Tag: education

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.

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!