Topic: Education and Child Policy

The School Computer Mania

The Washington Post reports that President Obama is cheerleading for more spending on high-speed Internet, tablet computers, and Wi-Fi in the nation’s K-12 schools. There are budget and federalism reasons why the president of the United States should not be sticking his nose into local schooling activities, but let’s put those concerns aside here.

I’m very skeptical of putting so much money into technology in the classroom. Just because kids think computers are fun does not mean that’s the best way for them to learn math, reading, science, and history. Politicians love doing photo-ops for their tech “initiatives,” but new computer gizmos are added distractions that students probably don’t need.  

This year my kids are entering a public middle school, which recently had an open house for parents. One of our stops was a science class that had few computers but lots of shop tools and woodworking machines. In this class, the kids learn about things such as aerodynamics and magnetism by building and testing actual models. The teacher said his optional class was in very high demand. I asked why. He said something to the effect, “The kids are saturated with computers in their other classes, but here they can get away from it and learn while working with their hands.”

Recently, I was horrified when the superintendent of our school system said that she wants to issue an Apple iPad to every student. But why? Today’s textbooks are often very colorful and interesting. And many teachers these days are highly trained with advanced degrees—so shouldn’t kids be engaging with them during school time rather than becoming computer zombies? Shouldn’t they be listening to a human rather than staring at a screen?

My kids seem to learn mainly by interacting with their parents and their excellent teachers, and by reading books, doing assignments, and focusing on homework written on old-fashioned paper. They also learn from TV and computers, but there is a balance here that tech-in-the-school advocates seem intent on obliterating. The Washington Post story quoted Obama administration officials saying that their tech initiatives were a “breakthrough investment in schools” and that “this is a transformative moment for teaching and learning in this country.” Baloney.

Government Pre-K Advocates, Please Mingle Reason with your Passion

A recent New York Times story touts growing nationwide support for expanded government Pre-K, from the Obama Administration at the federal level to state legislators and governors of both parties. The passion of government Pre-K advocates is evident, and no doubt they truly wish to help children, but their proposed solutions are based on a non-sequitur.

The central premises of government Pre-K advocates are that:

1) Modern neuroscience shows that early learning is important

2) One or two highly intensive 1960s early-education programs serving a few dozen or a few score children (particularly one called “High Scope/Perry”), had significant and lasting benefits

From these premises, advocates jump to the conclusion that expanding federal and state government provision of Pre-K will yield significant, lasting benefits for the children served and society at large. That conclusion simply does not follow. In order for it to follow from the above premises, it would also be necessary to show that large-scale government Pre-K programs will effectively harness the opportunities neuroscience has identified, substantially replicating the benefits attributed to, say, High Scope/Perry.

The problem is, the best evidence says that won’t happen. There have been several randomized-controlled-trial (RCT) studies of government Pre-K programs. This is the gold standard of both medical and social science research. None of those studies indicate that large scale government Pre-K programs lead to the lasting leaps in cognitive or other outcomes that we all wish to see. Nor can it be said that these studies were carried out by Pre-K naysayers. The largest among them, two Head Start studies and an Early Head Start study, were all published by the Obama administration’s own Department of Health and Human Services and conducted by respected scholars.

What do Pre-K advocates have to say about this? When asked by the NYT, they (anonymously), responded that “the quality of Head Start programs vary widely, and that studies often compare Head Start participants with children in other, potentially better, preschool programs.”

Taking the latter point first, it proves to be irrelevant. In his 2012 doctoral dissertation, Peter Bernardy reanalyzed the DHHS Head Start data to see if, when compared to no Pre-K at all, Head Start showed lasting benefits. It did not. (Hat tip to David Armor and Sonia Sousa for drawing attention to Bernardy’s highly germane findings.)

The same applies, as it turns out, to the issue of Head Start program “quality.” Program quality can of course be defined in many different ways, and so Bernardy adopted a quality definition preferred by government Pre-K advocates themselves. He then asked two questions. First, he asked how Head Start programs score on that quality metric, when compared to programs that advocates say are “high quality.” It turns out that the ineffective Head Start program actually scores above the putatively “high quality” Abbot preschool. Second, Bernardy asked whether the Head Start programs with “high quality” curricula have lasting benefits, based on the DHHS data. The answer, again, was no.

So both of the rationalizations for Head Start’s failure that the NYT attributes to “researchers,” turn out to have been tested and found wanting.

Moreover, even if the evidence had shown that some small subset of Head Start programs have lasting benefits, that would not be a defense of the program as a whole, for two reasons. First, it would imply that at least as many other Head Start programs have negative lasting impacts—otherwise the net impact would not have been zero. Second, it begs the question: how do we replicate only the good programs, and curtail the bad ones? That is what several generations of government officials and education researchers have been striving to do, unsuccessfully, over the past half century. If we knew how a government Pre-K program could be made to only replicate the effective models, we’d be doing it by now.

So, advocates of government Pre-K programs, you are to be commended for your passion for helping children, but please mingle reason with that passion. At present, the best evidence suggests that expanding government Pre-K will not accomplish your goals. What it will do is saddle today’s children with additional government debt, while also applying the breaks to economic growth. Neither is a great service to the next generation.

 

Full Facts Needed on the Common Core

Today the Washington Post has a story, also featured in their DC-area radio ads, about how some states are looking to change the name of the Common Core, but not the substance, because the brand has gotten too toxic. That the Post has so prominently run such a story shows just how noxious the fumes surrounding the Common Core curriculum standards have become, and it’s great that the paper is shining a light on dubious efforts to quell opposition. But within the story itself are several examples illustrating why, even as disgust over the Core grows, the average person doesn’t know how truly foul much about the Core is.

The Post certainly makes clear how some states are trying to cover the Core’s stench with perfume rather than attack its rot. Basically, states such as Arizona and Iowa are just changing the Core’s name. Speaking to the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two professional organizations that created the Core, likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee captured the tactic in one, succinct sentence: “Rebrand it, refocus it, but don’t retreat.”

That doesn’t sound like addressing people’s serious concerns. It sounds like, well, deception—alas, nothing new in the Common Core sales job.

Unfortunately, the Post’s story is itself guilty of Core-tilted inaccuracy, though whether knowingly or unknowingly is impossible to tell. And the Post is hardly alone among media outlets in these failings.

There’s no more crucial an example of this than the piece’s description of the Obama administration’s role in getting states to adopt the Core. Twice the article says the administration gave its “endorsement” to the Core, as if the President simply blurbed the back cover of the standards or was filmed hauling lumber in his Ford Common Core 150.

But the administration didn’t just say “Man, this Core is great!” No, it told states that if they wanted to compete for part of the $4.35-billion Race to the Top—a chunk of the “Stimulus”—they had to promise to adopt the Core. And if they wanted waivers from the almost universally disliked No Child Left Behind Act, they would have only one option other than the Core to show that their standards were “college and career ready.”

There’s a reason most states promised to adopt the Common Core before the final standards were even published: They had to for a shot at federal money!

School Choice Week Grinches in Colorado

Just before National School Choice Week, Democratic state legislators in Colorado killed a school choice tax credit bill. The legislation would have granted tax credits to families with children in private schools worth up to half of the average per pupil spending at government schools or up to $1,000 for homeschoolers.

Democratic Senate President Morgan Carroll did not even give the legislation a fair hearing in the committee that normally takes up education or tax related bills. Instead he assigned it to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, locally known as the “kill committee,” where it faced certain doom from legislators apparently impervious to the evidence:

Under SB 33, a family’s tax credit for full-time private tuition costs could not be more than half the state’s average per-pupil amount. While revenues to the treasury would decline,the official fiscal note showed that over time the limited credit amount would reduce state spending even more for each student who exercised an educational option outside the public system.

Still, Democrats on the committee were unconvinced. “I think it will actually detract from the funding of our public schools,” said Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville).

Colorado currently has a school voucher program operating in Douglas County.

The Freedom’s the Thing

We are in the midst of National School Choice Week, and much of the talk is about test scores, helping poor children access better schools, getting more bang for our bucks, and lots of other, very worthy, important things. But something often seems to get lost in the shuffle not just of School Choice Week, but the overall choice and education debate: freedom. The most fundamental American value is liberty – individual freedom – and not only is an education system rooted in free choice the only system consistent with a free society, it is key to peaceful coexistence among the nations’ hugely diverse people.

That only an education system rooted in free choice is consistent with a free society should be self-evident. Should be, but isn’t, with “social reproduction” – shaping the young to conform with and perpetuate present society – thought by many to be a primary purpose of education, and one which must be controlled by government. As long as a “democratic” process is employed – often poorly defined as some sort of vague, deliberative/majoritarian system – then all is well.

New SOTU Education Promises Just Like the Old SOTU Education Promises

What should President Obama have said about education policy in this year’s State of the Union address? In a more perfect world, he would have announced his plan to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education in order to restore control of education policy to the state and local governments where it constitutionally belongs.

In that imaginary world, the President also would have called for an expansion of the Washington D.C. school choice program, where the federal government actually has legitimate constitutional authority, and used his bully pulpit to promote state-level educational choice programs across the country as a means of reducing inequality and expanding opportunity. And he would have announced that his administration would no longer seek to keep low-income black kids in failing government schools in Louisiana.

Alas, what President Obama proposed instead were mostly the same tired themes we’ve already heard in previous SOTU addresses. 

Once again, the president called for Congress to enact universal preschool (and threatened to go around them if they did not), claiming that “research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.” The research to which he alludes concerned a very small and high-quality program for disadvantaged children. (It’s notable that the president dramatically scaled down the audacity of his claims since last year’s SOTU.) There’s absolutely no evidence that the government could scale up the program for all children nationwide with the same level of quality.

Indeed, when the federal government has tried to do so, it has failed. The federal government’s own study of Head Start was so negative that the Obama administration released it on the Friday before Christmas, practically guaranteeing that almost no one would ever hear about it. Nearly fifty years and $200 billion later, Head Start produces no measurable, lasting benefits. To argue that “this time will be different” is magical thinking.

And once again, the president claimed that he “[wants] to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.” If so, he should propose phasing out federal student loans and Pell Grants, which are spurring the rapid increases in tuition.

Fortunately, outside the administration’s push for Common Core, few of the administration’s SOTU-promoted education initiatives ever get off the ground.

Cato Scholars Respond to the 2014 State of the Union

Cato Institute scholars Alex Nowrasteh, Aaron Ross Powell, Trevor Burrus, Benjamin H. Friedman, Simon Lester, Neal McCluskey, Mark Calabria, Dan Mitchell, Justin Logan, Patrick J. Michaels, Walter Olson and Jim Harper respond to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg and Lester Romero.