Topic: Education and Child Policy

Flight Not an Option in Public School Wars

People viciously go for each other’s throats when they’re trying to help “the children.” At least, according to a new Politico article, that’s the case over the last several years, with demonization increasingly the weapon of choice when it comes to education politics.

Several pragaraphs in, the piece gets to the inflamed heart of the problem:

The policies the two sides fight over are high-stakes indeed. They drive hundreds of billions in public spending. They could impact millions of union  jobs and millions in corporate profits. And they will have an enormous impact on where, how and what the next generation learns.

That may be why the hostility seems to be escalating.

Public schooling politics is a zero-sum game: all people pay in, but only those with political power get control. That is exactly why public schools drive such vitriol and anger. It is like politics generally, but with the emotionally charged, added stakes that people’s children and, often, their basic values, hang in the balance. Making matters worse is that basic decisions about crucial questions—including who is held “accountable,” how, and what children will learn—have for roughly 50 years been increasingly made at the federal level. As a result, people who want something different can’t move to another district or even state to get the education they want. There is no more flight. There is only fight.

Of course, painful conflict caused by public schools is nothing new, even if nationalization is making it worse and more visible. Familiarizing oneself with the history of American education makes clear just how divisive public schooling has been. For instance, see the Philadelphia “Bible Riots,” or the textbook war in Kanawha County, WV. And just because something is local- or state-controlled doesn’t free it from conflict. Cato’s still-under-construction public schooling “battle map” pinpoints well over 800—and growing—contemporary battles over basic values and rights fought at the school, district, and state levels. And that doesn’t include constant combat over budgets, teacher evaluations, school start times, math curricula, and on and on.

Ultimately, understanding why public schools are the source of unceasing conflict—and why it worsens the more that control is centralized—requires the simplest of logic: One government school system cannot possibly serve all, diverse people equally. And the higher decision-making goes, the more diversity the monolithic system encompasses.  

Government schooling essentially guarantees war without end, and increasing centralization only puts peace further out of reach.

Why Malala Didn’t Go to Public School

Since she was shot in the head by a would-be Taliban assassin, Malala Yousafzai has become one of the most recognizable and admired young people on the planet. But in a new piece in the British Spectator magazine, education scholar and Cato Institute adjunct fellow James Tooley points out that “something curious is going on.”

http://abcnews.go.com/International/malala-yousafzai-death-kill/story?id=20489800Something crucial to her experience is always omitted when her life and mission are described by international agencies and the media… it wasn’t to governments that Malala and her family turned (or are turning now) to get an education…. In fact, she’s scathing about government education: it means ‘learning by rote’ and pupils not questioning teachers. It means high teacher absenteeism and abuse from government teachers, who, reluctantly posted to remote schools, ‘make a deal with their colleagues so that only one of them has to go to work each day’; on their unwilling days in school, ‘All they do is keep the children quiet with a long stick as they cannot imagine education will be any use to them.’ She’s surely not fighting for the right of children to an education like that.

But if not government education, what is she standing for? In fact, Malala’s life story shows her standing up for the right to private education.

For the school she attended, on her way to which she was famously shot by the Taleban, was in fact a low-cost private school set up by her father. This reality gets hidden in some reports: not untypically, Education International describes her father as a ‘headmaster’. Time magazine describes him as a ‘school administrator’. Headmaster, school administrator: these obscure the truth. In fact, her father was an educational entrepreneur.

Read the whole thing. James Tooley is the Indiana Jones of education, splitting his life between his professorial duties at the University of Newcastle and scouring the globe for something “experts” used to think was a myth: private schools serving poorest of the poor. He’s found them all across India, Africa, and even China—and they work. You can pick up the mind-blowing story in his book The Beautiful Tree.

Common Core: “If You Like Your Curriculum, You Can Keep Your Curriculum”

Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching. However, now that states have begun to implement Common Core, those same backers are singing a different tune. Professor Jay P. Greene highlighted the shift at the Education Next blog. For example, just six months ago, prominent Common Core supporters Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.

However, now Porter-Magee and Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute argue that the standards must change “classroom practice”:

In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen.

What sort of changes will that entail? Well, for one, Common Core uses “lexiles,” which measure things like sentence length and vocabulary to rate the complexity of a text, to determine which books are suitable for each grade level. As Professor Blaine Greteman points out at The New Republic, the simplistic lexile scores absurdly conclude that “The Hunger Games” is more complex than “Grapes of Wrath” and that Sports Illustrated for Kids is more complex than “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Greteman concludes, “Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.”

As Greene notes, the change in tune concerns not only the impact on curriculum, but also whether Common Core prescribes a given manner of teaching: 

The National Council on Teacher Quality, with support and praise from the Fordham Institute, are grading teacher training programs on whether “The program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”   Wait.  ”Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

It would be nice if Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign could keep their story straight.  The switch once the fight has shifted from adoption to implementation creates the impression that these folks make whatever argument they think will help them prevail in the current debate rather than relying on principle, evidence, and intellectually serious policy discussion.

[Hat tip to Greg Forster of the Jay P. Greene Blog for the title of this post.]

Is It Too Easy to Start Private Voucher Schools?

Interesting story today in Wisconsin’s Journal Times about the ease with which someone can start a private school with state voucher funding:

[as] the system works now, a new voucher school can enroll children after simply attending a short fiscal training session, writing the state a $900 check and filling out a few simple forms.“You basically fill out a letter of intent. There’s not much else there,”

Low barriers to entry are crucial to a well-functioning market; they allow people with new and innovative ideas to easily offer their services to the public. This, in fact, is how economic progress often takes place—not by the incremental improvement of existing providers, but rather the entry of new ones.

But “low” is a relative term. If your business requires any up-front capital at all you have to put your own money on the line, find willing investors, or both. Entrepreneurs typically don’t or can’t do that without first developing a sound business plan and convincing banks and other investors of their ability to execute it. And once they’ve begun operating, entrepreneurs still have to earn the public’s trust. People can be leery of dealing with new companies they’ve never heard of.

Not only can voucher schools be started with less up-front due diligence, they also get the government’s seal of approval absolutely free. What difference does that make?

For instance, a weekend Journal Times story explained how a student lost her voucher spot when St. John Fisher, 2405 Northwestern Ave., closed in 2012 after its first year in operation when it ran out of money.

Kandy Helson, whose daughter went to the now-defunct school, said she thought the school was sound because the state put it on a list of participating voucher schools in February. She didn’t know how little is actually known about participating schools when the list gets released.

Naturally, the solution is to impose a whole bunch of quality-assurance regulations on new vouchers schools, right? That’s certainly the answer that many people would give. But, of course, traditional public schools are absolutely coated in such regulations and their productivity has collapsed over the past 40 years.

So how do we ensure universal access to the education marketplace without facilitating the creation of poorly managed schools? One way is to provide low-income parents with financial assistance from an array of different private scholarship granting organizations (SGOs)—organizations that must compete with one another to attract philanthropic donations and to attract families seeking assistance. In order to appeal to donors, these organizations would have to show that they are truly helping low-income families and not throwing their money at mismanaged schools.

This is precisely the sort of system that arises under well-designed scholarship donation tax credit programs. Under those programs, businesses and/or individuals can donate to the SGO of their choice, and they receive a tax cut in the amount of the donation (or close to it). Just as normal charitable organizations have to compete to attract donors’ interest, so do SGOs, and this gives them an incentive not to fund badly-managed schools. A dozen or so states already have such programs, including Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Survey Says: Public Wants to Know the Total Per Pupil Cost of Public Schooling

A new public opinion survey commssioned in Rhode Island by the Friedman Foundation reveals that people want to know the honest-to-goodness total per-pupil cost of public schooling.

Unfortunately, the full cost is regularly omitted from state education department websites, as revealed in a recent Cato study by Jason Bedrick. What’s more, the full figure is seldom reported by the media. Instead, newspapers and local TV news outfits usually report just a portion of the cost that excludes things like construction spending, interest on debt, and pensions. Education officials obviously have an incentive to make their operations look as frugal as possible, so it’s no surprise that they would offer reporters these partial spending figures (known as “operating” or “current” spending).

Why Such a Harsh Review for a Book I Liked?

I’ve had some feedback on my review of Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World, and How they Got that Way. A key question: Dude, why so harsh?

I did spill less ink than I could have discussing the book’s good qualities. I find disagreement more interesting than agreement in book reviews, though, so when pressed for time in writing one I tend to give the latter short shrift. For the record, my list of its strong points was not exhaustive. For instance, Ripley is entirely right that children must be taught that learning new things can be challenging, requires effort, and that failures are an integral part of the process. She is right that teacher acumen and subject-area expertise are vitally important. She is right that when both school and home place a high value on learning, children learn more.

But this is not new information. There is an “effective schools” research dating back to the 1970s that has repeatedly found the same things. The real promise of Smartest Kids in the World was in its subtitle: and How they Got that Way. And that is where we encounter the book’s fundamental flaw. Ripley states at the outset that she is fascinated by differential educational outcomes across countries, but isn’t interested in the role that policy might play in them. True to form, the book ignores an enormous swath of research conducted in that area over the past generation.

Equal Protection Nonsense: Women at West Point Edition

On NPR’s Morning Edition today you’ll find the story “West Point Women: A Natural Pattern or a Camouflage Ceiling?” Reporter Larry Abramson leaves us with the impression that, in the words of Col. Ellen Haring (class of ’84), “women are being excluded from a taxpayer-funded educational opportunity”—or, as Abramson puts it:

The Army says it wants more women in the officer corps. The question is whether more will join an organization where their [sic] are still perceived limits on their numbers.

Col. Haring has a point, or would have one if the aim of West Point were simply to afford young men and women an “educational opportunity.” But the American people, through their representatives, presumably had a more precise goal in mind when they created West Point in the first place. National defense is a quintessential public good, defined as economists do, so we don’t need to argue about whether the government should be in that business. To be sure, the purpose of an army officer corps, pursuant to that goal, may change as technology changes. But for the present and the foreseeable future, there are certain limits on the composition of the corps that are set by its very function. By virtue of that function, the Army, at least at the officer level, never has been and, one hopes, never will be a come-one-come-all equal opportunity employer. The American people would be ill-served were that to happen.