Tag: public schools

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.

This One Is of the Charts

Education professor Sherman Dorn imagines foul play and education policy maven Matthew Ladner is withholding judgment for the time being. Ladner recently made use of some of my charts of the public school productivity collapse, and Dorn has taken issue with one of them, depicted below [from my February 2011 testimony to the House Education and the Workforce Committee].

Actually, the earlier version of the chart Ladner used really did have some incorrect data in the first decade of the spending series [yes, even people who worked at Microsoft sometimes mess up cut and paste], but the corrected February 2011 version also shows the roughly tripling in cost to which Dorn objected, so he would presumably still hold to those objections. Here they are:

First, once I looked at Table 182 from the 2009 Digest of Educational Statistics, it became clear that the cost figure increases (supposedly the total cost of a K-12 education taken by multiplying per-pupil costs by 13) are false. If you look at the columns in the linked data (Table 182), the per-pupil costs when adjusted for inflation approximately double rather than triple as asserted in this figure. Second, there is no possible source for the approximate “0%” line from NAEP long-term trends data, unless there is an additional calculation unexplained by Coulson.

As described in its legend and title, this chart presents the “running 13-yr  (K-12) total spending per pupil” to arrive at the “cost of a k-12 public education” in constant, inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a running total, here’s Wikipedia’s explanation. So for a student graduating in 2009, the running total cost of k-12 education is the sum of average per-pupil spending in 2009 and the preceding 12 years. It is, put another way, the average cost of having sent a child through the public school system, from k through 12. Dorn’s notion that a running total can be calculated by simply multiplying a number by a constant is mistaken, and that seems to be the source of his confusion.

For the class of 2009, the running total adds up to a little over $151,000, which is the final data point making up the blue spending line above. The rest of that line is made up of the corresponding running totals for the preceding years—each one the sum of spending for that year and its preceding 12 years (interpolating missing year data, as noted in the legend).

As for the academic achievement data series, the chart indicates that they represent the “percent change in the performance of 17-year-olds” on the “NAEP Long Term Trends” tests. I’m not sure what difficulty Dorn has with this, since calculating the percent change from an old value to a new one is straightforward. For example, the Long Term Trends NAEP reading score for 17-year-olds in 2008 was 286, and the corresponding score in the first year tested was 285. So the percent change to year 2008 = (286 - 285) / 285 = 0.0035 = 0.35 percent. That is the last data point in the green series in the chart above.

If he’d bothered to ask, I would have been just as happy to explain this to Dorn privately as I am to do so publicly.

Girl Likens Public School Failure to Ban on Teaching Slaves to Read

A 13-year-old black girl from Rochester likens the pedagogical malfeasance of her public school to the deliberate prohibition against teaching slaves to read–as recounted by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. And she is hounded out of the school.

We can do better than this. We need a free marketplace in education with financial assistance to ensure universal access. Scholarship donation and personal use education tax credits can do that.

School Choice Lowers Crime

New research by Harvard professor David J. Deming studied the crime rates of young adults who participated in a random lottery at the middle or high school level. The lotteries decided whether students were able to attend a school of their choice or whether they were forced to attend their assigned public school. Students who won the lottery committed significantly fewer crimes as young adults than those who lost it. So here is another in the long list of educational outcomes improved by market freedoms and incentives.

Send this to a friend who is still on the fence about the merits of educational freedom.

The Irony of the President’s STEM Initiatives

The media tide of the past two days has carried in a great flood of stories on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. ABC, NBC, AP, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, Politico, the Detroit News, and others joined in. This torrent of attention is due to a White House science fair at which the president announced several initiatives to boost student achievement in those fields. Details are scant, but based on the administration’s press release it seems that $100 million or so would go to encourage particular kinds of teacher’s college programs. Various extracurricular STEM programs funded by non-profit foundations were also touted in the release.

The obvious irony in the president’s plan to tweak teachers’ college programs is that those programs are themselves a key part of the problem. The nation’s state school monopolies typically require most or all of their teachers to either have a degree from a government-approved college of education or to be pursuing such a degree during evenings and weekends. Few of those studying or working in STEM fields are willing to sit through a teachers’ college program—with good reason. Not only are these programs often pointless according to their own graduates, they are not associated with improved student performance. They are a requirement without a function–at least without a function that benefits students. The one thing they do accomplish is to erect a barrier to entry that protects incumbent teachers from competition, allows the specter of “teacher shortages” to be floated at regular intervals, and thus to justify above market wages [state school teachers receive compensation that is roughly $17,000 per year higher than their private sector counterparts].

As a result, many of the most promising teaching candidates in these fields are weeded out from the start. President Obama’s plans to “improve” this barrier to entry into the profession amounts to reupholstering the deck chairs on the sunken Titanic.

But how to ensure that only effective teachers lead the nation’s classrooms given that the government certification process is not just useless but counterproductive? Here, again, there is irony. Somehow, in the thousands of different fields in which scientists and engineers work every day, the competent are distinguished from the incompetent. And somehow, those who underperform are either helped to improve or cut loose to seek work in a field (or with an employer) to which their talents are better suited. It is ludicrous to suggest that managers can effectively evaluate the work of the scientists and engineers they employ in every field _except_ education.

The media would do us all a favor if they would look past the Obama administration’s marshmallow launcher for a moment and contemplate the effect that our massive barrier to entry into the teaching profession has on recruiting scientists and engineers.