Tag: schools

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.

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.

From MSNBC to Cato — America’s Top Models

Next Sunday, MSNBC will feature a sort of townhall meeting on how great schools can pull kids out of poverty. Though headlined by Bill Cosby, perhaps the most electrifying panelist will be charter school principal Ben Chavis. On October 2nd at noon, you can come to Cato to see Ben live, and ask him how we can replicate his stunning success. Also joining us will be Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who’ll talk about the growing KIPP network of (now 82!) charter schools. Other than perhaps KIPP’s founders, nobody knows more about them than Jay. I’ll be simultaneously acting as cheerleader (I love these schools) and devil’s advocate (I’m skeptical that they can be brought to the masses within the charter sector).

To register, just visit the event page here:  “America’s Top Models: Can the Nation’s Best Charter Schools Be Brought to Scale?”

Incidentally, Ben has been called the most politically incorrect man in America, so Cato disavows all responsibility for any heads that explode during the course of his presentation.

Evidence-based for Thee, But Not for Me

One of the things that strikes me as curious about supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act is that they talk regularly about “evidence” and having everything be “research-based,” yet they often ignore or distort evidence in order to portray NCLB as a success. Case in point, an op-ed in today’s New York Times by the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli.

Truth be told, the piece doesn’t lionize NCLB, criticizing the law for encouraging schools to neglect high-performing students because its primary goal is to improve the performance of low achievers. Fair enough. The problem is, Loveless and Petrilli assert with great confidence that the law is definitely doing the job it was intended to do. “It is clear,” they write, “that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students.”

As you shall see in a moment, that is an utterly unsustainable assertion according to the best available evidence we have: results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which carries no consequences for schools or states and, hence, is subject to very little gaming. Ironically, Loveless and Petrilli make their indefensible pronouncement while criticizing a study for failing to use NAEP in reaching its own conclusions about NCLB.

So what’s wrong with stating that NCLB is clearly helping low-achieving students? Let me count the ways (as I have done before):

  1. Numerous reforms, ranging from class-size reduction, to school choice, to new nutritional standards, have been occurring at the same time as NCLB. It is impossible to isolate which achievement changes are attributable to NCLB, and which to myriad other reforms
  2. As you will see in a moment, few NAEP score intervals start cleanly at the beginning of NCLB – which is itself a difficult thing to pinpoint – making it impossible to definitively attribute trends to the law
  3. When we look at gains on NAEP in many periods before NCLB, they were greater on a per-year basis than during NCLB. That means other things going on in education before NCLB were working just as well or better than things since the law’s enactment.

So let’s go to the scores. Below I have reproduced score trends for both the long-term and regular NAEP mathematics and reading exams. (The former is supposed to be an unchanging test and the latter subject to revision, though in practice both have been pretty consistent measures.) I have posted the per-year score increase or decreases above the segments that include NCLB (but that might also include years without NCLB). I have also posted score increases in pre-NCLB segments that saw greater improvements than segments including NCLB. (Note that on 8th-grade reading I didn’t highlight pre-NCLB segments with smaller score decreases than seen under NCLB. I didn’t want to celebrate backward movement in any era.)

For context, NCLB was signed into law in January 2002 but it took at least a year to get all the regulations written and more than that for the law to be fully implemented. As a result, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether 2002, 2003, or even 2004 should be the law’s starting point, noting only that this problem alone makes it impossible to say that NCLB clearly caused anything. In addition, notice that some of the biggest gains under NCLB are in periods that also include many non-NCLB years, making it impossible to confidently attribute those gains to NCLB.

Please note that I calculated per-year changes based on having data collected in the same way from start to end. So some lines are dashed and others solid (denoting changes in how some students were counted); I calculated changes based on start and end points for the type of line used for the period. I also rounded to one decimal point to save space. Finally, I apologize if this is hard to read—I’m no computer graphics wizard—and would direct you to NAEP’s website to check out the data for yourself.

4th Grade Regular Math

8th Grade Regular Math

4th Grade Regular Reading

8th Grade Regular Reading

Age 9 Long-term Math

Age 13 Long-term Math

Age 17 Long-term Math

Age 9 Long-term Reading

Age 13 Long-term Reading

Age 17 Long-term Reading

So what does the data show us? First, that there were numerous periods that didn’t include NCLB that saw greater or equal growth for low-achieving students as periods with NCLB. That means much of what we were doing before NCLB was apparently more effective than what we’ve been doing under NCLB, though it is impossible to tell from the data what any of those things are. In addition, it is notable that those periods with the greatest gains that include NCLB are typically the ones that also include non-NCLB years, such as 2000 to 2003 for 4th and 8th-grade math. That means there is inescapable doubt about what caused the gains in those periods most favorable to NCLB. And, let’s not forget, 4th -grade reading saw a downward trend from 2002 to 2003, and 8th-grade reading dropped from 2002-2005. That suggests that NCLB was actually decreasing scores for low-achievers, and one would have to acknowledge that if one were also inclined to give NCLB credit for all gains.

And so, the evidence is absolutely clear in one regard, but in the opposite direction of what Loveless and Petrilli suggest: One thing you definitely cannot say about NCLB is that it has clearly helped low achievers. And yet, they said it anyway!

LA School District Vote Shows Further Cracks in Education’s Berlin Wall

America’s large urban school districts are often the lowest performing, least efficient, and most resistant to change. The poster children for this reality are perhaps Detroit and Washington, DC, but the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has long been in the running as well.

Yesterday, there was a sign that LAUSD would like to get out of that race for the bottom: the district’s school board voted 6 to 1 in favor of a plan that would hand up to a third of its public schools over to private management. Ignoring for a moment the question of how well this policy will work, it is categorically, undeniably, a sign of change. In the past, such private contracting arrangements in large districts have usually been the result of state or mayoral takeovers. This is the first case that comes to mind in which the plan was the product of an elected school board that has just had enough with its own administrators’ unsatisfactory performance.

Keep in mind that school board elections suffer low-turnout, and that support for candidates is dominated by public school employee unions looking out for their own members’ salaries and job security. If THAT process can produce such a clarion call for parental choice, competition, and diversity in educational provision, times ARE changing.

Now let’s stop ignoring the question of whether or not it will work. There’s not a whole lot of research on the subject. The most recent and detailed review of a similar contracting-out arrangement in Philadelphia, by Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos, finds that non-profit management organizations in the city underperformed the district somewhat in reading and math, though the reading difference was statistically insignificant. The same study found that for-profit management organizations outperformed the district in both subjects, though the reading difference was again statistically insignificant.

Honestly, though, I don’t think anyone believes that the LAUSD plan was the result of a painstaking comparison of all the policy options and the choice of the one most supported by the empirical research. It is a cry of frustration with the status quo, and an implicit recognition of what most people already know: monopolies are bad at giving consumers what they want at a reasonable cost; choice and competition drive up quality and drive down costs in every other field, so why not bring them to bear in education? And finally, the LA school board’s action represents a desire to get something done NOW, that is actually within the board’s power to accomplish.

My sympathies are with the board members who are trying to make a positive difference within the system we have, but the question for voters and legislators is: why stick with the status quo at all? Why not open up the field of education to all the freedoms and incentives of the free enterprise system, rather than trying to cobble together a pale, ad hoc immitation of it? Because what the massive body of international scientific evidence shows is that the freest, most market-like education systems are the ones that outshine public school systems by the greatest margins.

More Undeserved Praise for Obama’s NAACP Speech

Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation is an affable and intelligent man. But he has gone round the rocker in regard to President Obama’s NAACP speech last week.

His review reads like promotional excerpts for a blockbuster movie; Don’t miss what critics are calling a can’t-miss experience … “transcendent” … “inspirational” … “honest, direct, bold.”

Why such superlatives? Because Obama is an “African-American president, speaking to the NAACP, and arguing for reform in our schools and responsibility in our homes and community.” Wow. Reform and responsibility?

Of course, as I point out here, the President OPPOSES the most direct and effective means of reforming education and empowering parents; school choice. And he supports expanding federal control of education from pre-k to college. Our President is working against reform and responsibility in education.

Our President has the nerve to lecture parents on the importance of getting involved as he supports ripping vouchers out of the hands of children in DC and elsewhere. He and his Congressional colleagues have effectively told thousands of District parents, who desperately want to direct their children to a better future, to shut up and sit down.

There is absolutely nothing to celebrate about a President who mouths nice platitudes while doing all he can to undermine the principles that underlie those sentiments.

How’d That Get in Here?

Understandably, the public is a little preoccupied right now with efforts in Washington to “reform” health care by making it much, much worse. Fortunately, people are starting to notice that a congressional bum rush is heading right toward them — maybe they’ll be able stop it in time. Unfortunately, that is giving Washington a chance to sneak some other stuff by us.

In particular, I’m thinking of the just-introduced Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. It’s been largely ignored so far, save a little chatter about the community college stuff it incorporates. In a simpler time, it would have generated a lot more copy. After all, it will:

  • end federally backed student loans that come through private companies, and instead make Uncle Sam the universal lender;
  • greatly increase Pell Grants and peg their growth to the rate of inflation plus 1 point;
  • balloon the federal Perkins loan program;
  • authorize $5 billion over two years for elementary and secondary school facility projects, with a focus on “green” efforts;
  • authorize $10 billion over ten years for Early Learning Challenge Grants; and
  • furnish $12 billion for community colleges.

Not all of this, I should say, is terrible. Getting rid of the Federal Family Education Loan Program — which backs loans coming from ostensibly private companies and guarantees lenders a profit — is a good thing. But replacing it all with loans directly from D.C.? That’s a bad thing.

To be fair, transitioning from guaranteed to direct lending could save some money, especially in the short run, eliminating various fees and guarantees Washington pays to lenders under FFEL. But those savings almost certainly won’t be the $87 billion over ten years supporters claim, a number that is no doubt overstated as a result of budget chicanery and how quickly government grows. And don’t expect taxpayers to benefit from whatever savings are ultimately generated. According to the proud declaration of SAFRA sponsor George Miller (D-CA), only $10 billion of the projected $87 billion savings is slated for deficit reduction. The rest — breathtaking deficit be damned! — is going to standard, feel-good government spending, including school “modernization” projects and “early learning” grants

Which brings me to the community college components, which have, unlike the rest of the bill, been getting some media play. I wrote about them earlier this week, noting especially that they make little sense in light of Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showing that positions requiring on-the-job training will grow in much greater numbers than jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree. What I didn’t mention was the dismal performance of community college students, who take remedial courses in droves and complete their programs at very low rates.

Ah, but we’re told that this new legislation, backed wholeheartedly by the Obama administration, is going to reform community colleges. As David Brooks celebrates in his column today:

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

Now, I thought Brooks was supposed to be a seasoned political observer, but he seems to have swallowed the reform-y rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. He’s seasoned enough, though, to give himself an out with the qualifier, “if administered properly.”

He’s gonna’ need that out, though the reform failure probably won’t be primarily administrative; the legislation itself offers gaping holes through which schools can escape real reform. To get “innovation” grants, schools would simply have to agree to do such nebulous, input-centric things as provide “student support services” and implement “other innovative programs.” In other words, they’d need do nothing meaningful at all.

Unfortunately, this bill will probably become law. Few politicians or interest groups are standing firmly against it, and with health care storming the public’s front door, few people will notice SAFRA tiptoeing through the back. Combine that with the few people who are writing about the bill giving it little critical thought, and its passage seems assured.