Tag: rick hess

One out of Four Ain’t Bad?

Last week I was critical of a New York Times op-ed by AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda-Darling Hammond. Yesterday, Hess graciously replied to my critiques, basically saying that it would be good if we could get the feds out of education, but since that’s highly unlikely, lets see how Washington can help.

That’s a modest and sensible stance, and I don’t think Hess is “endorsing big government.” (At least relative to most edu-analysts—admittedly a lopsided scale.)  But even if you accept that few in Washington are willing to boot themselves out of schools—and few are—it’s still critical to explore whether or not the things you’d have them do would be of net benefit.

Like last time, we’ll take the four proposals in order, this time based on Hess’s rebuttal. But first, one pet peeve:

Hess writes that he’d be happy to end “two centuries” of federal education meddling, noting that it all started with “the Continental Congress’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787.” I don’t know if this was his intent, but that factoid is usually invoked to suggest that even the Founders believed the federal government should advance education. This is not an impression that should be given: the Constitution is very clear in ceding Washington no authority to govern education outside of federal lands and civil rights enforcement. That the states have jurisdiction over education was, in fact, explicitly acknowledged as recently as the 1940s by a commission overseen by none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, while there was some federal education activity largely during and after the Civil War, it was not until the 1960s that Washington got heavily involved.

On to the four points:

First, when it comes to transparency, states have a collective action problem. There is both the problem of providing parents, taxpayers, and voters with meaningful transparency and the fact that state officials in each state have an incentive to manipulate performance results to their own advantage. More standards accounting and linking results to NAEP is a case of the feds providing a public good that only Washington is equipped to provide.

It’s true that state officials have a big incentive to manipulate performance results so that they stay out of trouble with voters and, especially, the teachers, administrators, and others who would be held accountable. The problem is that once you connect real consequences to NAEP—currently there are none—it will become a target for manipulation just like state tests and standards. Don’t attach consequences, however—including having no consequences attached to the state tests you’d audit with NAEP—and there’s no real impetus for schools to change. At best, then, this is a very limp proposal, and that’s before you get into big questions about whether the public really knows what NAEP assesses, whether one set of tests is a useful measure of education, and others I’ll save for another day.

Second, when it comes to basic research, the market tends to underprovide. Basic research is a public good…and is tough to monetize. The result is that, while the private sector is terrific at funding applied research, it tends to invest little in basic research.

As I mentioned last time, I hear this a lot but rarely see meaningful evidence to support it. And by “meaningful” I mean research looking at both the successes of government-funded basic research and the costs. Is it a net gain? Does the private sector steer clear of much of it because it’s an unjustifiable risk? Does it steer clear because government enables end users to rent-seek? There might be such research, but I’ve not seen it cited by those who assert that government must fund basic research. And then there’s the research I have seen that shows much of the funding translates not into innovation, but higher researcher salaries.

Third, even hard-charging state officials get tangled in decades of entrenched rules, regulations, and practices. The feds can help untangle this status quo by supporting officials seeking to throw off anachronistic routines but who must find ways to persuade skeptical constituents or union leaders to go along.

This if great if the goal is to clear out federal regulations, but state and local? There’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing Washington to manipulate state and local education systems, and perhaps more importantly: Why should anyone think it will work? The overwhelming, long-term track record for Washington is to add efficiency killing rules and regulations, and do the bidding of teachers unions and other school employees. Plus, why should we assume that the feds are able to pick the right routines to throw off or add on?

Finally, the federal government is obliged to ensure that constitutional guarantees of equal protection are observed. That said, this will ideally be pursued far less prescriptively than is the case today.

Here we agree, if Hess means Washington must stop clear state discrimination. And I guess one out of four ain’t bad.

Four More Things Washington Shouldn’t Do

Today AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond—two folks who don’t always see eye to eye—have a New York Times op-ed that decries federal micromanagement in education, then lays out four things they think Washington should do.

If only they’d stopped at lamenting micromanagement.

Let’s take their four should-do’s in order:

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually….To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending…

This sounds great, but the key is in the doing, and there is precious little evidence Washington can force real transparency. NCLB is exhibit A: Yes, the law required states to break out data for all students and numerous subgroups, but the underlying information was essentially a lie, with states setting very low performance thresholds and calling it “proficiency.” And despite what many NCLB supporters will tell you, when you break down NAEP data—as I have done—there is little support for the notion that traditionally underperforming groups, or anyone else, have done better with NCLB than without it.

How about requiring common standards, both for academics and spending?

Even if you started with excellent, challenging academic standards, they would quickly be gutted at the behest of teacher unions, administrator associations, and probably even parents if many kids and schools didn’t meet them and were punished as a result. We’ve seen it many times, and there’s nothing about being federal that inoculates government against concentrated benefits and diffuse costs; the people most directly effected by a policy having the greatest political power over it. And financial data? As Adam Schaeffer has found, there are countless ways to hide the truth about district finances, and there’s little reason to believe that Washington will be either willing or able to sustainably force clarity.

One last thing: Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to demand “transparency”? Nowhere.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected.  No Child Left Behind required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations…were doing.  Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979.

Here there’s a slight connection to the Constitution: under the Fourteenth Amendment Washington has the duty to ensure that states and districts do not discriminate. But the presumption underlying what Darling-Hammond and Hess argue—that test data can reveal discrimination—is dubious. Can and should disparities in group scores really be laid exclusively at the feet of schools, districts, and states? Aren’t myriad factors involved in academic outcomes, many of which are outside the control of government?

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions. When it comes to brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring, federal financing for reliable research is essential.

We hear this one a lot, and in theory it makes some sense: people won’t risk their money on research that has no discernable payoff. The problem is few people ever contemplate the full cost of government funding “basic” research, or the unintended consequences.

The main concern is that putting money into things with no discernable payoff might yield just that—no payoff. So we hear about successes—government got us to the moon!—but rarely about how much has been lost in failed efforts. People don’t shy away from funding basic research just because they’re shortsighted. It’s also because they factor in risk.

Then there’s this: while we would like to think that all scientists are superhumanly selfless, they are not. They are as self-interested as the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why Austan Goolsbee—yes, Obama administration Austan Goolsbee—found in 1998 that much government R&D funding translated not into more breakthroughs, but higher wages for researchers.

What about the presumption that private markets wouldn’t put money into “brain science” or new tutoring techniques? Highly dubious. Education companies would have strong incentives to invest in research that could make them more efficient and effective because that would increase their profit margins.  The problem is, it is almost impossible to run for-profit schools in the United States, which can’t meaningfully compete against “free” government schools. In Chile, however, we see burgeoning evidence that profit can lead to greater scale—which is crucial for research—and better outcomes.

Of course, there’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing the feds to finance research.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.

Again, sounds good, but as Hess and Darling-Hammond themselves admit:

The Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.

It’s easy to say that Washington should enable district and union leaders to ignore political concerns, but federal policy is as much government policy as state and local, and government at all levels is a creature of politics. Government and politics cannot be separated, and to expect one governmental level to be above politics while the others are below it is, to say the least, extremely optimistic. And again, there’s no constitutional authority to issue education grants.

Darling-Hammond and Hess are right that Washington has meddled far too much in education. They are on thin ice in asserting that different meddling will work much better.

Does Scholar Self-Interest Corrupt Policy Research?

The New York Times recently ran a story portraying the Gates Foundation as the puppeteer of American education policy, bribing or bullying scholars and politicians into dancing as it desires. Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, feels that the story misrepresented his position on the potentially corrupting influence of foundations, making it sound as though he were referring to the Gates Foundation in particular when in fact he was referring to the impact of foundations generally.

Hess told the Times, among other things, that

As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct. There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation. We’re all implicated.

Next Monday, the Cato Institute will publish a study titled: “The Other Lottery: Are Philanthropists Backing the Best Charter Schools?” In it, I empirically answer the titular question by comparing the academic performance of California’s charter school networks to the level of grant funding they have received from donors over the past decade. The results tell us how much we should rely on the pairing of philanthropy and charter schools to identify and replicate the best educational models. Considerable care went into the data collection and regression model. As for the description of the findings, it’s as simple and precise as I could make it. I doubt it will be hailed as exquisite.

Schools on Film

AEI’s Rick Hess worries that school choice advocates are moving into the public messaging arena with “brazenly manipulative” flicks that rely on shallow “sound bites.” He cites the screening of five documentaries at an upcoming national conference in San Franscisco to argue his point.

I can’t comment on them as a whole–I haven’t seen them all–but I would like to point out that there will actually be at least eight screenings at next month’s conference. Among them will be a brief sample of a proposed six-part documentary series called School, Inc.  Taking Educational Excellence from Candle to Flame. This series, inspired by James Burke’s Connections and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, would take viewers on a world-wide quest to answer one very important question: why is excellence routinely replicated and spread on a massive scale in every field except education?

The series hasn’t been shot yet, and perhaps distributors today won’t think viewers are still interested in the kind of challenging, thought-provoking documentary series that so captivated me (and millions of others) in my teen years. But the project’s advisory board includes Jay Mathews, Paul PetersonJames Tooley, and Michael Horn, my co-producers and co-writers (Patrick Prentice and Tim Baney) have more than half-a-century of documentary filmmaking experience between them, and I’ve been studying school systems around the globe and across history for the better part of two decades. We’re confident that this series will be both substantive and entertaining, and think that American (and foreign) audiences are very interested in the subject matter. As we start to pitch to distributors in the coming months, we’ll find out if they agree.

Stay tuned….

Georgia on My Mind

Rick Hess has written recently about education policy in the republic of Georgia, describing it as “guaranteed to bring smiles to my friends at the Cato Institute.” Hess characterizes it as a “market-driven system,” and “a seemingly elegant market design,” that has been undermined by a lack of autonomy for schools, “incoherent governance,” and “the reluctance of state officials to keep their hands off the schools.”

Can’t say that this description has me cracking open the bubbly. To the problems Hess has already identified, we could add the fact that there is a national curriculum that even the nation’s voucherized schools must apparently use as the basis for their plan of instruction. The secondary system is also compromised by a central government test suite that determines admission to the nation’s universities. These tests, apparently having little to do with the national curriculum, have led to mass absenteeism among 11th and 12th graders – who cut most of their classes to study for them. The state also seems to require students to take 12 years of schooling before being eligible to enter college, even if they could (and wish to) pass the admissions test earlier.

We could also add to this the fact that a shadowy government agency can and does fire principles from supposedly autonomous voucher-funded schools. Even if it randomly selected the schools to be inspected and applied academic criteria in its decisions, such an agency would not be part of any “elegant market design.” As it happens, though, it does not use academic criteria in deciding whom to fire. According to a Georgian report Hess refers to, a principal could be fired for having playground trees that “are not balanced properly.” [So now we know what Adrian Monk is doing after his show wrapped….]

Georgia, it seems to me, has not yet taken a genuinely laissez-faire approach to education, but I wish them well and hope that they will eventually manage to ensure that all families have access to an unfettered education marketplace.

NB: Ray Charles’ interpretations of “Georgia on My Mind” are wonderful, but consider giving one of Jay McShann’s a listen if you’re into that sort of thing.