Tag: school choice

Bill Gates and the Ancient Alexandrian Party Favor

Every year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates drafts a letter charting the course for the foundation he created with his wife, Melinda. This year, the focus is on the value of precise measurement in driving innovation and progress. His inspiration was the book The Most Powerful Idea in the World, “a brilliant chronicle by William Rosen of the many innovations it took to harness steam power.”

Certainly mensuration was important to the development of the steam engine, but there was a much more crucial ingredient, and unless we understand the role that it played, solutions to the world’s most pernicious problems will remain elusive. The key to grasping this missing ingredient is the aeolipile. As shown in the accompanying video, the aeolipile is a hollow metal reservoir with multiple radial “exhaust pipes,” all of whose spouts point off tangentially from the hub. To make it work, you simply suspend it, fill it with water, and light a candle under it. And… Voila! You’ve harnessed steam power to generate rotary motion.

This device is also known as Hero’s Engine, after Hero of Alexandria—who invented it over two thousand years ago…. Despite its seemingly obvious practical applications, Hero’s Engine was never more than a party favor. It had not the slightest impact on the course of human history. Why not?

The ultimate causes are contentious (Deirdre McCloskey will give you one answer), but the proximate one is obvious: the aeolipile was never commercialized. There wasn’t a sufficient network of entrepreneurs and investors toiling away in ancient Alexandria to relentlessly seek out, capitalize, and commercialize new technologies and innovations. The steam engine was refined and widely deployed during the Industrial Revolution only because such an entrepreneurial network had come into existence by the late 18th century, first in England and soon thereafter, elsewhere.

And that’s the real key to massively disseminating the benefits of innovation: enlisting the assistance of the free enterprise system. It is not a coincidence that the productivity of elementary and secondary education has collapsed while productivity in virtually every other field has steadily improved. Education has been largely excluded from the free enterprise system for the past 150 years.

So, while precise measurement certainly has its role to play, I hope someday to read an annual letter from Bill Gates that focuses on the need to harness all the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace for the betterment of education the world over.

The Real Problem with Highly Regulated “School Choice”

A Fordham Institute paper released today seeks to answer the question: do private schools really refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs? Its authors tell us that “many proponents of private school choice… take [this] for granted,” citing two examples—one of them being the Cato Institute, whose Center for Educational Freedom I direct. The authors even cite a relevant commentary by former Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer.

The only problem is that the cited commentary says precisely the opposite. Describing Indiana’s voucher program, Schaeffer writes: “Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated [non-participating] schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.” This captures Schaeffer’s concern as well as my own (which I expressed over a decade ago in the political economy journal Independent Review): We do not fear that private schools will refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. We know that they ultimately will participate, or be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts.

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished. The Dutch enacted a heavily regulated nationwide voucher program nearly a century ago. Unsubsidized private schooling remains legal, but has been reduced to a statistical asterisk—now making up less than one percent of enrollment, compared to roughly 70 percent for subsidized private schools.

Our reason for concern over this pattern is also grounded in empirical evidence: it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. That is the consensus of the worldwide within-country research, which I reviewed and tabulated for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. The Fordham paper does not discuss this evidence.

Despite imputing to Cato scholars the exact opposite of the view we hold, the paper does include some interesting data. In particular, it offers a new corroboration that voucher programs are more heavily regulated than tax credit programs (a difference whose magnitude and statistical significance was previously established here). This will make it even harder for objective observers to cling to the notion that vouchers and credits are functionally equivalent.

Where Will the Senate ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ Hearing Lead?

The Senate hearing at which I testified yesterday, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, seemed designed to raise support for legislation imposing federal mandates on states or districts to curtail the use of out-of-school suspensions, to make suspension policies uniform across schools, or both.

The motivations for such legislation are understandable. Out-of-school suspensions do little to help the suspended students educationally and they are correlated with arrests and incarceration. The Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, which Sen. Durbin chairs, is particularly interested in these facts because African American students are much more likely to be suspended than whites.

But the facts do not support the kind of legislation that seems to be under consideration. Two recent and highly sophisticated studies by Rochester University professor Joshua Kinsler shed new light on the well-established trends noted above. For the first time, Kinsler factored-in between school variations in discipline policy when looking at the racial disparity in out-of-school suspensions. He discovered that, within any given school, black and white students sent to the principal’s office for a given reason are issued the same suspensions at the same rates. The disparity is all between schools.

Schools with predominantly black student bodies are more likely to issue suspensions, and to issue longer ones, for a given offense. White students at those schools get the same treatment, but most white students are in predominantly white schools that are less severe in their discipline policies. Black students at mostly white schools also get less severe punishments.

Kinsler did find that African American students were more likely to be referred to the principal’s office, which has long been seen as evidence of systemic racism.  To investigate that explanation, Kinsler looked for any relationship between teachers’ referral rates to the principal’s office and the race of those teachers and of the students they refer. He found none. This does not mean that racism plays no role, but it calls into question the view that racism is a dominant factor in referrals to the principal’s office.

In a subsequent empirical study, Kinsler investigated what would happen if all schools were compelled to observe a more lenient suspension policy, to close the black/white discipline gap. He found that this would disproportionately hurt the achievement of African American students, widening the black/white achievement gap.  The reason for this, according to Kinsler’s findings, is that serious suspensions do in fact discourage misbehavior, and that removing disruptive students from the class does improve the achievement of the other students.

Kinsler’s methodology, which jointly models discipline policy, student behavior and student academic achievement, is the most advanced I’ve seen used in this field. Unless and until his findings are found to be in error, or are contradicted by similarly sophisticated research, it would be unconscionable and counterproductive to impose a blanket reduction in suspensions on the nation’s schools.

None of this is meant to defend the cavalier use of out-of-school suspensions. As I explain in my written testimony to the Committee, there are much better alternatives and there are policies that will systematically encourage the use of those superior alternatives. I sincerely hope that Senator Durbin and his Committee do not leap before they look at these alternatives and at professor Kinsler’s findings.

Will Khan Academy Fulfill Its Potential?

In today’s Washington Times I review Salman Khan’s new book, The One World Schoolhouse. Pedagogically, the man is brilliant. But he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the economics of education. Here’s how the review leads off:

In “The One World Schoolhouse,” Salman Khan presents a simple thesis: We learn best when we learn actively and at our own pace, mastering each new skill before proceeding to the next. What sets Mr. Khan apart from most pedagogical theorists, besides the fact that he’s actually right, is that he’s giving his services away. His website, KhanAcademy.org, hosts thousands of instructional videos and interactive lessons. Millions of people around the world have used them and sing their praises.

Given his growing success, Mr. Khan’s goal is suitably ambitious: “A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” But he seems to want to change the way the world learns without changing the way the world schools.

Mr. Khan’s focus is inside the classroom on instructional practices and tools. He is largely silent on, and seems indifferent to, the ways schools are managed and how students choose or are assigned to them and the way teachers are trained and compensated.

Continue reading here…

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Taking Education Policy from Quackery to Science

I recently bewailed the peddling of education policy snake-oil – advocacy based on non-sequiturs and false/misleading/incomplete data. At the end of it, I teased a forthcoming piece suggesting how the field could be kicked up a notch in seriousness and value. It ran today on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

Feel free to ping me on Twitter or Facebook if you have comments.

 

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.