Tag: public schools

Throwdown with Charles Murray

In a response to my post this morning, Charles Murray remains unconvinced that changes to our school system could result in dramatic improvements in educational outcomes.

He asks to see the scholarly study showing that a school has miraculously boosted achievement above the norm. In one way, this hurdle is too low, and in another it’s too high.

If we could only point to a single study of a single school, it wouldn’t instill much confidence in the generalizability of the phenomenon. A consistent pattern of scholarly results is necessary for that. On the other hand, asking for “miraculous” improvement is a needlessly high standard. My disagreement is with Murray’s earlier, lower threshold claim that:  “reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

Let’s call a marginal improvement an increase of less than .15  standard deviations above the current mean (typically considered a “small” effect in the social sciences). Taking that as our litmus test, is there a consistent pattern of scholarly evidence that better school system design can boost achievement by more than .15 standard deviations? Yes.

education markets v monopolies -- coulson

That pattern is presented in the figure above, drawn from my recent review of the global econometric literature comparing educational outcomes across different types of school systems. The figure relates the number of statistically significant findings favoring free education markets over state school monopolies (in white), significant findings of the reverse (in light grey), and insignificant findings (in dark grey). Markets beat monopolies by a ratio of 15 significant findings to 1, across the seven educational measures for which data are available.

While a few of these findings have small effect sizes, many are above .15 standard deviations – some of them well above it. A paper by Tooley, Dixon, Bao, and Merrifield (under consideration by the journal Economics of Education Review), for instance, finds that in Nigeria private schools outscore public schools by double that amount, after controls, while “in Delhi and Hyderabad private unrecognized schools top state-run schools in math instruction by about 2/3 of a standard deviation.” A recent randomized assignment study of the DC voucher program finds that voucher students who’ve been in the program for three years are reading two grade levels ahead of their public school peers (.42 std deviations), though the average voucher is worth only a quarter of what DC spends per pupil on public k-12 education.

These are more than marginal improvements, and they are part of a consistent pattern. That pattern strongly suggests that moving from our current monopoly school system to a free and competitive education marketplace would shift the bell curve of academic achievement significantly to the right, raising the mean achievement substantially above its current level.

No one should be surprised by that. Imagine how far the bell curve for median income across modern nations would shift to the left if all free markets were supplanted with centrally planned monopolies such as have ruined the economies of Cuba, North Korea, and until recently many other nations.

The Video Is Creepy, But the Public-Schooling Song Remains the Same

You’ve probably already seen it, but I thought I’d post it anyway. For those who haven’t yet watched it, below is the video of kids at the B. Bernice Young Elementary School — a public school in Burlington, New Jersey — belting out a little diddy about Barack Obama and all the wonderful things he’s declared. According to the school district, this Presidential Idol performance was put on as part of a Black History Month celebration.

In case you couldn’t make out everything the kiddos were singing, here are the lyrics:

Song 1:
Mm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said that all must lend a hand
To make this country strong again
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said we must be fair today
Equal work means equal pay
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said that we must take a stand
To make sure everyone gets a chance
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said red, yellow, black or white
All are equal in his sight
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

Yes!
Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama

Song 2:
Hello, Mr. President we honor you today!
For all your great accomplishments, we all doth say “hooray!”

Hooray, Mr. President! You’re number one!
The first black American to lead this great nation!

Hooray, Mr. President we honor your great plans
To make this country’s economy number one again!

Hooray Mr. President, we’re really proud of you!
And we stand for all Americans under the great Red, White, and Blue!

So continue —- Mr. President we know you’ll do the trick
So here’s a hearty hip-hooray —-

Hip, hip hooray!
Hip, hip hooray!
Hip, hip hooray!

Um, yikes!

Now, let’s get one thing straight: I don’t think this is part of a plot by the President to push his political and social ideas on children. He obviously has supporters who would be happy to do that, and he might like it if people thought of him as being a bit god-like, but videos like this could be more alarming to the President than anyone else, setting up the creepy image that he really does have a cult following, an image he might prefer voters not have. And unlike the brouhaha over the President’s address to students earlier this month, which was touched off by loaded study guides created by Obama’s own Education Department, there’s no evidence that this incident was orchestrated by the White House.

That said, this situation is nonetheless disturbing, especially because of the response from district superintendent Christopher Manno. In a statement, Manno said:

Today we became aware of a video that was placed on the Internet which has been reported by the media. The video is of a class of students singing a song about President Obama. The activity took place during Black History Month in 2009, which is recognized each February to honor the contributions of African Americans to our country. Our curriculum studies, honors and recognizes those who serve our country. The recording and distribution of the class activity were not authorized.

Allow me to summarize: This is an outrage — who the heck let you people know what was going on in my school?

Such secrecy, of course, should have no place in public schools, yet secrecy — or at least confusion and obfuscation — is omnipresent. Ever attend a school board meeting? I’ve sat in on several, and I’ve watched lots of people try in vain to get clear answers about lots of important questions. Or how about getting straight answers about district budgets? Good luck there. And though occurrences as blatantly unacceptable as the one in this video are pretty rare, why should we be all that suprised that the superintendent seems so dismissive of extremely legitimate concerns? I mean, what are people going to do if they don’t like what’s going on at the school, stop paying taxes? I hope they like jail…

If education were grounded in choice, we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems, at least not at nearly the level we have them with government schooling. For one thing, parents who’d like their kids to literally sing the praises of President Obama could pick institutions with music programs so oriented, while those with more traditional musical tastes could choose like-eared schools. In addition, school leaders would have a much stronger incentive to listen to customers’ concerns. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t have those customers much longer. Finally, were dissatisfied people able take their money elsewhere, “accountability” wouldn’t have to come through wasteful and inherently politicized mechanisms like this: The state commissioner of education has directed Superintendent Manno to conduct a review of the incident to ensure that Black History Month can be observed without “inappropriate partisan politics in the classroom.”

I’m sure that will turn out well, but we’ll probably never know one way or the other.

New York Mayor Opposes Closing Schools for Muslim Holidays

I have been trying for years to make people understand that a single system of government schools is fundamentally at odds with American values, especially individual liberty and equal treatment under the law. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in opposing a move to let city public schools close for Muslim holidays as they do for Christian and Jewish holidays, recently made my point in one, simple sentence:

One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.

Exactly. So which religions, and which people, will get to be more equal than others, Mr. Mayor?

With universal school choice, we wouldn’t have to grapple with such terrible questions.

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

A Picture Is Worth $300 Billion

I blogged this morning that the research shows higher public school spending slows the economy, and explained that this is because spending more on public schools doesn’t increase students’ academic performance. Some readers no doubt find that hard to accept. With them in mind, I present the following chart:

Spending vs. AchievementSpending vs. Achievement

If public schools had merely maintained the level of productivity they exhibited in 1970, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300 billion annual tax cut. Now THAT would stimulate economic growth.

Research Shows $100 Billion Ed. Stimulus Likely Hurting Economy

Tomorrow morning, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.

The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation’s public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors’ own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.

How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital – improving the skills and knowledge of workers – boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.

Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education’s own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.

The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.

Based on this body of research, the president’s decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.

Houston DA: Help Us Get Rid of Customers at Successful Schools!

The Houston District Attorney’s office has apparently sent out this notice:

Schools: If you have any information on someone who is attending a Houston County public school who either resides out of Houston County or out of their zone, please give us as much information as possible. Your contact information is not required; but, we will contact you if you desire. You may call 478.—.—- and leave a message or use our form below. All information provided is confidential.

Apple wants to sell more iPods. Facebook wants to sign up more members. In the free enterprise system, the incentives are aligned so that what’s good for consumers (access to things they want) is also good for producers. Not so in public schooling. Good public schools can’t get paid for serving kids outside their catchment area, so when folks try to escape lousy local schools by sneaking their kids into better ones, it actually hurts the better schools financially. So, rather than encouraging good schools to grow and take over bad ones, the status quo encourages good schools to stay as small as they can, and serve as few kids as they can. Great, huh?

Can we break up the monopoly now? Please?