Topic: Education and Child Policy

How Dare a Minority Get in the Way?

For years, a battle has been raging in Montgomery County, Md., over the school district’s sex education curriculum. Yesterday, the curriculum’s main opponents, while promising to keep fighting, announced that they would no longer do so in court. In celebratory response to the news, Brian Edwards, chief of staff for district superintendent Jerry Weast, declared that “a small group of opponents have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend this, so obviously we’re very pleased that it’s over.”

It certainly is regrettable that Montgomery County taxpayers have had to shell out big bucks to fight this battle, but Mr. Edwards seems to be suggesting that the main injustice is that the curriculum’s opponents are but a “small group.” The small group is itself composed largely of taxpayers, and one of the basic principles of American government is supposed to be respect for people’s rights no matter how few are having them trampled. We are supposed to hate tyranny of the majority.

The problem in Montgomery County — and districts all over the country — is not that a few troublemakers keep thwarting majority rule. It’s that public schooling, which forces taxpayers with diverse values to support monolithic school systems, makes such conflict, and often repression of minorities, unavoidable.

Thankfully, there is a solution to this problem that will benefit both majorities and minorities: Let parents, not government, decide to which schools their children and tax dollars will go. Let all people freely seek the education they want and you immediately vanquish the cause of war.

Certifiably Wrong

Last week, a California appeals court dealt a tough blow to liberty in the oft-freedom-challenged Golden State, ruling that parents may not home-school their children without first obtaining a state teaching license.

This is a regrettable ruling for at least two reasons: First, it appears to violate U.S. Supreme Court precedent rooted in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), in which the Court struck down an Oregon law requiring all children to attend public schools. The California ruling doesn’t force a child to attend a public institution, but in requiring that the child be taught by a state-approved teacher, it appears to conflict with Pierce’s most basic principle:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

The second major flaw in the decision is the underlying assumption that state certification somehow assures teacher quality. Research has found that certification promises nothing of the sort, and, in fact, often keeps people out of teaching who might be great at it but don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on education school. Indeed, an exhaustive review of teacher-quality research by the Abell Foundation determined:

There is a scientifically sound body of research, conducted primarily by economists and social scientists, revealing the attributes of an effective teacher, defined as a teacher who has a positive impact on student achievement. This research does not show that certified teachers are more effective teachers than uncertified teachers. In fact, the backgrounds and attributes characterizing effective teachers are more likely to be found outside the domain of schools of education.

Both basic freedom and educational quality are damaged by this anti-homeschooling ruling, and Californians can only hope that higher courts see this clearly.

NCLB Wobegon

The No Child Left Behind Act hoodwinks parents and the public, allowing politicians to take credit for expanding student “proficiency” no matter how little kids actually know. What’s the trick?  Let’s go to South Carolina, where yesterday the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill that in two years would change the state’s testing system and produce “dramatic” proficiency increases.

Sound suspicious? Don’t worry, no standards will be harmed in the making of this miracle:

The state is not lowering its standards, [Rep. Bob] Walker said.

The change is in wording, such as the meaning of “proficient.”

“Our ‘proficient’ is above grade level,” he said, while No Child Left Behind defines proficient as being at the appropriate grade level.

“You will see a dramatic increase in your level of proficiency,” Walker said.

Of course you will. It just it won’t mean anything.

What It Says, What It Will Say

Yesterday, the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) released several reports kicking off their five-year longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), arguably the nation’s best-known school voucher initiative.

Throughout the most important of the reports—the one establishing achievement levels for voucher students and socio-economically similar Milwaukee public school kids—the authors warn readers not to use the scores to judge schools’ effectiveness. Because it is “snapshot,” baseline data, the scores alone say nothing about how much a school teaches over time, only where students sit at a single moment.

Sadly, some in the media didn’t listen, reporting that private and public schools perform equally poorly. As education reporter Alan Borsuk wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “the first full-force examination since 1995 of Milwaukee’s groundbreaking school voucher program has found that students attending private schools through the program aren’t doing much better or worse than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

It seems some reporters just don’t read research, don’t understand it, or want to push their agenda regardless of what the research tells them.

Unfortunately, as bad as reporting on school choice is, in the end Milwaukee-style choice probably won’t have a huge effect. Sure, the voucher kids will probably learn more than comparable students in traditional public schools, as research has found over and over again, but the research has never found large advantages, and there’s nothing in current school choice programs to suggest that that will soon change. The simple fact is that even with slowly growing school choice the amount of market freedom in American education is far too small to foster real competition and innovation. The public schools are still the 800-pound guerilla and what choice we have is seriously hamstrung.

Just look at Milwaukee. It has more choice than almost any other district in the United States, but has only about 17,000 students in its voucher program and 16,000 in its charter schools, constituting just about 28 percent of the city’s roughly 120,000 school-aged kids. Making matters worse, within those systems freedom is heavily curtailed. Charter schools are only given their right to exist by public authorities, their enrollments must be racially balanced, and they can’t deny admission for academic reasons. Similarly, the MPCP forbids parents from supplementing vouchers with their own funds, is open only to low-income children, and requires participating schools to admit all choice students for whom they have seats.

School choice in Milwaukee is light-years from the free-market at work, and though it’s better than no choice at all, it will likely make some news stories today come close to fitting the facts tomorrow.

Clarifying the Standards vs. Market Reform Debate

NRO’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a series of interesting posts on the debate between those who believe education reformers should focus on improving the curriculum in the government schools and those who advocate focusing on free market reforms. He agrees with Jay Greene that the two approaches are compatible and should be pursued in tandem, and questions Sol Stern for wishing to emphasize curriculum reform over market reform.

But there is some equivocation going on here. Most “instructionists” are not simply advocating improving the curricula in place in our existing state school systems. Most are in fact campaigning for national standards and testing, as former Republican education secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige did here, or for a full-blown national curriculum, as their erstwhile colleague Diane Ravitch has done for more than a decade.

More central planning is not better than less central planning. The fact that the former Soviet Union was able to smother vast multitudes beneath the pall of its five-year plans did not produce winning results. The instructionists who seek to homogenize American education are detached from reality, imagining that new national standards, testing, or curricula would invariably be better — and remain better — than their counterparts adopted at the state level today. There is no reason to believe this. The same dysfunctional incentive structure that has produced the faddism and quackery in state curricula (e.g., California, reading instruction, late 80’s through mid 90s…) would apply at the national level. Our political leaders must offer only the appearance of educational success or improvement to garner votes, not the reality — and they could and would do this by dumbing down standards and/or tests just as we have seen at the state level. At least now, with 50 separate state school monopolies, the hi-jinx perpetrated in one state can be contrasted with the actions of others. With a single set of standards, no domestic points of comparison would remain, making it that much easier for standards to be manipulated.

Furthermore, national standards/curricula would raise the stakes for the school wars that have been dividing communities in this country since the inception of state schooling. What history should we teach? Should math be fuzzy or traditional? Should reading instruction be phonetic or wholistic? Add to all this the fact that the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government no mandate to meddle in matters instructional, and there is every reason to oppose calls for national standards/curriculum/testing.

But what if the instructionists were to abandon their affection for a single set of standards uber alles, confining themselves to improving the content and methods of existing state school systems? How much of the education reform movement’s time should such efforts be allocated? Should there be a 50-50 split, as Greene and Ponnuru seem to be suggesting? Or should we favor curriculum reforms, as Stern advises?

For me, the answer to this question must be based on the expected return on our time and resources. Trying to “fix” the education being provided by a monopoly school system is like trying to “fix” a command economy. While occasional improvements will certainly be possible, ultimately, the effort is doomed. Even when excellent, proven methods or curricula are adopted in state schools, the incentive structure of the system provides no support for retaining  them. A couple of famous examples of this are the billion-dollar “Follow Through” curriculum experiment of the 1960s and ’70s, and the fabulously successful calculus instruction program developed by Jaime Escalante at California’s Garfield High in the 1980s. Follow Through demonstrated that one instructional system was far superior to more than 20 others across a host of criteria, and yet as soon as the experiment was completed most of the schools that had been using it ceased to do so. Escalante, after building a mathematics department that taught advanced skills to hundreds of low-income Hispanic students, was run out of the system by his peers. He simply set the bar too high, and the system had no incentive to try to maintain it. 

Consider, too, that even the best set of uniform curriculum standards, when coupled with an age-based grading system, does a terrible disservice to children. Gidget is not a widget. Kids are different — not just from one another but in their own performance across subjects. Marching students through a “high quality” uniform educational experience based on their age is not good pedagogy. It is, at best, good bureaucracy, making it easier on the paper-pushers running the system.

It is a free market education system — and only a free market education system — that can automatically identify, nurture, expand, and replicate best practices, providing incentives for relentless improvement in content and methods, while also enjoying the flexibility to allow each child to progress at his or her own optimal speed through each subject. The for-profit tutoring industry, pioneered in Japan and spreading throughout the Western world, does not group or teach children based on their age, but rather by their performance in individual subjects.

This is why I cannot spend much of my time trying to improve the curricula in the monopoly schools. Even the best result is suboptimal and almost surely transitory as well. The worst result — a national curriculum that would eventually be dumbed down — would be a catastrophe.

So while the desire to do something now is strong, the futility of trying to fix a monopoly compels me to focus my attention where I think it can actually do real, lasting good. And that is on real market reform.

Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom has in the works a live debate on this topic. Stay tuned to this space for details.

Big-Gov Bush and America’s Ivory Tower

Today the House of Representatives is debating a terrible bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), the primary federal law governing America’s ivory tower. The legislation would, among other things, force states to keep up their higher ed spending to get federal money, forgive loans for people in myriad “public service” jobs, and interfere with private student loan markets.

The good news in all of this could be that the Bush administration opposes the measure. But then we see why that isn’t a silver lining: As Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings makes clear in an op-ed in today’s Politico, the administration dislikes the law because it would prohibit the Department of Education from forcing standards and testing requirements on the nation’s diverse colleges and universities. In other words, it would prevent Spellings from imposing No Child Left Behind on the Ivy League.

It’s the overall tragedy of the Bush administration in microcosm. Sure, they’re fighting the Democrats, but to get more government interference, not less. And this push is extra sad because No Child Left Behind has, if anything, made matters worse in K-12 education, and in trying to blame higher ed for our problems Spellings herself actually hints that government-dominated elementary and secondary schooling is our real crippler:

They “get” where the U.S. is lagging behind, and they know the culprits: rising tuition costs, a burgeoning debt load and the fact that only half of all minorities get out of high school on time [italics added] and fewer than half of all adults have a college certificate or degree, when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in America require post-secondary education.

No matter how much Spellings and Bush inveigh against it for being “unaccountable,” in very stark contrast to K-12 schooling American higher education is the envy of the world, and it got that way precisely because it is not very accountable to government. Rather than answering to a central authority and teaching what politicians think best, our colleges and universities are autonomous, our students are able to choose the schools that are right for them, and competition and innovation are unleashed.

Of course, there are significant problems with America’s ivory tower, such as rampant tuition inflation and great inefficiency driven by government subsidies, but they are actually minor in comparison to the troubles in countries with centralized higher ed. But rather than fix the problems we do have, unfortunately, the Bush administration wants to give us new ones that are much, much worse.

Garrison Keillor Gets Angry

Joanne Jacobs highlights a piece in Salon by Garrison Keillor in which he criticizes Democrats for opposing systematic phonics instruction just because it is associated with political and social conservatives.

But Jacobs is right when she says that “phonics instruction is not inherently the property of the GOP or George W. Bush.” Keillor isn’t familiar with the history of the U.S. reading wars if he thinks that ”progressive” opposition to structured phonics is a recent or merely political phenomenon.

After attacking phonics in his annual report of 1843, Horace Mann (godfather of U.S. public schooling) got into an email flame war a tense exchange of pamphlets with 31 Boston schoolmasters. Mann was advocating the “word” or “look-say” method of early reading instruction, which has since morphed into “whole language.” He thought children shouldn’t be taught to systematically sound out and combine letters and syllables, but rather to simply look at words as wholes and know how to say them out loud, as if by magic. The schoolmasters told him he was nuts. (The original sources are cited here, for the curious.)

Education was still too decentralized and market driven in this country in the early 1840s for nutty pedagogical methods to displace ones that had proven themselves effective. It was not until the 1920s, when modern state school systems and teachers’ colleges had become well established, that progressive educators were able to impose their philosophical and pedagogical predilections on teachers-in-training and the public schools as a whole.

The issue here has never fundamentally been a political one. It has always been philosophical. Progressive education philosophers and practitioners generally object to highly structured systematic teaching methods, in any subject, because those methods do not comport with how they believe learning should take place.

The fact that structured methods work, and for many children work far better than the magical osmosis processes of “whole language,” confers no competitive advantage within a monopoly school system that has no real competition. Do public school districts go out of business if they adopt lousy methods or materials? No. That’s why lousy methods have survived for so long in the public school monopoly, and that is why those same lousy methods (and Horace Mann) were laughed at by schoolmasters at a time when educators actually had to show results in order to make a living.