Tag: public schooling

Barack Obama “Fatally Conceited” on Education

The AP reports today that president Obama wants the nation’s school districts to close 5,000 failing schools and re-open them with new principals and teachers. Here is why this won’t work:

  • Typically, public schools only dismiss teachers when they are forced to reduce their workforce for budget reasons, but the president has just infused the system with $100 billion to prevent such dismissals. And when teachers are let go, it is done starting with those with the least seniority, not the lowest performance. So the hundreds of thousands of teachers displaced from failing schools will simply move to other schools rather than being replaced by better teachers. This has been going on for decades. It is called “the parade of the lemons.” Overall, it achieves nothing.
  • The new principals who take over the formerly failing schools have to come from somewhere. So for every school that gets one of the system’s “good” principals, there will be another school that loses one. Public schooling has no incentive structure to ensure that it can identify, hire, and retain competent administrators to strengthen its ranks.

What the president is trying to do in education – as in the auto industry – is to replace the web of market forces that close failing businesses in the private sector with his own personal diktat. This is Hayek’s Fatal Conceit.

The market solves the problem of failing schools by allowing consumers to chose the ones that serve them best, which simultaneously accomplishes two things: it drives failing schools to either improve or go out of business, and it provides incentives for the expansion of successful schools and the hiring of effective teachers and administrators.

As I wrote here, and in expanded and updated form in vol. 3, no. 1, of the Journal of School Choice, the international scientific evidence reveals the overwhelming superiority of market over monopoly schooling. President Obama’s educational dirigism will fail.

The Danger of Charter Schooling

It’s an interesting problem for charter-school afficianados: many want charters to have all the freedom of private schools, but go to pains to let people know that charters are public schools whenever the schools are under fire (or want money). Well I’ve just learned – perhaps before reporters have even been able to write their stories, because I haven’t yet found a news link to it – that New York’s Public Employee Relations Board will force the KIPP AMP charter school in New York City to let its teachers unionize.

This will be a tough pill for KIPP AMP to swallow, especially since an integral part of the famous KIPP model is requiring employees to be available far beyond the normal working hours of traditional public school teachers – not something the United Federation of Teachers is known for loving.  But this is the chance you take when you run a charter school: No matter how much you want to act like a private school, sooner or later the public-schooling powers will remind you of what you really are.

Week in Review: Successful Voucher Programs, Immigration Debates and a New Path for Africa

Federal Study Supports School Vouchers

arne_duncanLast week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.

According to The Washington Post, the study found that “students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school.” In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration “does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation.”

Why then did the Obama administration “let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?”

The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.

To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley’s new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration

The New York Times reports, “President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.”

In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:

  • Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
  • Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
  • Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.

In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.

For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

In Case You Couldn’t Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.

  • Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exadead-aidmines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
  • Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
  • Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an “aid-free solution” to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.

Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato’s events archive page.

Also, don’t miss Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan.

Whitehurst: “Duncan Is Not Lying”

Brookings senior fellow Grover Whitehurst has just come to the defense of education secretary Arne Duncan over charges that Duncan sat on (or remained “willfully ignorant” of) a study showing that the D.C. voucher program is boosting achievement. The Senate passed a bill sunsetting funding for the program on March 10, but Whitehurst contends Duncan wouldn’t have known about the study’s results until a week or so later (it was released on April 6th).

Until last November, Whitehurst was head of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), which released the new voucher study. He obviously knows its timelines and procedures. But even Whitehurst acknowledges that there is ”substantial reason to believe that the secretary didn’t want to draw attention to the report,” citing the choice of a Friday release (Friday releases were deliberately discontinued by the IES years ago) and the mysterious absence of the news briefing that typically accompanies the release of such reports.

So what is a fair observer to think of Secretary Duncan based on Whitehursts’ revelations? Duncan may not have had an opportunity to sit on the report, because he may not have known about it. But Duncan had ultimate control over its release and it looks as though he went out of his way to bury it.

Why would a secretary of education bury a study showing that one government program (vouchers) produces better outcomes than another government program (D.C. public schooling) at one quarter the cost? No flattering explanation comes to mind. Perhaps someone else will come forward to defend Duncan on this point.

Or perhaps the secretary himself might like to share with the American people why this study was buried at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in the basement of an abandoned building with a hand scrawled “beware of leopard” sign affixed to it. Maybe he would like to let us know why he isn’t touting private school choice as a model for the states to emulate at a time when outcomes are languishing and money is tight. The only justification he has offered for not doing so is risible: it doesn’t serve enough kids. As Cato’s David Boaz pointed out earlier today, it is only limited in size because, uh…, Congress statutorily limited its size. We know that many more parents would like vouchers. We know from the international evidence that the supply of schools rises to meet demand, just as supply rises to meet demand in other fields.

But we also know that the Democratic party is beholden to the teachers unions and that the National Education Association sent a letter to congressional Democrats — not to all of Congress, mind you, it’s addressed “to Democrats” — demanding that they kill the D.C. voucher program.

Because of the constant pressure exerted by the NEA, Democrats who might otherwise have supported the program have voted to let it — and the hopes of 1,700 poor kids — die. To reverse their decision, a countervailing public pressure must be brought to save it.

And that is why Grover Whitehurst is mistaken when he says that ”the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is far more important than the contretemps” over the secretary’s handling of the voucher study. The future of the program depends on that “contretemps.” Were it not for the public outcry, there would be no political pressure on Democrats to rethink their decision to feed these children back into the D.C. public schools.

And as someone who is much happier under divided government than under the unitary rule of either major party, I hope that Democrats figure out that long-term political calculus demands support for educational freedom. When the $100 billion ”stimulus” spending on public schools accomplishes little or nothing — as it will — the public will be even angrier at the politicians extorting them into those schools. And the party associated with defending that system to the bitter end against the wishes of families won’t recover for a long while.

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

Conservatives, Public Schools, and Pedagogy

I’ve received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration’s Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.

Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It’s possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.

Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?

The answer is: not much. As I’ve noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.

But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than “progressives.”

And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.

And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I’m simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.

If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen… or get used to disappointment.

Here’s A “Toxic Asset” for You…

The Obama administration seems obsessed with making American taxpayers eat toxic assets. And I’m not talking about bad paper, derivatives, or any other inscrutable financial stinkers. I’m talking about good ol’ American public schooling.

Truth be told, after listening to the president’s presser last night, even I started to think that the key to American economic success is “investing” in education. After all, once you’ve heard something for about the twentieth time, you start to believe it. I mean, that’s how propaganda works, right? But somehow my mind refused to give in, and it forced me to remember:

We’ve been “investing” in government schools for decades, and have been reaping nothing but AIG-like results!

I actually laid out the startlingly awful returns we’ve gotten for our education dollars in several blog entries last month, but thought I’d revisit the basic, revolting facts one more time. I want it to be absolutely clear that lavishing more money on education isn’t change, nor, given what we get for the money, could it possibly be the key to long-term economic success.

So what have we invested? Let’s start with total outlays for elementary through post-secondary education, taken from table 26 of the latest Digest of Education Statistics. In 1969 we spent a total of $347 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2007, we spent $981 billion, a 183 percent increase.

How about public k-12 spending on a per-pupil basis? Again using Digest data (table 181) – which understates total expenditures by excluding such things as “state administration expenditures” – we can see that we’ve been spending increasingly sizable amounts. After adjusting for inflation, in 1969 we spent $5,161 per child. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, hitting $11,643. And what has that “investment” yielded?

Other than massive bloat, bupkus! Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ final products – we see almost complete academic stagnation. In mathematics, the average scale score was 304 (out of 500) in 1973, and only a measly 3 points higher in 2004! That’s a one percent increase in math outcomes for a roughly 100 percent increase in funding! And that actually beats the “return” in reading, where 17-year-olds were at 285 in 1971 and, yup, 285 in 2004!

How about higher education? Here we don’t have very good outcome measures and it is difficult to break down overall per-pupil expenditures. What we do have, however, suggests another bad investment.

To get a feel for expenditures, we can examine the State Higher Education Executive Officers report (figure A) showing that total revenue collected per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions, adjusted for inflation, grew from $8,463 in 1983 to $11,037 in 2008, a 30 percent increase. We can also look at aid per student, most of which came through government. According to data from the College Board (table 3), in 1983 the average full-time-equivalent student received $3,769 in inflation-adjusted aid. In 2007 she got $10,392, a 176 percent increase.

What are the returns on these investments? Again, lots of bloat, but from what we can tell, relatively little of educational value. Graduation rates, for one thing, seem to be falling.

According to the Population Studies Center, within eight years of graduating high school, 51.1 percent of students in the high school class of 1972 had finished college degrees. In contrast, only 45.3 percent of 1992’s high school class had done the same. And grads seem to be getting less well educated; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 1992 and 2003 literacy levels dropped for both Americans whose education maxed out at a bachelor’s degree and those with graduate degrees. Whether it was graduates’ ability to read prose, documents, or handle math, scores went down while costs went up.

So all told, what do we have to show for our education investment? Pretty much just empty bank accounts. And yet, some politicians just can’t seem to get enough of those toxic assets!