Tag: Neal McCluskey

Which Schools Best Serve the Public? New U.S. History, Civics Scores Point to Them

The latest 8th grade U.S. history, civics, and geography results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – have been released, and as usual, things seem bleak: only 18 percent of students scored proficient in U.S. history, 23 percent in civics, and 27 percent in geography. These kinds of results, however, should be taken with a few salt grains because we can’t see the full tests, and the setting of proficiency levels can be a bit arbitrary. Also, we don’t…

Oh, the heck with all that. As a fan of school choice, just tell me if private schools did better!

Based on the raw data, they did. 31 percent of private school students were proficient in U.S. history, versus 17 percent of public schoolers; 38 percent were proficient in civics, versus 22 percent of public schools kids; and 44 percent were proficient in geography, versus 25 percent of public schools kids. That said, to really know which broad swath of schools did better – and from a parent’s perspective, it is really only the individual schools from which they might choose that matter – you’d have to control for all sorts of characteristics of their students. From what I’ve seen, what was just released didn’t do that. Thankfully, others have.

What have they found? Controlling for various student characteristics and other factors, private schools beat traditional publics in terms of political knowledge, voluntarism in communities, and other socially desirable outcomes. Why?

There may be many possible reasons, but at least one seems to be intimately connected to choice: autonomous schools select their own curricula, and families willingly accept it when they choose the schools. That means chosen schools can more easily teach coherent U.S. history and civics than can public schools, which often face serious pressures to teach lowest-common-denominator pabulum lest conflict break out among ideologically and politically diverse people. Perhaps ironically – though not if you understand how a free society works – by not being public, private schools may actually serve the public better.

So no, you can’t conclude a lot from the latest NAEP scores. But that doesn’t mean they can’t point you in the right direction.

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

State Spending vs. College Prices

Professor Paul Campos, something of an antagonist of our higher education system, caused a bit of ruckus last week when he wrote in the New York Times that skyrocketing college prices cannot be blamed on falling state appropriations to schools. The reality, of course, is that declining public support could explain some of the increase in prices (though not much at private colleges) but it seems unlikely it would explain all of the increases.

Let’s look at the trends.

First, note that overall state and local support, at least for general operations at public institutions, is indeed down over the last several years. Using data from the latest State Higher Education Finance report – released just yesterday – total state and local support for general operations at public colleges, adjusted for inflation using a higher education-specific index, fell from a peak of $83 billion in 2008 to $73 billion in 2014, a pretty big drop. That said, in 1989 total spending was only $64 billion, which means it has risen since then.

Mr. Bush, the Lines Are Already Clear

In a Washington Post op-ed laying out his thoughts on the federal role in education, Gov. Jeb Bush wrote, “We are long overdue in setting the lines of authority so clearly.” Alas, the lines he offered would furnish just the sort of “clarity” that has led to nearly limitless federal control over schooling without any meaningful evidence of lasting improvement.

The true heart of what Bush wrote was not his declaration about setting lines, but the three justifications he offered for federal intervention. Washington, he wrote:

should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help.

All of this is what has gotten us to the de facto state of federal control we are currently in:

  • “Transparency” has come to mean federally driven tests and curriculum standards – the Common Core – because under No Child Left Behind states had been defining “proficiency” for themselves, and it wasn’t sufficiently “transparent” for some people whether “proficient” kids in Mississippi were as educated as those in Massachusetts. Of course, you can’t have much more complete federal control than Washington deciding what students are taught.
  • Supporting policies with “a proven record” opens the door for any policies politicians declare “proven.” See, for instance, the rhetoric vs. the reality of pre-K education programs.
  • Making sure states “can’t ignore students who need extra help” has also been used to justify national standards and tests. Indeed, it underlies everything Washington does. Sayeth federal politicians, “Some groups aren’t doing so well, and since we spend money to end that we’d better dictate terms. So let’s connect all that money to school nutrition guidelines, teacher evaluations, English and math content, school opening times…”

Quite simply, in setting his lines, Gov. Bush set no lines. Thankfully for him, lines of federal authority have already been drawn. Indeed, they were set centuries ago: the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to impose transparency, offer help, or anything other than prohibit discrimination by state and local governments and govern federal lands.

As I’ve noted before, obeying the Constitution would save folks like Gov. Bush a lot of reinventing work. More importantly, it would save everyone else expensive, ineffectual trouble.

Conflicted on 529s

If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.

On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well-to-do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well-to-do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.

On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.

So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college-funding quagmire.

Early Childhood Summit Don’t Lie?

When I first heard about the White House Summit on Early Education being held today, I worried. “I sure hope this isn’t going to be a PR stunt to cheerlead for government pre-kindergarten programs,” I thought. Then I got the announcement: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be having a Twitter chat with pop sensation Shakira in conjunction with the summit! “Oh, I was just being silly,” I said to myself, relieved that this would be a sober, objective discussion about what we do – and do not – know about the effectiveness of pre-K programs.

Okay, that’s not actually what happened. In fairness to Shakira, she does appear to have a very serious interest in children’s well-being. Unfortunately, the White House does not appear to want to have an objective discussion of early childhood education.

Just look at this, from the official White House blog:

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.

Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.

Let me count the ways that this is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool:

  • The 7-to-1 ROI figure – for which the White House cites no source – almost certainly comes from work done by James Heckman looking at the rate of return for the Perry Preschool program. It may well be accurate, but Perry was a microscopic, hyperintensive program from the 1960s that cannot be generalized to any modern, large-scale program.
  • If you look at the longitudinal, “gold-standard” research results for Head Start, you see that the modest advantages accrued early on essentially disappear by first grade…as if Head Start never happened. And federal studies released by the Obama administration are what report this.
  • It stretches credulity to call Head Start “high quality,” not just based on its results, but on its long history of waste and paralysis. Throughout the 2000s the federal Government Accountability Office and general media reported on huge waste and failure in the program.
  • Most evaluations of state-level pre-K programs do not randomly assign children to pre-K and compare outcomes with those not chosen, the “gold standard” mentioned above. Instead they often use “regression discontinuity design” which suffers from several shortcomings, arguably the biggest of which is that you can’t do longitudinal comparisons. In other words, you can’t detect the “fade out” that seems to plague early childhood education programs and render them essentially worthless. One large-scale state program that was evaluated using random-assignment – Tennessee’s – appears to be ineffective.
  • The White House says early childhood programs can help “children from all backgrounds.” Not only is that not true if benefits fade to nothing, but a federal, random-assignment evaluation of the Early Head Start program found that it had negative effects on the most at-risk children.

I suspect the vast majority of people behind expanding preschool are well intentioned, and I encourage them to leverage as much private and philanthropic funding as they can to explore different approaches to pre-K and see what might work. But a splashy event intended to proclaim something is true for which we just don’t have good evidence doesn’t help anyone.

Let’s not mislead taxpayers…or kids.

Yes, Fixing Higher Ed Means Eliminating Federal Aid

National Review Online is in the midst of its “education week” – including offerings by yours truly and Jason Bedrick – and today brings us a piece by AEI’s Andrew Kelly on how to fix our higher ed system. Unfortunately, while he largely nails the problems, he stumbles on the solution.

Kelly is absolutely right when he criticizes the Obama administration for demonizing for-profit colleges – see my piece for the evidence that for-profits are not the problem – while simultaneously observing how odd it is for conservatives to decry as some great violation of free-market ideals attacks on institutions that get the vast majority of their funds through Washington. He is also right that the entire ivory tower is awash in waste and failure, and all institutions – for-profit or putatively not-for-profit – are self-interested money-grubbers. Finally, he correctly notes that it is a big problem that by far the largest student lender is the Bank of Uncle Sam, who basically gives to anyone who can breathe.

Where Kelly starts to get into trouble is in suggesting that a lot of these troubles could be meaningfully mitigated if we just had the right data readily available to consumers. He writes, “Basic pieces of information needed to make a sound investment — out-of-pocket costs, the proportion of students who graduate on time, the share who earn enough to pay back their loans after graduation — are either incomplete or nonexistent.”