Tag: school reform

‘A Confident Person with Shiny Teeth’

“Sometimes people just want to hear a confident person with shiny teeth tell them appealing stories about the secrets to success.”

So writes Jay Greene in his debunking of Marc Tucker’s education reform book Surpassing Shanghai. Jay’s whole review is worth reading, but the basic point is simple: you can’t learn much about the systemic causes of success if you only look at a single success story or even at a small handful of them. You need to cast a wide net to detect meaningful patterns. Having spent a lot of time casting wide nets, into both the historical and modern evidence, I couldn’t agree more. But maybe Jay would just tell me that’s confirmation bias ;-)

[HT: Bill Evers]

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.

Cash Rewards For Failing Schools, the Lawsuit Way

I see the editorialists of the New York Times have rhapsodically hailed last week’s 3-2 New Jersey Supreme Court opinion striking down the budget-trimming plans of Gov. Chris Christie. As the press reported, the court ordered instead that an extra $500 million in state funds be allocated to some of the state’s poorest-performing school districts – the so-called Abbott districts, named after the three-decade-running New Jersey school finance litigation, Abbott v. Burke.

It’s too bad the editorial said nothing about the report five years ago in which one leading newspaper surveyed the wreckage done by the then-25-year-old litigation, which it called an “ambitious court-ordered social experiment.” (At that point, $35 billion in state tax money had already been lavished on the Abbott districts.) The paper’s reporting made a convincing case that the orders had squandered billions on mismanaged districts that were already far outspending most others in the state and region, as with Asbury Park, which was spending 70 percent more than the typical New Jersey district. Indeed, “the highest-spending districts were making the fewest gains” in student performance. It’s especially unfortunate because the newspaper that reported all this was the New York Times itself.

As I argue at greater length in my new book, school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance, accomplished through what is sometimes called institutional reform litigation, and quite remote from the channels of lawmaking and appropriations familiar from civics books. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here and here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.

It’s worth noting that since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the federal courts have stayed out of most school finance litigation, leaving it to state courts. For decades, outspoken voices in the law schools have been calling for Rodriguez to be overturned or at least end-run so as to confer an Abbott-like charter for social experimentation on the federal courts, which could then proceed to issue orders equalizing school finance, ordering “Robin Hood” aid to underperforming districts, and so forth. The most prominent advocate of this view in recent years has been a Berkeley law professor named Goodwin Liu – his views are summarized by admirers here and here – which may explain in part why Liu’s recent Ninth Circuit nomination raised such strong feelings.

Obama Administration Doesn’t Walk the Ed Reform Walk

Oh, they’ll chew your ears off about how boldly they support and are catalyzing  real education reform, and how they won’t accept the failed status quo. Yes sir, they’ll boast nonstop about what a gigantic success their  Race to the Top initiative has been, despite having no real evidence to back that up. Without question, the Obama administration will talk the talk about transformative education reform. But walk the walk? That’s another story.

Let’s put this in perspective. Almost the entire basis for the Obama administration’s claim to school reform supremacy is Race to the Top. And what does RTTT do? It furnishes $4.35 billion to entice states into submitting sort of bold-sounding plans for education reform while requiring them to do very little when it comes to implementing those plans. At the very least, we have little reason to believe the administration can or will hold states to their promised reforms. And by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s own admission, the only winners to date won by getting lots of union and school district buy-in for their proposed reforms. So, as far as we can tell, Race to the Top itself is way more hot air than fiery reform.

But that isn’t even close to the clearest evidence that the Obama administration does little more than flap its gums about real reform while substantively supporting something very different. The clearest sign is that the so-called “stimulus” from which RTTT funding came furnished about $100 billion for education, and the vast majority of that was intended to keep as many people employed in our incredibly inefficient, labor-dominated public schooling monopoly as possible. In other words, the “stimulus” provided a gargantuan payoff for the very people who are supposed to be the subjects of tough reforms, while furnishing a relatively tiny sum for the program supposedly intended to inspire such reforms. (Of course, the Obama administration also helped kill the proven-effective D.C. school choice program, but we’ll save that for another time.) 

And the hits just keep on coming. With school districts nearing the end of their stimulus windfall, they once again face having to cut some of their copious fat. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has put forth the $23 billion, “Keep Our Educators Working Act” to keep that from happening, and yesterday the administration — suprise, surprise — threw its support behind the bill.  

Even the Washington Post has come out against the legislation, which if nothing else would add another $23 billion to our absolutely collosal federal deficit. Moreover, to borrow a favorite phrase of the President’s, let me be clear:  an honest accounting of even the biggest potential staffing cuts shows that those losses would constitute a relatively small cut from a system that has for decades added staff at a furious pace without producing any better outcomes.

Unfortunately, neither the shamefully irresponsible mortgaging of our future, nor the clear need to eliminate costly public-schooling jobs, seems to matter to this administration. As long as people keep letting them get away with nothing but reform-y talk, it appears they’ll willingly bankrupt the country to keep the status quo fat and happy.

The Eternal Battle to Reform the D.C. Schools

“When Kathy Patterson learned about Thursday’s D.C. Council hearing, during which Chairman Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee pelted each other with accusations of law-breaking and secret meetings, she had one immediate reaction,” reports the Washington Post.

“Here we go again,” said Patterson, a former council member and chairwoman of its education committee. It looked as if another attempt at public school reform was disintegrating in a hail of recriminations and rhetoric.

Casey Lartigue wrote about the decades-long efforts to improve the D.C. schools for Cato back in 2002.