Tag: 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)

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.

Slight Correction to My DC Per Pupil Spending Figure

In my IBD piece today I gave total per pupil spending in DC as $29,000 per pupil. That was based on an official k-12 audited enrollment count of 44,681, which I was told by a district official included the special needs students placed by the district in private schools. It turns out this was not the case, so we have to add in the special needs students to arrive at the total enrollment figure. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get that enrollment correction into the IBD in time for publication. Its impact on per pupil spending is not large, however.

The grand total audited enrollment was 48,353 students. From that we have to subtract 997 students in adult education programs and 1,498 students in preschool programs who are not covered by my k-12 budget calculations. That leaves us with a k-12 audited enrollment of 45,858. Dividing that in to the District of Columbia’s $1.3 billion k-12 education budget yields a per pupil spending figure of about $28,000.

Trapped Inside the Mime’s Box

Kevin Carey, policy director at the think tank Education Sector, asserts that when it comes to higher education libertarians are boxed in, unable to find a solution to out-of-control college costs that won’t violate at least one, basic libertarian principle:

This puts libertarians in somewhat of a box. On the one hand, they tend to be hostile toward the tens of billions of public dollars that flow into colleges every year. The more colleges cost, the greater the claim on the average citizen’s hard-earned money and thus reduction in their precious liberty etc., etc.

But the best way to bend down the long-term higher education cost curve and thus reduce government spending is to increase government regulation in the form of mandatory reporting. So it’s a pick your poison situation for the Cato folks — would you rather have Big Brother’s hand in your wallet or his eye on your business? You really can’t avoid both.

Now, I don’t want to seem obnoxious about this. After all, in the same piece that produced this quote, Carey notes that “while my politics are pretty far from Cato’s and I often think they’re wrong, they tend to be wrong in interesting ways.” I thank him for that (I think), though I should note that the impetus for his piece is a paper that comes from the John William Pope Center – the same paper I discuss here – not from Cato. So it might not even be Cato that Carey finds interesting. Regardless, here’s my potentially obnoxious-sounding reply:

Without even discussing the extremely dubious assumption that more regulation will lead to lower college costs, wouldn’t the best, most direct way to “reduce government spending” obviously be to, well, reduce, or even stop, government spending?

Of course it would, and that is the obvious solution for libertarians! It would get Big Brother out of our wallets and kill whatever justification subsidies might give him to gaze into our business. And it wouldn’t just make libertarians feel better – the benefits would accrue to almost everyone. If students and donors, rather than taxpayers, were to cover much more of colleges’ costs, taxpayers would save money, colleges would be unable to charge as much as they currently do, and schools would have to focus much more on their customers and patrons.

So there is no either-more-regulation-or-higher-costs box. Indeed, the only box that libertarians could possibly be trapped in is a mime’s box – a purely illusory one that someone has to really, really want to believe in for it to have any sort of existence at all. 

Having broken free of the invisible, intangible box, let me address one other thing that Carey brought up both in the discussion held at Cato, and his latest commentary:

The problem is that colleges aren’t just going to unilaterally release lots of new information on their own. Nor would it help matters much if they did; for data to matter it has to be standardized in a way that allows for comparison. That’s why companies report one set of quarterly financial results to the SEC, not 50 different sets to each state. Given that higher education is a national market this leads to a similar national solution: The federal government should compel colleges to release much more information about success as a condition of receiving direct or indirect federal aid.

The idea that a market that happens to be national in scope somehow requires federal control is both very common, and very inaccurate, simply equating “national” with “federal” and moving on from there. Even worse, though, is the even more basic assumption that to get something good, or just standardized, government control is required.

Whether it’s McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris, an item on the menu in Beverly Hills is going to be essentially the same as in New York City. Why? Not because Washington says it must be, but because that keeps the customers coming. Or consider the QWERTY keyboard: It became the national standard by free-market, not government, forces. And how about the Model T, which was driven by Americans from Maine to San Diego? It was standardized not because the federal government said “this is a national car, so we must make it the national standard,” but because one company produced it and it was freely chosen by customers from sea to shining sea. And how do we choose automobiles today? Not by going to some federal report on what a car should be (though perhaps that day is coming) but, often, by consulting such trade mags as Road and Track.

Clearly, we don’t need government to set standards or inform consumers – markets will do those things themselves. But that markets will set their own standards is just part of the story. Sometimes – indeed, almost all of the time – you simply don’t want a single standard: Vegetarians don’t want a great steak. Many people would rather click than type. The English major fascinated by Chaucer doesn’t need a cyclotron. The working mom often doesn’t want the same education as the parentally funded 18-year-old.

And then there is the gigantic – but usually ignored – problem of government failure: Government regulation and standardization is very costly. It can be used to crush the opponents of the politically well-connected rather than advance the common good. It can have crippling unintended consequences. And, as former Dickinson College president, Clinton-era Department of Education assistant secretary, and current George Mason University professor A. Lee Fritschler made clear at the discussion of the Pope Center’s paper, it also simply fails – a lot. Indeed, based on his experience at the Department of Education, Fritschler is adamant that the feds are simply incapable of effectively regulating higher education.

So once again, Carey sees a mime’s box. This time, though, it’s not one he imagines entrapping libertarians, but one he thinks Washington can drop on the ivory tower to make it work right. It’s a different box, but just as illusory.

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.

STEM Sky Not Falling?

Education policy is far too rarely driven by facts or logic – they’re just too inconvenient, mucking up both uber-hyped “crises” and warm-and-fuzzy myths.

Recently, the big scare has been that the United States is on its way to a desperate shortage of scientists and engineers, a message that has, of course, been heartily embraced by politicians determined to push more kids into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Well, it seems that once again the crisis du jour has been well overstated. USA Today has a great new story demonstrating that we actually have more than enough scientists and engineers. (Not that this hasn’t been pointed out before.) Most telling is the content in the article’s  sidebar, which includes some real crisis-deflating stuff:

Detailed findings issued last year by the federally funded RAND National Defense Research Institute found “no evidence of a current shortage” of science and engineering workers. It said National Science Foundation predictions of shortages so far have proved “inaccurate.”

RAND… recommended a permanent commitment to monitoring the USA’s science and technology performance, but said the slow growth of U.S.-born technical workers “will change when the earnings and attractiveness of S&E (science and engineering) careers improve.”

So we actually have plenty of scientists and engineers, and the market appears to be working just as it should?  I hope someone tells our leaders! Otherwise, they’ll almost certainly push even more kids into jobs that, it turns out, will probably only exist in the land of imaginary crises.

Duncan’s Donut: The Ed. Sec.’s Impact on Chicago Student Achievement Was Near Zero

For seven months, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the media have bombarded us with tales of how Duncan dramatically boosted student achievement as leader of Chicago Public Schools. Based on two new independent analyses, Duncan’s real impact appears to have been near zero. 

The usual evidence presented for Duncan’s success is the rise in the pass rate of elementary and middle school students on Illinois’ own ISAT test. But state tests like the ISAT are notoriously unreliable (they tend to be corrupted by teaching to the test and subject to periodic ”realignments” in which the passing grade is lowered or the test content is eased). In January, the Schools Matter blog argued that exactly such a realignment had occurred in 2006.

So to get a reliable measure of Duncan’s impact, I pulled up the 4th and 8th grade math and reading scores for Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – a test that is much less susceptible to massaging by states and districts.  I then compared the score changes in Chicago to those for all students in Large Central Cities around the nation, and tested if the small differences between them were statistically significant. Not one of them is even remotely significant at even the loosest accepted measure of significance (the p < 0.1 level). Chicago students did no better than those in similar districts around the nation between 2002/2003 and 2007, a period covering virtually all of Duncan’s tenure in Chicago.

As I was finishing up this statistical analysis a few minutes ago, I came across a new report by the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago. According to the Civic Committee report, the elementary and middle-school ISAT gains touted by Duncan and the media appear to be almost entirely illusory: artifacts of the 2006 realignment. Chicago high school students, who take a different test that was not realigned, perform no better today than they did in 2001 – so whatever real gains did occur in the early grades evaporated by the end of high school.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune a few days ago, columnist Greg Burns touted Duncan’s supposed success as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and noted that Duncan had good prospects for winning the support of business leaders nationally, as he did in Chicago. But Chicago’s Commercial Club has now concluded that Duncan failed to accomplish what he has claimed, and given that the NAEP scores echo their findings, the education secretary may soon find national business leaders more skeptical as well.