Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Influence of Policy Advocacy — Findings and Caveats

A new Brookings study looks at the influence of different education advocacy groups on the passage of Louisiana’s state-wide school voucher bill. In a clever twist, Russ Whitehurst and his co-authors added a fictitious advocacy group to the survey form as a placebo, to calibrate the rankings. After acknowledging that Governor Bobby Jindal was far more responsible for the enactment of the voucher program than any advocacy group, the paper concludes that the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry was the next most influential player. That’s not surprising given that its political contributions topped three quarters of a million dollars in the last state election cycle. Second and third places went, respectively, to the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Louisiana Federation for Children.

This is useful information but it should be digested with two important caveats in mind. First, enacting a particular bill is an imperfect measure of long-term impact on policy, as the case of Utah illustrates. In February 2007, Utah enacted a universal voucher program. Less than a month later, teachers’ union opponents began a petition to put the voucher bill to a referendum vote and campaigned aggressively against it. By November, before a single child had ever received a voucher, voters struck the program down by a 3 to 2 margin. The lesson? If reform advocates don’t win over the public, their influence with state legislators can’t protect a program from ultimately being hobbled or overturned.

The second point is that, to the extent advocacy organizations do exert a lasting impact, they have a responsibility to ensure that their recommendations can deliver on their promises. “School choice” is a catchall phrase, encompassing reforms as disparate as public school open enrollment, charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits. Even within each of these policy categories, details between programs vary substantially. But expertise in advocacy does not automatically confer expertise in policy (or vice versa). Will a particular policy perpetuate social conflicts over what is taught, or help to end them? Will it ultimately suffocate educators with regulatory red tape and limit parental choices, or preserve freedom in the long term? Will it allow brilliant educators to reach masses of students while limiting the growth of inferior schools? There are already at least tentative answers to these questions, though much remains to be learned. The more deeply advocacy organizations explore these questions before pushing through legislation, the more successful they will ultimately be.

10-Year-Old Faces Expulsion Over Imaginary Weapon

We’ve already noted that zero tolerance means zero logic, but this story ranks among the most asinine. The Rutherford Institute is representing the parents of a 10-year-old child who was threatened with expulsion and eventually suspended for playfully firing an imaginary “arrow” from an imaginary “bow” at another student “armed” with an imaginary “gun”:

As we understand the facts of Johnny’s case, during the week of October 14th, Johnny asked his teacher for a pencil during class. He walked to the front of the classroom to retrieve the pencil, and during his walk back to his seat, a classmate and friend of Johnny’s held his folder like an imaginary gun and “shot” at Johnny. Johnny playfully used his hands to draw the bowstrings on a completely imaginary “bow” and “shot” an arrow back at the friend. The two children laughed.

Seeing this, another girl in the class reported to the teacher that the boys were shooting at each other. The teacher took both Johnny and the other boy into the hall and lectured them about disruption. This is exactly where the story should end.

Instead, however, the teacher sent an email to Johnny’s mother, Beverly Jones, alerting her to the seriousness of the violation because the children were using “firearms” in their horseplay, noting that Johnny was issued a referral to the Principal.

Principal John Horton contacted Ms. Jones soon thereafter and asserted that Johnny’s behavior was a serious offense that could result in expulsion, although Mr. Horton offered to “merely” require that Johnny serve a one-day in-office suspension.

When Ms. Jones asked Mr. Horton what policy Johnny had violated, Mr. Horton replied that Johnny had “made a threat” to another student using a “replica or representation of a firearm,” through his use of an imaginary bow and arrow…

Shouldn’t school officials just be glad that, instead of using play swords, these kids are safely “killing” each other from across the room?

(Hat tip: Michael Graham.)

 

The Core of Big Brother

Over at SeeThruEdu I’ve got a post responding – sort of – to a recent article on the Common Core by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. It’s only “sort of” because for the most part Ponnuru is right on the money: Some of the allegations against the Core are highly dubious, but so are many of the arguments proffered for it. My only quibble is that Ponnuru says that the Core doesn’t represent “Big Brother in the classroom.” Narrowly that’s right – the Core itself is just the standards – but when you look at the data collection and overall federal policy of which the Core is an integral part, fears about Big Brother – or maybe Big Micromanager – coming to a school near you are reasonable.

Check it out!

PISA School Test Results

New international student test results called PISA have been released. See here and here. Once again, U.S. high-school kids did poorly. American kids ranked 36th in math, 24th in reading, and 28th in science among 65 countries and jurisdictions. The U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.

A number of Asian countries scored the highest on all three tests. But Canadian kids also did very well, scoring toward the top on all the tests. On math, for example, Canadian kids ranked 13th, compared to U.S. kids at 36th.   

American policymakers often react to such dismal U.S. results by calling for more central planning of education through federal subsidies and mandates. But note that Canada has no federal education department and no federal subsidies for its K-12 schools. Canadian education is entirely controlled at the provincial and local levels.  

The Canadian test score advantage over the United States doesn’t prove that decentralization alone leads to higher scores, but it does prove that the United States does not need any federal involvement in order to become a top-ranked schooling nation. Indeed, Cato scholars have long argued that we would better off abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and ending all federal subsidies

My colleagues have opined on the PISA results here and here.

More on Canada’s decentralized government here and here.

Highlights of the New PISA International Test Results

The latest (2012) PISA results are out! PISA is a test of fairly basic, practical skills given to 15-year-olds around the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • U.S. performance is essentially flat across subjects since 2003
  • Finland’s performance has declined substantially since 2003
  • Korea is continuing to improve, solidifiying its position as one of the highest performing nations
  • Already the highest-performing Latin American country, Chile has continued to improve, leaving the regional average further behind.

The U.S. story needs little elaboration. Neither the structure nor the content of American schooling has changed in educationally meaningful ways since 2003. We still have 50 state education monopolies, with a growing but still realtively small homogenizing federal presence.

The “Replicate Finland!” bandwagon was always misguided. It is simply not sensible to take a nation’s performance on a single test, in isolation, as evidence for the merits (or demerits) of its national education policies. There are too many other factors that affect outcomes, and there are too many important outcomes for a single test to measure. For those who nevertheless championed Finland as a model, the latest PISA results are a bit awkward (see, for instance, the book: The Smartest Kids in the World).

Though the Chilean student protests of 2011 and 2012 focused on the desire for free, universal college, the leaders of that movement also harshly criticized that nation’s universal K-12 private school choice program. About 60 percent of children in Chile attend private schools, most of them fully or substantially funded by the national government. One of the most famous protest leaders, Camila Vallejo, was recently elected to the Chilean congress as a member of the Communist party. The influence of Vallejo and her compatriots has shifted public sentiment against crucial aspects of the nation’s private school choice program, despite the fact that private schools themselves remain extremely popular with parents. It is quite possible that, in the coming years, Chile will unravel the very policies that have made it one of the fastest improving countries in the world and the top performer in Latin America.

The NEA has called for higher U.S. teachers’ salaries based on the PISA results, arguing that some of the top performing countries pay their teachers more relative to people in other careers. This is self-serving and scientifically dubious. The NEA presents no evidence for a causal link between overall teacher salaries and student performance, just a bit of random cherry picking that ignores countless confounding factors. To find the real link between average salaries and performance, we can look at domestic U.S. research on the subject. Hanushek and Rivkin, for instance, find that “overall salary increases for teachers would be both expensive and ineffective.” Not surprisingly, a recent review of Ohio’s data on teacher “value-added” and teacher pay finds an inverse relationship:

in Cleveland… teachers deemed “Least Effective” by the new state evaluation system earned, on average, about $3,000 more than the teachers deemed “Most Effective.”

There’s some evidence that tying teacher pay to student performance helps to improve learning, but that’s about it.

Finally, it’s important to remember that PISA is a test of everyday “literacy” in the three subjects it covers (math, reading, and science). If you want to know how well students are learning the specific academic content needed for continuing study at the college level, PISA isn’t your best choice. For that, take a look at TIMSS.

Leaning Too Hard on PISA

This morning the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment – or PISA – are available, and already some are declaring that they show the United States needs national curriculum standards. Conveniently, we’ve got an effort to implant such standards right now: the Common Core. But do the latest PISA results really show that national standards are what make, in particular, East Asian nations excel, and their absence here is what sticks us in the doldrums?

Of course not. As Jay Greene so helpfully points out as everyone scrambles to cherry-pick data to press their agendas, just “eyeballing” countries’ results tells us basically nothing. There is far too much that affects outcomes to declare your favored reform the right one based on a glance at PISA results. To begin to get at root causes, analyses that allow one to control for numerous variables are needed.

The good news is, such analyses have been done. The bad news, at least for national standards fans, is that they do not support the idea that national standards lead to superior results. Indeed, there is good evidence that national culture – not standards or tests – might be the most important determinant of outcomes on international exams. You can read all about it in Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards, a 2010 Cato report intended to weigh in on a debate about the merits of moving to national standards.  It’s a debate that, alas, we never really had thanks to the federal government telling states that they either adopt national standards right away, or lose out on federal dough.

With that in mind, maybe one good thing will come out of national standards aficionados declaring PISA vindication of their policies. It will open up the chance to have a serious national debate about how real that “vindication” is.

P.S.: Andrew Coulson will soon be furnishing a much broader analysis of the PISA results than I offer here. Stay tuned!

The Contempt’s the Thing

There’s been much ink spilled the past few days over U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s defense of the Common Core, delivered as an obnoxious attack on white, suburban women. Proclaimed Duncan to a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers (one of the Core’s progenitors):

It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.

Much of the uproar over Duncan’s attack has been over his injecting race and sex into the Common Core debate, and that certainly was unnecessary. But much more concerning to me – and indicative of the fundamental problem with federally driven national standardization – is the clear message sent by Duncan’s denunciation of Jane Suburbia: average Americans are either too dull or too blinkered to do what’s best for their kids. The masses need their betters in government – politicians, bureaucrats – to control their lives.

Alas, this has been a subtext of almost the entire defense of the Core. Every time supporters decide to smear opponents primarily as “misinformed” or “conspiracy theorists,” they imply that people who are fighting for control of what their children will learn are either too ignorant, or too goofy, to matter.

Of course, there are some opponents who don’t get all the facts right about the Common Core, but supporters ignore that many of these people are just finding out about the Core. Unlike major Core supporters, many opponents – often parents and plain ol’ concerned citizens – haven’t been working on the Core for years. And even when opponents use such regretably over-the-top rhetoric as calling the Common Core “Commie Core,” they are ultimately making a legitimate point: the federally driven Core is intended to make the learning outcomes of all public schools the same – “common” is in the name, for crying out loud! – and in so doing, nationalize learning. At the very least, that’s not a move in the libertarian direction.