Tag: public schools

The Charter School Paradox

Is it possible for charter schools to increase educational options and diversity in the public school system but decrease it overall; to spend less money than regular public schools but cost taxpayers more overall; and to outperform regular public schools but decrease achievement overall?

Unfortunately, it is possible, and this mix of intended and unintended outcomes is the “Charter School Paradox.” But it is only a paradox if we take a narrow view of charter school effects. Rigorous new research concludes that public charter schools are seriously damaging the private education market, adding to the taxpayer burden, and undermining private options for families and healthy competition in the education sector.

Fortunately, we have a solution in education tax credits …

Take a look at the full paper by Richard Buddin, my short companion piece, and our brief video on the findings and implications of this path-breaking new research.

Class Size, Dropouts, & the Windy Atlantic

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, I argued that America has too many public school employees, and has wasted those employees’ talents on a mass scale. Jordan Weissmann, an associate editor with The Atlantic, disagrees, accusing me of running “roughshod over a lot of important nuance.” As it happens, no nuances were injured in the composition of my piece.

Let’s consider Mr. Weissmann’s cruelty-to-nuance claims in turn. First, he feels that I ignored “significant evidence that smaller classrooms do indeed improve student performance,” citing two sources. The first source is an unsigned web-page by the “Center for Public Education” that is so biased in its selective coverage as to not be worth serious consideration. The second is a scholarly paper by Alan Krueger, author of one of the two best-known literature reviews of the subject.

What Weissmann doesn’t mention is the work of Eric Hanushek, author of the other best known literature review on class size. Krueger contends that class size reduction is usually educationally beneficial and cost effective, Hanushek argues the contrary on both points. It’s easy to compare their evidence and arguments because both contributed at length to the book: The Class Size Debate, published by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute. It is a testament to how comfortable Hanushek is with the strength of his case vis-à-vis Krueger’s that he links to a full .pdf of that book from his own web pages at Stanford University. I understand why. When Hanushek looked at the most methodologically sound estimates—those that measure changes in student performance over time instead of at just a single point in time—he found that 89% show either no statistically significant advantage or a significant negative effect to smaller classes. To arrive at his opposing conclusion, Krueger had to, among other things, overweight the lower quality studies.

Hanushek’s conclusion is also more consistent than Krueger’s with the national U.S. data. The average American classroom has gotten substantially smaller over the past 40 years (by about 7 students) but achievement at the end of high-school is essentially flat. The only way to counter this evidence is to claim—usually without systematic basis—that children must be so much more difficult to teach today that the gains we would have seen from smaller classes have been eclipsed by this reduced “teachability.” The only systematic study of “teachability” trends of which I am aware does not support that claim—finding net “teachability” to have been mostly flat over time, with some improvement in the past decade.

Hanushek’s conclusion has also been supported by new, large-scale research, published after his and Krueger’s reviews. Harvard researchers Antonio Wendland and Matthew Chingos reported in 2010 that Florida’s state-wide class size reduction had “no discernible impact upon student achievement,” but has so far cost the state roughly $28 billion.

Some journalists are aware of the evidence that smaller classes generally do not improve outcomes. Consider, for example, this bit of reporting from last December:

Think of the ingredients that make for a good school. Small classes. Well-educated teachers. Plenty of funding. Combine, mix well, then bake. Turns out, your recipe would be horribly wrong, at least according to a new working paper out of Harvard…. The study comes courtesy of economist Roland Fryer, an academic heavyweight who was handed a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” earlier this year…. Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.

In fact, schools that poured in more resources actually got worse results.

Who is the astute journalist who wrote these words and from whom Jordan Weissmann could learn a few lessons? You guessed it… it was Jordan Weissmann, writing just seven months ago. How soon we forget.

Next, Weissmann claims that “dropout rates, for instance, have fallen by almost half since the 1970s.” Presumably he is unaware that this statement and the table he cites in support of it do not reflect reality. The “dropout rates” published in that NCES table are statistical fabrications of the nation’s education bureaucrats, looking to placate the public with the help of the remarkably credulous education media. You needn’t take my word for it. That is the finding of the left-leaning, Nobel-prize-winning, cited-by-President-Obama-with-approbation economist James Heckman. Heckman’s 2007 study, with Paul LaFontaine, is still the definitive work on the subject (though it was not the first to report the truth). Here is what Heckman and LaFontaine established through a painstaking analysis of the nation’s graduation data:

(a) the true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics [the one cited by Weissmann]; (b) it has been declining over the past 40 years; (c) majority/minority graduation rate differentials are substantial and have not converged over the past 35 years; (d) the decline in high school graduation rates occurs among native populations and is not solely a consequence of increasing proportions of immigrants and minorities in American society;

They also note that the post-NCLB uptick in graduation rates probably does not imply a genuine improvement in educational outcomes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority retention [a.k.a. “flunking”] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups. A similar pattern is observed following the publication of A Nation at Risk. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., “cheating”].

The italics and the text in square brackets in the above quotations are mine.

The fact that public school systems report falsely rosy “dropout rates” is not a secret. Anyone who spends 60 seconds on Google will discover it. It’s even been reported in such popular media outlets as… Mr. Weissmann’s employer, The Atlantic. That page on the Atlantic’s website actually links to the very same Heckman and LaFontaine study I link to above. Heck, it’s even been mentioned in The New York Times (though they’ve managed to protect their most die-hard readers from cognitive dissonance by restricting coverage of these findings to David Brooks’ column).

Weissmann wraps up his blog post with a foray into the art of mind-reading:

I doubt Coulson truly believes we really have too many teachers in this country. He hints at so much in his last paragraph, writing, “While America may have too many teachers, the greater problem is that our state schools have squandered their talents on a mass scale.” Why the hedge? My guess is….

Kudos to any readers who correctly predicted that both Mr. Weissmann’s belief and his guess were wrong. The reason that I can make no certain statement about the ideal size of the U.S. education labor force is that no one can predict the allocation of human and capital resources that will occur in future in a free market. That said, there is reason to expect fewer teachers will be required under market conditions since our public school monopolies have been on a hiring spree 11 times faster than enrollment growth for forty years. Moreover, on-line learning and educational software options are only getting better and more numerous, and this should lessen demand for classroom teachers. Against those forces we have to consider that families may choose to invest some of the resulting savings from employing fewer classroom teachers in one-on-one tutoring, which is generally accepted as highly effective if, at present, too expensive to be much used.

One thing I can say with some certainty, based on the world-wide research literature comparing different sorts of school systems within countries, is that whatever particular allocation of teachers and capital resources the market arrives at will be more efficient than the gross, unproductive staffing bloat that has been perpetrated by state schooling. And, as I explained in that linked study, the existing small niche of non-profit private schools in the United States does not constitute a free education marketplace. A further explanation of the difference, should anyone find it necessary, can be found in this piece by economist John Merrifield.

To quickly correct some of Weissmann’s remaining errors: I am on record as not faulting teachers’ unions as the cause of our nation’s education woes. Their predations (e.g., contributing to the system’s demonstrably unproductive employment bloat) are a symptom, not the disease. And while some public school teachers are obviously overpaid, others have been equally obviously underpaid. The problem with public school teachers’ salaries at present is that they are allocated based on time-served and credentials (neither of which is consistently related to student achievement) rather than performance. Markets tend to compensate employees based on performance and so this problem, too, will likely be solved by liberalizing America’s education sector through programs like K-12 education tax credits.

This is probably all the time I will have to debunk the various flawed criticisms that were offered in response to my WSJ piece, so I thank Mr. Weissmann for conveniently collecting most of them in one place.

State Rep. Balks at Voucher Funding for Muslim School

Just as Louisiana’s legislative session was wrapping up earlier this month, state Rep. Kenneth Havard refused to vote for any voucher program that “will fund Islamic teaching.” According to the AP, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans was on a list of schools approved by the state education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard declared: “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this.”

For unreported reasons, the Islamic school subsequently withdrew itself from participation in the program and the voucher funding was approved 51 to 49. With the program now enacted and funded, nothing appears to stand in the way of the Islamic school requesting that it be added back to the list, and it is hard to imagine a constitutionally sound basis for rejecting such a request.

This episode illustrates a fundamental flaw in government-funded voucher programs: they must either reject every controversial educational option from eligibility or they compel taxpayers to support types of education that violate their convictions. In either case, someone loses. Either poor Muslims in New Orleans are denied vouchers or taxpayers who don’t wish to support Muslim schools are compelled to do so.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Education tax credit programs can ensure universal access to the education marketplace without violating anyone’s freedom of conscience. That’s because tax credits extend choice not only to parents but to taxpayers as well. Taxpayers in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and a half dozen other states can choose to donate to nonprofit tuition-assistance organizations that serve the poor. If they do make a donation, they pick the organization that receives their funds, whether it be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, secular or entirely indifferent to religiosity.

Similarly, direct education tax credits for parents who pay for their own children’s education compel no one to support those parents’ choices. Such personal education tax credits, which already exist in Illinois and Iowa, merely let parents keep more of their own money. Far from increasing the tax burden on their fellow citizens, parents who pay for their own children’s education with the help of a credit save other taxpayers from having to pay for their children’s state schooling.

The school choice movement does not need to throw taxpayers’ freedom of conscience under the bus to secure freedom of choice for parents.

Obama vs. Romney on Public School Jobs

In a high-profile presser on the economy last Friday, President Obama’s central proposal was to hire more public employees. Then, in his weekly address, he argued that hiring more public school teachers would allow the U.S. to educate its way to prosperity. His Republican presidential rival, Governor Romney, has recommended precisely the opposite: reducing the size of government to boost private sector job growth–and he, too, mentions public school teachers. So… who’s right?

First, let’s look at public school employment and student enrollment over time.

As the chart makes clear, enrollment is only up 8.5% since 1970, whereas employment is up 96.2%. In other words, the public school workforce has grown 11 times faster than enrollment over the past 40 years. What difference does that make in economic terms? If we went back to the staff-to-student ratio we had in 1970, we’d be saving… $210 billion… annually.

Wait a minute, though! Research by economist Rick Hanushek and others has found that improved student achievement boosts economic growth. So if the 2.9 million extra public school employees we’ve hired since 1970 have improved achievement substantially, we might well be coming out ahead economically. So let’s look at those numbers…

Uh oh. Despite hiring nearly 3 million more people and spending a resulting $210 billion more every year, achievement near the end of high school has stagnated in math and reading and actually declined slightly in science since 1970. This chart also shows the cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system–the total cost per pupil of each graduating class from 1970 to the present. As you can see, on a per pupil basis, a K-12 education has gone from about $55,000 to about $150,000 in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

The implications of these charts are tragic: the public school monopoly is warehousing 3 million people in jobs that appear to have done nothing to improve student learning. Our K-12 government school system simply does not know how to harness the skills of our education workforce, and so is preventing these people from contributing to our economy while consuming massive quantities of tax dollars. So what would hiring even more people into that system do for our economy…

The Making and Breaking of Education Policy

Matt Ladner does a good job of explaining how his beliefs shape his education policy recommendations. It’s a quality that he shares with Horace Mann, who persuaded the people of Massachusetts to adopt a fully tax-funded state school system based on his own beliefs about how a just society should educate its children.

More than a century and a half later, we are still struggling to replace Mann’s unresponsive, divisive, ineffective, wasteful, and often cruel system with one that actually works. So, as we reflect on exactly what to replace Mann’s system with, we have to ask: how did he get it so very, very wrong, and how can we avoid the same fate?

I suggest that Mann’s great mistake was to base his policy recommendations on his belief system. To avoid sentencing future generations to a similarly dysfunctional education, we must base our conclusions on a broad and systematic analysis of the evidence. We should study school systems historically and internationally to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. We should make predictions about how different policies will unfold and then try to test those predictions empirically. We should observe how different policies play out across states rather than rushing to homogenize them before their effects can be compared.

At least that seems to me our greatest hope of avoiding Mann’s tragic mistake. And if the policy conclusions we reach do not happen to be the easiest to implement, we can take comfort in the fact that Mann succeeded in promoting a system that had no basis in reason or evidence despite strong and longstanding opposition. If a radical bad idea could triumph, why not a radical good one?

How to Make ‘Bless’ and ‘Love’ Fighting Words

I’m no theologian, but when a religious group asks God to bless something, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign they like it. So if some other folks show up and say they love that same thing, we’ve got a clear case of mutual agreement. They’re not going to fight over whether the thing in question needs a blessing or a loving—unless the setting is a public school.

Stall Brook Elementary School, outside Boston, recently told parents that they were editing the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” for an upcoming student assembly, and that their children would instead sing it as “We Love the U.S.A.” A furor ensued, and it wasn’t over the loss of assonance in the refrain. After a great sound and fury the school has relented and will allow, but not require, children to sing the words “God Bless.” Other children and parents, it seems, will be free to sing “We Love” if they prefer. So that will sound nice.

This captures, in small, a great problem with public schooling: compelled conformity. In every community in the country, there is only one public school district. It is the official education organ of the state. As such, it cannot engage in devotional religious activities under the First Amendment. More than that, it cannot possibly reflect the diverse values and preferences of every family. It just can’t. And that’s why we encounter these endless battles over the place of religion in the classroom and in plays, pageants, and ceremonies. It’s why the teaching of history and even of reading and math are fraught with conflicts over content or methodology. And it’s unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.

A truly free society needs a well-educated citizenry. It does not need a government monopoly on k-12 schooling. In fact, it needs to not have a government monopoly on schooling. Fortunately, there is a wonderful alternative to the monopoly status quo—a system that can ensure universal access to a quality education without forcing parents or taxpayers to violate their convictions. That alternative is education tax credit programs that cut taxes on families who pay for their own children’s education and on donations to nonprofits that subsidize tuition for the poor. These programs exist, they work, and they won’t make us fight over blessing or loving the U.S.A.