Tag: school choice

‘Back to the Future,’ or: ‘The Math of Khan’

Oklahoma has just enacted a law that requires students to be held back a year if they are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. The inspiration is sound: poor readers cannot keep up with their classmates as the curriculum becomes more sophisticated and relies more heavily on reading comprehension across subjects. But this particular approach doesn’t begin to tackle the larger problem of age-based grading itself. Kids are not all identical widgets who learn every subject at the same rate. Individual children even learn different subjects at different rates. So the idea that all children should be grouped by age and, by default, moved through every subject at the same pace is ludicrous on its face.

More than that, it is a retrogression from the pedagogy of the early 1800s. In an early 19th century one-room schoolhouse, children of different ages and aptitudes progressed through the material at their own paces. It wasn’t unusual for an 11 year old girl to be on McGuffey’s or Elson’s 4th Reader while her older brother was still on the 3rd. It wasn’t unusual, and it wasn’t a problem. Age-based grading is a problem. Fortunately, technology will dump it on the scrapheap of history within a generation, as services like Khan Academy and software like Dreambox allow children to progress at their own rate through the material.

We can’t get back to the future soon enough.

The Sodom and Gomorrah of Public Schooling?

I was tied up when the massive Atlanta School District cheating scandal broke last month, and so didn’t get around to blogging it. [Recap: nearly 200 teachers and principals in half of the district’s 100 schools were involved]. But, with other large-scale cheating investigations still on-going, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked about the problem yesterday during a video-taped “Twitter town hall” (minute 12:00). Specifically, he was asked if the high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB are to blame (minute 16:50). Though Duncan made an off-hand comment that high-stakes NCLB-required tests may have contributed to the pressure that lead to the cheating, he repeatedly blamed the cheating on a uniquely “morally bankrupt culture” in Atlanta’s public schools. That didn’t convince interviewer John Merrow, who cited several other cities where cheating investigations are underway—nor should it convince you.

The problem is not that Atlanta is the Sodom and Gomorrah of public schooling. The problem is that state schooling separates payment from consumption. The accountability mechanism of competitive markets—the only such mechanism that actually works—requires the payer to also be the consumer, because the central incentive for any service provider is to please the payer. So if the consumer isn’t paying, he or she is rendered relatively unimportant in the eyes of the provider. Atlanta parents want their children to be well educated, but a lot of work is required to meet that goal. State and federal bureaucrats just want high scores on NCLB-mandated tests—that’s much easier to achieve by cheating than by doing an excellent job teaching. So there is an incentive for school officials to cheat because they are paid by the bureaucrats, not by the parents. Not every teacher succumbs to this incentive, of course, but the incentive is very clearly putting pressure in the wrong direction.

Now consider the incentive structure of schools paid directly by parents in tuition. The incentive in that scenario is to give parents what they want, which is usually a high quality education for their children. Certainly schools could try to lie to parents about how well their children are doing, but this is much harder than lying to bureaucrats. A great many parents will notice a discrepancy if their illiterate children are awarded A’s. And parents considering a school will notice a discrepancy if the “A”-graded graduates of that school somehow cannot gain admission to, or often drop out of, the next higher level of education. Word of mouth—and now word-of-social-networking-apps—is a powerful thing. So it’s much harder for parent-funded schools to get away with cheating, even if they were predisposed to use that strategy.

This is why no system of education that relies exclusively on third-party payment will ever match the quality and progress that we have come to expect in every other field. Indeed, it argues for finding ways of ensuring universal access to education that rely, as much as possible, on direct payment of tuition by parents. Of all the currently viable education policies, the one that fits that description best is the education tax credit—particularly direct credits for families’ own education expenses. And, among third-party payment methods, scholarship tax credits also have advantages over the alternatives.

This is a reality many folks will not want to hear or accept, but reality is not optional.

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Here’s Where Better Schools HAVE Scaled Up…

Earlier this summer, I released a study comparing the performance of California’s charter school networks with the amount of philanthropic grant funding they have received. The purpose was to find out if this model for replicating excellence was consistently effective. The answer, regrettably, was no.

But a new study we are releasing today finds that there is at least one place where better schools HAVE consistently scaled-up: Chile. Thanks to that nation’s public and private school choice program, chains of private schools have arisen, and they not only outperform the public schools, they also outperform the independent “mom-and-pop” private schools.

For anyone interested in replicating educational excellence, this study by a team of Chilean scholars is worth a look.

Colorado Court Halts School Voucher Program

Last Friday, a Colorado District Court halted the new and unique Douglas County school voucher program with a permanent injunction. School choice legislation is a little like the Field of Dreams: pass it, and they will sue–and we all know who “they” are. So there’s a tendency to dismiss legal setbacks for the choice movement as purely the result of self-serving monopolists exploiting bad laws or partisan, activist judges. There are certainly cases that fall into that category, but this Colorado ruling isn’t one of them.

Oh, the self-serving monopolists and opponents of educational freedom are no doubt cheering it, but the ruling does not read like the work of a rube or an ideologue, and not all of the state constitutional provisions on which it was based can be dismissed as outdated examples of religious bigotry. The state’s “compelled support” clause, in particular, seems to uphold a fundamentally American idea: that it is wrong to coerce people to pay for the propagation of ideas that they disbelieve. Thomas Jefferson, in his Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, called this: “tyranny.”

Obviously, conventional public schools have been a source of such coercion for a very long time–everyone has to pay for the public schools, despite profound objections they may have to the way those schools teach history, literature, government, biology, or sex education. That’s why we’ve had “school wars” as long as we’ve had government schools. And obviously vouchers offer the advantage of giving parents a much wider range of educational options for their children than do the one-size-fits few public schools. But despite this advantage, vouchers require all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling, including types of instruction that might violate some taxpayers’ most deeply held convictions. That’s a recipe for continued social conflict over what is taught.

If there were no alternative to vouchers for providing school choice, perhaps it would make sense to have a debate over which freedoms should take precedence: the freedom of choice of families or the freedom of conscience of taxpayers–and then to sacrifice whichever one was deemed less worthy. But there is an alternative, and it does not require anyone to be compelled to support any particular type of instruction. I discuss this alternative, education tax credits, in a recent Huffington Post op-ed.

Education Tax Credits More Popular Than Vouchers & Charters

As Neal wrote about earlier, Education Next has released their new poll, and there are some interesting results.

Surprisingly, the authors buried the lede in their writeup; education tax credits consistently have more support and less opposition than any other choice policy.

This year, donation tax credits pulled in a 29-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 25-point margin of support.

The authors added a new, less neutral voucher question that boosted the margin of support to 20 points. They couched the policy in terms of “wider choice” for kids in public schools, and the implication was that it was universal. All three of these additional considerations tend to have a positive impact on support for choice policies.

The standard low-income voucher question showed a big jump this year from a -12 in 2010 to a 1-point margin of support. The last time Education Next asked a low-income tax credit question, it garnered a 19-point margin of support.

Last year, tax credits had a 28-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 22-point margin of support and vouchers for low-income kids went -12 points (more respondents opposed).

Public opinion is consistently and strongly in favor of education tax credits over vouchers and even charter schools. And thankfully, they’re a much better policy as well.

Public Right on Choice, Wrong on Standards, But Always Well Intentioned

Today the good folks at the journal Education Next released their annual survey of education opinion. What follows is a quick summary of many of the things the pollsters found, followed by a little commentary about the national-standards results.  (Adam Schaeffer, I have it on good authority, will be flogging the tax credit and voucher findings in an upcoming post.) Bottom line: The public usually has the right inclinations, but gets some answers wrong as a result.

One note: As is always the case with polls – but I won’t go into great detail with Education Next’s questions – remember that question wording can have a sizable impact on results.

So what did Education Next find?

  • Almost everybody reports paying at least some attention to education issues
  • 79 percent of Americans would grade the nation’s public schools no better than a “C”
  • 54 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of parents, would grade their communities’ public schools no better than a “C”
  • Even when told how much their district spends per pupil, 46 percent of respondents think funding should increase. But that’s down from 59 percent when the current expenditure isn’t given
  • Pluralities of Americans favor charter schooling and government-funded private-school choice (without mention of the sometimes toxic word “voucher”), and a close majority supports tax-credit-based choice   
  • A huge majority, even after having been given the average teacher salary, thinks teachers should get paid more or about the same as they currently do
  • A plurality thinks teachers should pay 20 percent of the cost of their health-care and pension benefits
  • Large pluralities – and for one question a majority – support judging and rewarding teachers based on performance, as well as easing credentialing and tenure rules
  • The public is about evenly split on whether teachers’ unions are good or bad for their districts
  • Big majorities support federal testing demands (without mention of the often-toxic No Child Left Behind Act) as well as states adopting the “same set” of standards and tests (without mention of federal incentives to do so)
  • A plurality of Americans oppose taking income into account when assigning students to schools
  • Only 16 percent of respondents think local taxes for their district should decrease

All of these results demonstrate good reflexes by the public. They know, for instance, that overall the public schools are performing poorly, but they are a little happier with the districts they often chose when selecting homes. They want to spend more money on schooling because education is generally a good thing, but that drops when they are told how much is actually being spent (a slippery figure few hard-working Americans have time to pin down themselves). They recognize the need for choice, something they benefit from in almost every other facet of their lives. They believe in judging and rewarding people based on their performance. They oppose forcing physical integration – in this case based on income – on students and communities. And they even, reasonably, want all states to have the same academic standards.

About that last point: Intuitively, it seems to make sense. Why should kids in Mississippi be asked to learn less than those in Massachusetts? If I didn’t get paid to analyze education policy – if I had to do other work for 40-plus hours a week – I, too, would probably support national standards because I wouldn’t have time to look at the evidence, or cogitate over the politics behind such a fair sounding proposal. But I do analyze education policy full time, and I know that (1) there is little evidence supporting calls for national standards; (2) many states have adopted national standards mainly in pursuit of federal money; (3) even if you can get initially high standards, they’ll be dumbed-down by politics; and (4) states can perhaps be standardized, but unique, individual students never can be.

Of course, the good-intentions problem is not unique to education. The huge opportunity costs – among other disincentives – that keep members of the public from being able to sufficiently analyze complicated political issues is a major problem in all public policy matters. That’s why good intentions – which the public demonstrates in spades in this poll – can often lead to bad outcomes. But we cannot blame the public for that. We must, instead, inform the public as best we can.

People Think of Something as Their Business When It Is Their Business

A WSJ interview with Bill Gates includes this pivotal observation:

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

While it’s true that public school districts don’t spend a lot on R&D, a vast army of academics has been cranking out research in this field for generations. The Education Resources Information Center, a database of education studies dating back to 1966, boasts 1.3 million entries. So the problem is not a lack of research, but rather that most of the research is useless and that the rare exceptions have been ignored by the public schools.

Why? Because, as Bill Gates correctly observes, hardly anyone thinks of education as their business. And how do you get masses of brilliant entrepreneurs to think of education as their business? You make it easy for them to make it their business. When and where education is allowed to participate in the free enterprise system, entrepreneurs enter that field just as they do any other–and excellence is identified and scales up. It is a process that happens automatically due to the freedoms and incentives inherent in that system. More than that, it is the only system in the history of humanity that has ever led to the routine identification and mass replication of excellent products and services.

So what happens if you want market outcomes but reject the market system that creates them? You are left to re-invent the wheel… without the only value of pi that makes a circle.