Tag: Matt Ladner

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

The Making and Breaking of Education Policy

Matt Ladner does a good job of explaining how his beliefs shape his education policy recommendations. It’s a quality that he shares with Horace Mann, who persuaded the people of Massachusetts to adopt a fully tax-funded state school system based on his own beliefs about how a just society should educate its children.

More than a century and a half later, we are still struggling to replace Mann’s unresponsive, divisive, ineffective, wasteful, and often cruel system with one that actually works. So, as we reflect on exactly what to replace Mann’s system with, we have to ask: how did he get it so very, very wrong, and how can we avoid the same fate?

I suggest that Mann’s great mistake was to base his policy recommendations on his belief system. To avoid sentencing future generations to a similarly dysfunctional education, we must base our conclusions on a broad and systematic analysis of the evidence. We should study school systems historically and internationally to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. We should make predictions about how different policies will unfold and then try to test those predictions empirically. We should observe how different policies play out across states rather than rushing to homogenize them before their effects can be compared.

At least that seems to me our greatest hope of avoiding Mann’s tragic mistake. And if the policy conclusions we reach do not happen to be the easiest to implement, we can take comfort in the fact that Mann succeeded in promoting a system that had no basis in reason or evidence despite strong and longstanding opposition. If a radical bad idea could triumph, why not a radical good one?

This One Is of the Charts

Education professor Sherman Dorn imagines foul play and education policy maven Matthew Ladner is withholding judgment for the time being. Ladner recently made use of some of my charts of the public school productivity collapse, and Dorn has taken issue with one of them, depicted below [from my February 2011 testimony to the House Education and the Workforce Committee].

Actually, the earlier version of the chart Ladner used really did have some incorrect data in the first decade of the spending series [yes, even people who worked at Microsoft sometimes mess up cut and paste], but the corrected February 2011 version also shows the roughly tripling in cost to which Dorn objected, so he would presumably still hold to those objections. Here they are:

First, once I looked at Table 182 from the 2009 Digest of Educational Statistics, it became clear that the cost figure increases (supposedly the total cost of a K-12 education taken by multiplying per-pupil costs by 13) are false. If you look at the columns in the linked data (Table 182), the per-pupil costs when adjusted for inflation approximately double rather than triple as asserted in this figure. Second, there is no possible source for the approximate “0%” line from NAEP long-term trends data, unless there is an additional calculation unexplained by Coulson.

As described in its legend and title, this chart presents the “running 13-yr  (K-12) total spending per pupil” to arrive at the “cost of a k-12 public education” in constant, inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a running total, here’s Wikipedia’s explanation. So for a student graduating in 2009, the running total cost of k-12 education is the sum of average per-pupil spending in 2009 and the preceding 12 years. It is, put another way, the average cost of having sent a child through the public school system, from k through 12. Dorn’s notion that a running total can be calculated by simply multiplying a number by a constant is mistaken, and that seems to be the source of his confusion.

For the class of 2009, the running total adds up to a little over $151,000, which is the final data point making up the blue spending line above. The rest of that line is made up of the corresponding running totals for the preceding years—each one the sum of spending for that year and its preceding 12 years (interpolating missing year data, as noted in the legend).

As for the academic achievement data series, the chart indicates that they represent the “percent change in the performance of 17-year-olds” on the “NAEP Long Term Trends” tests. I’m not sure what difficulty Dorn has with this, since calculating the percent change from an old value to a new one is straightforward. For example, the Long Term Trends NAEP reading score for 17-year-olds in 2008 was 286, and the corresponding score in the first year tested was 285. So the percent change to year 2008 = (286 - 285) / 285 = 0.0035 = 0.35 percent. That is the last data point in the green series in the chart above.

If he’d bothered to ask, I would have been just as happy to explain this to Dorn privately as I am to do so publicly.

Mr. Jefferson Regrets

Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of public schooling, after a fashion. He knew that an educated public was the only protection against government abuses, and he assumed that a state-run, state-funded school system would provide that essential education. If he could only see public schooling today. 

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute has just released a study on the civics knowledge of that state’s high school students. Matt Ladner, Goldwater’s head of research, administered the same trivial test that’s given to immigrants applying for citizenship, using the same trivial pass/fail threshold. [I know it’s trivial, ‘cause I took it a few years ago.] The results of Goldwater’s little experiment… Oh. My. God. Becky:

     96.5 percent of AZ public high school students failed

Honestly, why did anyone – especially Thomas Jefferson – ever imagine that a government monopoly would be a good way to educate kids about a democratic republic and protect them from abuses of government power?

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.