Tag: education

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

Poor Choices Lead to Better Education

What would you do if you earned about a dollar a day and wanted a better life for your kids?

And what if your local public schools just weren’t working – with teachers often cutting classes or showing up only to sip tea and read the paper, ignoring their students. If you’re like the majority of poor Ghanians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Indians, and Chinese that professor James Tooley has studied over the past decade, you’d pay for private schooling at tuition around $2/month.

From impoverished fishing villages to blighted ghettos like those featured in Slumdog Millionaire, from the largest shanty-town in Africa to the remote farming communities of inland China, the poorest people on Earth are not waiting for educational handouts. They are taking matters into their own hands and sending their children to private schools in their own neighborhoods and villages.

Next Wednesday at noon, James Tooley will be at Cato’s DC headquarters to launch his book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

His stories are compelling – his discovery of private schools serving slum children in Hyderabad, his thoughts while being interrogated by one of Mugabe’s goons in a basement cell in Zimbabwe, his reaction to the party functionary in Gansu, China who told him that the private schools he had just visited did not exist. In addition to James’ stories, you’ll also hear those of Reshma Lohia, who runs Lohia’s Little Angels – a school serving 500 poor children in Hyderabad, India.

When I report my findings that parent-driven education markets outperform state-run school monopolies, one of the most common objections I hear is that many parents – especially poor, marginally-educated ones – couldn’t make wise choices for their kids. If you’ve ever pondered that concern, you owe it to yourself to stop by the Cato Institute next Wednesday at noon. Because James has not only chronicled the existence of private schools serving vast numbers of the poor, he has documented in peer-reviewed studies how their performance compares to that of nearby public schools spending many times as much per pupil.

You can register for the event here and help spread the word on Facebook.  We look forward to seeing you.

The More Obama ‘Challenges,’ the More Education Will Look the Same

The Obama Administration talks a mighty game about “change” and taking politics out of decision making, but at least when it comes to education it seems to be all about playing politics.

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific editorial on the latest evidence of old school political maneuvering by Obama’s education apparatus. (And Andrew Coulson has just blogged about the nefarious goings-on.) Basically, the Obama people let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed. And when was this report finally released? Last Friday afternoon, a perfect time to keep press coverage to a minimum. 

I had to insert “almost certainly,” by the way, when stating that education department people had the report in hand while the voucher killing was going on because, according to the WSJ, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s people have refused to say who knew about the report’s results when. Apparently, they didn’t want to deliver any smoking gun showing that they tried to suppress the DC evidence.

So the Obama Administration is hostile to school choice. What, then, is its plan for reform?

Here’s what Secretary Duncan recently told the Washington Post after dismissing DC’s voucher program:

The way you help them [all kids] is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.

Oh, challenge the status quo and deliver “dramatically better schools”! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” I mean, that’s powerful stuff, along the lines of how do you get to Mars? You fly there!

Obviously, the important thing is how you challenge the status quo and provide better schools, and for decades we’ve been trying sound-bite-driven reform like Duncan offered the Post, and exhibited in his recent declaration that he will “come down like a ton of bricks” on any state that doesn’t use waste-rewarding “stimulus” money effectively. And how will we know when a use is ineffective? Why, we’ll make states report on test scores, teacher quality, and other things, and then threaten to withhold money if outcomes don’t get better.

Of course, we know how well that’s worked before.

Simply put, tough talk from politicians has delivered pretty much nothing good for kids or taxpayers. The powers of the status quo – the teachers unions, administrators, and bureaucrats who live off our moribund public schools – have effectively neutered almost every top-down, tough-guy reform ranging from state standards, to Goals 2000, to the No Child Left Behind Act. And of course they have: These groups have by far the most political power in education because they have by far the greatest motivation and ability to control education politics. After all, the system provides both their livelihoods and much of the money they use for political action, and you and I have no choice but to pay for it! And like all of us, the adults who control the schools want as much money, and as little accountability, for themselves as possible.

So what would really challenge the status quo? Look no further than what the unions, administrators, and bureaucrats hate the most: school choice! Yes, the very reform that Duncan has regularly pooh-poohed, undercut, and ignored is by far the greatest threat to the status quo. Why? Because it is the only reform that would destroy the monopoly that keeps the education interests in power! Choice would also unleash specialization, competition, and innovation – the wonderful market forces that give us everything from constantly improving computers to incredibly reliable delivery services – but from a reform standpoint, the most fundamental thing that choice would do is actually challenge the status quo, not just talk about it. 

Unfortunately, it seems that kind of change is too challenging for Obama and company. It’s just much easier to give the special interests all the money they want, wrap it up in tough talk, and kneecap anything that would really challenge the woeful status quo.

In Education, Success Is an Orphan

Matt Ladner has a good commentary this morning on NRO, pointing out that the Obama administration must have known the positive results of the latest DC voucher study that it finally released last Friday, well before Democrats in Congress voted to phase-out funding for the program after the 2009-10 school year.

As I noted immediately after the study’s release, this program is achieving better results at a QUARTER the cost of DC public education: $6,620/pupil vs. $26,555/pupil.

But education secretary Arne Duncan and president Obama watched it die without mentioning these findings. 

Perhaps if Duncan were secretary of defense he might worry that journalists would investigate just when his department received the results of this study, publicly shaming him. But he isn’t, and so he won’t. In education, we have precious few investigative journalists, and even smoking guns like these arouse little interest.

D.C. Vouchers: Better Results at a QUARTER the Cost

The latest federal study of the D.C. voucher program finds that voucher students have pulled significantly ahead of their public school peers in reading and perform at least as well as public school students in math. It also reports that the average tuition at the voucher schools is $6,620. That is ONE QUARTER what the District of Columbia spends per pupil on education ($26,555), according to the District’s own fiscal year 2009 budget.

Better results at a quarter the cost. And Democrats in Congress have sunset its funding and are trying to kill it. Shame on them.

If President Obama believes his own rhetoric on the need for greater efficiency in government education spending and for improved educational opportunities, he should work with the members of his own party to continue and grow this program.

Terrible Example, Mr. Secretary

Here’s something rich from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan: According to The New York Times, yesterday Duncan smeared South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford as a reform obstructionist because Sanford wants to turn down education stimulus money.

“For South Carolina to stand on the sidelines and say that the status quo is O.K., that defies logic,” said Duncan.

That’s right, Duncan had the gall to frame as a protector of the status quo the same governor who for years has been crystal clear that schooling in his state is dismal and that school choice – which takes power away from politically ferocious, government-schooling special interests and gives it to parents – is the key to real change. It’s also the same desperately sought after reform, by the way, that President Obama and his education secretary are happy to let die a slow – but politically convenient – death in Washington, DC.

And what do Secretary Duncan and his boss have in mind for South Carolina? The same worthless, failed education “solutions” too many politicians have proffered for decades: spend ever more money and talk big about the better results you’ll “demand” but never get. That makes the politicians look like they care about “the children” while really rewarding the politically potent, school-choice-hating, accountability dodging unions, administrators and bureaucrats who live off the status quo and serve not the kids, but themselves.

So let’s get something straight, Mr. Secretary: If you want real change you actually have to do something different, something that attacks real problems, and with his crusade for educational freedom that’s exactly what Governor Sanford has been doing. In stark contrast, so far all the Obama administration has offered is a lot of bluster, and a lot more money for our hopeless education monopoly.  And that, Mr. Secretary, is truly acting like the status quo is O.K.

Conservatives, Public Schools, and Pedagogy

I’ve received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration’s Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.

Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It’s possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.

Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?

The answer is: not much. As I’ve noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.

But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than “progressives.”

And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.

And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I’m simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.

If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen… or get used to disappointment.