Tag: education

Separate Schooling Part of Peace, Not Problem?

Peace DovePresident Obama’s speech in Northern Ireland a few days ago has generated some unexpected controversy. Unfortunately, most of it seems to be along the lines of “Obama attacked the Catholic Church again” because he critiqued religiously separate, Northern-Irish schooling. And Obama certainly was on shaky ground blaming segregated schooling for exacerbating social divisions, but not because he was attacking the Catholic Church. No, his error is that educational freedom may be crucial to peace, not anathema to it.

From what he said, it certainly doesn’t seem that Mr. Obama was trying to single out Catholic schools as a problem. He clearly stated that the presence of both Catholic and Protestant schools was what troubled him: “If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.” The president’s point was that Protestants and Catholics should go to school together to break down barriers, a seemingly reasonable belief that has driven much of school policy in this country. If we put diverse people together, the thinking goes, they will learn to get along.

But neither deeper logic nor the historical evidence supports that idea particularly well. We absolutely had to end legally mandated segregation, but efforts to force integration often resulted not just in maintained division, but hotter conflict. Why? Because people don’t just check their differing values or identities at the school-room—or school-board—door, and having to support one system of schools forces people to fight over whose values and identities will be taught.

Look at our own religious history. For over a century many of our public schools were de facto Protestant institutions, reading Protestant versions of the Bible and teaching generally Protestant religion. Efforts to make the schools accommodate both Protestants and Catholics often failed—and in Philadelphia led to days of bloodshed—ultimately resulting in the founding of a massive Catholic school system, which by 1965 enrolled 12 percent of all school-aged children.

Our more recent experience with forced integration has been based on race, as we’ve tried to overcome our long and shameful history of legally mandated racial segregation. Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed forced segregation, was a necessary ruling, and one that has had very powerful benefits. But subsequent federal court rulings mandating physical integration ignited many open, charged conflicts, and quite likely made race relations worse than they’d have been had people been able to freely choose whether to go to school together. It takes time to overcome centuries of division, suspicion, and alienation, and imposing physical togetherness often seemed to breed resentment and even greater hostility. That may very well be why, today, surveys indicate that while most people support integration in the abstract, they widely dislike busing or other forced integration measures.

President’s Budget Lacks Seriousness, Vision

The measure of our seriousness in helping children learn is not simply the number of dollars we spend, but rather the care and thought we invest in allocating them, and our openness to changing course when the evidence demands it. The education provisions of the President’s budget, released today, lack both seriousness and vision.

The FY 2014 budget overview emphasizes three educational initiatives: preschool for all, STEM and innovation, and school infrastructure.

As foreshadowed in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposes to federally subsidize statewide preschool programs. This approach seems designed to deal with the mounting evidence that the federal government’s own preschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, have essentially no lasting benefits. Though candidate Obama once said he would terminate ineffective programs, his latest budget retains them both, and actually grows Early Head Start. Additionally, the new budget would subsidize PreK programs like those in Oklahoma and Georgia that advocates have long touted as “high quality.” The evidence on those programs is, however, rather mixed. Relative to the national average, Oklahoma has seen modest declines on the 4th grade NAEP tests while Georgia has seen modest gains—and the declines are larger than the gains. A broader review of the evidence by early education expert Russ Whitehurst of Brookings finds the same lackluster results overall. 

Not only are these statewide programs failing to show a pattern of lasting and substantial benefits thus far, the addition of federal subsidies will likely impede efforts to improve them. Federal education dollars at the pre-college level always come with strings attached—strings that accumulate over time. That is likely to exert a homogenizing pressure on state pre-K offerings, eliminating variation and thereby preventing us from learning which approaches are effective and which are not.

On STEM, the President is keen to fund the hiring of 100,000 new Science, Technology, and Math teachers. But America does not have a teacher quantity problem, we have a teacher effectiveness problem. Over the past 40 years, we’ve grown the number of public school employees 11 times faster than enrollment [i.e., we’ve doubled the number of staff to serve only 8.5 percent more students]. This has added $200 billion annually to the cost of American public schooling, and two million of the three million new hires were instructional staff, so it’s not simply a problem of bureaucratic bloat. And yet, despite all those new teachers and teachers’ aides, achievement at the end of high school is largely flat as are real graduation rates.

In other words, our public schools have shown themselves incapable of harnessing the talents of these millions of additional educators. The solution is not to hire yet more teachers into that system, it is to liberalize the education sector, bringing it back within the free enterprise system. Only when schools have both the freedoms and incentives to make the most of their teaching staffs, will we see educators’ talents marshaled effectively.

Finally, President Obama’s proposed new infrastructure spending focuses only on the symptom (crumbling school facilities) and ignores its cause (mismanagement). I’ve analyzed school survey data on the condition of facilities and found that public schools are in a much worse state of repair than private schools, despite the fact that private schools spend far less per pupil, on average. The question is WHY are public schools in a worse state of repair, given that they spend more? According to a federal government report, it’s because districts repeatedly defer necessary routine maintenance. These deferrals increase the cost of maintaining school facilities and accelerate the deterioration of buildings and equipment. In other words, they postpone the ounce of prevention until the pound of cure becomes unavoidable—and they do this because they don’t have to pay for the cure. Once again, bringing schools back within the free enterprise system would provide administrators with the incentives to maintain their facilities so as to avoid the financial hit of costly repairs and replacements—a hit that they can now pass on to taxpayers at no cost to themselves or their careers.

Regrettably, seeing the root causes underlying our educational woes is beyond the vision of the present administration.

Bad Stuff in Obama Ed Budget

Details are still emerging about the Obama Administration’s 2014 education budget proposal, but from the overview there seems to be a lot of bad stuff. Here are the hi – or low – lights, and links to some important context:

  • Increase Department of Education spending to $71.2 billion, up 4.6 percent from 2012 enacted level: This is neither constitutional nor effective.
  • “Invests” in preschool: Head Start, Early Head Start, and state programs either are shown to fail, or have little to no good evidence supporting them.
  • $12.5 billion in mandatory funds to “prevent additional teacher layoffs and hire teachers”: We’ve been getting fat on staff – including teachers – for decades, and it hasn’t helped.
  • $1.3 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers: Federal studies have found these have negative effects.
  • Race to the Top for higher education: So far, RTTT has been big on promises, small on outcomes, and huge on coercion to adopt national curriculum standards.
  • $260 million to scale up higher education innovation: MOOCS and other innovations have been developing pretty well without federal “help.”
  • Maintain “strong” Pell Grant program: Pell is part of the tuition hyperinflation problem, not the solution.

There will no doubt be more-detailed analyses of specific education proposals to come. Stay tuned!

Early Education Scholar Takes Universal Pre-K Advocates to School

Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution has spent decades studying early childhood education. Last month he offered a review of the evidence on the federal “Head Start” program targeted at low-income children and another on universal government Pre-K programs.

Like most people who have chosen to work in this field, he is keen to find ways of improving educational outcomes for all children, and of helping disadvantaged children to catch up with their peers. Like only a very few, this goal has not lowered his standards of evidence. If there is a convincing rebuttal to Whitehurst’s essays, I haven’t seen it. And given the evidence as it exists today, I don’t expect to see such a rebuttal anytime soon.

The Profit Motive in Education

I’ve finally had a chance to look over a book published last year by the London-based Institute for Economic Affiars: The Profit Motive in Education–Continuing the Revolution. It turns out to be a great overview of current developments from all over the world, and has a particularly useful chapter by its editor James B. Stanfield, development director at the E. G. West Centre at the University of Newcastle, founded by James Tooley.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding how genuine markets can and do work in elementary and secondary education. Delightfully, the whole thing is available on-line as a .pdf file (see link above). E-mail it to your Kindle!

Prosperity and World Population Growth

Readers of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Ronald Bailey’s columns in the Reason magazine will not be surprised to hear that the rate of population growth is slowing—dramatically—throughout the world. Jeff Wise’s article in the Slate magazine, “About that Overpopulation Problem,” revisits that familiar territory and makes some interesting points. Ultimately, however, Wise fails to appreciate the real reasons for the fall in population growth rate.

First, the good news. As Wise notes, “[The] rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today. And then it will fall… the long-dreaded resource shortage may turn out not to be a problem at all.”

“For hundreds of thousands of years,” Wise’s article continues, “in order for humanity to survive things like epidemics and wars and famine, birthrates had to be very high. Eventually, thanks to technology, death rates started to fall in Europe and in North America, and the population size soared. In time, though, birthrates fell as well, and the population leveled out.”

Why might that be? “The reason,” Wise avers, “for the implacability of demographic transition can be expressed in one word: education. One of the first things that countries do when they start to develop is educate their young people, including girls. That dramatically improves the size and quality of the workforce. But it also introduces an opportunity cost for having babies.”

True enough, better education is a by-product of development, but where does development come from?

For that we have to look to Ronald Bailey. As he writes, “In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. ‘Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law,’ wrote Norton. ‘The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures.’”

And, “Economic freedom and the rule of law produce prosperity which dramatically lowers child mortality which, in turn, reduces the incentive to bear more children. In addition, along with increased prosperity comes more education for women, opening up more productive opportunities for them in the cash economy. This increases the opportunity costs for staying at home to rear children. Educating children to meet the productive challenges of growing economies also becomes more expensive and time consuming.”

So, education is a proximate cause of population growth slowdown. The ultimate cause, however, rests with economic freedom and resulting prosperity.