Tag: education

When “Zero Tolerance” Means Zero Logic

Schools work very hard to curb drunk driving, so when a sober student offers to drive an inebriated friend home from a party rather than let her attempt to drive home herself, no doubt any school would hold her up as worthy of emulation, right? Wrong, sadly, at least at North Andover High School in Massachusetts:

Two weeks ago, Erin [Cox] received a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Erin drove to Boxford after work to pick up her friend. Moments after she arrived, the cops arrived too and busted several kids for underage possession of alcohol.

A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. In the middle of her senior year, Erin was demoted from captain of the volleyball team and told she would be suspended from playing for five games.

One of the central purposes of education is to teach students to consider the consequences of their actions. In this sense, Cox and her friend demonstrated greater wisdom than school officials. While the students clearly considered the potentially lethal consequences of attempting to drive drunk, school officials apparently haven’t considered how their “zero tolerance” policy might discourage sobers students from aiding inebriated colleagues in the future. As Alexander Abad-Santos notes at the Atlantic, “Cox did not break any laws; she did not drink, did not party — yet was still punished by the school. By reprimanding Cox, North Andover High is likely sending out a confusing and contradictory message to teens about drinking, designated drivers, and asking for help.” The Cox family lawyer agrees:

School Spending Transparency Favors School Choice

In a post at RedefinED Online calling for more sunshine on the Sunshine State’s public school spending data, I discussed the broader implications of financial transparency:

Awareness about public school spending has implications for the public discourse over public education. A Harvard University survey shows the public vastly underestimates how much public schools cost, which affects the public’s spending preferences. When citizens are informed about the true cost of public education, they are significantly less likely to support increasing spending.

Likewise, the widespread misperception that private schools cost more per pupil than public schools likely affects the public’s support for school choice programs. A greater awareness that school choice programs can save money would likely translate into greater public support for school choice. Indeed, Florida policymakers have wisely sought to demonstrate exactly that. The Florida Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) estimated Florida taxpayers save $1.44 for every dollar of revenue reduced by the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

The central purpose of school choice is to provide an education that best meets the needs of individual children, especially to those whose choices are limited. Diverse children require a diverse array of learning options. However, as with any public policy, cost is a factor. Research has shown that when the fiscal benefits of school choice are emphasized, support for choice increases. 

The widespread misperception that school choice programs would cost more than the status quo is therefore both a problem and an opportunity. The misperception currently dampens support for school choice, but it also means that support would increase with greater awareness about the true cost of public schools and the savings that school choice programs provide to taxpayers. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant and it is also necessary for growth. Those who want to see school choice programs grow should advocate for greater transparency in education spending.

 

A School Monopoly? What a Great Idea?

I’m reluctant to give more attention to the steaming pile of dreck that Slate is using as linkbait this morning, but someone should point out how incredibly asinine it is. The author argues that anyone who sends their child to a private school is a “bad person” because, well, see for yourself:

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. 

The first sentence is clearly true but it’s downhill from there. There’s a lot of economic illiteracy to unpack there as well as some rather frightening assumptions about the duty of individuals to sacrifice themselves for some ill-defined “common good” (on Twitter, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat notes that this argument has an eerie resemblence to the Italian fascist motto, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”).

I’ll let others heap on the mocking and scorn that this argument so richly deserves. What I want to focus on is the evidence.

Had this self-declared non-education wonk bothered to take even a cursory look at the research literature, she’d find that competition actually improves the public schools. Of 23 studies of the impact of school choice programs on public school performance, 22 studies find a small but statistically significant positive effect and one finds no visible effect. None find any harm.

The reason that competition works is because it makes schools responsive to the needs of parents. What’s so astounding is that the author wants schools to be responsive to parents, but thinks that the best way to do it is to have a government monopoly, as though Ma Bell would’ve eventually produced an iPhone.

Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “In our upper-middle-class world, it is hard not to pay for something if you can and you think it will be good for your kid.” I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.

Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.

Scratch away the economic ignorance and smug self-righteousness and you find a compelling argument for school choice. Yes, low-income families also want access to good quality schools that meet their kids’ individual needs. But forcing everyone into the same school isn’t going to help. The author correctly identifies the problem but fails to arrive at the right solution. If we want true equality of opportunity, we should expand the educational options available to low- and middle-income families, not restrict the choices of everyone.

How Transparent Is Your State’s Department of Education?

When a business applies for a loan, the bank needs to know the business’s operating expenses and its overhead to make an informed decision about whether to grant the loan. A business that acquired a loan while understating or hiding some categories of its expenses would be in serious trouble. However, the government seems to operate by a different set of rules.

A new report from the Cato Institute, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?“ finds that state departments of education routinely understate the cost of public schools and often fail to report key spending categories. Meanwhile, a Harvard survey finds that the public thinks that public schools cost half as much as they really do. Are state education departments contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education?

Find out more at Education Next.

The Perils of Publicly Funded “Private” Schools

We support getting publicly funded schools public accountability…. No exceptions, no excuses, no special treatment.

Thus spake John Johnson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, on the subject of a new bill his agency co-wrote with Republican legislators. Among other things, the bill would allow the DPI to kick private schools out of the state’s voucher program if it rates them perennial failures.

Here’s the thing: Way back in … August of 2013, (a.k.a., “this month”), the head of a state department of instruction was forced to resign because, while in that same post in another state, he had personally revised his department’s ranking of a school run by a major political donor. State officials and agencies, contrary to the implicit assumption of “accountability” mavens, are not all wise, objective, beneficent philosopher-kings. They are people–and organizations made up of people–who have political and personal vested interests that do not always align with those of the families they nominally serve.

Fortunately, over the course of human history, a system evolved which tends to align the interests of producers and consumers more effectively than any other. It is the free enterprise system, in which producers must compete for the privilege of serving each and every customer, and consumers have the freedom to easily choose from among many competing providers. Let schools do their best to serve families and let families choose their schools: let the chips fall where they may. Some schools will succeed, others will fail. Those that succeed, grow. Those that fail are prevented from continuing to ill-serve families. It is a system that works not simply in theory, but in practice, as I found when I surveyed the worldwide within-country research comparing alternative school systems. The least regulated, most market-like education systems most consistently outperform state school systems, such as we have in the United States.

Education Policy, The Use of Evidence, and the Fordham Institute

In recent weeks, the Fordham Institute has repeatedly called for government testing and reporting mandates to be imposed on private schools participating in school choice programs (here and here), on the grounds that such “public accountability” improves private school academic outcomes. In defense of this claim, the Fordham Institute cites a study of Milwaukee’s voucher program in which test scores rose following the introduction of such mandates.

Patrick Wolf, director of the research team that conducted the study, has now responded, explaining that his team’s results do not necessarily support Fordham’s claim:

[B]y taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime….

What about the encouraging trend that lower-performing schools in the MPCP are being closed down?  [Fordham] mentions that as well and attributes it to the stricter accountability regulations on the program.  That phenomenon of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” pre-dated the accountability changes in the choice program, however, and appears to have been caused mainly by low enrollments in low-performing choice schools, as parents “voted with their feet” against such institutional failure. Sure, the new high-stakes testing and public reporting requirements might accelerate the creative destruction of low-performing choice schools in Milwaukee, but that remains to be seen. [emphasis added]

But there is a deeper problem with the Fordham claim, to which Wolf alludes: a single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

And Fordham’s preferred policy not only lacks a body of supporting evidence, it is undermined by a large body of evidence. When I reviewed the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide in 2009, I sorted the results into two categories: 1) all studies that compared “public” schools to “private” schools, where those terms were loosely defined; and 2) studies that compared “market” schools to “monopoly” schools. “Market” schools were those paid for at least in part directly by parents and only minimally regulated. “Monopoly” schools were public school systems such as those common in the U.S.

The purpose of these separate categorizations was to see if limited regulation and direct parent funding make a real difference, or if private schools that are paid for entirely by the state and subjected to Fordham’s “public accountability” have the same advantages as their more market-like counterparts.

The result of this breakdown of the literature was stark. Studies looking at truly market-like education systems are twice as consistent in finding a private sector advantage as those looking at “private” schools more broadly construed (and thus including state-funded and regulated private schools).

The pattern of evidence thus seems to contradict Fordham’s belief in the merits of “public accountability” in market education systems. What it favors are policies that promote the rise of minimally regulated education markets in which parents pay at least some of the cost of their own children’s education directly themselves, whenever possible.  That’s just the sort of system likely to arise under education tax credit programs.

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.