Tag: public schools

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.

We Can No Longer Afford an Education Monopoly

In an IBD op-ed today, I point out that we’re spending twice as much per pupil as we did in 1970, despite no improvement in achievement at the end of high school and a decline in the graduation rate over that same period.

What difference does that make? If public schools had just managed not to get any less efficient over the past 40 years, we’d be saving $300 billion annually.

Our education monopoly is a luxury we can no longer afford. When the economy was booming, it didn’t matter that it cost us more and more every year for the same or even inferior results. These days, it’s becoming imperative that we find ways for our education system to enjoy the same relentless increases in efficiency that we take for granted in every other field.

This, for instance, would be a good start.

Economic urgency isn’t the only good reason to bring education back within the free enterprise system, but when the school monopoly starts bringing entire states to their financial knees, it’s certainly one we should take seriously.

Duncan’s Donut: The Ed. Sec.’s Impact on Chicago Student Achievement Was Near Zero

For seven months, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the media have bombarded us with tales of how Duncan dramatically boosted student achievement as leader of Chicago Public Schools. Based on two new independent analyses, Duncan’s real impact appears to have been near zero. 

The usual evidence presented for Duncan’s success is the rise in the pass rate of elementary and middle school students on Illinois’ own ISAT test. But state tests like the ISAT are notoriously unreliable (they tend to be corrupted by teaching to the test and subject to periodic ”realignments” in which the passing grade is lowered or the test content is eased). In January, the Schools Matter blog argued that exactly such a realignment had occurred in 2006.

So to get a reliable measure of Duncan’s impact, I pulled up the 4th and 8th grade math and reading scores for Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – a test that is much less susceptible to massaging by states and districts.  I then compared the score changes in Chicago to those for all students in Large Central Cities around the nation, and tested if the small differences between them were statistically significant. Not one of them is even remotely significant at even the loosest accepted measure of significance (the p < 0.1 level). Chicago students did no better than those in similar districts around the nation between 2002/2003 and 2007, a period covering virtually all of Duncan’s tenure in Chicago.

As I was finishing up this statistical analysis a few minutes ago, I came across a new report by the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago. According to the Civic Committee report, the elementary and middle-school ISAT gains touted by Duncan and the media appear to be almost entirely illusory: artifacts of the 2006 realignment. Chicago high school students, who take a different test that was not realigned, perform no better today than they did in 2001 – so whatever real gains did occur in the early grades evaporated by the end of high school.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune a few days ago, columnist Greg Burns touted Duncan’s supposed success as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and noted that Duncan had good prospects for winning the support of business leaders nationally, as he did in Chicago. But Chicago’s Commercial Club has now concluded that Duncan failed to accomplish what he has claimed, and given that the NAEP scores echo their findings, the education secretary may soon find national business leaders more skeptical as well.

Finally, an Education Muckraker!

I’ve often complained on this blog that there are no education muckrakers – no reporters who will actually go out and investigate the misleading claims so often fed to them by politicians and public school officials. Well, it turns out there’s at least one, and his name is Ron Matus.

After being told countless times that public schools in Florida spend just $7,000 per pupil annually, Matus decided to do what no other ed reporter in the state (so far as I know) has done: check it. In a blog post today, he explains where the $7,000 number comes from, he points out that the actual total is $12,000 per pupil, and he lets readers decide which number is more relevant to them. Way to go, Mr. Matus!

I particularly enjoyed this line: “[Department of Education] officials say it’s fair to roll federal money into a per-pupil spending figure – that money does go to operational costs - but not capital outlay and debt service.”

Apparently schools don’t need buildings anymore! Wonderful news! Now that Floridians no longer have to pay for construction and renovation costs, they’ll save $6 billion a year. That is, they’ll start saving it as soon as the Department of Education gives it back to them. What’s that? They don’t want to give it back even though they say it doesn’t count? Gee. I guess it does count then, doesn’t it?

This public school emperor isn’t just naked, he’s mincing about flamboyantly and daring on-lookers to call him sartorially challenged. Well we dare, pal, we dare. If you want buildings to house all those students, and you want the billions to pay for them, then the St. Pertersburg Times, at least, is going to start counting it.

If there are any other reporters out there who have similarly tracked down the real total per pupil spending numbers, let me know and I’ll cite your work here. Or, if you’d like to try it but don’t know where to start, acoulson [at] cato.org (subject: Real Education Numbers) (drop me an e-mail.)

A Tree Grows in Washington

The front-page of the Washington Post’s latest Outlook section features a review of James Tooley’s wonderful book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. From the review:

The officials Tooley encountered in his travels often denied the existence (much less the superiority) of private schools for low-income children. “There are no private schools for the poor,” a bureaucrat in China’s Gansu province told Tooley, “because the People’s Republic has provided all the poor with public schools. So what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility.”

Undeterred, Tooley spent years surveying private schools across the developing world. He found that, on average, they had smaller class sizes, higher test scores and more motivated teachers, all while spending less than public schools…. Tooley blasts development experts for recognizing the problems with public education and still insisting that more investment in public schools is the way to go. “Why wasn’t anyone else thinking that private schools might be part of a quicker, easier, more effective solution?” he asks.

… Tooley, meanwhile, with a Rough Guide in one pocket and an endless supply of exclamation points in the other, drowns readers in local color, detailing every “bright-eyed” school child and every “thin drifting smog” above a shantytown.

Still, Tooley’s passion comes off as genuine.

The Price of Ignorance

We here at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom spend a lot of time just trying to help people get their facts straight. You know, providing information that clearly shows that government schools are not the foundation of American democracy, or itemizing programs to show that school choice is not a political failure. That sort of thing.

Well, a new study in the journal Education Next demonstrates why just getting people solid information is so important: When the public has just a few basic facts about such things as public school expenditures or teacher salaries, support for heaping more dough on our sinkhole public schools takes a pretty big dip.

On spending, investigators William G. Howell and Martin R. West found that people provided with actual per-pupil expenditure data for their districts were significantly less likely to support increased spending, or to think that increased spending would improve student learning, than were respondents not given such data. Only 51 percent of respondents informed about actual outlays thought spending should be increased, versus 61 percent of uninformed respondents, and only 55 percent of informed respondents were confident that more spending would improve student learning (versus 60 percent of uninformed). Those levels are still way too high in light of the at-best very weak correlation between spending and achievement, but they do show that when people have good data to go on they tend to approach spending more rationally.

How about teacher salaries? Unfortunately, Howell and West didn’t inform respondents about teacher pay using hourly earnings, which in light of the relatively small number of hours teachers work is the fairest way to judge how well they are paid. The effect of knowing even annual salaries, however, is telling: While 69 percent of uninformed respondents supported increasing educator salaries, only 55 percent of informed people thought teacher salaries should be bolstered.

So when it comes to American education, it seems a little knowledge, far from being a dangerous thing, can be a pretty big step in the right direction.

The Black Divide on School Choice

I’ve been reading the debate between our own Andrew Coulson and Rev. Joseph Darby with interest, not least because it is an extreme rarity to find an opponent of school choice with the courage and good faith to engage in such a public debate on the topic.

That said, something Rev. Darby wrote in his response caught my attention because of its parallels with the modern fight over school choice:

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Too little is said about an uncomfortable contemporary truth: the irony is that the opponents of school choice across this country include affluent African-Americans who see good private schools as a threat to their public schools, their livelihoods, and their political and economic power.

There is a class divide in the African American community. If you take a look at the economics of urban areas, you will find that schools provide a large percentage of good middle and upper-middle class jobs for African Americans. If you look at the polling data, it is low-income blacks who are most supportive of school choice. And yet black elected officials are overwhelmingly opposed to choice.

And if you look at the black leadership class that runs our cities and failing public schools, you will find that many send their children to schools other than those in which they teach or those in the city they lead. I hold up as the most prominent example our first black president, Barrack Obama, who opposes private school choice policies and yet has always sent his own children to private schools.

Rev. Darby suggests, “a mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students.” If this is indeed true then the greatest damage has already been done to public schools by the likes of President Obama and other parents with the means to choose private schools for their children.

Why do Rev. Darby and other government school advocates not excoriate President Obama and other school choice opponents who patronize private education? Why are Rev. Darby and others not working assiduously to ban private schools altogether?

Why, in the final analysis, does Rev. Darby’s logic hold for the poor but not for the wealthy?

Below the fold I have more on these claims.

The self-interest-driven divisions among urban African Americans are real and serious. Much of the following comes from a great paper written by Patrick McGuinn, professor of political science at Drew University.

Marion Orr, in “The Challenge of Reform in Baltimore,” notes that “because a significant proportion of the school system’s employment base is African-American workers, the interplay between race and jobs hinders reform efforts. The school bureaucracy is an employment regime for blacks …”

Similarly, Jeffrey Henig recognizes in “The Color of School Reform,” that “there is a kind of ‘holy communion’ between prominent black clergy and the members of their churches whose livelihood is schooling and for whom the school system is a source of wages, professional development, and economic advancement.”

Paul Hill and Mary Beth Celio note in Fixing Urban Schools, “the public school systems have become the principal employers of African-American and immigrant middle class professionals in big cities.” And Julian Bond, as chairman of the NAACP, admitted that “the black teacher class is solidly entrenched in the African-American community and that teacher unions occupy an important political position in the black community.”

So it should come as no surprise to find that Terry Moe finds in his survey work that 79% of the inner city poor support vouchers. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on African American issues, found that black leaders are wildly out of step with their constituency on this issue, with Black elected officials 70 percent opposed to vouchers while “in the black population, there was what can accurately be described as overwhelming support for vouchers (approximately 70 percent) in the three youngest age cohorts” under age 50.

It’s far past time we recognize that black public opinion and interests are not monolithic.