Tag: public schools

Why Is Bill Gates Writing Code for a Coleco Adam?

Bill Gates is addressing the Council of Chief State School Officers today. According to the NYT, he’ll tell them to bite the bullet and start making sound budgetary decisions like rewarding teachers based on merit instead of time served, and not handing out raises simply for the trappings of higher learning, but rather for demonstrated prowess in the classroom. In principle, that’s good advice.

But it’s an ultimately futile effort, and here’s why:

Bill established himself early on as a pretty sharp computer programmer, and no doubt he still is. But there’s only so much you can do when the hardware you’re writing for is a pile of junk. Public schooling is the Coleco Adam of education systems.

The Adam was a pretty cute looking machine for its time (1983), but it had some fundamental flaws. Among other things, turning the power on or off had a habit of sending out electromagnetic pulses that fried the data on its storage tapes. Oops. Now a good programmer might figure how to mitigate the damage caused by that problem (I dunno, treat the two tapes as a RAID 1 array, maybe?), but then the machine also had its power-supply located in the mandatory (and noisy, and slow) printer that came with it. So if the printer had to be serviced, you were left with a paperweight. Hard to fix that one in software.

It’s the same with public schooling. By its very design, it lacks the freedoms and incentives that relentlessly allow and pressure executives to make sound decisions in the free enterprise sector of the economy. Bill’s a sharp corporate executive as well as a sharp programmer. He’ll no doubt give the state superintendents of public instruction some reasonable advice. And ultimately it won’t matter.

If they make great decisions, these execs will at best get a pat on the back. If they make terrible ones, it likely won’t affect their compensation or careers much, because millions of families have little choice but to send their children to the official state-run schools. Given the state-run system’s monopoly on $13k / pupil of tax funding, it’s hard for most parents to pay for a better quality education for their kids.

This is a systemic problem. Without the necessary freedoms and incentives, good decisions made today will eventually be supplanted with worse ones in the future because public schooling has no built-in mechanism to consistently encourage the good over the bad.

Bill, it’s a hardware problem.

Why is Waiting for “Superman” Pushing Kryptonite?

You’ve probably heard it already, but if not, you should know that on Friday the documentary Waiting for “Superman” – from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim – will be opening in select theaters around the country. The film, about how hard it is to access good education in America thanks to adults putting their interests first, follows several children as they hope beyond hope to get into oversubscribed charter schools. It is said by those who’ve seen it to be a tear-jerker and call to arms to substantially reform American education.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t promote real, essential reform: Taking money away from special-interest dominated government schools and letting parents control it.

The movie does flirt – from what I know, that is, without having yet seen it – with school choice, lionizing charter schools. But let’s not forget that while many charter schools and their founders have tremendous vision and drive, charters are still public schools, and as such are easily smothered by politically potent special interests like teacher unions. Moreover, while charter schools are chosen, charter schooling still keeps money – and therefore power – out of the hands of parents. Together, these things  explain why there are so many heartbreaking charter lotteries to film: there is almost no ability or incentive to scale up good schooling models to meet all the desperate demand.  

But isn’t the goal for no child to have to wait for Superman? If so, then why not give parents the power to choose good schools (and leave bad ones) right now by instituting widespread school choice? Indeed, we’re quickly losing room in good institutions because parochial schools – which have to charge tuition to stay in business – simply can’t compete with “free” alternatives. If we were to let parents control education funds immediately, however, they could get their kids into those disappearing seats while the seats are  still around, and we would finally have the freedom and consumer-driven demand necessary to see good schools widely replicated.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly – to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination – than to centralize power in one place.

The people behind Waiting for “Superman” are no doubt well intentioned, and their film worth seeing. But pushing kryptonite is pushing kryptonite, and it has to be stopped.

Federal Government Is a Lucrative ‘Industry’

The Bureau of Economic Analysis latest release of industry compensation levels shows that the average federal worker ranks up at the top along with employees in the finance and energy industries. That’s not exactly popular company these days.

The BEA presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy. Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, which includes wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation. (The names of the industries have been simplified in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the sixth highest average compensation of the 72 industries:

As yesterday’s post showed, federal employee compensation has exploded over the course of the decade. Figure 2 shows that this federal employee compensation growth has been the fifth highest of the 72 industries measured by the BEA:

There’s More to Market Education than School Choice

Nick Gillespie drew attention yesterday to an op-ed Charles Murray wrote on school choice. Murray’s thesis was that the dominance of family environment and genetics in determining student achievement is such as to allow little room for schools to affect academic outcomes. That said, Murray goes on to argue for school choice anyway, on the grounds that families differ in their educational preferences, and the best way to match families to schools is to allow the former to choose the latter. This, he says, “should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.”

Certainly Murray’s point about the value of choice is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. First, there are other compelling non-academic arguments for school choice (e.g., they minimize social conflict by allowing families to get the sort of education they want for their own kids without imposing it on everybody elses, as happens of necessity when there is a single official government organ of education.) Second, there is very good reason to believe that true market education would lead to higher student achievement.

Murray cites the pathbreaking work of James Coleman, who revealed that home-related factors explain more of the observed variation in student achievement than does choice of school, to argue that schools can’t have much effect on achievement. This is a non sequitur. While Murray’s inference is consistent with Coleman’s evidence, it does not necessarily follow from it. It is possible that since 90 percent of U.S. students are enrolled in government monopoly schools, and since those schools operate on similar lines not just within states but between states, variation in schools’ contributions to student learning have been artificially curtailed.

Furthermore, even in a highly competitive and free education marketplace, variation in student achievement between schools wouldn’t necessarily be very large, since the very best schools would be emulated by many of their competitors, and the very worst schools would go out of business.

But, and this is the point that Murray did not address, the mean level of student achievement in the competitive marketplace could well be much higher than the mean level in our current monopoly system despite the fact that, within each of these systems, school-to-school variation might be low.

From our previous exchanges on this topic, it seems Murray is skeptical of that possibility–skeptical that markets could lead to a substantial increase in mean academic achievement above the mean we observe the existing school monopoly. I offered some counter-evidence in those earlier exchanges, but here’s another reason to expect a higher market mean: the abandonment of rigid age-based grading.

Age-based grading is arbitrary and pedagogically counterproductive. Market education systems, such as the Asian after-school tutoring industry, often group students based on their performance in each subject, promoting them to the next level of the curriculum as soon as they have mastered the current one. This allows students to progress at their own pace. Empirical studies have shown that performance based grouping helps students at all levels of performance to learn more quickly, and it would almost certainly contribute to a boost in the overall average even if nothing else changed.

But the existing research on performance based grouping fails, I think, to capture the full extent of the difference that it can make when allowed to operate unfettered. It is not at all uncommon to see kids who take an avid interest in some pursuit leap well ahead of the typical adult expectations of what they can achieve. Music is a good example, as are strategy games like chess and go (a.k.a. weiqi or baduk). There are 11 and 12 year olds who play these games well above the level that most adult players ever reach.

Furthermore, it does not seem that we can fully attribute the stellar achievement of these youngsters to stratospheric IQs. The research on chess and IQ is surprisingly sparse, but what there is does not point to a strong linear relationship between the two. My (admittedly incomplete) reading of it suggests that there might be an IQ floor below which high-level strategy game performance is unlikely, but that above this floor assiduous practice and access to high level players (and/or books on the game) seem more important. The latter are the kinds of things that performance based grouping allows across academic subjects. There’s no reason that kids with an affinity for math couldn’t be learning calculus in middle school or early high-school, for example.

So there is much more value in market education reform than simply letting families choose the flavor of curriculum they prefer.

Unfortunately, One Man’s “Paranoia” Is Everyone Else’s “Reality”

Finished with my woman
‘Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane
Because I am frowning all the time

- Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”

According to the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn, I and others like me are “paranoid.” So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I “frowning all the time?” Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that “common” curriculum standards won’t become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.

Finn’s rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he’s used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is “voluntary;” and note that we’ve got to do something to improve the schools.

Let’s go one by one:

First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn’s glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them – once the “accountability” part of “standards and accountability” is activated – they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system. 

This kind of objection, by the way, is called “thinking a few steps ahead,” not “paranoia.”

It’s also called “learning from history.” By Fordham’s own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers’ unions – the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members’ livelihoods come from the public schools – get them neutered. 

But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.

Next, let’s hit the the “voluntary” adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don’t have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is “voluntarily” give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not! 

So right now, if states don’t want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they’ll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.

Some voluntarism….

Finally, there’s the “we’ve got to do something to fix the schools” argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don’t work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.

The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work. 

Oh, right.  All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.

 

Why We Need Fewer Public School Jobs, Not More

That’s the topic of a commentary I just wrote at BigGovernment.com, tied to recent efforts to prop up public school employment with another $23 billion bailout. I won’t repeat the text of that post here, but thought the two charts bear repeating. The first shows that employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment over the past 40 years.

The second chart shows how the total cost of sending a single child through the public school system has changed over the years, along with trends in student achievement.