Tag: education

The Irony of the President’s STEM Initiatives

The media tide of the past two days has carried in a great flood of stories on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. ABC, NBC, AP, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, Politico, the Detroit News, and others joined in. This torrent of attention is due to a White House science fair at which the president announced several initiatives to boost student achievement in those fields. Details are scant, but based on the administration’s press release it seems that $100 million or so would go to encourage particular kinds of teacher’s college programs. Various extracurricular STEM programs funded by non-profit foundations were also touted in the release.

The obvious irony in the president’s plan to tweak teachers’ college programs is that those programs are themselves a key part of the problem. The nation’s state school monopolies typically require most or all of their teachers to either have a degree from a government-approved college of education or to be pursuing such a degree during evenings and weekends. Few of those studying or working in STEM fields are willing to sit through a teachers’ college program—with good reason. Not only are these programs often pointless according to their own graduates, they are not associated with improved student performance. They are a requirement without a function–at least without a function that benefits students. The one thing they do accomplish is to erect a barrier to entry that protects incumbent teachers from competition, allows the specter of “teacher shortages” to be floated at regular intervals, and thus to justify above market wages [state school teachers receive compensation that is roughly $17,000 per year higher than their private sector counterparts].

As a result, many of the most promising teaching candidates in these fields are weeded out from the start. President Obama’s plans to “improve” this barrier to entry into the profession amounts to reupholstering the deck chairs on the sunken Titanic.

But how to ensure that only effective teachers lead the nation’s classrooms given that the government certification process is not just useless but counterproductive? Here, again, there is irony. Somehow, in the thousands of different fields in which scientists and engineers work every day, the competent are distinguished from the incompetent. And somehow, those who underperform are either helped to improve or cut loose to seek work in a field (or with an employer) to which their talents are better suited. It is ludicrous to suggest that managers can effectively evaluate the work of the scientists and engineers they employ in every field _except_ education.

The media would do us all a favor if they would look past the Obama administration’s marshmallow launcher for a moment and contemplate the effect that our massive barrier to entry into the teaching profession has on recruiting scientists and engineers.

Catholic Schools and the Common Good

One of the first things you learn when you start to study the comparative performance of school systems is this: on average, Catholic schools are much more educationally effective and vastly more efficient than state-run schools. And then you learn that their impact goes beyond the three R’s. I wrote a little about these facts a few years ago, while I was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and my Mackinac friends have resurrected the post for Catholic Schools Week. I’ve appended an excerpt below, but you can read the whole thing here.

When state-run public schooling was first championed in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it was under the banner of “the common school,” and it was touted more for its predicted social benefits than its impact on mathematical or literary skills. The leading common school reformer of the time, Horace Mann, promised, “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Having experienced more than a century-and-a-half of a vigorously expanding public school system, Americans are no longer quite as sanguine about the institution’s capabilities. Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that government schools promote the common good in a way independent private schools never could.

Is that belief justified? Scores of researchers have compared the social characteristics and effects of public and private schooling. They have found little evidence of any public-sector advantage. On the contrary, private schools almost always demonstrate comparable or superior contributions to political tolerance, civic knowledge and civic engagement. One group of private schools stands out as particularly effective in this regard: those run by the Catholic Church.

‘School Spending Predicted to Climb 50%’*

*by 2005…

Defenders of the educational status quo have long argued that we don’t need wholesale reform because our state-run school system can be fixed. If we simply raise spending, shrink classes, hire more teachers, or wait for the latest government mandate to work, they’ve promised, our problems will be solved. Reformers have predicted the opposite: that pouring more resources into the public school monopoly will only make it more expensive, not better, and so we need to inject real parental choice, get rid of the red tape that hobbles educators, and unleash market incentives. Who’s right?

My colleagues and I at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom normally answer that question with empirical research, but in honor of School Choice Week

we’re taking a different tack. We’re letting the status quo defenders and reformers speak for themselves, by dredging up their predictions of decades past to see who was a Nostradamus and who a Nostradumb—. To kick off this week-long series, here’s our first blast from the educational past:

“School Spending Predicted to Climb 50% by 2005” [Education Week, Sept. 22nd, 1994]

A report published by the American Legislative Exchange Council predicted that public school spending would climb “from nearly $262 billion in 1994 to $386 billion by 2005.” ALEC also warned that the new spending would do little to help children learn, because public schooling is a government-run monopoly and monopolies are notoriously wasteful and inefficient.

Not everyone agreed. The Ed. Week story cautioned that ALEC’s “projections do not square with [substantially lower] federal estimates, and school finance experts have questioned their methodology.”

Who was right? To find out, we first have to adjust ALEC’s prediction to account for inflation (their estimate of what spending would be in the year 2005 was, of necessity, made in 1994 dollars, which were worth a lot more than dollars in 2005). Using the BLS inflation calculator, we find that ALEC’s prediction amounts to $509 billion in 2005 dollars. That turns out to have been… too low. Real U.S. public school spending in 2005 was $529 billion, according to the 2008 federal Digest of Education Statistics.

As for student achievement, ALEC was right about that, too. Tested near the end of their k-12 schooling, students performed no better in 2005 than they did in 1994—or, for that matter, in 1970 (see chart below).

A Decade of No Child Left Behind

Ten years later, it’s clear that the No Child Left Behind law is a failure. Instead of driving better academic performance of K-12 students, NCLB has cost many billions of dollars with no discernible positive impact on student achievement. Worse, the law has laid some of the groundwork necessary for the adoption of national standards, another step toward a fed-approved and standardized K-12 curriculum, an outcome many of the law’s former proponents explicitly oppose.

Neal McCluskey argues in this new video that the only reasonable (and Constitutional) course for the feds now is to simply bow out of K-12 education completely.

Back When Democrats Cared Enough to Advocate What Works

Many, if not most, of the stated goals of the Democratic Party have universal appeal in the United States. Foremost among those would be reducing poverty and ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education.

The problem with the Democratic Party today is that its leadership seems not to understand the kinds of policies that will achieve those goals. Instead of finding out what works and implementing it, they simply call for new government programs on the assumption that those programs will work (or, if you’re jaded, on the assumption that doing so will get them re-elected).

It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when one of the most prominent Democrats in the nation was so deeply committed to these goals that he was willing to advocate the policies that would achieve them—special interests be damned.

Scott Walter has a little of that story at Philanthropy Daily.

To plagiarize Instapundit: more like this, please.

Ed. Policy Reality Check (Now with More Reality!)

The Orlando Sentinel published an article over the weekend titled “Education: Big reforms haven’t yet produced big results.” It seems to have been meant as a reality check, and certainly it does contain a few relevant facts, but it also leaves this statement from “critics” unchallenged: “schools won’t get better without more money.”

Slight problem: Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit is raising academic achievement at less than half the per pupil cost of the traditional state-run schools. That’s according to academic studies commissioned by the state of Florida and by the state’s own spending and enrollment data.

Figlio and Hart, 2010, found that the scholarship tax credit program improves academic performance in public schools; and Figlio, 2011, found that students using the scholarships to attend independent schools are also benefiting academically. As for cost, the average scholarship is about $4,000. For comparison, the state’s public school districts spent $27 billion in 2009-10 (bottom of page 21, first column), for 2.6 million students, for per pupil spending of just over $10,000.

Michelle Obama on Personal Responsibility and the Limits of Federal Programs

Yesterday the First Lady addressed high school students visiting Georgetown University for a day. Her message was to encourage students to strive for academic success and college degrees, but her answer to one question said a whole lot more. Here’s the question:

about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on…. What could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people?  Because it’s like someone dying every day.  Like, it’s just crazy.

Mrs. Obama answered at length, stressing the need for every individual to take responsibility for his own life and his own destiny, going so far as to add that

there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that.  No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that.  You have to do that.

The First Lady is right that people must take responsibility for themselves, but what she seems not to realize is that government programs often stifle that kind of behavior. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The only way you learn how to behave responsibly is to actually have real responsibilities. Government has gotten in the way of that process in a host of ways, but nowhere so perniciously as in education. Today, the only educational responsibilities most parents have is to get their kids up in the morning and point them in the direction of the school or the school bus. They don’t decide where their kids go to school, who teaches them, or what they’ll be taught. The natural result—the inevitable result—is the atrophy of parental responsibility towards their children’s education and the horrendous cascade of social ills that flows from it.

Most of this is the fault of our state school monopolies that automatically assign children to schools based on where they live. But the federal government has exacerbated that problem by centralizing control over schooling even further. By abolishing their failed k-12 education programs alone, Congress would save the nation’s taxpayers roughly $70 billion annually. And by encouraging states to return power over education to parents instead of leaving it with bureaucrats, they would dramatically increase the exact kind of responsible behavior that Mrs. Obama knows is essential to solving so many of our social and economic problems.

Consider that the state of Florida has a program that cuts taxes on businesses that donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship funds. Those scholarship organizations subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. According to two separate studies, this program improves achievement in public schools, by virtue of the new competitive pressures it introduces, and it improves the achievement of the students who participate. And by requiring parents to make the difficult decisions as to where to send their children to school, and by requiring most parents to contribute at least a small co-payment, this program builds exactly the kind of responsibility and exactly the kind of social capital that Mrs. Obama so rightly yearns for.

Oh, and, by the way, it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, so it makes economic sense in the immediate term as well as in the long term.

But there’s a catch: This practical and proven solution does not seem to fit well with Mrs. Obama’s political ideology—or, more damagingly, with her husband’s. So instead of ending failed federal education programs and encouraging parental choice, power, and responsibility, the president will keep pursuing federal programs that even his own wife recognizes are doomed to fail.

But while it’s hard for a person to change his ideology, it’s easy for a country to change its president.