Tag: school

All That NAEP Tells Us Is Things Ain’t Good

Yesterday, another round of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – came out. They revealed flattened 4th-grade math achivement between 2007 and 2009, and a two point (out of 500) increase in 8th grade.

So what do these bits of data portend? Ask the experts:

“The trend is flat; it’s a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important,” said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, according to the New York Times. “That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved, and now we’re five years from the deadline and we’re still far, far from the goal.”

Next, former National Center for Education Statistics commissioner Mark Schneider concluded that “either the standards movement has played out, or the No Child law failed to build on its momentum. Whatever momentum we had, however, is gone.”

And then there’s Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, a leading national-standards proponent, who opined in the Baltimore Sun that “there is a hardly any change. There is hardly any difference. How could we as a nation let that happen?” His solution to the problem: National standards, of course.

So what do I think about all this? As a long-time critic of NCLB, I am glad to see people seizing on the latest results and declaring the law a failure. It helps to advance my goal of ending the greatest federal education intervention to date, and I think NCLB supporters kind of deserve these attacks on their law. They have repeatedly given NCLB credit for positive things the evidence couldn’t come close to supporting, and it’s nice to see them on the defensive after all their overreaching.

That said, just as previous NAEP results couldn’t prove that NCLB was working, the latest NAEP scores don’t prove that it is not. We simply don’t have sufficient information about the myriad other variables affecting education to do that.

Which leads me to a much bigger problem: People using ambiguous  NAEP scores to push their favorite reforms. Some “standards and accountability” proponents, for instance,  argue that achievement improvements came as a result of states implementing standards-and-testing regimes during the 1990s. And William Schmidt suggests that the latest NAEP results demonstrate a need for national standards.

Now, NAEP simply cannot be used in any reasonable way to justify the national-standards assertion. We’ve never had national standards, so we obviously can’t measure their outcomes with NAEP. We can, however, attempt to use NAEP to assess the assertion that the push for state standards and testing in the 1990s drove real improvement. We can attempt, that is, but any conclusions will be riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the NAEP exam from which yesterday’s results came, the “main” mathematics exam. After that, we’ll look at some “long-term” NAEP results.

Take a look at the chart below. It is the 4th-grade trend line for the main math NAEP, with vertical lines separating what I’ll call the pre-accountability period (1990-1996), the state-accountability period (1996-2003), and the NCLB period (2003-2009). The numbers below each period are the per-year changes in scores for the periods above them.

RegMath41996

What do the numbers show us? At first blush, the message seems to be that scores were improving slightly faster in the pre-accountability period than the vaunted state-accountability period, and appreciably faster than under NCLB. But this breakdown may beg more questions than it answers.

At what year, for instance, should you peg the start of the state-accountability period? I chose 1996 because by then, according to a count by Hanushek and Raymond (Table 1), twelve states – a pretty large number – had some sort of accountability mechanism in place. I could, however, have chosen 1992, because by 1993 three states had such mechanisms and the accountability movement could certainly be said to have been underway. Similarly, NCLB was enacted in 2002 – is it right to start the NCLB period in 2003? Obviously I couldn’t start the period in 2002 because there is no data for that year, but why not 2005? After all, though enacted in 2002, NCLB took a few years to be fully implemented.

Let’s make an adjustment. I’m going to keep the start of the NCLB era at 2003 because that’s pretty close to the enactment year – though it could very well produce misleading results – but will move the end of the pre-accountability period, and hence the start of the state-accountability period, to 1992.
RegMath41992

Now what should we conclude? Again, it appears that the pre-accountability period had the best results, but this time by a much bigger margin. That said, that period included only two years – hardly sufficient data to identify a trend. Also, the NCLB period fared better than previously against the state-accountability years.

Of course, the main NAEP gives us data for less than two decades. So what does the long-term NAEP show for 9-year-olds (roughly 4th graders) in math?

Here’s a long-term trend chart, which like the main NAEP charts above is broken into periods with score-change-per-year noted below. I’ve broken it into the period before the 1983 publication of the landmark A Nation at Risk report, which scared people silly about the schools; the post-ANARbut pre-state-accountability period; the state-accountability period; and the NCLB period.
longterm96

What do these results show?

In contrast to the main NAEP scores, the greatest improvement on the long-term test occurred during the state accountability period, and the second greatest under NCLB. But again, this raises more questions than it answers: Why the difference between the main and long-term results? When is best to start each period? Does it make any sense to start a period with A Nation at Risk? Should the NCLB period start in 1999, well before the law was enacted, or in 2004, two years after it’s passage? And the questions go on.

Like we did with the main NAEP results, let’s once again look at a different start date, 1992, for the state-accountability period, this time on the long-term exam.

longterm92

Once again we get a whole different story. Now it is the pre-accountability period, not the state accountability period, that shows the best outcomes. And so the ambiguity continues…

All of this, of course, goes to show that NAEP results cannot be used with any confidence to conclude that any particular reform that occurred within the NAEP time span worked better or worse than any other reform within that span.

That said, there is one thing that we canuse NAEP to demonstrate very powerfully: As Andrew Coulson’s chart below vividly illustrates, if moving the achievement needle as measured by NAEP is the goal of education spending, then we have really been getting robbed! Moreover, to the extent that standards-based reforms have been a major national phenomenon since the 1990s, it is impossible to conclude that they have done very much good. Indeed, if we are to conclude anything, it is that it is time to focus on reforms that are completely different from the top-down “solutions” that have given us so little, and taken so much.

andrew-coulson-cato-education-spending

Zero Tolerance for Difference

Zachary ChristieWhen both the New York Times and Fox News poke fun at a school district it’s a good guess that district has done something pretty silly. That seems to be the case in Newark, Delaware, where the Christina School District just suspended a 6-year-old boy for 45 days because he brought a dreaded knife-fork-spoon combo tool to school. District officials, in their defense, say they had no choice – the state’s “zero tolerance” law demanded the punishment.

Now, the first thing I’ll say is that I was very fortunate there were no zero-tolerance laws  – at least that I knew of – when I was a kid. Like most boys, I took a pocket knife to school from time to time, and like most boys I never hurt a soul with it. (I’m pretty sure, though, that I was stabbed by a pencil at least once.) I also played a lot of games involving tackling, delivered and received countless “dead arm” punches in the shoulder, and brought in Star Wars figures armed with…brace yourself!…laser guns! I can only imagine how many suspension days I’d have received had current disciplinary regimes been in place back then.

Before completely trashing little ol’ Delaware and all the other places without tolerance, however, there is a flip side to this story: Some kids really are immediate threats to their teachers and fellow students. And as the recent stomach-wrenching violence in Chicago has vividly illustrated, there are some schools where no one is safe. In other words, there are cases and situations where zero tolerance is warranted.

So how do you balance these things? How do you have zero-tolerance for those who need it, while letting discretion and reason reign for everyone else?  And how do you do that when there is no clear line dividing what is too dangerous to tolerate and what is not?

The answer is educational freedom, as it is with all of the things that diverse people are forced to fight over because they all have to support a single system of government schools! Let parents who are not especially concerned about danger, or who value freedom even if it engenders a little more risk, choose schools with discipline policies that give them what they want.  Likewise, let parents who want their kids in a zero-tolerance institution do the same.

Ultimately, let parents and schools make their own decisions, and no child will be subjected to disciplinary codes with which his parents disagree; strictness will be much better correlated with the needs of individual children; and perhaps most importantly, discipline policies will make a lot more sense for everyone involved.

Duncan’s NCLB Reauthorization Push Shows Extreme Tunnel Vision

In a major speech to be delivered today, education secretary Arne Duncan will call for an end to “ ‘tired arguments’ about education reform” and ask for input in crafting a ”sweeping reauthorization” of the federal No Child Left Behind act. His decision not to openly debate the merits of reauthorization – to simply assume it – guarantees the tiredness and futility of the discussion.

Americans have spent $1.85 trillion on federal education programs since 1965, and yet student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated while spending per pupil has more than doubled – after adjusting for inflation. The U.S. high school graduation rate and adult literacy rates have been declining for decades. The gap in achievement between children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates hasn’t budged by more than a percent or two despite countless federal programs aimed at closing it.

The secretary himself acknowledges that after more than half a century of direct and increasing federal involvement in schools, “we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.

In light of the abject and expensive failure of federal intrusion in America’s classrooms, it is irresponsible for the Secretary of Education to assume without debate that this intrusion should continue.  Cutting all federal k-12 education programs would result in a permanent $70 billion annual tax cut. Given the stimulative benefits of such a tax cut it is also fiscally irresponsible for the Obama administration to ignore the option of ending Congress’ fruitless meddling in American schools.

Waiter, Cancel That Order of Crow

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post writes today that she feels compelled to “eat at least a spoonful of crow.”

Her menu selection is driven by her assessment of President Obama’s “education reform” accomplishments to date.

The term “education reform” is meaningless. All it implies is that, in whatever small way, things will be done differently from the way they have been done in the past. Not necessarily better, or worse, just differently. Even the president’s painfully vague campaign message (“Hope and Change”) at least indicated that the sought-after change was supposed to be in a positive direction. “Reform” doesn’t even convey that – let alone giving any indication of the nature, rationale or evidence for the change.

So, yes, the president is “reforming” certain aspects of education. But whether it’s higher-ed, pre-k, or the qualified expansion of charter schools, the new form does not seem noticeably better than the old one.

Repeat after Me: “We Are All Individuals”

A millennium or so ago, Steve Martin played a stadium with his stand-up act. He got the crowd of tens of thousands to repeat a series of statements in unison. My favorite, for sheer irony: “We Are all Individuals.”

But, the thing is, we are.

This is why I never cease to be amazed by disagreements like the one currently playing out between the curriculum groups “Common Core,” and “Partnership for 21st Century Skills.”

Is there really one curriculum that is right for every child in this nation of 300 million people? Really?

Rather than fighting a winner-take-all Shootout at the O.K. Curriculum, which is what our illustrious leaders seem to want, how about this peace-loving alternative: we let teachers teach whatever and however they want, and we let families choose and pay for whichever schools they think are best for their kids (with financial aid for those who need it).

‘Cause the thing is, a quarter century of econometric research is repeating, in Steve-Martin-Like unison that: educational freedom works.

New York Mayor Opposes Closing Schools for Muslim Holidays

I have been trying for years to make people understand that a single system of government schools is fundamentally at odds with American values, especially individual liberty and equal treatment under the law. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in opposing a move to let city public schools close for Muslim holidays as they do for Christian and Jewish holidays, recently made my point in one, simple sentence:

One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.

Exactly. So which religions, and which people, will get to be more equal than others, Mr. Mayor?

With universal school choice, we wouldn’t have to grapple with such terrible questions.

The New Puritanism

H. L. Mencken described puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

The new puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere, may be learning.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a story today in which public school educationalists wring their hands over the fear that suburban whites may be getting a good education in charter schools. This, somehow, is perceived to be a bad thing for urban minority kids.

Um. No.

What is bad for any child is a paucity of high quality education options from which to choose. The focus of policymakers should be on ensuring that more and better education options are constantly coming within reach of all children, regardless of the contents of their parents’ wallets, the pigmentation of their skin, or their ethnic background. This, the research shows, can most reliably be achieved by harnessing the freedoms and incentives of a competitive education marketplace.

Can the charter school system create such a marketplace? Can it relentlessly spawn new excellent schools and scale up the established ones to reach a mass audience? For a discussion of those questions, drop by Cato on October 2nd.