Tag: public schools

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?

Union-Funded Study Says Private Schools Expensive!

I know, it’s a bit of a dog-bites-man headline, but bear with me. A new study by a Rutgers University ed. professor purports to tell us about “Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications.” The trouble is, the study presents no data that are representative of private schooling in the U.S.

Author and ed school professor Bruce Baker analyzed per pupil expenditures of private schools that had registered with Guidestar.org. Based on its mission statement, Guidestar is a service brings together charities seeking donations with would-be donors, in an effort to encourage philanthropy. Only a fraction of the nation’s private schools participate, and they are self-selected into that group. It is reasonable to think that the schools that self-select into Guidestar are the ones most avidly seeking donations. According to a PowerPoint presentation on Guidestar’s site, its top five types of users are:

  • Non-Profit Development Directors
  • Non-Profit Fundraising Directors
  • Grant Writers
  • Foundation Grants Administrators and Donor Services Managers
  • Corporate Foundation Giving Program Managers

Quite possibly, the private schools most actively seeking non-tuition revenue are the ones… receiving the most non-tuition revenue. So not only is the Guidestar population of private schools not randomly selected, and non-representative of private schools nationally, there is reason to believe it is biased in the direction that its author and funders favor.

This would be bad enough, but it gets worse. The author makes no serious attempt to determine the extent of the bias, or to control for it. In fact, he consciously makes it worse: he choses to eliminate from consideration any private schools reporting revenues or expenditures under $500,000, thereby excluding smaller, less expensive schools.

I have literally NEVER seen a serious academic study that starts from a sample that is known to be biased in the direction favored by its funders and then consciously makes matters worse by actively skewing it even further!

An example of the kind of analysis that is supposed to accompany the presentation of a non-random sample to ascertain extent and direction of bias appears in my own 2006 study of Arizona private schools, available here. I dedicate five pages (beginning on page 14) to an assessment of whether and to what extent my survey respondents differed from the universe of all Arizona private schools. Significant effort was expended on that section of the study, because it is both necessary and expected. I was disappointed, though not surprised, by the absence of such a section in the Baker study.

Not only can the Baker study not tell you how much U.S. private schools really spend, it seems to have a little difficulty getting the public school spending figures right, too. For instance, there is a line on page 42 implying that DC public schools were spending $14,000 in 2007.  Federally-reported data show that DC was already spending over $18,000 per pupil in 2005-06. And I’ve shown that it spent $28,000/pupil in 2008-09.

Finally, did I mention that Baker’s study was funded by the NEA-bankrolled “Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice”? As Ed Sector pointed out a couple of years ago: “The Great Lakes Center and the NEA’s Michigan affiliate are also linked on a personal level: [the Center’s director] Teri Battaglieri is married to Michigan Education Association Executive Director Lou Battaglieri.”

***

Update:  Note that the reason Guidestar only has financial information for a small fraction of the nation’s private schools is that the vast majority of U.S. private schools are religious, and religious schools are not required to file IRS Form 990 (from which Guidestar gets its financial data). The religious private schools that do file Form 990 are thus a small self-selected group that is presumably seeking to maximize its revenue from charitable donations, and hence very likely biased toward higher spending schools.

I Would Rather You Just Said “Thank You, Private Schools,” and Went on Your Way…

Some well-known bloggers are being terrible bullies, beating up on private schools.

Felix Salmon kicks things off by hoping the government tightens the definition of a “charitable” organization and begins taxing private schools who don’t “do a bit more to earn it.” Matt Yglesias agrees that private schools are mooching deadbeats and ups the ante, calling them actively harmful as well. Finally, Conor Clarke at The Atlantic agrees, but makes the other two look like panty-waists by proposing the government radically narrow what is considered a charity in the first place.

Yglesias even has the temerity to indict private schools for the failure of NYC public schools:

And as best one can tell, their main impact on the common weal is negative, drawing parents with resources and social capital out of the public school system and contributing to its neglect. You’d have to believe that New York City’s public schools would be both better funded and free of this kind of nonsense if a larger portion of the city’s elite were sending their kids to them.

Really? Would we have to believe what Yglesias says? No, it’s not “the best one can tell.” According to the evidence, Yglesias’ breezy, offhand accusation is demonstrably wrong. Increased competition from private schools actually improves public school performance.

And the more kids who leave public to go private, the more money the schools have for the kids who remain.

What ingrates. They complain about the lost tax revenue while dismissing out of hand the billions of dollars that parents and donors spend every year to educate children outside the government system. They dismiss the fact that these parents and donors are saving taxpayers in the neighborhood of $60 Billion a year based on current-dollar public school spending and the number of kids in private schools.

Finally, if this is all about rich people getting a free ride, why aren’t these guys screaming about means-testing public schools? Why shouldn’t we charge rich parents tuition to attend public schools? If a charitable deduction for private schools is so bad, why isn’t a free public education even worse?

Fear of Freedom Leaves Only Faith Healing for Our Schools

Historian Diane Ravitch drives me nuts. She has written numerous, terrific books chronicling the ills of government control of education, including the wrenching social conflict it has caused; the ejection of meaningful content from textbooks and tests it has required; and the dominance of educrats over parents and children it has enabled. She has been, essentially, the official historian of government-schooling’s failure. And yet, in a new blog interview with journalist John Merrow, she appears not to comprehend the most important lesson her copious works have to offer: that government education is doomed to fail.

Why the huge disconnect between her historiography and willingness to act on its clear implications? Because, it appears, as much as she knows that government schooling fails, she fears educational freedom even more. “Privatization,” in her mind, is simply too dangerous:

I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have.  In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’  What’s your ideal approach?  Are we moving in that direction?

If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.

Unfortunately, while Prof. Ravitch knows a gigantic amount about education history, she exhibits precious little understanding of freedom or its economic subset, free markets. For one thing, charter schooling – a system by which public schools are given a right to exist and largely held accountable by government – isn’t even close to “privatization,” if by that we mean taking control from government and giving it to free, “private” individuals. Worse, Ravitch evinces a reflexive and, frankly, simplistic fear of free markets in hyperbolically asserting that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” I’d strongly suggest that she explore some non-education history – for instance, that of government-sponsored institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act; and federal regulation – before making any such over-the-top declaration again.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Prof. Ravitch fails to grasp – or, perhaps, to intuitively feel – how freedom works, and hence she fears it. Like many people, maybe she’s just not comfortable with seemingly ethereal spontaneous order, and needs to have some higher power pulling the strings to feel safe. Perhaps she fails to see how freedom, by fostering competition and innovation, produces all of the wonderful things we take for granted. Maybe she doesn’t really understand that it is due to freedom that we have an abundance of computers, coffee cups, cars, houses, package delivery services, miracle drugs, and pencils, not to mention religious pluralism, marketplaces of idea, and even happiness.

And then there’s the flip-side: government failure. While she has done more than perhaps any other historian to detail government failure and damage it has inflicted in education, Ravitch seems dead set against applying what she knows to public policy. She knows, for instance, that government often works precisely for the powerful special interests it’s supposed to keep in check. She doesn’t, though, seem to know why that is, and why it is the rule in government. She doesn’t appear to realize that the people who would be regulated, or who are employed by government, have by far the greatest motivation to get involved in the politics of their narrow areas, and hence exercise by far the most influence over them. And she doesn’t realize that it is only when special interests control government – not when they are in free markets – that they can exert unchecked power, because it is only then that they no longer have to get others to voluntarily do business with them.

Unfortunately, Ravitch’s apparent fear of freedom forces her to deny the only hope for making American education really work:  to empower all parents to choose, and to set educators free. Only then would schools be able to specialize in the needs of our hugely diverse children, and would children be able to attend them. Only then would educators have to compete for their money, forcing them to respond to the people they are supposed to serve rather than exercising political control over them. Only then would we see in education the kind of powerful innovation and progress we take for granted in everything from consumer electronics to restaurants.

And yes, freedom works in education, just as it does in almost every field of human endeavor. Despite much of the world having adopted the government-schooling model, we have ample evidence of this. For instance, James Tooley’s hugely important research reveals how private, for-profit schools are educating the world’s poorest children much more effectively than “free” government schools. And Andrew Coulson’s recent review of education research reveals that the more free an education system, the better its results.

Freedom, quite simply, works, and government, typically, does not. Which might be exactly why, after Ravitch has bashed “privatization” and “deregulation,” the only prescription she has left is blind, reality-ignoring hope: “At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.”

We should wait, in other words, for a miracle, a healing of that which is inherently broken. It is, of course, no solution at all, but both knowing the history of American education, and fearing real freedom, Ravitch has nothing else to offer.