Tag: school choice

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.

Cato’s Amicus Brief Helps School Choice Get to the Court; Congrats, IJ!

As Andrew Coulson noted, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, the education tax credit case whose cert petition Cato supported with an amicus brief.  So we didn’t get the summary reversal we optimistically hoped for but I’m confident that this means only that the Ninth Circuit’s reversal will have to wait 8-10 months.  Congratulations to Tim Keller, Dick Komer, and our friends at the Institute for Justice, which successfully litigated the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case that is the pro-school choice precedent the Ninth Circuit so blithely ignored here. 

I should note that ours was one of only three amicus briefs filed in this case, and studies have shown that the first few such briefs increase chances of Supreme Court review significantly (having more than about three seems to be redundant).  Which isn’t to say that we take credit for the successful strategy that IJ and its co-counsel are pursuing – indeed, as is good appellate practice, we coordinated with IJ so our brief would offer the Court some arguments and nuance for which the parties’ briefs didn’t have space – but it is gratifying to see the Court impliedly see the validity of our position.  We will of course be filing again at the merits stage, which briefs won’t be due for a few months.  The Court will likely hear the case in late fall, so we should expect a final decision in winter 2011.

For all the filings in the case, see its SCOTUSwiki page or its Supreme Court docket page.  I blogged about the case here and here and George Will wrote about it last week.  Andrew also blogged the original Ninth Circuit decision here.

Supreme Court Will Hear Appeal of School Choice Case

The SCOTUS Blog reports this morning that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the Arizona k-12 scholarship tax credit case. This is great news, and paves the way for the Court to ultimately overturn the 9th Circuit’s credulity-straining legal misadventure.

For the details, see the Cato brief in this case, which was joined by the American Federation for Children and Foundation for Educational Choice.

Supreme Court Should Call Out Ninth Circuit in Education Case

Friend-of-Cato and 2010 Milton Friedman Prize Dinner keynote speaker George Will published an excellent column today about a case under review at the Supreme Court, Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn:

The case concerns an Arizona school choice program that has been serving low- and middle-income families for 13 years. The state grants a tax credit to individuals who donate to nonprofit entities that award scholarships for children to attend private schools – including religious schools. Yes, here we go again.

The question – if a question that has been redundantly answered remains a real question – is whether this violates the First Amendment proscription of any measure amounting to government “establishment of religion.” The incorrigible 9th Circuit has declared Arizona’s program unconstitutional, even though there is no government involvement in any parent’s decision to use a scholarship at a religious school.

If this case hadn’t originated in a state within the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, nobody would have heard about it because any other federal appellate court would probably have decided it correctly. Will correctly and convincingly argues for summary reversal – as our friends at the Institute for Justice, who represent the petitioners, request – because the Ninth Circuit’s decision ignores clear Supreme Court precedent allowing parents to choose how to direct state funds for their children’s education (to a sectarian school or otherwise):

So, [Chief Justice William] Rehnquist wrote [in 2002], public money “reaches religious schools only as a result of the genuine and independent choices of private individuals.” Therefore any “advancement of a religious mission” is merely “incidental” and confers “no imprimatur of state approval … on any particular religion, or on religion generally.” These standards had been developed in various prior cases.  

Cato filed a brief in this case that I previously blogged about.  And you can listen to Will’s Friedman Dinner address here.  (Unrelatedly, if you still haven’t read his masterful Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball – which has sold many more copies than any of his political books – pick up the re-issued twentieth anniversary edition.)

A School Choice Movie and a Discussion? What a Deal!

Friday nights are movie nights, but aren’t you tired of just watching movies without getting to discuss them with everyone else in the theater? And aren’t you sick of seeing movies that aren’t about dysfunctional public schooling?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, and if you are going to be in Washington, DC, the evening of Friday, April 30, then have I got a deal for you:

Come to the E Street Cinema at 7:15 Friday night and not only will you be able to catch The Cartel, a searing documentary about what ails American education, but afterward you’ll be able to participate in a discussion about the film hosted by yours truly and the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke!

Fantastic!

So take your movie night to a whole new level, and join us for The Cartel this Friday evening!

Failures in Ed. Policy Analysis—Misunderstanding Milwaukee

To the extent education policy commentary actually affects policy, it has the potential to do great good or great harm. Several recent commentaries in this field fall into the latter camp, and it’s important to understand why – so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.

The one I’ll discuss here is this blog post by Matthew Yglesias, in which he draws broad conclusions about the functioning of education markets from a recent study of a tiny school choice program in Milwaukee as well as from some older unspecified research [for the latter, Yglesias linked here, but the body of that page doesn’t discuss school choice]. The Milwaukee study is part of a vast literature. Over the past quarter century at least sixty-five studies have compared outcomes in public and private schools around the world, reporting 156 separate statistical findings.

The evidence of this literature is starkly one-sided. The vast preponderance of findings show private schools outperforming public schools after all the normal controls. What’s more, when we focus on the research comparing truly market-like systems to state-run school monopolies, the market advantage is found to be even more dramatic (see Figure 2 in the paper linked above). To draw policy opinions from a small, selective handful of those studies while ignoring the rest is policy malpractice, and it is dangerous to children.

Even the recent Milwaukee result described by Yglesias as a failure shows voucher students in private schools performing as well as public school students who receive roughly 50% more government funding. How is a program that produces similar academic results to the status quo at a much lower cost to taxpayers a failure? And what of the research suggesting that students in the Milwaukee voucher program graduate at higher rates than those in public schools?

More importantly from a long term policy perspective, how is a program limited to 20,000 or so children in a single city, being served almost entirely by non-profit entities, a test of market education? Would Apple have spent hundreds of millions developing the iPhone or the iPad if its market were limited to the same customer base? Of course not. The dynamism, diversity and innovation we have come to expect from competitive markets in other fields relies on the prospect of ultimately scaling up to serve mass audiences. Without the prospect of a large-scale return on investment, there is no incentive to invest in the first place.

More Ravitch Ridiculousness

Great post by Chris Edwards responding to historian Diane Ravitch’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post. For a good ripping apart of Ravitch’s reality-free thinking from an education-policy standpoint, check out my review of her new book over at School Reform News.

Oh, and let’s please get something straight: Ravitch has never been the one-time “strong supporter” of school choice she claims to have been. Sadly, this claim seems designed mainly to make it appear that she’s had some sort of serious “come (back) to public schools” moment. But as she writes in her new book, she had never really given much thought to choice until she joined the George H.W. Bush administration in 1991, and then she just tried to cram it into her “worldview.”

“The issue of choice had never really been important to me,” she writes, “but I found myself trying to incorporate the arguments for choice into my own worldview.”

Does this sound either like a strong supporter of choice, or someone who had really thought choice through and understood why and how it would work? Nope, and that comes right through in her simplistic conclusion that because really limited choice like charter schools and tiny voucher programs don’t make huge differences, all choice should be abandoned.