Tag: Neal McCluskey

One out of Four Ain’t Bad?

Last week I was critical of a New York Times op-ed by AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda-Darling Hammond. Yesterday, Hess graciously replied to my critiques, basically saying that it would be good if we could get the feds out of education, but since that’s highly unlikely, lets see how Washington can help.

That’s a modest and sensible stance, and I don’t think Hess is “endorsing big government.” (At least relative to most edu-analysts—admittedly a lopsided scale.)  But even if you accept that few in Washington are willing to boot themselves out of schools—and few are—it’s still critical to explore whether or not the things you’d have them do would be of net benefit.

Like last time, we’ll take the four proposals in order, this time based on Hess’s rebuttal. But first, one pet peeve:

Hess writes that he’d be happy to end “two centuries” of federal education meddling, noting that it all started with “the Continental Congress’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787.” I don’t know if this was his intent, but that factoid is usually invoked to suggest that even the Founders believed the federal government should advance education. This is not an impression that should be given: the Constitution is very clear in ceding Washington no authority to govern education outside of federal lands and civil rights enforcement. That the states have jurisdiction over education was, in fact, explicitly acknowledged as recently as the 1940s by a commission overseen by none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, while there was some federal education activity largely during and after the Civil War, it was not until the 1960s that Washington got heavily involved.

On to the four points:

First, when it comes to transparency, states have a collective action problem. There is both the problem of providing parents, taxpayers, and voters with meaningful transparency and the fact that state officials in each state have an incentive to manipulate performance results to their own advantage. More standards accounting and linking results to NAEP is a case of the feds providing a public good that only Washington is equipped to provide.

It’s true that state officials have a big incentive to manipulate performance results so that they stay out of trouble with voters and, especially, the teachers, administrators, and others who would be held accountable. The problem is that once you connect real consequences to NAEP—currently there are none—it will become a target for manipulation just like state tests and standards. Don’t attach consequences, however—including having no consequences attached to the state tests you’d audit with NAEP—and there’s no real impetus for schools to change. At best, then, this is a very limp proposal, and that’s before you get into big questions about whether the public really knows what NAEP assesses, whether one set of tests is a useful measure of education, and others I’ll save for another day.

Second, when it comes to basic research, the market tends to underprovide. Basic research is a public good…and is tough to monetize. The result is that, while the private sector is terrific at funding applied research, it tends to invest little in basic research.

As I mentioned last time, I hear this a lot but rarely see meaningful evidence to support it. And by “meaningful” I mean research looking at both the successes of government-funded basic research and the costs. Is it a net gain? Does the private sector steer clear of much of it because it’s an unjustifiable risk? Does it steer clear because government enables end users to rent-seek? There might be such research, but I’ve not seen it cited by those who assert that government must fund basic research. And then there’s the research I have seen that shows much of the funding translates not into innovation, but higher researcher salaries.

Third, even hard-charging state officials get tangled in decades of entrenched rules, regulations, and practices. The feds can help untangle this status quo by supporting officials seeking to throw off anachronistic routines but who must find ways to persuade skeptical constituents or union leaders to go along.

This if great if the goal is to clear out federal regulations, but state and local? There’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing Washington to manipulate state and local education systems, and perhaps more importantly: Why should anyone think it will work? The overwhelming, long-term track record for Washington is to add efficiency killing rules and regulations, and do the bidding of teachers unions and other school employees. Plus, why should we assume that the feds are able to pick the right routines to throw off or add on?

Finally, the federal government is obliged to ensure that constitutional guarantees of equal protection are observed. That said, this will ideally be pursued far less prescriptively than is the case today.

Here we agree, if Hess means Washington must stop clear state discrimination. And I guess one out of four ain’t bad.

The Student Aid ‘Myth’ Myth

There’s a very disturbing tendency among academics – though many people in policy fights do it – to dodge substantive debate by declaring, basically, “the other side is full of garbage so just ignore them.” You probably see it most glaringly about climate change – no one credible disagrees with Al Gore! – but I see it far too frequently regarding the possibility that government student aid, the bulk of which comes from Washington, is a significant factor behind college price inflation. 

Today, we are treated to this lame dodge in a letter to the Washington Post from Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President at the American Council on Education, arguably the most powerful of Ivory Tower advocacy groups. He writes:

Second, we must do away with one of the most persistent and pernicious myths of higher education: that increases in federal aid drive up the cost of college. Several studies, including two by the Education Department, show there is no link between federal student aid and tuition increases. But there are still those who would have people believe that modest increases in student aid programs are the driving force behind institutions’ decisions about tuition and fees.

I would love to put this “myth” myth to rest. Yes, as I discuss in my recent policy analysis, there are serious challenges in trying to prove that aid fuels price inflation. Lots of variables affect what colleges charge; you need to study long time frames encompassing several business cycles; and you have to account for the fact that aid automatically rises when prices do. So while there is tremendous logical reason to think aid has enabled price inflation – former college presidents acknowledge as much, basic economics says subsidies drive up demand, etc. – like any social science there is no definitive proof.

That sure as heck doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t any research showing government aid driving price inflation, even if it doesn’t prove it. In addition to the incredibly powerful rational reasons to strongly suspect aid plays a big role in out-of-control college pricing, there is, indeed, empirical evidence. For the benefit of the whole debate I offer a smattering of it below, hopefully putting an end to the disturbing denial tactic employed by Hartle and others. Hopefully, but not likely….

John D. Singell, Jr., and Joe A. Stone, “For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid,” Economics of Education Review 26, no. 3 (2006): 285-95.

Bridget Terry Long, “How Do Financial Aid Policies Affect Colleges? The Institutional Impact of Georgia Hope Scholarships,” Journal of Human Resources 30, no. 4 (2004): 1045-66.

Bradley A. Curs and Luciana Dar, “Do Institutions Respond Assymetrically to Changes in State Need- and Merit-Based Aid? ” Working Paper, November 1, 2010.

Rebecca J. Acosta, “How Do Colleges Respond to Changes in Federal Student Aid,” Working Paper, October 2001.

Michael Rizzo and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “Resident and Nonresident Tuition and Enrollment at Flagship State Universities,” in College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline M. Hoxby, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Little Evidence for Either

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Common Core? NCLB and Common Core? If you look at the evidence, the answer to both questions is “no.” There’s precious little evidence that NCLB has worked, and just as little that national standards will do any better.

Despite all the fine sounding talk about the federal government demanding “accountability” and forcing states to improve, NAEP data for long-struggling groups reveals many periods before NCLB with equal or faster score gains than under No Child. In other words, the federal government’s own measure of academic achievement provides no support for the idea that accountability – or anything else under No Child – has translated into better performance.

But hasn’t the problem been the lack of a common measure of “proficiency,” which has allowed states to dodge the hard work of getting all kids up to speed? And isn’t that precisely what the Common Core will fix?

No again. What we’ve learned from not just NCLB, but decades of failed federal education intervention, is that politicians and administrators at all levels will find ways to take federal money while avoiding meaningful consequences for poor performance. And there’s little reason to believe that the Common Core will change that.

For one thing, if the Common Core truly is controlled by states – which, given the Race to the Top, waivers, and federal funding of national tests it clearly isn’t – then states will ignore the standards whenever they’re inconvenient. And if the federal government tries to put the screws to states that underperform? All the teachers’ unions, administrators’ associations, and other groups representing those who would be held accountable will mobilize and have the system gutted. It’s the clear lesson of history.

But isn’t the Common Core so good, and having national standards so important, that we must adopt them?

Yet again, no.

There’s essentially no meaningful evidence that, other things being equal, countries with national standards perform better than those without.  And there is serious disagreement over the quality of the Common Core, including powerful critiques from well known English language arts expert Sandra Stotsky, and the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, R. James Milgram.

Common Core, No Child Left Behind – both are cut from the same, moth-devoured cloth: top-down government control. In light of decades of costly failure, it is well past time we stop entertaining such fixes and move on to something different. It’s time to focus on fundamentally changing the system so that educators have the freedom to tailor teaching to the needs of unique children, while parents are empowered to hold educators truly accountable. It is time for school choice, which, unlike NCLB and national standards, the evidence very much supports.

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

Democracy - Whatever That Is - and Education

Democracy is inherently good, and since public schools are democratically controlled they, too, are inherently good. Right?

You’d think so from the way many people invoke “democracy” when championing government schools, but thanks to a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, we might have a rare opportunity to actually scrutinize that assumption. A few days ago, Petrilli questioned the value of local school boards in light of what seems to be frequent capture by teachers unions, and was immediately accused of attacking “democracy” by historian Diane Ravitch.

“Gosh, Mike,” Ravitch wrote in the comments section, “it sounds as though you have identified the real problem ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”

With that the battle was on, and it’s one I’m happy to join: A huge problem we face in education is, indeed, democracy.

Before I go further, the first thing that’s necessary to do is define “democracy.” Unfortunately, that’s something rarely done by those who wield the term like a rhetorical chainsaw, swinging it wildly at anyone who might question government schooling.  Typically, it seems the word is employed to just vaguely connote some sort of action by “the people” – whoever they are – as opposed to “elites,” or to indicate that popular voting is in some fashion used to make laws.

That said, the most basic definition of democracy – the one you probably learned in grade school –  follows these lines: “Control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” You might also assume the word means representative democracy, where people vote for their representatives and majorities of reps make the laws, but usually the word’s use isn’t even that precise.

This lack of precision leads to numerous problems, and a big one was illustrated in an exchange between Bob Bowdon – of Cartel and ChoiceMedia.tv fame – and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker. Bowdon had a Flypaper post pointing out numerous cases in which ”the people” enacted education policies disliked by teachers unions, and the unions, instead of accepting the “democratic” outcomes, headed to the courts to thwart the new laws. Baker would have none of this argument, in the comments section of Petrilli’s post calling Bowdon’s entry an “absurd and misinformed rant.” Why? Largely because Bowdon failed to acknowledge that courts in Georgia – where one of the legal actions cited by Bowdon occurred – were taking perfectly legitimate action in striking down a charter school law that violated the state’s constitution.

Of course, Baker isn’t talking about democracy, at least in any precise way (or the feel-good, “people rule” sense I think Ravitch meant to convey) but a constitutional republic with separation of powers. That’s a very different thing, with a very different goal, from simple majority rule. As The Federalist discusses with great insight, a constitutional republic with checks and balances is a system intended to minimize the threat government poses to individuals, while enabling it to do those things that government must do.  That does not at all seem to be the “democracy” Ravitch and company were lauding, and you can’t reasonably blame Bowdon for turning that against them. Live by the loaded, imprecise definition, die by the loaded, imprecise definition. Unfortunately, that makes it much harder to have a useful debate about education governance.

But why don’t we want pure democracy?

Aside from the towering logistical problems, uninhibited majority rule is an existential threat to individual liberty, the true foundation of American society. Should my ability to drum up support from 50.1 percent of voters be all that’s needed to have your house taken from you, your speech quashed, and your family imprisoned? Of course not, but pure democracy would not only allow that, it would give it complete legal sanction.

So a constitutional republic, with its checks, balances, and enumerated powers, is infinitely preferable to pure democracy. However, it is a much harder concept to employ when you just want people to feel good about public schools, or angry about efforts to change them. “For crying out loud, they are democratic schools – schools controlled by the people – you evil 1-percenter!” (Cue foreboding tyranny-of-the-majority music.) And just because a form of governance is better than democracy doesn’t mean it works well.

Why does this superior form of government still largely fail? To really get into this question I recommend Cato’s Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice, available free online! I’ll just briefly hit the main, inherent pathology of government that constantly leads to skewed results.

Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: The people who get the greatest benefit from a policy will be the most motivated to participate in the politics of that policy, while the costs are usually highly diffuse, giving the people paying for it relatively little incentive to politick. In education, the greatest benefit is accrued by the school employees – the people whose very livelihoods come from the system – hence they exert hugely disproportionate power. They are also much easier to organize than parents or taxpayers.  

In light of this basic inequality of incentives, it is no surprise that teachers unions (and other education employee organizations) wield disproportionate influence. Teachers and administrators aren’t bad people, it’s simply that normal incentives give them much more reason to constantly engage in education politics than the average voter, taxpayer, or even parent, for whom there are many other major concerns than trying to influence the district, state, of federal government on education policy. 

To deal with the effects of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in school districts, Petrilli suggests a couple of possible options: a move toward greater mayoral control of the schools, as exists in New York City, or having states control education. But these are fraught with at least as much peril as local control.

At the risk of violating an Italian corollary of Godwin’s Law, the mayoral control argument seems to come down to this: Mussolini made the trains run on time. Essentially, if you can put someone with dictatorial power in charge he won’t have to worry about special interests and can do what needs to be done. Plus, in the case of mayoral control there wouldn’t be real dictatorship – Il Duce could be voted out in four years.

Obviously, though, there’s a reason the term “dictator” doesn’t enjoy the same esteem as, say, ”chocolate,” or “Betty White” – people generally don’t like the way dictators turn out. Maybe you’ll get one who’s benevolent and wise – in which case you’ll just be troubled by your ultimately nonexistent freedom – but more likely you’ll get one who’s stupid, or cruel, or a combination of the two. And what do you do when the dictator imposes a bad reading curriculum on your kids, or closes a school that might have served them well? Just suffer.

But there’s the election – you can hold a mayor responsible then! Of course, that puts us right back in the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs problem, where the special interests are likely to be much more active in politicking than the average voter. And the problem isn’t just that: When the public votes for mayor, the vote is based not only on education policies, but also law enforcement, sanitation, sodium speakeasy crackdowns, and myriad other things. In other words, it is almost impossible to send an unambiguous message that the public is angry about education when so many issues affect who votes and why.

All these problems remain with state or federal control. There’s a reason the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, etc., have big headquarters in the Washington, DC, area, and their state affiliates run hefty operations in state capitals: they are wielding political power! And, like mayoral elections, voting in state or federal elections isn’t just about education, but taxation levels, wars, roads, bridges to nowhere, extramarital affairs, “do nothing” congresses, birth certificates, and so on.

At this point you might feel that democracy really is bad, and generally doomed to failure. And you’d be right, which is why government should be restricted to doing only those things that private individuals cannot do, and one of those things is not furnishing education. We know that private individuals can and do supply widespread education from our own history, in which education and literacy had very broad reach before government schools existed, and in which private schools often thrived – including a huge system of parochial schools – despite having to compete with “free” alternatives. Perhaps even more compelling, we can see it in the massive for-profit schooling industries that out-teach government schools in the poorest places in the world.

So what is the viable solution to our education governance problems? To end government control of education, setting both educators and parents free. Move to a system of universal school choice, in which funding is controlled by parents, educators have the autonomy to run their own schools, and all involved have equal power because free, voluntary exchange – not wielding political influence – is how business is done. Don’t make parents and taxpayers engage in endless, plodding, political warfare in which they’ll always be outgunned. Let them exercise immediate power by taking their kids – and the money to educate them – out of schools that do not satisfactorily serve them and put them into schools that do.

Thanks again to Mike Petrilli for daring to question “democracy,” and I hope it spurs a truly thoughtful, honest discussion about this absolutely crucial topic.

No Compelling Evidence ‘No Child’ Worked

Over the last few days the Wall Street Journal has run two articles suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act has been somewhat successful. But that’s not supported by the federal government’s own measure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The WSJ’s first article appeared on Saturday, and while focusing on the stagnation of high-achieving students, it asserts that NAEP exams show “dramatic progress—sometimes double-digit increases—for the lowest achievers over the last two decades, especially after No Child Left Behind.”

Last month I debunked the idea that historically struggling groups have seen dramatic improvements under NCLB, laying out the data from numerous NAEP tests. Quite simply, looking at score gains per year, there were many periods before NCLB that saw faster improvements. Below are two more tables from the latest NAEP scores, released a couple of weeks ago. These are for the so-called “main” NAEP, which is not nearly as valuable as the long-term trends exam for seeing historical patterns, but the WSJ cites it and it does contain new information. The results are for the bottom 10 percent of performers.

As always, at what year one could start crediting results to NCLB is debatable. (Actually, you can never simply look at NAEP scores and attribute them to one factor because so many variables influence outcomes.) That date cannot be earlier than 2002, the year the law was enacted, and probably should be 2003, by which time most of the regulations were written and the law began to take real effect. To deal with this problem, the tables include only years that fully include NCLB or do not include it at all. Also note that there are two pre-NCLB time bands for reading because there are no 2000 8th grade reading scores.

Mathematics, 10th Percentile


Reading, 10th Percentile


Once again, there is is no pattern of faster improvement under NCLB than before it. Highlighting periods with greater growth than under NCLB, you can see that in 4th grade math improvements were faster before NCLB than after. In 8th grade math, it’s essentially a dead heat. In 4th grade reading, there’s sizable improvement under NCLB, and in 8th grade reading there’s an appreciable advantage before NCLB.

The second WSJ piece that gives NCLB undue credit is an op-ed from Kevin Chavous. Chavous, a tremendous advocate for school choice, implies that NCLB supplies “accountability” needed to make American kids competitive with their international peers. But as we’ve seen, there’s precious little evidence that NCLB has done anything to improve educational outcomes. Meanwhile, it has cost us a mint, with Department of Education k-12 spending rising from $27.3 billion in 2001 to $37.9 billion in 2011.

Unfortunately, Chavous’s piece seems more aspirational than reality-based, as is often the case in education policy. “We must try to make schools and teachers accountable,” he seems to be saying. “Heaven knows the states won’t do it!”

The need to deal in reality is why Mr. Chavous’ main concern—getting school choice—is so crucial. Government schooling will never be fundamentally changed because those who would be held accountable—teachers, administrators, bureaucrats—have by far the most motivation to be involved in education politics, the greatest ability to organize, and hence the biggest store of political power. Their livelihoods, after all, are at stake. And what do they want? What we’d all probably like: as much pay as possible with as little accountability.

The only way to end employee domination of education is to fundamentally change the system: instead of having politics control schooling, let parents control education money so they can take their children out of schools they don’t like and put them into those they do. Don’t force them to undertake the endless, hopeless warfare of having to form coalitions, try to get politicians’ ears, spur politicians to move and, if they can ever get decent changes, then force them to constantly fight to keep the reforms against opponents with full-time lobbyists and political machines. No, let them vote with their feet, right away, and get their children the education they need.

NCLB is, by most indications, an abject failure, and the very nature of government schooling doomed it to be so.

As You’ll See, Student Loans Hurt Us All

Suddenly, student loans are nearing the top of the nation’s public policy debate. Indeed, President Obama is expected to make a big speech about them on Wednesday. Why the sudden ascendance? Probably because the burden of student loans is one of the few things OWSers are clearly angry about, and that has raised questions ranging from whether such loans should be dischargable in bankruptcy, to whether they help fuel the Saturn V rocket of college price inflation. And last Sunday GOP presidential contender Ron Paul jumped into the fray, suggesting we eliminate the federal student loan program entirely.

Paul is right about phasing out federal student loans. Unfortunately, that’s likely the last thing President Obama will propose.

The first reaction to hearing such a proposal is that it’s Grinch-level heartlessness, stealing a better future from low-income kids. That is almost certainly what the president would say, and such a reaction would likely poll well. That’s why he’s expected to propose lowering interest rates, easing repayment, and other borrower-friendly measures. But as I lay out in a Cato Policy Analysis to be released imminently, by most indications federal student aid and other taxpayer-fueled subsidies aren’t good for anyone. (Well, anyone not employed by a college or university, the ultimate receiving end of all the forced largesse). By artificially—and hugely—boosting consumption, they ultimately lead to massive tuition inflation, encourage millions of unprepared people to take on studies they never finish, and pour H2O into already watered-down degrees. In other words, student aid—including federal lending—is likely a net loss to both students and society.

But I’ve already said too much. If you want to get a lot more on this—and more on the many unintended evils of federal college policies—stand by for the release of my study. And if you’re in DC, come to Capitol Hill Thursday for a briefing on the subject with me and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC). It should give OWSers, libertarians, conservatives, liberals, and anyone else lots to think about.

Beating Back Big (Ed.) Brother?

It certainly seems quixotic to try to reverse the federal invasion of American education—it’s “for the children,” for crying out loud!—but there are signs that the forces of constitutional and educational good might be making progress. The fact of the matter is that people seemingly across the ideological spectrum have had it with the illogical, rigid, and failed No Child Left Behind Act, and very few people want to keep that sort of thing in place.

What’s the evidence of this?

For one, both Senate Republicans and Democrats are putting out NCLB reauthorization bills that would significantly reduce the mandates the current law puts on states, including the hated and utterly unrealistic full-proficiency-by-2014 deadline. On the House side, Republicans have for months been advancing bills aimed at reducing the size and prescriptiveness of Washington’s edu-occupation. The White House, too, has been arguing that NCLB is far too bureaucratic. Finally, GOP presidential candidates are returning to what was, before the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, an obvious Republican position: there should be no U.S. Department of Education whatsoever.

So perhaps NCLB will be remembered as the high-water mark of federal school control.

Perhaps, but we’re nowhere near the promised land yet.

First, there is the extremely troubling way the Obama administration is pushing NCLB aside: issuing states waivers from the law, but only if they implement administration-dictated measures, including ”college and career ready standards,” a euphemism for federal curriculum control. But even if they were demanding that states adopt universal private school choice, this would be extremely dangerous, and far beyond just education. The administration is for all intents and purposes unilaterally making law: no separation of powers, no Congressional approval—nothing! Essentially, the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of man, and no one should stand for that even if they think, as I do, that No Child Left Behind is an absolute dud. It reminds me of of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.

And then there are those federal standards, the supposedly “state-led and voluntary” Common Core standards that Washington just happens to have repeatedly shoved onto states, whether through Race to the Top or waivers. They are perhaps the greatest threat to educational freedom we’ve yet seen, holding the potential to let Washington dictate what every child in America will learn, no matter how controversial, or unproven, or unfit for any kids who are not “the average.”

Fortunately, resistance to these, too, seems to be gaining traction. Perhaps the most heartening evidence is Prof. Jay Greene having been invited a few weeks ago to testify on national standards before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Jay terrifically summarized the myriad logical and empirical failings of national standards generally, and the Common Core specifically, and having his testimony out there is useful in and of itself. But more important is that at least some people in Congress are paying attention to this largely—and intentionally—under-the-radar conquest. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in at least some states that have adopted the Common Core people are becoming aware of it and starting to ask questions. At the very least, these happenings offer reason to hope that national standards supporters won’t keep getting away with just repeating the fluff logic of “a modern nation needs a single standard, and don’t worry, the Common Core has been rated as good by all us Common Core supporters.”

What has for a long time seemed impossible is suddenly feeling a bit more plausible: withdrawing the Feds from our kids’ classrooms. But there’s a huge amount still to do, and gigantic threats staring us in the face.