Tag: Neal McCluskey

War Against the Core

With the release of a new Brookings Institution report today, and one from a consortium of groups last week, resistance to the national-standards offensive seems to be mounting. And even though almost every state in the union has adopted the Common Core, and few are likely to formally undo that, the war against the Core can still be won.

Today’s new front comes in the form of the Brookings Institution’s 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, which includes three sections attacking rampant misuse of standards and tests. The first focuses on the Common Core, looking at the discernable impacts of state-level standards on achievement, and finding that (a) varying state standards have no meaningful correlation with achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and (b) there is much greater variation within states than between them, meaning national standards will do little to change big achievement gaps.

The report’s other two sections deal, first, with differences between the Main and Long-Term Trend NAEP – which brings up a central problem of using tests to judge quality without knowing what’s on them – and second, the misues of international exams to tout favorite policy prescriptions. Basically, pundits and analysts love to pick out countries in isolation and finger one or two characteristics of their education systems as key to their success. Some also love to invoke  this stinker that I and others have railed about for years:

In the U.S., advocates of a national curriculum have for years pointed to nations at the top of TIMSS and PISA rankings and argued that because those countries have national curriculums, a national curriculum must be good. The argument is without merit. What the advocates neglect to observe is that countries at the bottom of the international rankings also have a national curriculum.

The report is well worth checking out. The only quibble I have is that it fails to mention what I covered two years ago, when the national standards stealth attack was fully underway: reviewing the national standards research literature, there is no meaningful evidence that national standards lead to better outcomes. It’s great to have more support for this, but we’ve known for a while that the empirical foundation for national standards is balsa-wood strong.

The second report comes from a coalition of the Pioneer Institute, Pacific Research Institute, Federalist Society, and American Principles Project. The Road to a National Curriculum focuses on all the legal violations perpetrated by the federal government to “incentivize” state adoption of the Common Core and connected tests. Much is ground we at Cato have periodically covered, but this report goes into much greater depth on specific statutory violations. It also does nice work debunking standards supporters’ plea that they don’t want to touch curriculum, only standards, as if the whole point of setting standards weren’t to shape curricula. The report goes beyond pointing out just this logical silliness by identifying numerous instances of Education Department officials, or developers of federally funded tests, stating explicitly that their  goal is to shape curricula.

This report is another welcome counter-attack, though it, like the Brookings report, misses something important. In this case, that all federal education action – outside of governing District of Columbia schools, military schools, and enforcing civil rights – is unconstitutional. Stick to that, and none of these other threats materialize.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that many states that have adopted the Common Core – and all but four have – will officially back out. An effort was made in Alabama to do so, and one is underway in South Carolina, but Alabama’s failed and it’s not clear that there’s huge Palmetto State desire to withdraw.  Many state politicians don’t want to miss out on waivers from No Child Left Behind, which the Obama administration has essentially made contingent on adopting the Common Core, and others would rather not revisit the often contentious standards-adoption process.

That doesn’t mean that any state is truly locked into the Common Core. Formally they are, but like so much government does, states and districts could just ignore the Common Core, keeping it as the official standard but doing something else in practice. The only thing that could really stop them is if Washington were to rewrite federal law to make access to major, annual education funding – not Race to the Top or even waivers, but money from a reauthorized No Child Left Behind – contingent on adopting Common Core, and on performance on one of the two federally funded tests to go with the standards. Then the battle truly would be lost, but we are not there yet – indeed, reauthorization doesn’t seem likely until at least next year – so there is plenty of time for the national standards resistance to grow, and to dismantle the powerful, but ultimately hollow, national standards juggernaut.

Waiving Goodbye to the Constitution

Today the Obama administration will announce, according to early press reports, that ten states (of eleven that applied) will be receiving waivers from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. That’s right, the 2002 education law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush that absurdly insisted that all children will be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014. Now President Obama, unilaterally, is telling states that they can forget all that as long as they adopt – or at least have “plans” to adopt – reforms to his liking, such as national curriculum standards and teacher evaluations based on student standardized testing progress.

At this point, it is almost impossible to keep track of the federal savaging of the Constitution in supposed service of education. First there was the federal expenditure of money, allowed by none of the enumerated powers, largely starting in the 1960s. Then there was the growing attachment of controls to that money – again, with no Constitutional authority – culminating in NCLB. Now there is the blatant disregard for the separation of  powers by a President who just decided he didn’t like waiting for Congress to reauthorize the law, and a Congress that exhibits no spine whatsoever when it comes to this power grab because, well, no one seems to like NCLB.

Within this fiasco is all the evidence anyone should need to see why the Feds must be extracted from education. While Washington can drop humongous sacks of taxpayer dough on states and districts, and impose lots of bureaucratic rules and regulations, it can’t actually make education much better. Indeed, the whole point of NCLB was to end decades of Washington spending billions for no return. And what happened? Exactly what state, district, and school-level bureaucrats and unions expected: “accountability” swerved off the road before the 2014 deadline. It took longer than expected – it was a slightly more nerve-wracking game of political chicken than usual – but in the end the entrenched interests won because they’re the most motivated to bring the political pain. After all, their very livelihoods are at stake.

Aside from desegregation – which it has Constitutional authority to compel – the federal government has done no meaningful good in education. Why? Because the special interest-driven reality of politics ensures it can’t do any good. Yet we not only let it continue to trample the Constitution by meddling in education, we are allowing it to shred the Constitution into ever-smaller bits in order to “fix” the destruction it has wrought. And for this, all who turn a blind eye to the Constitution in the name of “the children” are to blame.

Obama Is Avoiding the Tough College Course

College prices truly are ridiculous. But someone needs to tell President Obama that the root problem isn’t the colleges, which he is expected to announce today will be the targets of proposed sanctions should they raise prices too fast. No, the problem, Mr. President, is a federal government that wants to play Santa Claus by giving everybody, no matter how poorly qualified or unmotivated, money for college.

As I itemized in How Much Ivory Does This Tower Need? What We Spend on, and Get from, Higher Education, total aid in the form of federal grants and loans (I didn’t even get into tax credits and deductions) ballooned from inflation-adjusted $29.6 billion in 1985 to $139.7 billion in 2010. That is mammoth, and it probably helped not just colleges to enrich themselves, but enrollment to expand from 8.9 million full-time equivalent students in 1985 to 15.5 million in 2010.

But that latter part is good, right? Doesn’t that giant enrollment increase mean we’ve been “educating ourselves to a better economy,” to steal a favorite Obama administration catch phrase?

It might, if all those people were attaining important skills and graduating. But they haven’t been. You can get more details in my paper – and yes, some of the following stats are probably somewhat low because they’re for first-time, full-time students – but the higher ed outcomes appear dismal no matter what:

  • The most recent six-year graduation rate for students in four-year programs was 57.3 percent
  • The most recent three-year graduation rate for students in two-year programs was a minute 27.5 percent
  • Roughly a third of people who manage to get bachelor’s degrees are in jobs that don’t require them, up from about 11 percent in 1967
  • According to recent research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa,  45 percent of students learn nothing in their first two years of college, and 36 percent nothing in four years
  • Between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of bachelor’s holders proficient in prose literacy dropped from 40 to 31 percent, and in document literacy from 37 to 25 percent, on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy

What does all this – and more that’s in the paper – tell us? That millions of the people taxpayers are sending to college are getting little if anything out of it, while the colleges rake in heavy dough. But that means the root problem isn’t the colleges – they are just taking the people government sends them – it is the federally dominated funding system that insists on giving dollars to almost any warm body that declares it wants to experience ivy-covered walls and frat parties.

In light of this depressing reality, if the president really wants to rein in costs he will call for significanlty reducing student aid, both the amount available to individual students, and the numbers of students eligible.

That, though, will probably not happen. Not only did the president talk up keeping aid cheap and casting an even wider net in his State of the Union, but taking the right course – cutting aid – means taking the politically tough course. And neither this president, nor almost anyone else in Washington, has ever signalled real willingness to do that. It’s just much easier to keep giving money away.

No Common Schools, No Peace?

Today is the mid-point of National School Choice Week, and we’re once again rockin’ to the oldies of prognostication. This time we’re going all the way back to the Mann. That’s Horace Mann, the “Father of the Common School” himself.

It is Mann who, among many things, is probably most responsible for introducing one of the deepest underlying sentiments supporting government schooling: that public schools will unify us and give us peace. As he waxed eloquent in his first annual report as Secretary of the newly-constituted Massachusetts State Board of Education:

Amongst any people, sufficiently advanced in intelligence, to perceive, that hereditary opinions on religious subjects are not always coincident with truth, it cannot be overlooked, that the tendency of the private school system is to assimilate our modes of education to those of England, where churchmen and dissenters, —each sect according to its own creed,—maintain separate schools, in which children are taught, from their tenderest years to wield the sword of polemics with fatal dexterity; and where the gospel, instead of being a temple of peace, is converted into an armory of deadly weapons, for social, interminable warfare. Of such disastrous consequences, there is but one remedy and one preventive. It is the elevation of the common schools.

How wrong Mann was.

Keep in mind that as of 1837, the year Mann gave his first address, some pretty impressive unifying things had happened in America despite education being grounded in families, private schools, and yes, churches. We’d established unified colonies; penned and ratified a Declaration of Independence that enunciated foundational American values; fought and won a war against the greatest military power on Earth; established a new nation; and created a national government based on a Constitution that – though it’s legs are under constant assault – still stands.

But let’s get to Mann’s prediction: Did “elevation of the common schools” end “social, interminable warfare”?

Not on your life. Indeed, by attempting to force diverse people into a monolithic system of government schools, it most likely exacerbated social tensions and sparked otherwise avoidable wars. To name just a few school-stoked conflagrations (both real and rhetorical):

  • The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844, sparked by a dispute over whose version of the Bible – Roman Catholic, Protestant, or neither – would be allowed in the public schools. By the conclusion of the rioting hundreds of people had been killed or injured and millions of dollars of property damage inflicted. Similar conflict – though not as physically destructive – occurred in many other American towns, with social strife largely only lessened when Catholics established their own school system.
  • The Scopes “Monkey” Trial, a sensational case that grabbed the attention of the entire nation as a Tennessee court ruled whether or not it was acceptable to teach evolution in public schools. It is a topic that continues to rip communities apart today, and is so hot that, even where state standards mandate evolution be taught, most biology teachers avoid it. They simply don’t want to deal with the acrimony that would ensue.
  • In 1974, Kanawha County, West Virginia, was plunged into a state of near-civil war over books selected by the county school district that many residents perceived to be anti-Christian and anti-American. Before the strife subsided commerce had ground to a halt, at least one person had been shot, and schools had been dynamited.

These are just some of the most well known or violent of the battles in the “interminable warfare” sparked not by private schooling, but the public schools Mann promised would bring peace if they became ascendant. Indeed, as I itemized in an analysis of just the 2005-06 school year, values-based skirmishes are fought all around us, all the time, whether over prayer in the schools, reading assignments, bullying and student speech, ethnic studies, and on and on. But that is exactly what we should expect when people of widely diverse religions, ethnicity, and philosophies are all required to support a single system of government schools. They won’t just give up the things that are often at the very heart of their lives – they will fight to have them taught.

Perhaps the biggest irony in all this is that students who attend private schools, even after adjusting for important non-school factors, are actually more knowledgeable about civics, active in their communities, and tolerant of others than are public school students. As University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf discovered in reviewing the empirical literature:

The statistical record suggests that private schooling and school choice often enhance the realization of the civic values that are central to a well-functioning democracy. This seems to be the case particularly among ethnic minorities (such as Latinos) in places with great ethnic diversity (such as New York City and Texas), and when Catholic schools are the schools of choice. Choice programs targeted to such constituencies seem to hold the greatest promise of enhancing the civic values of the next generation of American citizens.

How could this be? Because, in contrast to the assumption of Mann and others, most people don’t have to be forced to embrace tolerance and responsible freedom, they choose them. Public schooling, conversely, sends the message that government, not individuals freely working together, is responsible for whatever problems communities face. Even more importantly, by forcing diverse people together, government schools drop them into a zero-sum arena and render conflict all but inevitable.

Common schools haven’t brought us peace in our day. Indeed, quite the opposite.

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.