Topic: Education and Child Policy

Book Review: Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got that Way

Update: I respond to feedback on this review from readers wondering why I was so harsh on a book I liked.

In the author’s note to Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley writes: “I didn’t care deeply about charter schools, vouchers, tenure, or other policy hang-ups…. So, I thought, I’ll just slip out the back door and go investigate this other mystery for a while.” That other mystery was the apparent ability of some countries to educate their children unusually well.

Ripley’s note captures both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses. She is a talented writer with a sense of adventure, and her prose is a pleasure to read. By setting aside the leading education policy questions of our time, she is able to focus on telling the personal stories of children from very different parts of the world, and there is much to be learned from them.

But there is a cost to ignoring virtually all of the evidence on how education policy affects educational outcomes: you’re much less likely to find the needle in the haystack if you decide not to look at the hay. When Ripley concludes that the effect of policy is marginal, the reader can only wonder: how would she know, when she didn’t study the evidence?

When “Zero Tolerance” Means Zero Logic

Schools work very hard to curb drunk driving, so when a sober student offers to drive an inebriated friend home from a party rather than let her attempt to drive home herself, no doubt any school would hold her up as worthy of emulation, right? Wrong, sadly, at least at North Andover High School in Massachusetts:

Two weeks ago, Erin [Cox] received a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Erin drove to Boxford after work to pick up her friend. Moments after she arrived, the cops arrived too and busted several kids for underage possession of alcohol.

A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. In the middle of her senior year, Erin was demoted from captain of the volleyball team and told she would be suspended from playing for five games.

One of the central purposes of education is to teach students to consider the consequences of their actions. In this sense, Cox and her friend demonstrated greater wisdom than school officials. While the students clearly considered the potentially lethal consequences of attempting to drive drunk, school officials apparently haven’t considered how their “zero tolerance” policy might discourage sobers students from aiding inebriated colleagues in the future. As Alexander Abad-Santos notes at the Atlantic, “Cox did not break any laws; she did not drink, did not party — yet was still punished by the school. By reprimanding Cox, North Andover High is likely sending out a confusing and contradictory message to teens about drinking, designated drivers, and asking for help.” The Cox family lawyer agrees:

More on Racial Preferences at UT-Austin

At the end of its last term in June, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. In that case, Abigail Fisher challenged the University of Texas’s use of racial preferences in its admissions policy as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. When Fisher applied to UT-Austin, the school accepted the top 10 percent of students from all in-state high schools (since lowered to 8 percent), then fills its remaining spots by considering a mix of factors, including a preference for individuals of some (but not all) racial minorities.

When the case originally came to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the court granted wide deference to UT-Austin and its claim that the racial preferences were justified by what the Supreme Court held — in a 2003 case out of the University of Michigan called Grutter v. Bollinger — to be a compelling government interest: educational diversity. The Supreme Court took Fisher’s appeal, and Cato filed an amicus brief supporting her, arguing that the policy didn’t pass strict scrutiny because the university failed to establish (and the lower court failed to require) the “strong basis in evidence” necessary to justify race-conscious measures and to enable a reviewing court to apply any meaningful level of review.

In a 7-1 opinion, the Court agreed, holding that the Fifth Circuit had not correctly applied strict scrutiny when it deferred to the university as to whether its race-conscious measures were necessary and narrowly tailored. While the Court didn’t reconsider Grutter or the continuing validity of “educational diversity” as a compelling state interest, it did remand the case to the Fifth Circuit with instructions to apply actual strict scrutiny to the university’s use of racial classifications.

Back before the Fifth Circuit, Cato has once again filed a brief supporting Fisher. We argue that the strong-basis-in-evidence requirement is necessary for several reasons: to enable courts to independently review the use of race, to smoke out illegitimate and arbitrary uses of race, to enable the proper tailoring of valid uses of race, to limit racial stigma, and to provide greater transparency and accountability. These reasons are all especially important in the context of diversity in education.

We then point out how UT-Austin has failed to meet its factual burden. It hasn’t established a factual basis to explain its conception of diversity (What will the use of race provide?); the necessity of its racial classifications (Why are there no race-neutral means available?); nor the reasoning behind the extent of its preferences (Why do only some racial classes receive preferences?). Because UT-Austin has failed so miserably to meet its factual burden, it’s clear that its admissions program is precisely what the strong-basis-in-evidence requirement is meant to eliminate: an arbitrary and amorphous use of racial classifications and a violation of the constitutional guarantee that every one of us, student or not, be treated as an individual with full legal equality.

The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Fisher later this fall.

Court: Anxiety About Getting Fired Can Be ADA Disability

In 2008 Congress passed something called the ADA Amendments Act, which reversed various Supreme Court decisions and expanded other rules and definitions so as to enable many more persons to claim status as disabled for purposes of filing discrimination lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I predicted the ADAAA would lead to bad consequences, but even I didn’t foresee what happened in this South Dakota federal case, as told by employment blogger Eric B. Meyer. The plaintiff is a teacher who had been given a poor evaluation and been put on a “performance improvement” plan.

It was right around this time that the teacher met with a physician’s assistant, who diagnosed the teacher with “anxiety and depression, likely stemming from her concerns about possibly getting fired.” 

So, at the teacher’s request, the physician’s assistant wrote a letter to the school seeking a laundry list of accommodations, including:

  • restructuring her job to include only essential functions if stressful situations continue to negatively impact her
  • encouraging her to walk away from stressful confrontations with supervisors; and
  • providing coverage if she becomes overwhelmed with stress from the work environment and needs to leave

The school responded to the full list of accommodation requests, agreeing to provide some, rejecting some, and requesting clarification as to others.

“We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help,” Schoolyard Edition

In an epic case of unintended consequences, government-mandated anti-bullying programs are actually increasing bullying by teaching kids how to bully, according to a new study published in the Journal of Criminology:

The study concluded that students at schools with anti-bullying programs might actually be more likely to become a victim of bullying. It also found that students at schools with no bullying programs were less likely to become victims.

The results were stunning for Jeong [the author]. “Usually people expect an anti-bullying program to have some impact—some positive impact.”

The student videos used in many campaigns show examples of bullying and how to intervene. But Jeong says they may actually teach students different bullying techniques—and even educate about new ways to bully through social media and texting.

Jeong said students with ill intentions “…are able to learn, there are new techniques [and gain] new skills.” He says students might see examples in videos and then want to try it.

According to Jeong, some programs even teach students how to bully without leaving evidence behind. “This study raises an alarm,” he said. “There is a possibility of negative impact from anti-bullying programs.”

So under the pretense of helping, the government essentially created a “How To Bully and Get Away With It” program that has made the lives of tens of thousands of schoolchildren more miserable. 

Politico Distorts Evidence on School Choice

Yesterday, Politico ran a story on school choice programs claiming that American taxpayers “will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition — and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.” In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence both that school choice works and that it saves money.

On the question of whether school choice results in superior learning, Politico makes the wrong comparisons. For example:

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

It is not accurate to compare disadvantaged students participating in a school choice program to the general population, which includes children from wealthy families, just as it would be inaccurate to compare all private school students against all public school students (which would show a clear advantage to the former over the latter). That’s comparing apples and orangoutangs. The most accurate comparison is a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of social science. As James Pethokoukis and Michael McShane pointed out over at the AEIdeas blog, Politico fails to mention that 11 of 12 RCTs found that choice improves student outcomes. The last study found no statistically significant difference while no study found any harm.

Many of the gains were small, though statistically significant, and often the gains were only for certain subgroups (generally low-income blacks) who had the least schooling options at the outset. However, based on the available evidence, even the most pessimistic reading of the data must conclude that school choice does no harm, on average. Even then, in addition to more satisfied parents, school choice is a great boon to taxpayers as it produces similar (or better) results at a much lower cost.

Facebook Opens Takedown Hotline for Public School Officials

was critical earlier this year when lawmakers in my home state of Maryland enacted “Grace’s Law,” purporting to ban so-called cyberbullying — in this case, the use of hurtful online language as part of a course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress or harassment on a Maryland juvenile, apparently whether or not the speaker knows that the person distressed by the speech is a Maryland juvenile. I predicted that the law would run into trouble in the courts for infringing on much speech protected by the First Amendment.

On Tuesday, the new law took effect, and this morning Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler unveiled a joint initiative with Facebook and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) in which Facebook will create a new program for school officials, the Educator Escalation Channel — initially limited to use in the state of Maryland, presumably pending similar enactments elsewhere — allowing the officials to object to Facebook users’ content. Per local radio station WTOP, Maryland school officials will be offered the chance to flag “questionable or prohibited” language. That is to say, they will flag speech that isn’t prohibited by the new law but which they deem “questionable.”

The targets of the new program, according to Gansler as quoted by WTOP, include persons who are “not committing a crime… We’re not going to go after you, but we are going to take down the language off of Facebook, because there’s no redeeming societal value and it’s clearly hurting somebody.” That is to say, Gansler believes he has negotiated power for school officials to go after speech that is not unlawful even under the decidedly speech-unfriendly definitions of the new Maryland law, but which they consider hurtful and lacking in “redeeming societal value.”

Already, defenders of the new program are arguing that there’s no problem here, because Facebook as a private entity is free voluntarily to put whatever terms it wants to into its user agreement and enforce them however it likes. Of course, private companies deal voluntarily with a group of state enforcers like the NAAG only in the sense that you or I deal voluntarily with the Internal Revenue Service.

Can we now finally start taking the First Amendment implications of these laws seriously?