Topic: Education and Child Policy

Newspaper Doubles Down on Anti-School Choice Errors

Give Rolling Stone credit: when their story on sexual assault at the University of Virginia completely unraveled, they at least had the decency to admit their errors and apologize to their readers. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Florida’s Sun-Sentinel.

A few weeks ago, the Sun-Sentinel ran an error-filled editorial against educational choice. Since then, it has refused to run a retraction or even a correction of its numerous errors, including:

  • Falsely claiming that the legislature enacted a “massive expansion” of the scholarship tax credit law this year;
  • Mistakenly relying on the moot fiscal analysis of a dead bill;
  • Misreading that analysis to report a “deficit” when it actually reports savings;
  • Falsely claiming that a separate fiscal analysis by the legislature’s budget office relied on “information provided by [private] schools.”

That list does not include several additional misleading comparisons and crucial omissions that were also brought to their attention.

Last week, they ran a rebuttal by Doug Tuthill, president of the Step Up for Students scholarship organization. However, they subsequently published a bellicose letter from Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, which attempts to rebut Tuthill… by repeating the same errors as the Sun-Sentinel editorial.

Blanton opened his letter by accusing Tuthill of “attempting to deceive the public,” but not a single one of Blanton’s accusations has any merit. Indeed, Blanton’s accusation better describes his own letter. Let us address his claims in order.

Early Childhood Summit Don’t Lie?

When I first heard about the White House Summit on Early Education being held today, I worried. “I sure hope this isn’t going to be a PR stunt to cheerlead for government pre-kindergarten programs,” I thought. Then I got the announcement: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be having a Twitter chat with pop sensation Shakira in conjunction with the summit! “Oh, I was just being silly,” I said to myself, relieved that this would be a sober, objective discussion about what we do – and do not – know about the effectiveness of pre-K programs.

Okay, that’s not actually what happened. In fairness to Shakira, she does appear to have a very serious interest in children’s well-being. Unfortunately, the White House does not appear to want to have an objective discussion of early childhood education.

Just look at this, from the official White House blog:

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.

Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.

Let me count the ways that this is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool:

  • The 7-to-1 ROI figure – for which the White House cites no source – almost certainly comes from work done by James Heckman looking at the rate of return for the Perry Preschool program. It may well be accurate, but Perry was a microscopic, hyperintensive program from the 1960s that cannot be generalized to any modern, large-scale program.
  • If you look at the longitudinal, “gold-standard” research results for Head Start, you see that the modest advantages accrued early on essentially disappear by first grade…as if Head Start never happened. And federal studies released by the Obama administration are what report this.
  • It stretches credulity to call Head Start “high quality,” not just based on its results, but on its long history of waste and paralysis. Throughout the 2000s the federal Government Accountability Office and general media reported on huge waste and failure in the program.
  • Most evaluations of state-level pre-K programs do not randomly assign children to pre-K and compare outcomes with those not chosen, the “gold standard” mentioned above. Instead they often use “regression discontinuity design” which suffers from several shortcomings, arguably the biggest of which is that you can’t do longitudinal comparisons. In other words, you can’t detect the “fade out” that seems to plague early childhood education programs and render them essentially worthless. One large-scale state program that was evaluated using random-assignment – Tennessee’s – appears to be ineffective.
  • The White House says early childhood programs can help “children from all backgrounds.” Not only is that not true if benefits fade to nothing, but a federal, random-assignment evaluation of the Early Head Start program found that it had negative effects on the most at-risk children.

I suspect the vast majority of people behind expanding preschool are well intentioned, and I encourage them to leverage as much private and philanthropic funding as they can to explore different approaches to pre-K and see what might work. But a splashy event intended to proclaim something is true for which we just don’t have good evidence doesn’t help anyone.

Let’s not mislead taxpayers…or kids.

Exposing an Error-Filled Editorial against Educational Choice

Over the weekend, Florida’s Sun-Sentinel editorialized against Florida’s scholarship tax credit law. But, as I detail at Education Next today, the editorial was rife with errors, distortions, and omissions of crucial context. Here’s just one example of many:

Rather than put the scholarship tax credit law in the context of Florida’s overall education spending, the Sun-Sentinel compares it to… Iowa.

“No state has a bigger voucher [sic] system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.”

Setting aside the fact that the state of Florida did not “spend” even one red penny on the scholarships, this comparison is misleading. Do the editors at the Sun-Sentinel really believe that Iowa has as many students as Florida? If so, why haven’t they decried the fact that Florida spends more than $25 billion on its public schools while Iowa spends barely $5 billion? Perhaps because Florida has more than five times the number of students?

Comparing apples to apples, fewer than 10,500 students received tax-credit scholarships in Iowa last year compared to more than 69,000 in Florida. And while the tax-credit scholarships are larger in Florida than Iowa – about $4,660 on average versus about $1,090 on average – they are dwarfed by the more than $10,000 per pupil spent on average at Florida public schools.

The Sun-Sentinel owes its readers and the public a full and detailed retraction.

Harvard’s Asian-American Problem Has a Solution, Chapel Hill’s Does Not

In his op-ed at the New York Times yesterday, Yascha Mounk, a fellow at New America, asked “Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?” A century ago, Harvard had a problem, he writes: “Too many Jews.” Today it’s Asian-Americans. Euphemistic admissions criteria like “character and fitness” solved Harvard’s problem back then. Today, numbers do the job. To get into the top schools, Mounk writes, Asian-Americans “need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers.” And that’s brought on a suit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions.

If this case is decided eventually under current law, as is likely, the result will be less than clear or satisfying in several respects. To see why, just follow Mounk’s argument. One reason this “new discrimination” is tolerated, he notes, is that “many academics assume that higher rates of admission for Asian-Americans would come at the price of lower rates of admission for African-Americans.” But the two issues are unrelated, he continues:

As recognized by the Supreme Court, schools have an interest in recruiting a “critical mass” of minority students to obtain “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This justifies, in my view, admissions standards that look favorably on underrepresented groups, like African-Americans and Latinos. But it can neither explain nor justify why a student of Chinese, Korean or Indian descent is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one.

Then what does explain why an Asian-American student is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one? Mounk continues:

Conservatives point to Harvard’s emphasis on enrolling African-Americans (currently 12 percent of freshmen) and Hispanics (13 percent) but overlook preferences for children of alumni (about 12 percent of students) and recruited athletes (around 13 percent). The real problem is that, in a meritocratic system, whites would be a minority—and Harvard just isn’t comfortable with that.

Ah! There we have it, Mounk believes. But notice that this “explanation” mentions, almost in passing, “a meritocratic system,” as if that were what we had. If we did—at least one based heavily on SAT scores—the aforementioned academics would be right: Harvard would admit far more Asian-Americans and far fewer African-Americans and Hispanics—and perhaps fewer legacy and athletic applicants as well.

Common Core Will Fix the Nonexistent Gender Gap!

Walk around a random college campus, and the odds are good the first student you’ll run into will be female. 57 percent of college students are women, versus 43 percent men, a 14 point gap. Look at Advanced Placement exams – those College Board tests that enable high-scoring takers to get college credit – and you’ll find that 56 percent of students taking the exams are girls, creating a 13 percent gap favoring women. But fear not! University of Miami president Donna Shalala assures us that the Common Core national curriculum standards will help address the “gender-based inequities” crushing female students.

Um, what?

As the data make obvious, there is no college-readiness gap unfavorable to women. Yet Shalala proclaims that, “These uniform, more rigorous K-12 education standards have the potential to reduce gender-based inequities by ensuring that every young woman receives the educational foundation she needs to be successful in college and career.”

Okay, maybe Shalala doesn’t really mean to suggest – as the quote does – that the Core will fix overall gaps. Maybe she only means differences in subjects like computer science and engineering that, as she writes, do lean male. But as Core proponents will point out if you assert the standards are too broad, the Core only furnishes math and English guidelines, not engineering or computer science. More important, of the two areas the Core tackles, AP-taking suggests women dominate one and hold their own in the other. 62 percent of students taking the AP English exams in 2014 were female, while 48 percent of Calculus AB takers were girls. At the very least, these figures belie any accusations of systematic efforts to exclude women from college-prep courses, even if girls tend to choose different courses than boys.

Sadly, superficial argumentation for the Core is widespread, if rarely quite so egregious as this. More common is proclaiming that “higher standards” will, simply by virtue of being higher, drive greater achievement and make the country economically triumphant.  This despite what the research actually says about national standards.

Ironically, Core supporters love to take opponents to task for being misinformed, and they are sometimes right: Core opponents do too often ascribe curricula they don’t like, or malevolent motives, to the Core and its creators. But supporters have been just as untethered to reality despite, often, having been involved with the Core for years, unlike lots of parents forced to scramble for information after the standards suddenly showed up at their doors demanding their children.  In the case of Shalala, at the very least she signed the Shanker Institute’s “manifesto” applauding the Core – and calling for an explicit national curriculum – in 2011.

Defense of the Common Core has too often come in the form of platitudes and ungrounded assertions. This latest effort hasn’t improved upon that.

Scaring Students For Their Own Good

“I thought he was going to shoot me.”

That’s the text message that a mother received from her terrified child at Jewett Middle Academy in Winter Haven, Florida. But the child wasn’t describing a psychotic school shooter. It was a drill. As the local CBS affiliate reported:

Students at Jewett Middle Academy said they were terrified when police officers burst in the doors for a planned active shooter drill – but students and teachers are irked they were not told ahead of time.

Seventh-grader Lauren Marionneaux told WTVT-TV that when the officers burst into her class with an AR-15, she was in fear for her life.

“We actually thought that someone was going to come in there and kill us,” the station quoted her as saying.

In the wake angry protests from parents, students, and teachers, school officials explained that the secrecy surrounding the drill was necessary for the students’ safety:

“Unfortunately, no one gets an advanced notice of real life emergencies,” Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Gearey said in an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post. “We don’t want students to be scared, but we need them to be safe.”

They don’t want students to be scared, but unannounced active shooter drill is guaranteed to scare kids. Moreover, as Lenore Skenazy points out, such drills could actually put people in danger:

Of course, the authorities neglected to notice that no one sets the school on fire to create more realistic fire drills. Nor do they drag in giant wind machines to replicate the feel of an impending tornado.

The fear that teachers might suffer heart attacks, that kids might experience psychotic breakdowns, that someone with his own weapon might shoot real bullets in defense—none of that seemed to occur to our peacekeepers. Nor did the notion that distraught parents might race frantically to the school, endangering anyone in their path.

No, these cops were so focused on the most horrific, least likely crime that nothing else mattered.

School shootings are every parent’s worst nightmare, but fortunately they are exceedingly rare. As I explained back in September, fewer than one in 10,000 schools have had a shooting in the last two years, and fewer than one out of every 2,273,000 students per year are killed at school including all types of violence, not just shootings. By contrast, according to National Geographic, the odds of being hit by lightning in a given year is one out of 700,000.

Some experts have also questioned the efficacy of unannounced active shooter drills. In the Wall Street Journal, a former SWAT officer who conducts seminars to teach civilians how to deal with mass-shooting scenarios panned the idea: “There ends up being zero learning going on because everyone is upset that you’ve scared the crap out of them.” The Journal also reported several other instances of drills gone awry. In one drill at a nursing home, a police officer posing as an armed intruder forced a nurse into an empty room at gunpoint where “she tearfully begged for her life.” She was so traumatized that she quit her job. Other drills also left civilians traumatized or even physically injured:

The confusion that sometimes ensues during drills also can have unintended consequences. In March, a teacher in Boardman, Ohio, filed a lawsuit against local police and school officials, claiming he was unexpectedly tackled by a police officer during a drill at a high school, seriously injuring his hip and shoulder.

Jesse McClain, 60 years old, had volunteered to participate and was playing the role of a “panicked parent” when the officer tackled him without warning, his lawyer, John O’Neil, said. Boardman Township’s police chief and the superintendent of the town’s school district declined to comment on the incident, citing the lawsuit.

In Florida, a woman filed a complaint in March with state officials on behalf of her sister, a Fort Walton Beach nurse, over a drill at an Okaloosa County Health Department office. According to the complaint, employees weren’t informed about the drill, which involved a police officer firing blanks, and many were “hysterical, crying and shouting.”

As with fires and other hazards, it is important for schools to be prepared for an emergency. But policymakers must keep things in perspective. Keeping kids safe does not require terrifying them.

Illegal “No Child” Waivers Should Raise Much Louder Alarms

If the outcry over unilateral executive moves we’ve seen over the last few years remains consistent, Obamacare and immigration are likely to keep sucking up most of Republicans’ attention and the media’s coverage. But just as sweeping have been executive waivers issued from the hated No Child Left Behind Act – really the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – that have been instrumental in connecting numerous states to, among other things, the Common Core national curriculum standards. And yesterday, the Education Department issued guidance offering states the chance to obtain waivers – if they do the administration’s bidding, of course – lasting well into the term of the next president: the 2018-19 school year.

These waivers are almost certainly illegal – even a Congressional Research Service report often cited to suggest the opposite says they are unprecedented in scope and, hence, an untested case – and even if they are not deemed technically illegal, the reality is they still amount to the executive department unilaterally making law. NCLB does grant the Secretary of Education the authority to issue waivers from many parts of the Act, but it grants no authority to condition those waivers on states adopting administration-preferred policies. Indeed, as University of South Carolina law professor Derek W. Black writes in a recent analysis of waivers, not only does NCLB not authorize conditional waivers, even if a court were to read any waiver authorization as implicitly authorizing conditions, the actual conditions attached – “college- and career-ready standards,” new teacher evaluations, etc. – fundamentally change the law. In fact the changes, Black notes, are essentially what the administration proposed in its 2010 “blueprint” to reauthorize NCLB. And quite simply, the executive fundamentally changing a law is not constitutional.

The latest waiver guidance goes beyond even the toxic status quo. Not only is the President using his vaunted pen and phone to unilaterally make education law, but law that would continue well into his successor’s term. It is a very dangerous move that, quite frankly, deserves at least as much alarmed coverage as Obamacare waivers and immigration actions. If for no other reason, because the action is moving us swiftly toward a de facto federal curriculum. In other words, direct control over what the vast majority of the nation’s children learn.

Federal power can’t get much more invasive than that.

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