Tag: k-12

Throwdown with Charles Murray

In a response to my post this morning, Charles Murray remains unconvinced that changes to our school system could result in dramatic improvements in educational outcomes.

He asks to see the scholarly study showing that a school has miraculously boosted achievement above the norm. In one way, this hurdle is too low, and in another it’s too high.

If we could only point to a single study of a single school, it wouldn’t instill much confidence in the generalizability of the phenomenon. A consistent pattern of scholarly results is necessary for that. On the other hand, asking for “miraculous” improvement is a needlessly high standard. My disagreement is with Murray’s earlier, lower threshold claim that:  “reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

Let’s call a marginal improvement an increase of less than .15  standard deviations above the current mean (typically considered a “small” effect in the social sciences). Taking that as our litmus test, is there a consistent pattern of scholarly evidence that better school system design can boost achievement by more than .15 standard deviations? Yes.

education markets v monopolies -- coulson

That pattern is presented in the figure above, drawn from my recent review of the global econometric literature comparing educational outcomes across different types of school systems. The figure relates the number of statistically significant findings favoring free education markets over state school monopolies (in white), significant findings of the reverse (in light grey), and insignificant findings (in dark grey). Markets beat monopolies by a ratio of 15 significant findings to 1, across the seven educational measures for which data are available.

While a few of these findings have small effect sizes, many are above .15 standard deviations – some of them well above it. A paper by Tooley, Dixon, Bao, and Merrifield (under consideration by the journal Economics of Education Review), for instance, finds that in Nigeria private schools outscore public schools by double that amount, after controls, while “in Delhi and Hyderabad private unrecognized schools top state-run schools in math instruction by about 2/3 of a standard deviation.” A recent randomized assignment study of the DC voucher program finds that voucher students who’ve been in the program for three years are reading two grade levels ahead of their public school peers (.42 std deviations), though the average voucher is worth only a quarter of what DC spends per pupil on public k-12 education.

These are more than marginal improvements, and they are part of a consistent pattern. That pattern strongly suggests that moving from our current monopoly school system to a free and competitive education marketplace would shift the bell curve of academic achievement significantly to the right, raising the mean achievement substantially above its current level.

No one should be surprised by that. Imagine how far the bell curve for median income across modern nations would shift to the left if all free markets were supplanted with centrally planned monopolies such as have ruined the economies of Cuba, North Korea, and until recently many other nations.

Why Is For-Profit Education So Difficult in the U.S.?

Matt Yglesias has a post up looking at the PISA scores, and he seems to imply that for-profit schooling has been tried and found wanting in Sweden and the U.S.:

The big difference is that many Swedish charters are run by for-profit firms. We’ve had some experiments with that in the U.S. and it hasn’t worked very well. Nobody’s really found a great way of making consistent profits running K-12 schools in America.

Of course even he notes that Sweden’s schools are highly regulated by the state.

And in the U.S., the difficulty of succeeding in for-profit education just might have something to do with that government monopoly on k-12 education and the $560 billion or so in tax revenues that fund it. Maybe.

Duncan’s NCLB Reauthorization Push Shows Extreme Tunnel Vision

In a major speech to be delivered today, education secretary Arne Duncan will call for an end to “ ‘tired arguments’ about education reform” and ask for input in crafting a ”sweeping reauthorization” of the federal No Child Left Behind act. His decision not to openly debate the merits of reauthorization – to simply assume it – guarantees the tiredness and futility of the discussion.

Americans have spent $1.85 trillion on federal education programs since 1965, and yet student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated while spending per pupil has more than doubled – after adjusting for inflation. The U.S. high school graduation rate and adult literacy rates have been declining for decades. The gap in achievement between children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates hasn’t budged by more than a percent or two despite countless federal programs aimed at closing it.

The secretary himself acknowledges that after more than half a century of direct and increasing federal involvement in schools, “we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.

In light of the abject and expensive failure of federal intrusion in America’s classrooms, it is irresponsible for the Secretary of Education to assume without debate that this intrusion should continue.  Cutting all federal k-12 education programs would result in a permanent $70 billion annual tax cut. Given the stimulative benefits of such a tax cut it is also fiscally irresponsible for the Obama administration to ignore the option of ending Congress’ fruitless meddling in American schools.

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

Research Shows $100 Billion Ed. Stimulus Likely Hurting Economy

Tomorrow morning, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.

The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation’s public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors’ own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.

How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital – improving the skills and knowledge of workers – boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.

Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education’s own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.

The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.

Based on this body of research, the president’s decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.

Fretting about College Costs? Don’t Forget K-12!

There’s been much interest in the blogosphere recently over spiraling college costs. Niraj Chokshi kicked things off at the Atlantic, and the discussion was picked up by Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein, among others.

We’ll be hosting a debate on the causes of and solutions to this problem at Cato on the 6th of October, but in the meantime, it’s worth noting what the blogosphere has thus far overlooked: the epic productivity collapse in k-12 schooling over the past 40 years.

As I noted in Investors’ Business Daily last month, k-12 spending has risen by a factor of 2.3 since 1969, while achievement at the end of high-school is flat. The scary details can be found here.

If public school productivity had merely stayed where it was in 1970, instead of collapsing as it did, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300+ billion annual tax cut.

State-run schooling has become so profligate and inefficient, in fact, that one recent study finds higher public school spending is associated with LOWER subsequent economic growth.

Oh, and regarding the education vs. health care debate that started all this: k-12 productivity trends seem worse than those in health care.