Tag: education

Conservatives, Public Schools, and Pedagogy

I’ve received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration’s Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.

Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It’s possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.

Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?

The answer is: not much. As I’ve noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.

But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than “progressives.”

And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.

And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I’m simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.

If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen… or get used to disappointment.

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste (after High School)

The South Carolina NAACP is among the most strident opponents of a new education tax credit proposal in that state that would make it easier for families – especially poor families – to choose private schools for their kids.

But the NAACP’s national platform states that:

The NAACP is a leading advocate of equal access to quality education.  In an effort to promote and ensure education opportunities for minority youth, the NAACP offers the following national scholarships: Earl G. Graves Scholarship, Agnes Jones Scholarship, …. These awards help eliminate financial difficulties that may hinder students’ education goals.   

Doesn’t that put the SC NAACP’s position into clear conflict with its parent organization? Actually, no. I deleted the qualifier “higher” before the word “education” in the block quote above. The NAACP strongly supports scholarships for poor kids to attend private schools, so long as the kids are over 18 or so.

A few years ago I debated this bizarre inconsistency with a very candid and pleasant NAACP representative, and his response boiled down to this: ”I lived through the Jim Crow South and I don’t trust a bunch of white Republicans to have our best interests in mind.” Fair enough. We shouldn’t trust politicians of any stripe to have the public’s interests in mind on any issue. We should instead look at what actually works best both here and around the world, and do that.

From the largest shanty town in Africa, to the slums of Hyderabad, India, to the remote rural villages of in-land China, the poor are already choosing private schools in vast numbers. And those schools are significantly outperforming their public sector counterparts at a fraction of the cost. Their stories are told in The Beautiful Tree, a compelling new narrative non-fiction book by scholar and world-traveler James Tooley. Cato is launching the book at noon on April 15th at our DC headquarters. I hope someone from the NAACP will attend.

Oh, and in case it matters to anyone, the lead advocate of SC’s tax credit school choice program is state senator Robert Ford, an African American Democrat. For some reason the NAACP still opposes it.

Here’s A “Toxic Asset” for You…

The Obama administration seems obsessed with making American taxpayers eat toxic assets. And I’m not talking about bad paper, derivatives, or any other inscrutable financial stinkers. I’m talking about good ol’ American public schooling.

Truth be told, after listening to the president’s presser last night, even I started to think that the key to American economic success is “investing” in education. After all, once you’ve heard something for about the twentieth time, you start to believe it. I mean, that’s how propaganda works, right? But somehow my mind refused to give in, and it forced me to remember:

We’ve been “investing” in government schools for decades, and have been reaping nothing but AIG-like results!

I actually laid out the startlingly awful returns we’ve gotten for our education dollars in several blog entries last month, but thought I’d revisit the basic, revolting facts one more time. I want it to be absolutely clear that lavishing more money on education isn’t change, nor, given what we get for the money, could it possibly be the key to long-term economic success.

So what have we invested? Let’s start with total outlays for elementary through post-secondary education, taken from table 26 of the latest Digest of Education Statistics. In 1969 we spent a total of $347 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2007, we spent $981 billion, a 183 percent increase.

How about public k-12 spending on a per-pupil basis? Again using Digest data (table 181) – which understates total expenditures by excluding such things as “state administration expenditures” – we can see that we’ve been spending increasingly sizable amounts. After adjusting for inflation, in 1969 we spent $5,161 per child. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, hitting $11,643. And what has that “investment” yielded?

Other than massive bloat, bupkus! Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ final products – we see almost complete academic stagnation. In mathematics, the average scale score was 304 (out of 500) in 1973, and only a measly 3 points higher in 2004! That’s a one percent increase in math outcomes for a roughly 100 percent increase in funding! And that actually beats the “return” in reading, where 17-year-olds were at 285 in 1971 and, yup, 285 in 2004!

How about higher education? Here we don’t have very good outcome measures and it is difficult to break down overall per-pupil expenditures. What we do have, however, suggests another bad investment.

To get a feel for expenditures, we can examine the State Higher Education Executive Officers report (figure A) showing that total revenue collected per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions, adjusted for inflation, grew from $8,463 in 1983 to $11,037 in 2008, a 30 percent increase. We can also look at aid per student, most of which came through government. According to data from the College Board (table 3), in 1983 the average full-time-equivalent student received $3,769 in inflation-adjusted aid. In 2007 she got $10,392, a 176 percent increase.

What are the returns on these investments? Again, lots of bloat, but from what we can tell, relatively little of educational value. Graduation rates, for one thing, seem to be falling.

According to the Population Studies Center, within eight years of graduating high school, 51.1 percent of students in the high school class of 1972 had finished college degrees. In contrast, only 45.3 percent of 1992’s high school class had done the same. And grads seem to be getting less well educated; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 1992 and 2003 literacy levels dropped for both Americans whose education maxed out at a bachelor’s degree and those with graduate degrees. Whether it was graduates’ ability to read prose, documents, or handle math, scores went down while costs went up.

So all told, what do we have to show for our education investment? Pretty much just empty bank accounts. And yet, some politicians just can’t seem to get enough of those toxic assets!

More on the AZ Supreme Court Ruling

As Andrew Coulson noted earlier, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down two voucher programs today that serve special needs and foster children.

I think some of his points deserve an additional emphasis; this is a tragedy for many of the state’s most needy and vulnerable children but it can be easily fixed. (See who school choice opponents are so determined to send back to an inadequate public school system here).

These children can be quickly and seamlessly supported in their school of choice through an immediate expansion of the state’s two existing education tax credit programs, which have been ruled constitutional.

These children are in desperate need of the education they currently receive at private schools, and lawmakers must ensure that they can continue to attend their school of choice.

Vouchers Defeated in AZ. Freedom Can Still Prevail

The Arizona Supreme Court has just struck down two voucher programs serving disabled and foster children. This is a terrible blow to the families involved, but there is a way to continue offering them educational freedom: incorporate them into the state’s popular education tax credit programs.

Arizona residents and businesses can already make donations to non-profit scholarship funds and receive a tax credit for their donations. If the caps on those credits are raised, it will be possible to generate enough funding to serve the students formerly participating in the voucher programs. It would even be possible to create non-profit scholarship funds that specifically focus on serving special needs students, which could help parents choose the schools best suited to their individual children’s needs, and allow donors to know that their funds would go toward that cause.

While the Court has said that vouchers are impermissible in Arizona, it has already upheld the state’s tax credits that accomplish the same ends entirely through voluntary action. It is a solution that should satisfy everyone.

Everyone, that is, who has the best interests of children in mind.

Women’s Suffrage Abandoned. “Too Unpopular,” says Anthony.

Reversing his earlier support for private school choice in the District of Columbia, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews now calls for the end of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. Why? “Vouchers help [low income] kids, but not enough of them. The vouchers are too at odds with the general public view of education. They don’t have much of a future.”

So private school choice programs work, but because they are not growing quite fast enough for Mr. Mathews’ taste we should abandon the entire enterprise? Why keep striving for total victory when can seize defeat today!

The thing is, major social changes are usually, what’s the word… oh yes: hard. Susan B. Anthony co-founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869. She died in 1906 – 14 years, 5 months and five days before passage of the 19th Amendment. If a social reform is right and just, it will inspire reformers who will fight for it every bit as long as it takes.

And even those who decide what social reforms to support based on their popularity should take note that school choice programs are proliferating all over the country. And newer tax credit programs, such as Florida’s, Pennsylvania’s, and Arizona’s, are all growing at a faster rate than older voucher programs like the one in Milwaukee. More than that, the politics of school choice have already begun to change at the state level. While Democrats in Congress had no qualms slipping a shiv into the futures of 1,700 poor kids, more and more of their fellow party members at the state level are deciding to back educational freedom.

Monday Podcast: ‘The Push for Universal Pre-K’

The evidence is weak that Pre-K education improves the long-term prospects of public school kids, says Adam Schaeffer, Cato education policy analyst.

In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Schaeffer explains why the push for universal preschool is really all about money, monopoly and misdirection:

The scale problem is a massive one and they haven’t really addressed it. State programs run into these problems as well. As they scale up the program, we see that there is no overall change in outcomes for the children in the state. Their test scores don’t go up.