Tag: education

Will Khan Academy Fulfill Its Potential?

In today’s Washington Times I review Salman Khan’s new book, The One World Schoolhouse. Pedagogically, the man is brilliant. But he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the economics of education. Here’s how the review leads off:

In “The One World Schoolhouse,” Salman Khan presents a simple thesis: We learn best when we learn actively and at our own pace, mastering each new skill before proceeding to the next. What sets Mr. Khan apart from most pedagogical theorists, besides the fact that he’s actually right, is that he’s giving his services away. His website, KhanAcademy.org, hosts thousands of instructional videos and interactive lessons. Millions of people around the world have used them and sing their praises.

Given his growing success, Mr. Khan’s goal is suitably ambitious: “A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” But he seems to want to change the way the world learns without changing the way the world schools.

Mr. Khan’s focus is inside the classroom on instructional practices and tools. He is largely silent on, and seems indifferent to, the ways schools are managed and how students choose or are assigned to them and the way teachers are trained and compensated.

Continue reading here…

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No, Teachers in Finland Are Not Paid Like Doctors

Photo Credit: Skeptical Libertarian

A meme that is floating around the interwebs claims that Finland’s education system outperforms the United States because “We pay teachers like doctors, students enjoy over an hour of recess, and there’s no mandatory testing – the opposite of what America does.”

That all sounds great … it just isn’t true.

In Finland general practitioners earn, on average, about $70,000 per year, which is less than half of what doctors earn in the United States. The average salary for primary education teachers with 15 years experience in Finland is about $37,500, compared to $45,225 in the United States. Moreover, the cost of living in Finland is about 30% higher.

In short: higher teacher salaries are not what make Finland’s education system better than ours. And I suspect it isn’t recess either.

And, of course, having a curriculum that is more closely aligned with the PISA (the metric by which people judge Finland to be better) than almost any other industrialized nation may exaggerate Finland’s superiority significantly.

Public Schools Cost More Than Americans Think

Imagine your business trying to decide whether to increase or decrease spending on marketing without knowing how much your company currently spends on marketing. Worse, imagine making that decision under the false impression that your company spends nearly half as much as it actually does. Sadly, that’s the state of the education funding debate nationwide, and the media often exacerbate the problem.

For example, in a news segment on Colorado’s NBC affiliate earlier this month, the reporter acts as though the amount of money spent per child in the public schools is a matter of political opinion to be legitimately debated rather than an empirical fact:

Like any good political debate, there are two sides to every single answer. When it comes to school funding, people have been wondering how much schools get to spend per student. That answer depends on who you ask.

The first person the reporter asked was Kathleen Gebhardt, the lead attorney in Colorado’s education adequacy lawsuit, who claimed that the public schools “receive an average of $6,474 per pupil in tax dollars.” How does that compare with other states? According to Gebhardt, “We’re in the top 10 for wealth and in the bottom 10 for funding our students.”

The reporter then gets a second opinion from Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, who claimed that education funding is actually “closer to $10,000 per student.”

The media segment doesn’t give DeGrow an opportunity to explain how he reached that figure, instead turning to a laughing Gebhardt who chortles, “Oh, $10,000-a-year would be unimaginable for almost anybody in Colorado! It would be a nice problem to have, but it’s not one we currently have.”

So who was telling the truth? According to the reporter, no one can really know. He concludes the segment: “Like any good political debate, much of the issue will be addressed at the polls.”

After the segment aired, DeGrow explained how he and his counterpart arrived at their figures. Gebhardt’s figure didn’t account for all sources of tax revenue. In DeGrow’s words, “It is equivalent to counting only the primary breadwinner’s earnings as household income, even though about half as much more money comes in through a side job, home business and investment earnings.”

Moreover, the reporter was asking the wrong question. He wanted to know the amount of state tax dollars that public school districts receive per pupil. The more relevant question is what is actually spent per pupil, including local and federal sources of funding. Not surprisingly, that figure is even higher. According to a report from the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado’s average per-pupil expenditures total $12,181, nearly double the misleading figure given by Gebhardt.

But why mislead the public about how much public schools actually cost? The penultimate paragraph provides a clue:

On Election Day, voters in 31 school districts around the state will decide whether to raise property taxes to pump an additional $1 billion into the school system in the form of bond issues for buildings or mill levy overrides for operating budgets.

And what did voters decide?

Tuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado schools districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

Would voters have decided as they did had they known how much money was actually spent per pupil? That’s impossible to know. But it’s also impossible to legitimately debate what the right level of public school funding should be when bureaucrats misinform the public about what public school funding currently is. A 2008 survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that voters greatly underestimate how much public schools cost and that their funding preferences vary depending on whether they are accurately informed or not:

The average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, and the median response was just $2,000; but for these respondents, local average spending per pupil at the time exceeded $10,000. When told how much the local schools were spending, support for increased spending dropped by 10 percentage points, from 61 percent to a bare majority of 51 percent.

Likewise, in PEPG’s 2011 survey, only 46% of informed respondents wanted to increase funding compared with 59% of uninformed (read: misinformed) respondents.

A part of the media’s job is looking at every claim with a gimlet eye. Sadly, this is far from the only case of the media replacing their self-proclaimed “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” skepticism with “Rekab Street” credulity.

 

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

France to Ban School Homework

Let’s say that you are a newly-elected French president and you have a lot on your plate. The unemployment rate is 10.2 percent and youth unemployment hovers around 23 percent. The budget deficit is 4.5 percent of the GDP and the explicit national debt 90 percent of the GDP. Your economy is at a standstill and your currency is on the verge of collapse. Many of your most productive people wonder if they should pack up and leave, because you have just asked them to fork over 75 percent of their earnings to the taxman. Your popularity is shrinking faster than you can say sacre bleu! So, what do you do?

Easy. You switch the subject and start talking about something completely different …  even if it is, well, a little crazy.

Thus, “French President François Hollande has said he will end homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country’s education system. He doesn’t think it is fair that some kids get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don’t.”

Better that all children suffer, so long as they suffer equally. Equality of misery—that pretty much sums up socialist mentality everywhere.

Obama, Romney, Teachers, and Choice

Jay Greene has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this week revealing that the teacher workforce has grown dramatically over the past forty years—and at enormous cost—without improving student achievement by the end of high school. And he rightly disparages President Obama for arguing that even more teachers would somehow do the trick. Even better, Greene notes that American education will not reverse its productivity collapse and become efficient until we allow it to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace.

But then Jay cites Governor Romney’s goal of “voucherizing federal education funds so that parents can take those resources and use them to send their children to schools of their choice,” and he does so with apparent approbation. Even ignoring the fact that the Constitution does not empower Congress to run education programs, this is a very dangerous idea.

There has been no civilization in the history of humanity in which governments have paid for private schooling without ultimately controlling what was taught and who could teach, erecting barriers to entry and thereby crippling market forces.

For that reason, I recommended against a federal voucher program under the Bush administration. Since then, additional evidence has come to light. When I studied the regulatory impact of U.S. private school choice programs last year I found that even the small existing U.S. voucher programs do indeed impose a heavy and very statistically significant additional burden of regulation on participating private schools.

Perhaps a way will be found to enact and maintain minimally regulated voucher programs in the coming years. Until that time comes, it would be the height of folly to introduce a federal voucher program whose regulations would suffocate educational freedom from coast to coast.

In my statistical study of choice program regulation, I found that K-12 tax credit programs do not impose a statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools. But even a national K-12 tax credit program would be far too dangerous. By leaving education policy to the states and the people, we can see which programs flourish and which become sclerotic. We must encourage and learn from that policy diversity, not squelch it with federal programs or mandates.