Tag: student achievement

How the Washington Post Covers Education

Yesterday, the president proposed yet another big increase in federal education spending. The Washington Post quoted ”senior White House officials” as saying that the spending would boost “the nation’s long-term economic health.”

I sent the story’s authors a blog post laying out the evidence that higher government spending hasn’t raised student achievement, and that if you don’t boost achievement, you don’t accelerate economic growth.

Today, there is an updated version of the original WaPo story. It no longer mentions the stated goal of the spending increase. It doesn’t mention that boosting gov’t spending has failed to raise achievement, and so will fail to help the economy.

But it does cite a single non-government source for comment on the president’s plan: the Committee for Education Funding. The Committee is described by the Post as “prominent education advocates,” and as an organization that “represents dozens of education groups.”

Here’s how the CEF itself measures its accomplishments: “The… Committee [has] been very successful in championing the cause of increasing federal educational investment. Through strong advocacy… [it has] won bipartisan support for over $100 billion in increased federal education investment over the last five years.” Its members, if you haven’t guessed already, include virtually every public school employee organization you can name, including, of course, the national teachers unions.

That’s the source, the one source, the Washington Post asked to weigh in on a new federal education spending gambit.

I asked the author of the revised version of the story to comment for this blog post. At the time of this writing, I’ve received no response.

Ben Chavis to Charles Murray: “Bring it”

In an exchange I had with Charles Murray earlier this month, he complained that there was no bulletproof scientific research documenting miraculous improvement in student achievement attributable to great schools like those of Ben Chavis.

At the time, that objection was beside my point, which is that there is copious evidence that competitive market education systems yield very substantial (if not “miraculuous”) improvements over the status quo government monopoly. We don’t need miracles to prove that there is a much better way of organizing and funding schools.

But that wasn’t enough for Ben Chavis. He called yesterday to pass along a proposition to Charles: come perform the research yourself. In fact, Ben offered to put Charles up in his own house.

I don’t know if Charles will go for this, but I wish he would (or find a grad student who will). And here’s why: I think Charles is so skeptical of the results of great schools and teachers because he has not come across any mechanism in his studies that could adequately explain those results. But I contend that there is such a mechanism: a school culture so strong and conducive to academic effort that it can overcome the absence of an academically supportive culture in the home.

If you read Jay Mathews’ wonderful book Escalante, or Ben’s Crazy Like a Fox, this becomes immediately clear. The school environment in these rare cases becomes a much more powerful influence on students’ willingness to work and expectations of success than is normally the case. These great schools tap into a fundamental human desire to belong to a team that offers them support and to which they feel an obligation to be supportive in return. It’s the same impulse that leads soldiers to put their lives on the line for their buddies in combat, and that sustains the insane work ethic in high tech startups.

This is one reason why free enterprise education systems excel all others: they offer the greatest freedom and most powerful incentives for excellent schools to replicate their cultures on a grand scale.

Race to the Top = Klondike Bar

Remember the ads in which actors…er, people…would enthusiastically do demeaning things for Klondike Bars? You know, ads like this one, in which Shakespeare stoops to writing a TV sitcom in exchange for one of those chocolate-encrusted ice cream blocks?

The message, of course, was that the Bard and all the other Klondike-cravers took the  deals for the dessert, not, obviously, for the love of what they were being bribed to do.  They just wanted the reward – even the biggest idiot understood that.

Sadly, it seems that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan might be hoping that the public is  dumber than the biggest idiot. In a recent interview, he talked as if there might actually be  states suddenly making education changes needed to get part of his $5-billion “Race to the Top” fund not because they want the money, but because the reforms are the right thing to do.

“It’s really not about the money - it’s about pushing a strong reform agenda that’s going to improve student achievement,” he said. “We’re going to invest in those states that aren’t just talking the talk but that are walking the walk….If folks are doing this to chase money, it’s for the wrong reasons.”

Only in politics would you bribe people to act, then declare that they’d better not be acting just to get the bribe. But you wouldn’t want the public realizing that politicians and bureaucrats are just as selfish as corporate titans or swindlers, would you?

The problem Duncan is trying to deal with, of course, is convincing the public that reforms coerced with Race-to-the-Top dollars will stay in place after the one-shot-deal bucks are gone. But as even the biggest couch potato knows, Shakespeare simply won’t write for Gary Coleman if there’s no ice cream at the end.

We Are not Seeing the Bell Curve’s Toll

Ben ChavisLast week, I posted a chart on this blog showing the percent change in federal education spending and student achievement since 1970 (achievement has been flat while federal education spending has nearly tripled).

After laughing out loud when he saw it, IQ expert and Bell Curve author Charles Murray mused that “such a huge proportion of a child’s educational prospects are determined by things other than school (genes and the non-school environment) that reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

But consider the accomplishments of Ben Chavis, who spoke at Cato last Friday. When he took over the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland in 2001, it was the worst school in the district. Under his leadership (imagine a hybrid of Socrates and Dirty Harry), the school’s scores rose dramatically year after year. Within seven years, it had become the fifth highest-scoring middle school in the state – though continuing to enroll a student population that is overwhelmingly poor and minority.

It was not a freak occurrence. Chavis did it again, and again: creating a second AIPCS middle school as well as a high school, both of which are also among the top schools in the state, and both of which also enroll chiefly low income minority students.

Murray has made a compelling case over the years that IQ is real, strongly tied to academic achievement, and determined in significant measure by nature and home environment. But academic achievement is also powerfully determined by schooling. Typical U.S. test score data camouflage the significance of schooling because so many schools are so amazingly bad at maximizing academic achievement – especially for poor minority students.

But Chavis – and others before him and alongside him today – have shown how to do it: instill in the school environment those cultural characteristics necessary for academic success that are missing in the home.

In a free enterprise school system that would automatically disseminate and perpetuate great schools like Ben’s, average test scores would rise dramatically above their current levels. The Bell Curve would be shifted dramatically to the right.

New DOE Study: On-Line Learning Beats the Classroom Kind

The Dept. of Education has just released a study finding that (predominantly college-aged or older) students learn significantly more if their lessons occur at least partly on-line, than if they rack up seat-time exclusively in conventional classrooms (HT: Matt Ladner).

This makes sense. On-line learning usually allows students to progress at their own pace, so as soon as the student’s ready to move on to the next stage, she can. There’s no falling behind the rest of the class, or doodling in your notebook while you wait for them to catch up. So, like performance-based grouping and one-on-one instruction, it’s more efficient than the status quo, which lumps together students by age regardless of their knowledge or performance.

The great irony of this report is that it bears the name, in its frontmatter, of one Arne Duncan, secretary of education. Secretary Duncan had this to say shortly after taking office back in February: “If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America.”

While the evidence presented by his own Department shows that greater student achievement comes from more individually customized on-line learning, Duncan’s diametrically opposed priority is to homogenize education so that every 10 year old is being taught the same things at the same time.

Fortunately, short of actually outlawing or invasively regulating on-line learning, there’s nothing that anyone can do to stop it from gradually displacing the old model, particularly for high school and older students.

Does Watching Whales Make You a Better Teacher?

whale_watchingYears ago, talking with a public school teacher friend of mine at the end of the school year, she told me how excited she was about her impending orca whale watching outings in the San Juan Islands. Not only would it be a blast, but it would count as a continuing education credit (toward a master’s of education degree, as I recall) that would boost her salary substantially.

Normally, I bite my tongue in such situations. But before I could stop myself I blurted out the question: “Is watching whales going to make you a better teacher?”

The lack of any relationship between education master’s degrees and student achievement is acknowledged in a recent study from the Center for American Progress by Marguerite Roza and Raegen Miller.  In fact, Roza and Miller find that states waste $8.6 billion every year paying for master’s degrees that do nothing to improve student performance. Ironically, the state that offers the highest wage bump to teachers who obtain an M. Ed. ($10,777) is my home state of Washington.

Watching whales may not do much for your students, but it does wonders for your pocketbook. (HT: Joanne Jacobs)

The Myth of Arne Duncan’s “Chicago Miracle”

Last week, I blogged about the fact that Chicago students’ NAEP test score gains were modest under Arne Duncan’s leadership, and statistically indistinguishable from the modest gains made in urban districts around the nation. My analysis – which contradicts the rosy impression given by Illinois’ ISAT test –  has just been released here.

Secretary Duncan has said that state and district officials should not make inflated claims about student achievement based on misleading state test scores, and has used the NAEP to fact check their claims. He’s right about that.