researchers looked exclusively at white students and at students with at least one parent with a college degree, the results remained largely the same. Among white students, for instance, 8 percent of Americans scored “advanced” in math, landing us in 25th place among nations for which scores were available–behind nearly every other advanced industrialized nation on Earth. And the highest ranked U.S. state, Massachusetts, trails the overall averages of 14 nations.

This may come as a shock to those who imagined that America’s educational shortcomings were restricted to inner cities or disadvantaged populations, but it is entirely consistent with results reported more than a decade ago as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, showing that U.S. students taking advanced mathematics and physics classes lagged their peers in other industrialized nations at the end of high school, often by wide margins.

So how, then, have we remained an economic superpower for so long if our school system is so bad? The answer is that we have historically enjoyed one of the freest economies on Earth, a relatively unfettered labor market, and comparatively low taxes–all of which have drawn to our shores many of the world’s best and brightest. Regrettably, our comparative advantage in those areas has eroded over the past several years.

Perhaps, instead of continuing to make our economy more like our failing centrally planned school monopoly, we should allow our education system to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace that was always the engine of our prosperity….

Waiting for Realityman

The edu-documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ continues to generate lots of noise about fixing American education. Unfortunately, like the film itself, most of the noisemakers ultimately ignore reality: The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents – the customers – to get their money. And that can mean only one thing:  transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

You would think that would be clear to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Think again: In a new report, the Chamber demonstrates that what’s really needed is not a visit from Superman, but for Realityman to give it a superpowered kick to the rear so that it will demand universal school choice, not the milquetoast tweaks of the government monopoly it meekly champions.

What follows are just a few examples of where the Realityman Signal shines brightly in the report – where the Chamber clearly sees the diabolical work of government monopoly, but ultimately fails to identify the culprit – calling out for our hero to save the Chamber.

First, the paper notes that “successful businesses use well-documented management and leadership practices that result in lean, accountable, flexible, high-achieving organizations.” Meanwhile, “these practices are often absent in school management. State [sic] and districts are not held accountable for their academic outcomes relative to their expenditures….”

No kidding: Businesses have to become ever-more efficient and effective or they’ll lose customers to better, cheaper competitors.  Public schools, in contrast, have no real competition and get paid no matter what.

Next, if you aren’t happy with the state of your schools, the Chamber advises getting “tough with candidates and elected officials…. Call candidates, conduct town hall forums and invite the press, write op-eds, and call your local newspaper reporters who work on education issues.”

Now, is this how most businesses work? If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Finally, the Chamber laments that “other industries are changing, adapting, and harnessing the power of new technologies, but our education system resists change.”

There’s a simple explanation for this: Public schooling isn’t an “industry.” WordNet defines “industry” as “the organized action of making of goods and services for sale [italics added].” But public schools don’t sell anything. They simply take, and because they don’t have to earn any business they have little incentive to adapt new technologies.

Surely most businessmen recognize the forces that push them to do their best. Why can’t they see the desperate need for the same forces in education?

Save us, Realityman!

Enough Community College PDA

Yesterday, President Obama hosted the White House Summit on Community Colleges, and in-your-face love was in the air. President Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, couldn’t keep their hands off their signficant other, lavishing all sorts of praise on their favorite little schools.

Swooned Dr. Biden about the dreamy things community colleges do for their students:

They are students like the mother who shared her experience with us on the White House website of working towards a degree while raising three children and straddling financial challenges.  Now employed and the holder of a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, she wrote, “Community colleges didn’t just change my life, they gave me my life.”

Community colleges do that every day. 

Ick!

The President, too, couldn’t hide his affection:

So I think it’s clear why I asked Jill to travel the country visiting community colleges -– because, as she knows personally, these colleges are the unsung heroes of America’s education system.  They may not get the credit they deserve.  They may not get the same resources as other schools.  But they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.

Like the guy with the locker next to Mr. and Mrs. Lovebird, all I can say is “oh, come on!”

Community colleges might be a good option for some people, but they are hardly paragons of educational success. Quite the opposite: According to the U.S. Department of Education, they have the worst graduation rates of any two-year sector of higher education. Only around 22 percent of public, two-year college students graduate within three years, versus roughly 49 percent of private, not-for-profit attendees and about 59 percent of private, for-profit students.

Wait! What’s that? Private, for-profit institutions outperform super-cute community colleges…by a lot? But they’re the ugliest, meanest, least popular kids in school!  Nobody likes them!

Oh, I know what’s going on here! For-profit schools cost a lot more than community colleges, right? That’s why they’re so disliked.

That’s true if you look at tuition prices. But community colleges get big subsidies from government, especially state and local taxpayers. So they might actually cost a lot, it’s just that they sneak the money out of your back pocket and then congratulate themselves for charging students so little.  

When you look at government expenditures per-pupil, including aid to schools and students, it becomes clear that community colleges are, in fact, just as mean and greedy as for-profits. Indeed, former Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro has calculated that they are actually more costly to taxpayers than for-profit schools (see table 24). According to his calculations, two-year public schools cost taxpayers $6,919 per student, while private, for-profits cost just $3,628. 

No wonder the summit turned my stomach! At the same time the administration and its allies in Congress are bashing for-profit schools, the President has a love fest with community colleges that are generally much worse. Unfortunately, it leaves you concluding that for-profits could walk on water and it wouldn’t matter: As long as they’re honest about trying to make a buck, they’ll be beaten up in the parking lot and never invited to any of the cool summits.

President: “We Need More Teachers.” Reality: “Yoohoo! I’m Right Over Here! Hellooo!”

This week, President Obama called for the hiring of 10,000 new teachers to beef up math and science achievement. Meanwhile, in America, Earth, Sol-System, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment for 40 years (see chart), while achievement at the end of high school has stagnated in math and declined in science (see other chart).

Either the president is badly misinformed about our education system or he thinks that promising to hire another 10,000 teachers union members is politically advantageous–in which case he would seem to be badly misinformed about the present political climate. Or he lives in an alternate universe in which Kirk and Spock have facial hair and government monopolies are efficient. It’s hard to say.