Tag: government schooling

Say It, Joel, Say It!

By almost all indications, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein knows first-hand the pernicious power of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in government schooling. He knows how political control of schools is skewed mightily to the side of teachers’ unions, administrators’ associations, and all of the other power brokers representing the adults whose livelihoods come from the schools, to the huge detriment of the students, parents, and taxpayers the schools are supposed to serve. As he bleakly describes public schooling reality in a new Atlantic piece:

To comprehend the depth of the problem, consider one episode that still shocks me. Starting in 2006, under federal law, the State of New York was required to test students in grades three through eight annually in math and English. The results of those tests would enable us, for the first time, to analyze year-to-year student progress and tie it to individual teacher performance—a metric known in the field as “teacher value-added.” In essence, you hold constant other factors—where the students start from the prior year, demographics, class size, teacher length of service, and so on—and, based on test results, seek to isolate the individual teacher’s contribution to a student’s progress. Some teachers, for example, move their class forward on average a quarter-year more than expected; others, a quarter-year less. Value-added isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s surely worth considering as part of an overall teacher evaluation.

After we developed data from this metric, we decided to factor them into the granting of tenure, an award that is made after three years and that provides virtual lifetime job security. Under state law at the time, we were free to use these data. But after the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, objected, I proposed that the City use value-added numbers only for the top and bottom 20 percent of teachers: the top 20 percent would get positive credit; the bottom would lose credit. And even then, principals would take value-added data into account only as part of a much larger, comprehensive tenure review. Even with these limitations, the UFT said “No way,” and headed to Albany to set up a legislative roadblock.

Seemingly overnight, a budget amendment barring the use of test data in tenure decisions materialized in the heavily Democratic State Assembly. Joe Bruno, then the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, assured me that this amendment would not pass: he controlled the majority and would make sure that it remained united in opposition. Fast-forward a few weeks: the next call I got from Senator Bruno was to say, apologetically, that several of his Republican colleagues had caved to the teachers union, which had threatened reprisals in the next election if they didn’t get on board.

As a result, even when making a lifetime tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher’s impact on student learning. That Kafkaesque outcome demonstrates precisely the way the system is run: for the adults. The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.

And this was no isolated incident for Klein. Indeed, in his Atlantic treatise he goes on to give many more miserable anecdotes of hopelessness from his tenure in the Big Apple, and eventually identifies the problem right at its core:

Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.

Public education lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

So in the end, does Klein call for what all his experience screams like a banshee we need, that he explains explicitly above?  No! He calls for more government-controlled charter schools; a little more choice between traditional public schools; just the sort of merit pay and “accountability” he observes is constantly stymied; more reliance on technology; and, of course, national curriculum standards. But giving parents control of education dollars for private school choice? Never! Apparently, allowing actual markets – the things that “impose accountability” and inject powerful incentives “for better performance, greater efficiency” and “more innovation” – to work in education can’t even be contemplated.

I don’t know why Mr. Klein refuses to say what cannot be denied: We must have freedom in education. I suspect, though, he is entrapped by the same ideological blinders that are wrapped around the minds of other big names in education who have seen all the symptoms of what’s killing the patient but refuse to see the cure. I suspect Mr. Klein simply believes that education must be run by government – that it must be “public” in the absolute worst sense – and all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary won’t overcome that. It is, unfortunately, an all too common mindset, but for the sake of America’s children, taxpayers, and society, it must be overcome.

Rhee-buffeted?

We don’t know for certain that controversial DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will depart DC when her boss’s term ends – and it will end soon – but it seems very likely. Assuming she does leave, there is a big education lesson to be learned from Adrian Fenty’s re-election loss: Relying on crusading politicians to successfully and permanently reform a government schooling monopoly is a recipe for crushed hopes. Politics is simply too volatile – and enacting tough reforms too politically risky – for even good reforms to be sustained. It’s just another reason that the key to truly sustainable reform is school choice, in which parents control education funds, educators have to compete and perform for business, and children are no longer buffeted back and forth by the ever-changing winds of politics.

Public Schools Are Modern Monuments to Profligacy

It’s the hot new public-sector trend; massively expensive K-12 school buildings.

Christina Hoag of the AP writes that LA takes the prize for conspicuous public consumption with the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools:

With an eye-popping price tag of $578 million, it will mark the inauguration of the nation’s most expensive public school ever. The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the creme de la creme of “Taj Mahal” schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting both architectural panache and deluxe amenities.

Gone are the days when great emperors gave expression to love and grief in spires and domes of white marble. No longer do poor parishioners and wealthy kings construct cathedrals of awe and glory.

Today, we build monuments to government schooling; vast money-pit monstrosities made of matte aluminum flashing and a bureaucrat-chic modern aesthetic.

“Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning,” says Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal.

Indeed, an impressively expensive environment that is completely unrelated to student achievement. Students only need good lighting, ventilation and protection from the elements to learn. Now we have massive buildings and mini Olympic villages with aquatic centers and professional-grade sports fields. It’s no wonder LA budgeted close to $30,000 per student in 2008.

All of this overbuilding has upfront and long-term costs. Big, expensive and complicated facilities cost more to run and maintain, and the bonds that fund much of this spending leave taxpayers strapped with an increasingly heavy debt burden.

These modern Taj Mahal Schools seem to be a nation-wide phenomenon. National Center for Education Statistics data show that spending on facilities and construction has been increasing at a much faster pace than it has for classroom instruction.

From 1989 to 2008 spending on facilities acquisition and construction has increased a stunning 445% while instructional spending increased 198 percent. The number of students, meanwhile, increased just 7 percent.

Not only is government education spending out of control, much of the increase is being sunk into hugely expensive and unnecessary building projects.

We need to put more money in the hands of parents and taxpayers. We need to invest more effectively and efficiently with education tax credits.

Fordham Institute 1, Education 0

On NRO today, the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli take a little time to gloat about the continuing spread of national education standards. In addition, as is their wont, they furnish hollow pronouncements about the Common Core being good as far as standards go, and ”a big, modernized country on a competitive planet” needing national standards. Oh, and apparently having counted the opponents of national standards on “the right,” they note that there are just “a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

Now, there are more than six conservatives and libertarians who have fought national standards. But Finn and Petrilli are sadly correct that most conservatives haven’t raised a finger to stop a federal education takeover – and this is a federal takeover – that they would have screamed bloody murder about ten years ago.  There are many reasons for this, but no doubt a big one is that too many conservatives really are big-government conservatives committed, not to constitutionally constrained government, but controlling government themselves. If they think they can write the national standards, then national standards there should be.

These kinds of conservatives just never learn. As I have explained more times than I care to remember, government schooling will ultimately be controlled by the people it employs because they are the most motivated to engage in education politics. And naturally, their goal will be to stay as free of outside accountability as possible!

This is not theoretical. It is the clear lesson to be learned from the failure of state-set standards and accountability across the country – not to mention decades of federal education impotence – that Fordhamites constantly bewail. Indeed, Finn and Petrilli lament it again in their NRO piece, complaining that “until now…the vast majority of states have failed to adopt rigorous standards, much less to take actions geared to boosting pupil achievement.” And why is this? Politics! As they explained in their 2006 publication To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools:

The state standards movement has been in place for almost fifteen years. For almost ten of those years, we…have reviewed the quality of state standards. Most were mediocre-to-bad ten years ago, and most are mediocre-to-bad today. They are generally vague, politicized, and awash in wrongheaded fads and nostrums.

At this point, I really have nothing new to say. That political reality will gut national standards while making the public schooling monopoly even worse is clear if you’re willing to acknowledge it. Regretably, the folks at Fordham – and many conservatives – just aren’t.  So congratulations on your victory, Fordham. To everyone else, my deepest condolences.

Obama’s Education Proposal Still a Bottomless Bag

This morning the Obama Administration officially released its proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka, No Child Left Behind). The proposal is a mixed bag, and still one with a gaping hole in the bottom.

Among some generally positive things, the proposal would eliminate NCLB’s ridiculous annual-yearly-progress and “proficiency” requirements, which have driven states to constantly change standards and tests to avoid having to help students achieve real proficiency.  It would also end many of the myriad, wasteful categorical programs that infest the ESEA, though it’s a pipedream to think members of Congress will actually give up all of their pet, vote-buying programs.

On the negative side of the register, the proposed reauthorization would force all states to either sign onto national mathematics and language-arts standards, or get a state college to certify their standards as “college and career ready.”  It would also set a goal of all students being college and career ready by 2020. But setting a single, national standard makes no logical sense because all kids have different needs and abilities; no one curriculum will ever optimally serve but a tiny minority of students.

Also, on the (VERY) negative side of the register, Obama’s budget proposal would increase ESEA spending by $3 billion from last year – for a total of $28.1 billion – to pay for all of the ESEA reauthorization’s promises of incentives and rewards. That’s $3 billion more that the utterly irresponsible spenders in Washington simply do not have, and that would do nothing to improve outcomes.

Even if this proposal were loaded with nothing but smart, tough ideas, it would ultimately fail for the same reason that top-down control of government schools has failed for decades. Teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats make their livelihoods from public schooling, and hence spend more time and money on education lobbying and politicking than anyone else. That makes them by far the most powerful forces in public schooling, and what they want for themselves is what we’d all want in their place if we could get it: lots of money and no accountability to anyone.

As long as such asymmetrical power distribution is the case – and it’s inherent to “democratic” control of education – no proposal, no matter how initially tough, is likely to make any long-term improvements. As the matrix below lays out, no matter what combination of standards and accountability you have, politics will eventually lead to poor outcomes. It’s a major reason that the history of government schooling is strewn with “get-tough” laws that ultimately spend lots of money but produce no meaningful improvements, and it’s a powerful argument for the feds complying with the Constitution and getting out of education.

When all is said and done, you can throw all the great things you want into the federal education bag, but as long as politicians are making the decisions you’ll always come up empty.

National Standardizers Just Can’t Win

I’ve been fretting for some time over the growing push for national curricular standards, standards that would be de facto federal and, whether adopted voluntarily by states or imposed by Washington, end up being worthless mush with yet more billions of dollars sunk into them. The primary thing that has kept me optimistic is that, in the end, few people can ever agree on what standards should include, which has defeated national standards thrusts in the past.

So far, the Common Core State Standards Initiative – a joint National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers venture that is all-but-officially backed by Washington – has avoided being ripped apart by educationists and plain ol’ citizens angry about who’s writing the standards and what they include. But that’s largely because the CCSSI hasn’t actually produced any standards yet. Other, that is, than general, end of K-12, “college and career readiness” standards that say very little.

Of course, standards that say next to nothing are still standards, and that is starting to draw fire to the CCSSI. Case in point, a new post on Jay P. Greene’s blog by former Bush II education officials–and tough standards guys–Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman. They are heartily unimpressed by what CCSSI has produced, and think its already time to start assembling a new standards-setting consortium:

The new consortium would endeavor to create better and more rigorous academic standards than those of the CCSSI….

Drab and mediocre national standards will retard the efforts of advanced states like Massachusetts and reduce academic expectations for students in all states.

Yes, it is late in the game. But this should not be an excuse for us to accept the inferior standards that at present seem to be coming from the rushed effort of CCSSO and NGA.

Evers and Wurman’s piece is an encouraging sign that perhaps once more national standards efforts will be torn apart by fighting factions and spare us the ultimate centralization of an education system already hopelessly crippled by centralized, political control. Unfortunately, the post also gives cause for continuing concern, illustrating that the “standards and accountability” crowd still hasn’t learned a fundamental lesson: that democratically-controlled government schools are almost completely incapable of having rich, strict standards.

Evers and Wurman’s piece offers evidence aplenty for why this is. For instance, the authors theorize that a major reason the CCSSI standards appear doomed to shallowness is that the Obama administration has made adopting them a key component for states to qualify for federal “Race-to-the-Top” money, and states have to at least say they’ll adopt the standards in the next month or so to compete. In other words, as is constantly the case, what might be educationally beneficial is taking a distant back seat to what is politically important:  for the administration, to appear to be pushing “change,” and for state politicians to grab federal ducats. Political calculus is once again taking huge precedence over, well, the teaching of calculus, because the school system is controlled by politicians. We should expect nothing else.

Here’s another example of the kind of reality-challenged thinking that is all too common among standards-and-accountabilty crusaders:

CCSSI’s timeline calls for supplementing its “college and career readiness” standards with grade-by-grade K-12 standards, with the entire effort to be finished by “early 2010.” This schedule is supposed to include drafting, review, and public comment. As anyone who had to do such a task knows, such a process for a single state takes many months, and CCSSI’s timeline raises deep concerns about whether the public and the states can provide in-depth feedback on those standards–and, more important, whether standards that are of high quality can possibly emerge from the non-transparent process CCSSI is using.

Evers and Wurman assert that if standards are going to be of “high quality” the process of drafting them must be transparent. But the only hope for drafting rigorous, coherent standards is actually to keep the process totally opaque.

Phonics or whole language? Calculators or no calculators? Evolution or creationism? Great men or social movements? Transparent standardizers must either take a stand on these and countless other hugely divisive questions and watch support for standards crumble, or avoid them and render the standards worthless. Of course, don’t set standards transparently and every interest group excluded from the cabal will object mightily to whatever comes out, again likely destroying all your hard standards work.

In a democratically-controlled, government schooling system, it is almost always tails they win, heads we lose for the standards-and-accountability crowd. This is why these well-intentioned folks need to give up on government schooling and get fully behind the only education system that aligns all the incentives correctly: school choice.

Choice lets parents choose schools with curricula that they want, not what everyone in society can agree on, establishing the conditions for coherence and rigor. Choice pushes politicians, with their overriding political concerns, out of the education driver’s seat and replaces them with parents. Finally, choice lets real accountability reign by forcing educators to respond quickly and effectively to their customers  if they want to get paid. In other words, in stark contrast to government schooling , school choice is inherently designed to work, not fail.

Another Education Road Sign Screaming “Stop!”

This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scores: 2005-2007.  What the results make clear (for about the billionth time) is that government control of education has put us on a road straight to failure. Still, many of those who insist on living in denial about constant government failure in education will yet again refuse to acknowledge reality, and will actually point to this report as a reason to go down many more miles of bad road.

According to the report, almost no state has set its “proficiency” levels on par with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” (Recall that under No Child Left Behind all children are supposed to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014.) Most, in fact, have set “proficiency” at or below NAEP’s “basic” level. Moreover, while some states that changed their standards between 2005 and 2007 appeared to make them a bit tougher, most did the opposite. Indeed, in eighth grade all seven states that changed their reading assessments lowered their expectations, as did nine of the twelve states that changed their math assessments.

Many education wonks will almost certainly argue that these results demonstrate clearly why we need national curricular standards, such as those being drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If there were a national definition of “proficiency,” they’ll argue, states couldn’t call donkeys stallions. But not only does the existence of this new report refute their most basic assumption – obviously, we already have a national metric – the report once again screams what we already know:  Politicians and bureaucrats will always do what’s in their best interest – keep standards low and easy to meet – and will do so as long as politics, not parental choice, is how educators are supposed to be held accountable. National standards would only make this root problem worse, centralizing poisonous political control and taking influence even further from the people the schools are supposed to serve. 

Rather than continuing to drive headlong toward national standards – the ultimate destination of the pothole ridden, deadly, government schooling road – we need to exit right now. We need to take education power away from government and give it to parents. Only if we do that will we end hopeless political control of schooling and get on a highway that actually takes us toward excellent education.