Tag: education

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this past week:

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Rick Perry, Arne Duncan, and Michael Jackson

To my astonishment, Arne Duncan went after Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry yesterday on the grounds that Perry hasn’t done enough to improve the schools under his jurisdiction. According to Bloomberg News, Duncan said public schools have “really struggled” under Perry and that “Far too few of [the state’s] high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college.”

I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan, but for some reason his “Man in the Mirror” track just popped into my head as I read this. You see, once upon a time, Arne Duncan was “CEO” of the Chicago Public Schools. During and for some time after his tenure, he was celebrated as having presided over “The Chicago Miracle,” in which local students’ test results had improved dramatically. That fact turns out to have been fake, but accurate. The state test results did improve, but not because students had learned more; they appear to have improved because the tests were dumbed-down.

When this charge was first leveled, I decided to look into it myself, and found that it was indeed justified. There was no “Chicago Miracle.” Arne Duncan ascended to the throne of U.S. secretary of education, at least in part, on a myth. The academic achievement of the children under his care stagnated at or slightly below the level of students in other large central cities during his time at the helm. Seems an opportune occasion for someone to “start with the man in the mirror, asking him to change his ways.”

Slate.com vs. Tea-Party/Christians/Bachmann

Slate worked itself into a lather yesterday over the insidious education policy implications of Michele Bachmann’s Iowa Straw Poll victory:

As recently as a decade ago, Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain, and John Boehner embraced bipartisan, standards-and-accountability education reform…. Now we are seeing the GOP acquiesce to the anti-government, Christian-right view of education epitomized by Bachmann…. Against a backdrop of Tea Party calls to abolish the Department of Education and drastically cut the federal government’s role in local public schools….”

To support this narrative, Slate asked Bachmann what the federal government’s role was in education, to which she replied, “There is none; Education is a matter reserved for the states.”

Oh, whoops, sorry. Got that last quote wrong. That wasn’t Bachmann’s answer, it was the answer of the FDR administration.

This answer rests squarely on the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states and the people powers not expressly enumerated and delegated to Congress by the Constitution. It was published by the federal government in 1943, under the oversight of the president, the vice president, and the speaker of the House.

Though it might come as a surprise to Slate’s writers, our nation was not founded on state-run schooling. And, until very recently in historical terms, the idea that the federal government had a role to play in the classroom was unthinkable. It may have required some theorizing to evaluate the merits of Congress-as-schoolmarm prior to the feds getting involved in a big way in 1965, but now… now we can just look in the rear-view mirror (see chart below).

With nearly half a century of hindsight, advocating a federal withdrawal from America’s schools does not seem “anti-government.” Just anti-crazy.

 

Cato Unbound: Are Men in Decline?

This month’s Cato Unbound looks at the intersection of education, work, and gender, and asks: Are men in decline? As women have advanced in education, the workplace, and even politics, some fear that the emerging new economy—or perhaps some other factors—are dragging men down. We’ve all heard talk of the Mancession, and it’s well known that men are in the minority now on many college campuses. How long will the trend continue?

Lead essayist Kay Hymowitz makes the case for male decline; Jessica Bennett, Amanda Hess, and Myriam Miedzian give reasons to be skeptical. Hymowitz replies to her critics. (Men, alas, were so far in decline that I couldn’t find a single one to write for this issue.)

The conversation is just getting started, so be sure to drop by again or subscribe to Cato Unbound so you’ll never miss a post.

‘Education’: The Relentless Political Weapon

On at least six occasions in his address to the nation last night President Obama invoked the words “education,” “student,” or “college” to scare listeners into thinking that the federal government must have increased revenues. Typical was this bit of cheap, class-warfare stoking rhetoric:

How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?

Now, I’m all for eliminating economy-distorting tax loopholes, incentives, etc. But there is simply no way on God’s green Earth that the President—or anyone else—could look at what the federal government has done in the name of education and conclude that it has been anything but a bankrupting, multi-trillion-dollar failure:

  • Spending on Head Start is ultimately just money down a rathole according to the federal government’s own assessment
  • In K-12 education, Washington has dropped ever-bigger loads of cash onto schools out of ever-bigger jumbo jets, but has gotten zero improvement in the end
  • In higher education, all the money that supposedly makes college more affordable is actually a major driver behind students having ”to pay more for college”—just what the President decries—because it enables colleges to raise their prices at rates far outstripping normal inflation

The only people who regularly benefit from federal education profligacy are not students, but school employees and, especially, their lobbyists. They are teachers’ unions, tenure-track college professors, school administrators of all varieties, but not students, and definitely not taxpayers. Oh, and one other group: politicians who, despite the overwhelming evidence that all their spending on education is utterly useless, just keep exploiting students to buy votes and beat down anyone who would return the federal government to a sane—and constitutional— size.

Education, for our politicians, is not a thing to be fostered. If it were, they’d get out of the business. No, it is a political weapon, and it continues to be used to deadly effect.

Could You Modify It ‘To Stop Students From Becoming This Advanced?’

The free Web tutoring service “Khan Academy” has gotten much well-deserved attention, including a feature story in the current issue of Wired. That story includes a quote that literally took my breath away:

Even if Khan is truly liberating students to advance at their own pace, it’s not clear that the schools will be able to cope. The very concept of grade levels implies groups of students moving along together at an even pace. So what happens when, using Khan Academy, you wind up with a kid in fifth grade who has mastered high school trigonometry and physics—but is still functioning like a regular 10-year-old when it comes to writing, history, and social studies? Khan’s programmer, Ben Kamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”

This attitude is a natural outgrowth of our decision to operate education as a monopoly. In a competitive marketplace, educators have incentives to serve each individual child to the best of their ability, because each child can easily be enrolled elsewhere if they fail to do so. That is why the for-profit Asian tutoring industry groups students by performance, not by age. There are “grades,” but they do not depend on when a student was born, only on what she knows and is able to do.

But why should a monopolist bother doing that? It’s easier just to feed children through the system on a uniform conveyor belt based on when they were born.

Did They Learn Correlation and Causation in College?

It looks like Peter Thiel won’t be unopposed advising kids to stay out of college

Thanks to a new report from Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale, and a David Leonhardt column based on Carnevale’s study, over the last few days the college-for-all crowd has been striking back. But they seem to have missed something in their own college training: correlation does not equal causation.

Carnevale, Leonhardt, and others’ argument is basically that there are big, positive returns on a college degree. It’s something, frankly, that’s not generally in dispute. I say “generally,” because while on average college grads make a lot more than people without a degree, there’s a lot more to the story than averages. Indeed, there are at least three major problems with making averages the basis for a universal-college offensive, problems that Andrew Gillen recently laid out in a terrific blog post. I won’t reinvent the wheel by going into them all (read Andrew’s post) but I’ll summarize them: (1) There are huge throngs of people who attempt college and never finish, a giant population ignored when you just look at completers; (2) at least part of the college wage premium is simply a function of a degree signaling something about the intelligence, work habits, etc. that graduates already possessed; and (3) there are some majors and degrees that confer no great wage premium and are in about as much demand as Betamax or gangrene.

What is most concerning about the Carnevale report, however, is how the report and its fans make the very basic mistake of conflating correlation with causation in implying that the roughly one-third of bachelor’s holders in jobs not requiring degrees are much better workers thanks to their BAs. They base that conclusion on degree-holders in non-degree jobs earning appreciably more than workers with only high-school diplomas. Heck, a graphic to go with Leanohardt’s column trumpets that dishwashers with college degrees make a lot more than dishwashers without them, a data point seized on by the Fordham Institute’s Peter Meyer to attack anyone who dares say college isn’t the best option for everyone.

Once the dishwasher example comes up, is there any way to escape the causation/correlation problem? Any way to not at least seriously contemplate that it isn’t what someone learned in college that makes him or her a better dishwasher, but that someone able to graduate college will tend to be more punctual and reliable? Heck, even if you believed that the proverbial underwater basket weaving major existed, it would be very hard to conclude that the skills one would need to make the finest submerged wickerwork would be useful for getting dinner plates spotless, even though that often occurs underwater.

And many of the public service jobs cited in the graphic, such as firefighters? At least from what we know about teachers, government employee pay scales often give salary bumps for degrees, but degrees don’t necessarily have any bearing on job effectiveness.

People like Carnevale and Leonhardt are right to guard against efforts, especially by public-school employees, to actively push kids away from college, in particular if that’s driven by students’ class or race. But shoving everyone into ivy walls? Based on what we know, that’s equally unjustifiable.