Topic: Education and Child Policy

President Obama and the Case of the Missing Research

One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tactics is to claim that there is no serious evidence pointing in any direction other than his preferred policy. The president had occasion to deploy this tactic in an interview earlier this week, when Bill O’Reilly asked him why he opposed school vouchers:

O’REILLY - The secret to getting a … good job is education. … Now, school vouchers is a way to level the playing field. Why do you oppose school vouchers when it would give poor people a chance to go to better schools?

PRESIDENT OBAMA - Actually — every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any —

O’REILLY - Try it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - On — it has been tried, it’s been tried in Milwaukee, it’s been tried right here in DC —

O’REILLY [OVERLAP] - And it worked here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - No, actually it didn’t. When you end up taking a look at it, it didn’t actually make that much of a difference. ... As a general proposition, vouchers has not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities —

The most charitable interpretation of the president’s blatantly false remarks is that he’s simply unaware that 11 of 12 gold-standard studies of school choice programs found a positive impact while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative outcome. Jason Riley summarized the findings of a few recent studies:

No Big Deal. Just Taxpayers Getting Clobbered

According to Ben Jacobs at the Daily Beast, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will soon be introducing legislation to allow holders of federal student loans to refinance at lower interest rates. There’s no indication that the new rates would be in exchange for longer terms, or anything like that. Just lower rates because someone might have borrowed at 7 percent, rates for new loans are now at 3 percent, and, well, paying 7 percent is tougher.

According to Jacobs, the proposal “seems to encapsulate…free-market principles” because recent changes to the student-loan program connect rates on new loans to broader interest rates. Apparently, pegging interest rates to 10-year Treasuries is very free market-y.

Perhaps more concerning than the questionable use of the term “free-market principles,” however, is the article’s handling of my reponse to the author’s request for comment. Apparently, I was fine with Warren’s rough idea, except for one little thing. Writes Jacobs:

In fact, Neal McCluskey, a higher education expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, had difficulty finding objections to the concept of Warren’s bill though he cautioned that was without any legislation for him to read. Instead, he was agog at the issues involved with reducing government revenue through lowering interest rates because the lender has to pay for it and, in this case, the lender is the American taxpayer.

How much bigger an objection could there be to “the concept of Warren’s bill” than that such a move would leave taxpayers holding the bag? As I often try to emphasize, taxpayers are people, too. There are lots of other concerns – most centrally, easy aid fuels tuition inflation – but to gently paraphrase Vice President Biden, reducing revenue that’s already been budgeted is a big deal!

Let me rephrase that: It should be a big deal. But as proposals like this indicate, it’s not nearly as big as it ought to be.

 

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.