Tag: Neal McCluskey

NCLB Is ‘Voluntary,’ Too

Why the big concern about the Common Core? For many it’s about the quality of the standards, which is a topic well worth delving into. But the real problem is that – continued protestations of supporters notwithstanding – adopting the standards has been anything but truly voluntary, and they are very likely to lead to complete federal control of education.

First, the sham voluntarism of today. Did your state want federal Race to the Top money? It had to adopt the Common Core to be fully competitive. Did it want out of the irrational, failed, No Child Left Behind Act? It had to have signed on to the Common Core to have a decent chance. Oh, and the tests that will go with the Common Core? The consortia creating them were selected by the federal government, which is also paying the bills.

And here’s something interesting: States didn’t technically have to sign on to NCLB, either. They “volunteered” to take federal dough and got NCLB with it. So why don’t you hear many people crowing that adopting NCLB was voluntary?

Because they know that it’s almost impossible for state policymakers to turn down hundreds-of-millions of federal dollars. It looks like a whole lot of money to state citizens, and those citizens had no choice about paying the federal taxes from which the money came. So neither signing on to NCLB nor the Common Core were truly voluntary, and the only reason the nation has fallen slightly short of Common Core unanimity is that, unlike NCLB, neither Race to the Top money nor NCLB waivers were guaranteed for every state. Nonetheless, most found it impossible not to take a gamble.

That said, the biggest threat is down the line. With almost all states having adopted the Core, there’s a huge chance that when Congress reauthorizes NCLB the Common Core – and the federal tests to go with it – will become the backbone of federal accountability, with schools rewarded or punished based on how they score on the tests. The rationale many policymakers will offer is easy to anticipate: “States have already signed on to shared standards, so it makes little sense not to base accountability on them.” Classic slippery slope.

From the vantage point of Common Core supporters, that is actually the only outcome that makes sense. As Fordham Institute folks have complained on numerous occasions, the vast majority of states will not on their own raise standards and maintain strict accountability. But if states won’t do it, the federal government – their boss – must.

But even if Common Core supporters achieve that which is the logical end of national standards and testing – federal control – it almost certainly won’t give them the educational outcomes they want.

Ultimately, the groups that have the most influence over any government policy are those most directly affected by it – they are the most motivated to be politically involved – and in education that’s the teachers and administrators whose very livelihoods come from the system. And because they are normal human brings – no better nor worse than the rest of us – what they ideally want, and fight for, is as little accountability to others as possible. That’s why so few states have ever had much success with standards and testing, and why it’s irrational to think that Washington will do any better. Indeed, at least to a limited extent states compete with each other for residents and businesses – Washington doesn’t face even that minimal upward pressure.

So what will the Common Core most likely get us? Red-tape driven federal control without rigorous standards and testing. It will also move us farther from the reform that actually makes sense: School choice for all, which would overcome disproportionate political power by forcing educators to respond to parents. And that’s not all it would do. It would also give educators new freedom to employ different pedagogies and curricula; enable children with diverse interests and needs to link up with teachers specializing in them; and unleash crucial competition and innovation. It would, basically, stop ignoring the fundamental realities that all children are different, and no one actually knows what are the ultimate, “best” curricula.

Unfortunately, not only are we moving away from what we need, we’re stuck fighting over what really isn’t even a question: Adopting the Common Core hasn’t been truly voluntary at all.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

If Only Politicians Were More Like Good Parents

Sometimes I wish politicians were more like good parents. I know that doesn’t sound very libertarian – the last thing we want is for politicians to become humanity’s moms and dads – but there’s at least one thing good parents do that most politicians constantly avoid: saying “no.”

When kids want their food pyramids to have a base of candy, center of ice cream, and peak of ice cream with candy sprinkles, good parents say “no.”

When young ‘uns want to show off their mumblety-peg skills with the Bowie knife they found in dad’s old camping gear, good parents say “no.”

And when the children want to borrow the family sedan for a little off-road speed competition, good parents say “no.”

Of course, saying no all the time doesn’t make life with the kiddos easy or fun. The kids get angry. Mom and dad fume. “I hate you” may even be uttered. But refusing to help the children seriously endanger their arteries, digits, or worse – even if it makes the parents’ life tougher – is what good parenting is all about.

If only our politicians would exercise the same restraint. But they don’t, with the latest case-in-point being the drive to keep interest rates on subsidized federal student loans at super-low levels.  It will be the centerpiece of a three-state presidential tour beginning today.

Currently, interest rates on subsidized loans – loans on which Washington pays the interest while a borrower is in school and for a six-month period after graduation – are at 3.4 percent, a surface-skimming level reached after the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 cut rates in half over a five year period. Rates are scheduled to return to 6.8 percent in July.

The argument proffered for keeping the rates at 3.4 percent is that interest rates generally are at historic lows, and 6.8 percent would simply be too high. Much more important, though, seems to be the political reality: President Obama appears intent on currying favor with both college students and, frankly, any voters looking at exorbitant college prices and asking “how the heck am I going to pay for that?”

But it’s not just the current president who appears to be playing politics. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP challenger to Mr. Obama, yesterday also urged Congress to freeze the rate at 3.4 percent.

This certainly looks like election-year politics, and no doubt the unusual focus on student loan rates – not exactly a political thriller – stems from that. But the reality is that policymakers have been lavishing cheap money on students for decades because it helps keep relations cordial with the kiddos. The ultimate result, however, hasn’t been greater college affordability, but damage inflicted on millions of Americans.

First and foremost, all the cheap aid has enabled colleges to raise their prices at breakneck speeds, rendering the aid largely self-defeating and college pricing insane.

Second, giving dirt-cheap ducats to wannabe students – no matter how poorly prepared they are, or how little they actually want to tackle college work – has resulted in massive overconsumption and noncompletion of postsecondary education, and left millions without the earnings-upping degrees they need to pay their college debts. At four-year institutions more than 40 percent of first-time, full-time students fail to complete their studies within six-years, and in community colleges almost 80 percent don’t finish in three years. Most not done in those time frames will never finish.

Finally, there’s the cost to taxpayers. Overall, federal student loans originated in just 2010-11 involved $104 billion in taxpayer money, and if those loans don’t get paid back, or interest rates are slashed, it is taxpayers who will take the hit. That, of course, seems unfair at any time, but making it even worse is that the nation is facing a nearly $16 trillion debt. But good luck getting the politicians to pin down the cuts that will offset the billions of bucks that will be lost if student loan rates are kept at 3.4 percent. Sure, you’ll get uber-confident promises that the move won’t cost taxpayers “one nickle,” but you sure won’t find anything concrete in the legislation that would keep rates low.

Federal student aid is, frankly, a classic example of garbage parenting. No matter how much damage the policies inflict, the politicians do anything they can to stay best friends with the kids.

College Scholars, Mindless Borrowers?

A few days ago Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House higher education subcommittee, had the audacity to say in a radio interview that she didn’t have a lot of sympathy for students who racked up $80,000 to $200,000 in college debt. Opportunists have leapt at the chance to attack her, branding her as either mean, or out of touch because what led to her discussion of college debt was retelling how she grew up poor and paid her way through school.

Now let’s be clear: Foxx wasn’t deriding bachelor’s grads holding average debt – about $25,000 for the two-thirds of students with debt – but people with big multiples of that. You know, the ones seemingly featured in every news story or congressional hearing dealing with higher education. And it is, often, very hard to sympathize with such people if you are able to track down crucial information about them such as what they’ve studied, where they’ve chosen to go to school, and what they spend their money on. This CBS News piece is a classic of the Woe-is-Huge-Student-Debtor genre, which Radley Balko and I took apart at the time of its airing.

There’s no question that the price of higher education has been rising at breathtaking rates, and profit-maximizing schools – and politicians who fuel the maximization – bear a good chunk of the blame. But is it really beyond the pale to suggest that maybe some students, who seem to accumulate debt without a care in the world until payment comes due, bear some responsibility for their predicament? Indeed, aren’t these supposed to be pretty smart people – you know, “college material” – who should at a minimum be capable of estimating costs, loan burdens, and potential earnings? Of course, but try bringing that up in the higher education cost debate. You’ll instantly become the Dean Wormer of the group, reviled for killing all the fun of poverty-crying students.

And here’s the thing: Giving the impression that students face an even greater burden than they do – which is exactly the effect of repeatedly focusing on fringe debtors – only encourages Washington politicians to pour even more money into student aid, letting schools raise prices even faster.

The vitriolic response to Rep. Foxx is exactly why so little progress is made in politics generally, and higher ed specifically. There are just some things you can’t talk about, no matter how important than may be, and if you dare bring them up you can expect anything but an honest discussion. You can  expect only cheap shots and smears.

My Advice? Don’t Blame State Taxpayers

I don’t have any great advice to offer those going through the college acceptance wringer, other than to make sure that going to college—and doing college-level work—is really what you want to do. If it’s not, don’t waste your time and money; like so many who’ve gone before you, you’ll likely end up with no degree, a degree you don’t want to use, and quite possibly lots of debt.

That gets me to my main point: Blaming high tuition prices on state legislatures, as University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn—but hardly just Mr. Dorn—does is simply wrong. State and local appropriations to public colleges and universities have risen substantially over the last 25 years.

According to the latest data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, inflation-adjusted state and local outlays to colleges for general operations rose from $57.7 billion in 1986 to $74.2 billion in 2011, a 29 percent increase. That’s “increase,” not “decrease.”

The one way you could characterize state and local funding as decreasing is on a per-pupil basis, but that doesn’t reflect the heartless budget cutting Mr. Dorn implicates. It reflects huge enrollment increases—enrollment that often ends with no degree or appreciable learning. And even on a per-pupil basis it would be wrong to write as if we’ve seen decades of constant cuts: Spending tends to go up and down with the business cycle, and 2001 saw record high state and local spending per pupil for the 25-year period.

I hope students waiting to hear from colleges have to sweat things out as little as possible. I also hope people will stop wrongly turning up the heat on state and local taxpayers. When you look at the data, high prices clearly aren’t their fault

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

Pretty Sure It’s Already Divisive

When you’ve been fighting over the same thing for well-nigh 90 years, there’s a good chance some new policy won’t suddenly make it divisive. Nonetheless, that’s what an L.A. Times article, citing critics, suggests about a new law in Tennessee allowing in-class discussions critical of evolutionary theory and other scientific topics:

The measure will allow classroom debates over evolution, permitting discussions of creationism alongside evolutionary teachings about the origins of life. Critics say the law, disparagingly called “The Monkey Bill,” will plunge Tennessee back to the divisive days of the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial’’ in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.

You don’t have to be Charles Darwin—or God—to figure this one out: the law was passed because the topic is already divisive. Government-schooling defenders might not want to acknowledge that, and they have been able to keep it slightly hidden by having discussion of creationism de jure  forbidden in public schools, but hard evidence reveals that Americans are mightily torn.

Time after time, surveys expose the deep split. Most recently, a 2010 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe that “God created humans in present form”; 38 percent accept that ”humans evolved, with God guiding”; and 16 percent believe that “humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.” Those numbers have stayed pretty consistent since 1982, the first year for which Gallup has data.

Clearly, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Americans are already very divided on evolution, and have been for quite some time.

How has what peace we’ve had been kept? Generally, by avoiding evolution in the schools. As Berkman and Plutzer have found, about 60 percent of high school biology teachers either completely avoid or soft-pedal evolution so as not to stir up controversy.

Public schools haven’t been happily chugging along, teaching rigorous evolutionary theory and eschewing any alternative explanations for human origins. A large number have been either teaching evolutionary pap, or nothing.

One of the major arguments government schooling defenders employ against school choice is that choice would lead to a balkanized, divided America. To make that argument, they have to ignore the history of American education—it was largely government-free for about two centuries, and public schools were long grounded in homogeneous communities—and assume that if you force diverse people together they will give up their conflicting values and ultimately engage in a gigantic, society-wide group hug.

Our endless battling over evolution—not to mention incessant fighting over countless other matters—reveals that that just doesn’t happen. You cannot force conscience uniformity, and you can’t have peace or rigor without educational freedom. Tennessee is just helping to make that clear.

Bush or Obama: Can We Tell Who Shuffles the Edu-Chairs Better?

I’m a Paul Peterson fan, and I sure don’t think President Obama’s education grade should be very high, but I’m afraid Peterson is offering some pretty weak stuff in this op-ed hoisting President George W. Bush above the current POTUS in education policy.

The main problem is that Peterson is using broad National Assessment of Educational Progress data as his main evidence of Bush’s success and Obama’s failure. But not only are these data far too blunt to tell us much about a single administration’s policies—myriad forces are at work in education beyond federal rules and regulations—it’s a serious stretch to suggest that we should expect to see big testing gains from any policy within a year or two of its enactment. Peterson even hints as much late in his treatment of Obama, noting that “NAEP data are available for just the first two years of his administration, [but] the early returns are not pretty.”

“Early returns” is right, considering that President Obama only took office in 2009, the first winners of Race to the Top—Obama’s main “reform” driver—weren’t declared until late August 2010, and the NAEP exams were administered between January and March of 2011.

More troubling, though, is the praise Peterson heaps on President Bush and No Child Left Behind. I’ve broken down NAEP scores six ways from Sunday and won’t rehash it all again, but based on improvement rates the NCLB era hasn’t been all that special. More important for this discussion, again considering policy implementation lags, it is a big leap to look at NAEP scores and crown Bush the edu-winner.

Let’s break down Peterson’s biggest advantage-Bush claim: “Overall, the annual growth rate in fourth- and eighth-grade math was twice as rapid under the Bush administration as under his successor’s.” (Actually, his biggest claim is that Bush’s fourth-grade reading performance is “infinitely” better than Obama’s, but that’s because there’s been no gain under Obama, not because under Bush scores were numerically much better.)

By far the biggest increase in 4th grade math scores that included Bush presidency years occurred between 2000 and 2003, when the average score rose three points per year. Pretty impressive, but Bush didn’t become President until 2001, and NCLB wasn’t enacted until January 2002. With NAEP administered between January and March 2003, NCLB was only law for about a year in that time span, and it took much of that year for people just to figure out what NCLB was all about. In other words, it is unlikely—though, granted, not impossible—that the improvement in that period was due primarily to NCLB.  Pull that span out of the Bush years, though, and growth was just 0.83 points (out of 500) per year. Years 2009 to 2011 saw a 0.50 point uptick—so neither president saw growth that was too impressive.

For eighth grade math, again excluding 2000-2003, the Bush years registered another 0.83 point growth rate, and 2009-2011 was again at 0.50.

The Bush years are a bit better than Obama’s just looking at NAEP—which alone tells us little—but neither president’s tenure is all that great, especially considering, as noted, several pre-NCLB periods saw faster growth. And then there’s the big picture: When you get to 17-year-olds—our schools’ “final products”—NAEP scores have been utterly stagnant for decades despite per-pupil expenditures roughly tripling and Washington getting ever-more involved.

Even if you could tell who nudged an Adirondack chair a millimeter farther from the abyss, arguing about which president is the better chair-shuffler is really missing the sinking ship.

Introducing the ‘Obama Rule’

In his latest weekly radio address, President Obama featured what will no doubt be a mainstay of his reelection campaign: the “Buffett Rule,” which says that rich people should pay at least the same tax rate as middle-class folks. It’s named after mega-investor Warren Buffett, who famously declared that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. President Obama and his supporters have run with that, and are employing it to convince the public that such is the norm for the despised “rich.”

Of course that’s not the norm: Buffett is the rare taxpayer who makes almost all his income through investments, and top earners have much higher tax rates than people earning $200,000 and below. So this is clearly not about fairness – it’s about politics.

Two, though, can play at this game. If the President can engage in class warfare he’s also a fair target of it. So why not implement something called the “Obama Rule,” which demands that lower-income people get at least the same educational options as the President? That only seems fair, right, like the Buffett Rule? Indeed, the President himself noted in his weekly address that “ we…have to pay for investments that will help our economy grow and keep our country safe [such as] education.” So why, then, does the President’s 2013 budget zero-out funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program while his daughters go to Sidwell Friends? Shouldn’t other kids in Washington have access to the same excellent private schools as the President’s daughters?

Class envy is hardly the right reason to demand school choice – the right reasons are freedom, competition, innovation, and specialization – but of course all kids should have the same options as President Obama’s daughters! As the President concluded in his weekly address (though, obviously, he wasn’t talking about school choice): “That’s how we’ll make this country a little fairer, a little more just, and a whole lot stronger.” So let’s invoke the Obama Rule, and give lower-income families the same educational choices as the President! It’s simply the fair thing to do.