Tag: math

President: “We Need More Teachers.” Reality: “Yoohoo! I’m Right Over Here! Hellooo!”

This week, President Obama called for the hiring of 10,000 new teachers to beef up math and science achievement. Meanwhile, in America, Earth, Sol-System, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment for 40 years (see chart), while achievement at the end of high school has stagnated in math and declined in science (see other chart).

Either the president is badly misinformed about our education system or he thinks that promising to hire another 10,000 teachers union members is politically advantageous–in which case he would seem to be badly misinformed about the present political climate. Or he lives in an alternate universe in which Kirk and Spock have facial hair and government monopolies are efficient. It’s hard to say.

NAEP Math Scores, NCLB, and the Federal Government

I’m surprised anyone was surprised by the recent flat-lining of scores on the NAEP 4th grade math test. The rate of improvement in NAEP scores has been declining since No Child Left Behind was passed, and the recent results are consistent with that trend.

But what really amazes me is that so many people think the solution is just to tweak NCLB! The unstated assumption here is that federal policy is a key determinant of educational achievement. That’s rubbish.

We’ve spent $1.8 trillion on hundreds of different federal education programs since 1965, and guess what: at the end of high school, test scores are flat in both reading and math since 1970, and have actually declined slightly in science. (Charted for your viewing pleasure here).

If we’ve proved anything in the past 40 years, it is that federal involvement in education is a staggering waste of money.

Meanwhile, education economists have spent the last several decades finding out what actually does work in education. They’ve compared different kinds of school systems and it turns out that parent-driven, competitive education markets consistently outperform state monopoly school systems like ours. I tabulated the results in a recent peer-reviewed paper and they favor education markets over monopolies by a margin of 15 to 1.

So policymakers who actually care about improving educational outcomes should be spending their time and resources enacting laws that will bring free and competitive education markets within reach of all families. And they should be ignoring the education technocrats who – like Soviet central planners – just want to keep spending other people’s money tweaking their fruitless five year plans.

Evidence-based for Thee, But Not for Me

One of the things that strikes me as curious about supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act is that they talk regularly about “evidence” and having everything be “research-based,” yet they often ignore or distort evidence in order to portray NCLB as a success. Case in point, an op-ed in today’s New York Times by the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli.

Truth be told, the piece doesn’t lionize NCLB, criticizing the law for encouraging schools to neglect high-performing students because its primary goal is to improve the performance of low achievers. Fair enough. The problem is, Loveless and Petrilli assert with great confidence that the law is definitely doing the job it was intended to do. “It is clear,” they write, “that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students.”

As you shall see in a moment, that is an utterly unsustainable assertion according to the best available evidence we have: results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which carries no consequences for schools or states and, hence, is subject to very little gaming. Ironically, Loveless and Petrilli make their indefensible pronouncement while criticizing a study for failing to use NAEP in reaching its own conclusions about NCLB.

So what’s wrong with stating that NCLB is clearly helping low-achieving students? Let me count the ways (as I have done before):

  1. Numerous reforms, ranging from class-size reduction, to school choice, to new nutritional standards, have been occurring at the same time as NCLB. It is impossible to isolate which achievement changes are attributable to NCLB, and which to myriad other reforms
  2. As you will see in a moment, few NAEP score intervals start cleanly at the beginning of NCLB – which is itself a difficult thing to pinpoint – making it impossible to definitively attribute trends to the law
  3. When we look at gains on NAEP in many periods before NCLB, they were greater on a per-year basis than during NCLB. That means other things going on in education before NCLB were working just as well or better than things since the law’s enactment.

So let’s go to the scores. Below I have reproduced score trends for both the long-term and regular NAEP mathematics and reading exams. (The former is supposed to be an unchanging test and the latter subject to revision, though in practice both have been pretty consistent measures.) I have posted the per-year score increase or decreases above the segments that include NCLB (but that might also include years without NCLB). I have also posted score increases in pre-NCLB segments that saw greater improvements than segments including NCLB. (Note that on 8th-grade reading I didn’t highlight pre-NCLB segments with smaller score decreases than seen under NCLB. I didn’t want to celebrate backward movement in any era.)

For context, NCLB was signed into law in January 2002 but it took at least a year to get all the regulations written and more than that for the law to be fully implemented. As a result, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether 2002, 2003, or even 2004 should be the law’s starting point, noting only that this problem alone makes it impossible to say that NCLB clearly caused anything. In addition, notice that some of the biggest gains under NCLB are in periods that also include many non-NCLB years, making it impossible to confidently attribute those gains to NCLB.

Please note that I calculated per-year changes based on having data collected in the same way from start to end. So some lines are dashed and others solid (denoting changes in how some students were counted); I calculated changes based on start and end points for the type of line used for the period. I also rounded to one decimal point to save space. Finally, I apologize if this is hard to read—I’m no computer graphics wizard—and would direct you to NAEP’s website to check out the data for yourself.

4th Grade Regular Math

8th Grade Regular Math

4th Grade Regular Reading

8th Grade Regular Reading

Age 9 Long-term Math

Age 13 Long-term Math

Age 17 Long-term Math

Age 9 Long-term Reading

Age 13 Long-term Reading

Age 17 Long-term Reading

So what does the data show us? First, that there were numerous periods that didn’t include NCLB that saw greater or equal growth for low-achieving students as periods with NCLB. That means much of what we were doing before NCLB was apparently more effective than what we’ve been doing under NCLB, though it is impossible to tell from the data what any of those things are. In addition, it is notable that those periods with the greatest gains that include NCLB are typically the ones that also include non-NCLB years, such as 2000 to 2003 for 4th and 8th-grade math. That means there is inescapable doubt about what caused the gains in those periods most favorable to NCLB. And, let’s not forget, 4th -grade reading saw a downward trend from 2002 to 2003, and 8th-grade reading dropped from 2002-2005. That suggests that NCLB was actually decreasing scores for low-achievers, and one would have to acknowledge that if one were also inclined to give NCLB credit for all gains.

And so, the evidence is absolutely clear in one regard, but in the opposite direction of what Loveless and Petrilli suggest: One thing you definitely cannot say about NCLB is that it has clearly helped low achievers. And yet, they said it anyway!

Embracing Bushonomics, Obama Re-appoints Bernanke

bernanke1In re-appointing Bernanke to another four year term as Fed chairman, President Obama completes his embrace of bailouts, easy money and deficits as the defining characteristics of his economic agenda.

Bernanke, along with Secretary Geithner (then New York Fed president) were the prime movers behind the bailouts of AIG and Bear Stearns. Rather than “saving capitalism,” these bailouts only spread panic at considerable cost to the taxpayer. As evidenced in his “financial reform” proposal, Obama does not see bailouts as the problem, but instead believes an expanded Fed is the solution to all that is wrong with the financial sector. Bernanke also played a central role as the Fed governor most in favor of easy money in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble – a policy that directly contributed to the housing bubble. And rather than take steps to offset the “global savings glut” forcing down rates, Bernanke used it as a rationale for inaction.

Perhaps worse than Bush and Obama’s rewarding of failure in the private sector via bailouts is the continued rewarding of failure in the public sector. The actors at institutions such as the Federal Reserve bear considerable responsibility for the current state of the economy. Re-appointing Bernanke sends the worst possible message to both the American public and to government in general: not only will failure be tolerated, it will be rewarded.

Winters’ Content Standards — Can they Work?

Marcus Winters offers a clever new national standards proposal in the current Education Week: reward states whose students do well on their own standards _and_ whose standards prove challenging to students from other states. Winters suggests administering each state’s standardized tests to random, nationally representative samples of students to determine how challenging they are. The federal government would then give the greatest amount of funding to states whose students perform well on tests that prove challenging to kids around the country.

This system would be gamed. The way to “win” would be to develop highly detailed, easy, obscure standards. Literature would consist of detailed analysis of the early works of Nathanial Hawthorne, math would focus on theorems not normally covered but not overly challenging, history would focus on seldom-told tales of the host state or the nation or world. The host state would then teach intensely to these specialized standards, knowing that its own students could master them and students in other states – receiving a completely different curriculum – would perform poorly. It would be neither a “race to the top” nor a “race to the bottom,” but rather a “race to the trivial.”

This proposal also suffers the same problem that a single set of national standards would suffer: it would force all students of a given age to march through their state’s curriculum at the same pace, denying the obvious reality that kids of the same age learn the various subjects at different paces. Shackling them together into a scholastic chain-gang is not sound pedagogy.

What is encouraging about this proposal, though, is that it attempts to marshal both competition and incentives in pursuit of improved performance. Clearly, it’s on the right track. But why reinvent the wheel? We already HAVE a system that has proven, over centuries, to be able to effectively combine competition, freedom, and incentives in pursuit of innovation and excellence: the free enterprise system.

School systems organized along free market lines dramatically outperform all others – especially those which are most closely overseen, and run, by the state. We just need to figure out how to bring a free and competitive education marketplace within reach of all students.