Tag: Neal McCluskey

Only Doom Without the Denominator

The Obama administration tried to turn the doom-and-gloom up a notch over the weekend, releasing reports on how many employees each state could lose if sequestration isn’t stopped. Teachers were prominently featured, of course, because nothing scares people like the prospect of their kids not getting educated.

“Could” is a crucial word here, because it is entirely possible that savings could be found that would negate the need to dismiss people. For instance, unnecessary purchases could be cancelled, or all employees could take small pay cuts. But suppose worst-case firings did come. How horrific would the education damage be?

It turns out, once you look at the overall staffing picture, not very. Using a compilation of the state reports put together by the Washington Post, as well as Digest of Education Statistics staffing data, we assembled the following table calculating how big a percentage of public school employees in each state would disappear in the worst-case scenario. Unlike the administration, we included the numerator and the denominator.

Like Its Big Sibling, Early Head Start Not Built to Last

People used to laugh nervously about the federal government taking over their lives “from cradle to grave.” But at least since the passage of Obamacare—not to mention the two-dimensional Utopia of Julia—that has seemed a much more concrete prospect. And with President Obama’s new proposals to expand federal pre-kindergarten programs going all the way to age zero, the cradle is now fully in play.

We’ve heard a lot about pre-K for years, but focused mainly on the age 3-to-5 set. For the federal government that means Head Start, an $8 billion program that has been shown again and again to have essentially no lasting benefits. But since the mid-1990s Washington has also run something called Early Head Start aimed at infants and toddlers.

It’s probably safe to say that few people know much about Early Head Start, which is too bad because, if the debate goes anything like that for overall pre-K, there will be many deceptive claims suggesting it has nearly miraculous effects. Indeed, yesterday Washington Post “Wonkblog” contributor Dylan Matthews wrote that Early Head Start has “proven very effective in randomized controlled trials.” To back the claim he linked to “The Promising Practices Network” which, citing three studies, did indeed designate the program “proven.”

But is it? The answer is emphatically “no,” just like regular Head Start. The positive effects disappear by, at the latest, fifth grade, meaning recipients would have ultimately been as well off had they not gone through the program. As the authors write in the conclusion to the third study cited by the Promising Practices Network:

The impact analyses show that for the overall sample, the positive effects of Early Head Start for children and parents did not continue when children were in fifth grade…. It appears that the modest impacts across multiple domains that were observed in earlier waves of follow-up did not persist by the time children were in fifth grade.

That is not the only bad news for Early Head Start. While some lasting, positive effects were found for some subgroups, so were many negative effects. And for the families and children designated “highest risk”-–-those who needed help the most-–-the effects of Early Head Start were awful:

Having Common (Core) Enemy Doesn’t Make a Friend

I have long thought, as progressive blogger Anthony Cody discussed a couple of days ago, that libertarian types might form some sort of alliance with progressive educators against national curriculum standards. By and large progressives dislike the rigid standards and testing regimes that have been turning education into a clone assembly line, while libertarians want freedom, which is, of course, utterly incompatible with top-down standardization. But just because we have a common enemy will not necessarily make us policy friends.

As I’ve written before, it is pretty clear that many progressives don’t want educational freedom, they want local monopolies controlled by progressive educators who, often, eschew standards and testing not because all kids and families are different and standardization kills innovation, but because standardization curbs teacher power. Writes Cody:

While there are areas of agreement, there are some areas where progressives clearly part company with some conservatives. Progressives generally do not want public funds going to schools that promote religion. It seems reasonable to have a set of education standards that guides schools as to the focus of instruction at each grade and in each discipline. These standards should be developed by educators, in consultation with academic experts, and should reflect current scientific understanding. Democratic processes matter, so we support public schools overseen by elected school boards, and collective bargaining for teachers.

This doesn’t describe true community control of education, much less freedom. This is a system in which employees – especially teachers – have a huge political upper-hand. Teachers and their associations have greater motivation to be involved in education politics because their livelihoods are at stake, and are better able to organize than both parents, who have full-time jobs, and other citizens, who don’t even have the motivation of having a child in the schools. This is why teacher associations often dominate local school boards.

Note also that there would be standards in Cody’s ideal, but developed by “educators, in consultation with academic experts,” and designed “to reflect current scientific understanding.” So not only would citizens – who are supposed to ultimately control public schooling – apparently have no say in standards-setting, the standards would be based in “current scientific understanding,” as if there were scientific certainty about major educational issues. But there isn’t: From how best to teach reading, to what grade to cover Algebra, disagreements abound and the science is in dispute.

Finally, Cody offers the feel-good assumption that public schools are institutions that bring diverse people together and unite them. But as I often discuss – and we debated at Cato just last week – this doesn’t comport with the reality of public schooling, which was long based in homogeneous communities, systematically excluded out-groups, and today foments constant conflict. And frankly, the demand that those who want religion in their children’s education pay twice for schooling – once for government schools and again for the education they desire – is a gross violation of the basic American principal of equal treatment under the law.

All that said, it would be better to have local monopolies than state or federal. At least you could move to another monopolist if your present one were particularly horrible. But that would be cold comfort, because all government monopolies are heavily inclined toward curbing freedom, and toward serving the people who are supposed to serve the citizens.

I’ll be as happy as anyone if progressives start seriously challenging federally driven, national curriculum standards. But just because we share a common enemy won’t necessarily make us friends.

New America’s New Entitlement

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has delivered a lot of money for ideas to make higher education more affordable. One of the many papers it funded came out of the New America Foundation last week, and the report contains lots of proposals for Gates to work with. Unfortunately, its backbone – making the Pell Grant an entitlement program – is a complete nonstarter. Not only does Washington need a new entitlement like the Super Bowl needed a sudden spike in hair dryer use, the Pell Grant is utterly unjust, taking from Peter and giving to Paul so that Paul can make a million extra bucks.

The first point should be self-evident. Entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security are already gigantic fiscal asteroids hurtling directly at us. Indeed, at their present rate of growth, by 2050 entitlements will likely eat up every single cent the federal government brings in, leaving not a dime for defense and other discretionary spending.

A Pell entitlement would certainly be small compared to, say, Medicare. If I’m reading NAF’s report right, the total Pell cost in 2022, after all their recommended reforms, would be about $53.3 billion. (NAF says its plan would cost $94.4 billion over the next ten years “compared to current policy.” For simplicity, dividing $94.4 by ten and adding the resulting $9.4 billion to the CBO-projected 2022 Pell cost of $43.9 billion yields $53.3 billion.) In contrast to that $53.3 billion, Medicare is expected to cost about $1 trillion in 2022. But while the cost would be relatively tiny, the root pathology would be the same: a program with funding put on autopilot.

And don’t think Pell won’t sneak up to include increasingly higher-income people. No one likes seeing others get free taxpayer money, and no politician will let the “middle-class” – whoever that is – get “squeezed.” Indeed, NAF tries to soften the blow for those who would lose tax deductions and credits under their plan (very good proposals, by the way) by noting that “some of the aid that these benefits provide to families with middle incomes will be replaced with the significant increases to the maximum Pell Grant that are proposed in this paper.”

All that said, the root objection to Pell applies, whether it is an entitlement or not: There is no just reason for taking money from Paul and giving it to Peter so that Peter can get much wealthier. But that is precisely what Pell is intended to do: Take money from taxpayers and give it to other people so that they can get degrees and earn “$1 million more over their lifetimes.” If any entity other than government were to do that, we’d call it “stealing.”

The Pell Grant program absolutely should not be an entitlement – we have way too many of those as it is. Even more important, though, Pell shouldn’t exist at all. It is, essentially, legalized theft.

Cross-posted at seethruedu.com

School Choice Is Nice, but It’s Freedom That’s Key

This is National School Choice Week, and that’s great. Having the ability to choose a school is certainly better than being assigned to a single, government institution. But just being able to choose a school must not be the ultimate goal. That must be total educational freedom, both because freedom is the most basic of human rights, and because freedom best provides education for the whole of society.

Unfortunately, when you’re stuck in day-to-day ed policy grappling – Which studies show what about test scores? How much did New York City spend on rubber rooms? – you can easily lose sight of the major, broad reasons that educational freedom is so crucial. In honor of National School Choice Week, here’s a quick refresher:

Freedom involves choice, but a little choice is hardly freedom

You can have choice without having freedom. You don’t have freedom if you can choose between Wendy’s and McDonald’s for a burger, but are forbidden from having any other food. Or if you can select between the local Methodist and Lutheran churches, but nothing else that might satisfy your beliefs or spiritual needs.

Freedom means being able to choose from any options that others are freely willing to provide and that don’t force harm on others. We’re not particularly close to that, for any meaningful number of people, in any school choice program.

No one is omniscient

People make bad choices all the time. But guess what? That includes the people who presume to know what is “best” for each and every child. It is the inescapable reality of humanity that no person or group is even close to omniscient, which is why the argument so often proffered against choice – we can’t let people make bad choices for their kids – is utterly backwards. Because human beings are so limited, it is far safer that power reside in voluntary agreements between educators and parents than with central authorities. When bad decisions are, inevitably, made in the former, only small numbers are hurt. When in the latter, everyone goes down.

Unintended consequences

There’s been a lot of coverage lately of Rice University student Zack Kopplin’s crusade against voucher programs, which allow people to choose schools that teach creationism. Were Kopplin’s argument fundamentally that taxpayers should not have their money taken against their will to schools with which they might disagree, it would be one thing: vouchers do transfer taxpayer money, though they provide far more overall freedom than does public schooling. But Kopplin’s argument – like the arguments of so many people on numerous education issues – isn’t ultimately about freedom. It’s about prohibiting others from learning something he doesn’t like.

Common Core Caught In Its Own Tangled Web

At this point, I probably don’t need to rehearse all the deceptions that have been central to the triumph of national curriculum standards. (If for some reason you need a refresher, check out this op-ed.) Unfortunately, what we are dealing with now are the slowly emerging costs of all that deception. We are indeed entering a tangled web.

The fastest growing hullabaloo is over how much fiction versus nonfiction English teachers – or is it schools? – must teach. Many English teachers  are just now learning about seeming Common Core dictates that no more than 30 to 50 percent of what they teach – depending on  the grade level – be fiction. You know, Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm. The specific reasons for their concern are two tables in the Common Core ELA document  (p. 5) that appear to lay out just such percentages.  And needless to say, despite the Common Core’s air of omniscience about what and how kids should learn, there is big disagreement about the relative value of fiction and nonfiction.

But hold on! Common Core crafters David Coleman – now head of the SAT-makin’ College Board – and Susan Pimentel insist that’s all off base. The standards are very clear, they say,  that the percentages apply to all reading in a school, not just English classes. As they wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday:

The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature – that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA. On page 5 of the Standards – where the distinction between literature and informational text is introduced – there is an explicit, unambiguous statement regarding the balance of texts relative to the disciplines covered by the Standards:

“… the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary non-fiction, [and] a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 must take place in other classes…”

I sure hope the Common Core doesn’t have lessons on ambiguity, because I don’t think the crafters grasp the concept. This explanation couldn’t be much more ambiguous, stating that English classes must focus on literature “as well as” nonfiction. Sure sounds like a 70-30 or 50-50 split could be mandated under that.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of obtuse mumbo-jumbo one should expect from a document – and overall effort – that tries to simultaneously be revolutionary and innocuous. And wouldn’t it have been wonderful if this sort of thing had been hashed out before states were cajoled into adopting the standards? But then there would have been public disagreements, and all the silliness of people holding different opinions is exactly what destroyed past efforts to impose uniform standards on the country.

The good news is that, absent further federal efforts – which are the huge, looming threat – there is no mechanism that can actually make states adhere to these confusing time allocations, or anything else in the Common Core. And, of course, states can move in a wholly better direction by instituting private school choice programs that don’t include centralized standards. Then individual children – you know, unique people – could seek out educational models tailored to their specific needs provided by educators with the freedom to use different and innovative standards and methods.

Even if that happens, though, the lesson is becoming clear: Practice to deceive, as Common Core supporters have, and you could get caught in a very sticky web.

 

U.S. Scores Up, but Why?

Today, bounteous new international academic achievement data were released, from the TIMSS and PIRLS battery of tests. The news for the United States wasn’t too bad, especially with the country ranking fairly high overall (but generally well below high-flying East Asian nations).

How have U.S. scores changed? On 4th grade mathematics average scores have risen precipitously, from 518 (out of 1000) in 1995 and 2003, to 541 in 2011. 8th grade scores were also up, but at a smaller clip, going from 492 in 1995 to 509 in 2011. Interestingly, scores rose ten points between 1995 and 1999, but only seven points between 1999 and 2011.

In science, 4th grade performance was pretty static: 544 in 2011, versus 542 in 1995, with a dip in the line in 2003 and 2007. 8th grade also saw some interesting kinks—the high score was 527 in 2003—but 2011’s score of 525 beat 1995’s 513.

Finally, only 4th graders are tested in PIRLS, the literacy test, and data only go back to 2001. Again there was a dip in the middle, but in 2011 the U.S. average was 556, versus 542 in 2001.

The really crucial question in all of this, of course, is why have the scores—both in the United States and other countries—moved as they have? Unfortunately these reports—at least the basic achievement parts and executive summaries—provide little insight into that. Yes, they tell us that schools with kids who do more math and reading with their parents get better scores, as do schools that are more orderly, but those could easily be functions of an underlying cause: say, families and communities that value education more. Indeed, as I found when looking at the empirical research on national curricular standards, one of the major possible reasons East Asian nations consistently outpace the rest of the world is a culture that values academic achievement, especially on material that is easily tested.

Unfortunately, some educationists are likely to seize on today’s news and declare that their pet policy variable—NCLB! Unionization! National standards! Spending! Even, to be fair, school choice!—explains high performance. But, just from the test scores, it is impossible to reach such conclusions. That requires much deeper analysis, such as the work Andrew Coulson has done in an effort to isolate the impact of  market-like factors on outcomes.

So for now, be happy: the United States has improved somewhat. But don’t make any policy declarations based on that.