Topic: Education and Child Policy

When Does 5 Weeks of Training Beat 4 Years of Higher Ed?

…when the training is doled out by Teach for America and the higher ed. is a traditional teachers’ college. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Mathematica Policy Research, a respected purveyor of quantitative social science research. The salient details are summarized by Politico:

the researchers found statistically significant gains, which they calculated as the equivalent of about two and a half extra months of learning for students of TFA recruits…. The TFA teachers got better scores from their kids than a comparison group of teachers who went through traditional university training programs.

It kind of makes you wonder, what are they teaching in those four years of university instruction? I haven’t seen a comprehensive recent rundown of the subject, but back in the 1990s a top-flight journalist, Rita Kramer, spent a year visiting teachers’ colleges all over the country. What did she find? Well, she called her book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers.

I talked a little more about the TFA study with Bob Bowdon at ChoiceMediaTV.

Long Live the Hated College Rankings!

Hooray, the U.S. News and World Report college rankings are out! No, they aren’t perfect – Creighton probably isn’t slightly better than Butler, or Berkeley than UVA – but the relative standings of schools is but one piece of information U.S. News provides to help both consumers and the publication’s bottom line. You know, a win-win. Indeed, most of the information that President Obama thinks Washington needs to publish, at least according to the “fact sheet” to go with his recent college tour, is already provided by U.S. News. You will have to pay $30 for access to all of it, but that’s a microscopic investment compared to the six-figure choice many prospective students will be making.

Let’s run the presidential rating-items list:

  • “Percentage of students receiving Pell grants”: Check!
  • “Average tuition”: Check!
  • “Scholarships”: Check and check!
  • “Loan debt”: Roger that!
  • “Graduation…rates”: Better believe those are checks!
  • “Transfer rates”: Not exactly check, but close.
  • “Graduate earnings”: OK, not in U.S. News, but readily available right here!
  • “Advanced degrees of college graduates”: Here’s the only clear non-check for easy data availability. U.S. News’ “graduation and retention” sections for each college have many advanced study categories, but most don’t give data.

Other than specifics about transfer rates, advanced studies pursued by a school’s graduates, and graduates’ earnings, everything the White House wants to use for ratings is on the U.S. News site. And of those missing items, U.S. News offers a decent approximation for one and PayScale gives you the other. Oh, and U.S. News furnishes tons of additional information the fact sheet doesn’t mention, including rankings of undergraduate business and engineering programs; schools with the most emphasis on teaching; student body ethnic diversity; student housing; and much more.

Of course, again, U.S. News isn’t perfect. Which is why it is so great that it has lots of competitors, including Forbes, The Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, and more. In other words, the market provides, and we don’t need more government “help.” Indeed, what we need from government is much, much less.

School Spending Transparency Favors School Choice

In a post at RedefinED Online calling for more sunshine on the Sunshine State’s public school spending data, I discussed the broader implications of financial transparency:

Awareness about public school spending has implications for the public discourse over public education. A Harvard University survey shows the public vastly underestimates how much public schools cost, which affects the public’s spending preferences. When citizens are informed about the true cost of public education, they are significantly less likely to support increasing spending.

Likewise, the widespread misperception that private schools cost more per pupil than public schools likely affects the public’s support for school choice programs. A greater awareness that school choice programs can save money would likely translate into greater public support for school choice. Indeed, Florida policymakers have wisely sought to demonstrate exactly that. The Florida Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) estimated Florida taxpayers save $1.44 for every dollar of revenue reduced by the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

The central purpose of school choice is to provide an education that best meets the needs of individual children, especially to those whose choices are limited. Diverse children require a diverse array of learning options. However, as with any public policy, cost is a factor. Research has shown that when the fiscal benefits of school choice are emphasized, support for choice increases. 

The widespread misperception that school choice programs would cost more than the status quo is therefore both a problem and an opportunity. The misperception currently dampens support for school choice, but it also means that support would increase with greater awareness about the true cost of public schools and the savings that school choice programs provide to taxpayers. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant and it is also necessary for growth. Those who want to see school choice programs grow should advocate for greater transparency in education spending.

 

A School Monopoly? What a Great Idea?

I’m reluctant to give more attention to the steaming pile of dreck that Slate is using as linkbait this morning, but someone should point out how incredibly asinine it is. The author argues that anyone who sends their child to a private school is a “bad person” because, well, see for yourself:

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. 

The first sentence is clearly true but it’s downhill from there. There’s a lot of economic illiteracy to unpack there as well as some rather frightening assumptions about the duty of individuals to sacrifice themselves for some ill-defined “common good” (on Twitter, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat notes that this argument has an eerie resemblence to the Italian fascist motto, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”).

I’ll let others heap on the mocking and scorn that this argument so richly deserves. What I want to focus on is the evidence.

Had this self-declared non-education wonk bothered to take even a cursory look at the research literature, she’d find that competition actually improves the public schools. Of 23 studies of the impact of school choice programs on public school performance, 22 studies find a small but statistically significant positive effect and one finds no visible effect. None find any harm.

The reason that competition works is because it makes schools responsive to the needs of parents. What’s so astounding is that the author wants schools to be responsive to parents, but thinks that the best way to do it is to have a government monopoly, as though Ma Bell would’ve eventually produced an iPhone.

Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “In our upper-middle-class world, it is hard not to pay for something if you can and you think it will be good for your kid.” I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.

Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.

Scratch away the economic ignorance and smug self-righteousness and you find a compelling argument for school choice. Yes, low-income families also want access to good quality schools that meet their kids’ individual needs. But forcing everyone into the same school isn’t going to help. The author correctly identifies the problem but fails to arrive at the right solution. If we want true equality of opportunity, we should expand the educational options available to low- and middle-income families, not restrict the choices of everyone.

A Dream on Hold

Matt Yglesias today cites data to the effect that, while the gap between blacks and whites in completing high school has been steadily closing in recent decades, racial gaps in income and wealth have remained stubbornly large. This discrepancy suggests that blacks have made real progress in raising their relative skill levels but for some reason they aren’t reaping the rewards of that progress in the workplace.

Alas, the solution to this puzzle is that the purported racial progress in the classroom is in fact a statistical mirage. The big problem is that the official stats on high school completion rates count GED holders as high school completers, despite the fact that both economic and social outcomes for GED holders much more closely resemble those for high school dropouts than those for people who actually earn a high school diploma. And it turns out that the GED program is used disproportionately by blacks – to a significant extent because black inmates are earning them in prison. So a big increase in GED certifications for blacks is portrayed as educational progress when in fact it is a byproduct of socially catastrophic mass incarceration.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman from the University of Chicago and coauthor Paul LaFontaine have found that only about 65 percent of blacks finish high school with a diploma, far below the level indicated by the official stats on high school completion. Furthermore, they find no evidence of black-white convergence in high school graduation rates over the past 35 years. Along similar lines, a study by Derek Neal of the University of Chicago found that the black-white gap in educational attainment stopped shrinking around 1990. Neal also looked at test scores and reached similar conclusions: convergence in black-white test score gaps came to a halt in the late 1980s.

The sad fact is that, after great progress through much of the 20th century, racial disparities in human capital levels have remained stuck for decades. The problem isn’t that the marketplace is shortchanging blacks for their rising job skills; the problem is that blacks’ job skills are still so low. This, in turn, is part of a much larger slowdown in human capital accumulation that I talk about in my most recent book.

How Transparent Is Your State’s Department of Education?

When a business applies for a loan, the bank needs to know the business’s operating expenses and its overhead to make an informed decision about whether to grant the loan. A business that acquired a loan while understating or hiding some categories of its expenses would be in serious trouble. However, the government seems to operate by a different set of rules.

A new report from the Cato Institute, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?“ finds that state departments of education routinely understate the cost of public schools and often fail to report key spending categories. Meanwhile, a Harvard survey finds that the public thinks that public schools cost half as much as they really do. Are state education departments contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education?

Find out more at Education Next.

Fordham Study Shows “Common Core” Unnecessary

The Fordham Institute released today a (“groundbreaking”) study titled “What Parents Want,” which finds that:

nearly all parents seek schools with a solid core curriculum in reading and math; an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education; and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. But some parents also prefer specializations and emphases that are only possible in a system of school choice.

That summary could just as easily describe chapter 1 of my 1999 book Market Education, which reviewed 20 years of public opinion research on people’s educational goals and came to the same conclusion. So far so good.

Upon (re-)discovering that parents already share a “solid core” of educational expectations, do Fordham’s Michael Petrilli and Checker Finn reluctantly abandon their erstwhile attachment to the government-backed standards and testing known as “Common Core”? After all, in a free marketplace with lots of overlap in consumer demands, there will be substantial overlap in what providers deliverall voluntarily; no need for government nudging. [I am shocked, shocked, to discover that Apple puts a web browser on its iPhone, similar to the one on my Android phone!?! Even without a government mandate!]

Strangely, but not unexpectedly, that is not what Petrilli and Finn elect to do. On the contrary, they conclude that the freely-occurring commonality among parents’ demands “bodes well for policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, which are designed to deliver much of that.”

Translation: families would pursueand educators would thus providea common core of studies voluntarily, therefore, governments should compel educators to adhere to a particular set of standards cooked up by a group of bureaucrats and arm-twisted into place by the federal government. Because, really, when has anything pursued voluntarily not been improved by the addition of government compulsion?