Tag: students

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.

Chart of the Day — Federal Ed Spending

The debate over No Child Left Behind re-authorization is upon us.

Except it isn’t.

In his recent speech kicking off the discussion, education secretary Arne Duncan asked not whether the central federal education law should be reauthorized, he merely asked how.

Let’s step back a bit, and examine why we should end federal intervention in (and spending on) our nation’s schools… in one thousand words or less:

Fed Spend Ach Pct Chg (Cato -- Andrew Coulson)

While the flat trend lines for overall achievement at the end of high school mask slight upticks for minority students (black students’ scores, for instance, rose by 3-5 percent of the 500 point NAEP score scale), even those modest gains aren’t attributable to federal spending. Almost that entire gain happened between 1980 and 1988, when federal spending per pupil declined.

And, in the twenty years since, the scores of African American students have drifted downard while federal spending has risen stratospherically.

NYT Nonsense on SAFRA

With the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) likely to be voted on by the full House or Representatives today, the media is finally giving some space to debate over the bill. Unfortunately, the New York Times only pays attention to the parts it likes, writing in an editorial today that:

The private lenders and those who do their bidding in Congress have recently taken issue with a Congressional Budget Office analysis that showed that the bill would save about $87 billion over the next 10 years.

They argue, absurdly, for example, that the savings would be smaller if the system were analyzed under accounting rules other than the ones that the federal government is required to use. The aim is to mislead taxpayers and members of Congress into believing that the C.B.O. estimate is dishonest.

Um, excuse me New York Times, but the CBO has never said the bill – not just going from subsidized to direct lending, but the whole bill – would save $87 billion over ten years. Moreover, it has been a series of analyses from the CBO – albeit driven by requests from members of Congress – that have continually increased the cost estimates for SAFRA. (I have linked to all the CBO analyses here.) CBO’s very first estimate of the bill’s likely net cost put it at around $6 billion over ten years, and it only went up from there after incorporating such things as lending risk and potentially higher Pell grant costs.

Of course, the Times isn’t alone in its refusal to talk honestly about SAFRA. Despite all of the CBO estimates, yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said SAFRA would give college students and numerous other interests the world without costing taxpayers a dime.  “We’re not asking the taxpayers for one single dollar,” he said. And SAFRA’s sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), has been touting his bill as a revolutionary money saver since day one.

The truth on this thing is out there, but it’s definitely not in the New York Times.

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

A Picture Is Worth $300 Billion

I blogged this morning that the research shows higher public school spending slows the economy, and explained that this is because spending more on public schools doesn’t increase students’ academic performance. Some readers no doubt find that hard to accept. With them in mind, I present the following chart:

Spending vs. AchievementSpending vs. Achievement

If public schools had merely maintained the level of productivity they exhibited in 1970, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300 billion annual tax cut. Now THAT would stimulate economic growth.

Research Shows $100 Billion Ed. Stimulus Likely Hurting Economy

Tomorrow morning, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.

The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation’s public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors’ own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.

How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital – improving the skills and knowledge of workers – boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.

Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education’s own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.

The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.

Based on this body of research, the president’s decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.

It’s Not About the Speech to Schoolchildren

The reaction to President Obama’s planned speech to schoolchildren and the lesson plans sent out by the Dept. of Ed have sparked a firestorm of criticism and accusations about indoctrination, etc.

Many, many people just can’t understand what the big deal is. After all, it’s just a pep-talk about doing well in school and working hard. Sure, there was some language promoting Obama and political leaders. But who cares? It’s just a brief speech by the President after all. Just like Bush the Elder gave in gentler times (which got him a Congressional investigation).

Many are asking the same questions about a number of issues these days. Why the outrage over the deficit? Where were the complaints when Bush the Younger ran it up? Why so exercised about the government health option? Don’t we have Medicare and Medicaid?

Of course Cato scholars, libertarians and many conservatives have criticized these things all along. For some, the new sensitivity, the emotion, is the result of the proverbial straw on a camel’s back, the accumulation of dissatisfaction with various aspects of the government over decades. And what has changed for others is the pace and scope of government expansion at the close of the Bush presidency and the dawn of Obama’s.

The furious reaction to the politicized lesson plan and Obama’s speech to schoolchildren cannot be understood without the context of the bailouts, the stimulus, the debt, GM, the attempt to take over health care.

And now, our kids. And not just the speech and lesson plan, but federal expansion into preschool and early childhood initiatives and home visitations (however voluntary and innocuous-seeming in different times).

They … the government, the meddlers, the nannies … they are coming for our money, our doctors, our guns and our kids. They won’t stop until they control everything.

That’s how it looks to millions of Americans. Fair or not, people are now very sensitive to any actions by the Obama administration.

Just as a lifetime of exposure to an allergen and modest immune reactions can reach some ill-defined tipping point and bloom into full-blown anaphylaxis, many Americans have developed an acute allergy to government intervention and Obama’s grand plans.

In isolation, the reaction to this speech seems wild. Given the context, it’s completely understandable.