Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

From the Ed Stats Truth Squad

Not long ago, Donald Luskin headed-up something called the “Paul Krugman Truth Squad,” a band of analysts devoted to keeping New York Times columnist Paul Krugman honest. Well, after years of seeing education stories in the media rife with misleading, incomplete, or just plain wrong “facts,” it seems that in the tradition of Luskin’s crusaders its time for a truth squad to get to work in education. Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom accepts that challenge, and will from here-on out work to debunk bad education data whenever and wherever in the media we find it (assuming we’re not working on other, bigger things, that is).

We begin with this today’s Washington Post, where a story about per-pupil funding in the nation’s capital—and the need to boost it—featured a very dubious statistic:

The recommendation to spend $8,770 a child when the school year begins in August came from State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist. Now, $8,322 is spent for each student [italics added].

Could it be true that only $8,322 is spent per child in the District of Columbia? Surely it is higher than that!

Indeed it is. According to the latest numbers from the federal Digest of Education Statistics, in the 2002-03 school year $14,419 was spent per-pupil in Washington, DC, a figure 73 percent larger than the one given by the Post and one that’s almost certainly even higher today.

The $6,097 question, of course, is how these different figures were arrived at. Unfortunately, the Post’s reporter didn’t give any details about how the $8,322 figure was determined, so we can’t explain the huge difference with absolute certainty. We can, though, probably make a good guess.

The first likely difference is that the federal figure includes not just operating expenditures such as outlays for transportation and teacher salaries, but also capital expenditures to finance construction or renovation of school buildings. Unfortunately, education officials usually only cite per-pupil expenditures based on operating costs either because they reason that day-to-day expenditures are what really matter, or that it’s easier to cry that you need more money when you discount how much you already have. The federal number also includes federal money spent on DC schools, which is generally a large sum and is likely not included in the numbers used by the Post.

One need not even look at federal stats, though, to see that the per-pupil figure in the Post story is low-balled. One can just use the figures reported in the article, which put the current budget at $796 million (presumably not including federal funds to come) and the total enrollment in DCPS and DC charter schools at “more than 70,000.” If you divide the total enrollment by the total budget you get a per-pupil expenditure not of $8,332, but $11,371!

And we wonder why people think public education is underfunded?

The second diabolical education statistic (or, at least, diabolical assertion that should be backed by statistics) that we will dispatch today was, according to Inside Higher Ed, put forth last night by former U.S Secretary of Education, and current U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Speaking at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Alexander reportedly declared that “a primary reason that tuition has been rising is that state funding has been flat.”


It’s simply not true that state spending on higher education has been flat while tuition has skyrocketed, nor does it follow that changes in state funding are driving tuition increases. Indeed, without even looking at the numbers, Alexander’s thesis makes little sense. For one thing, state expenditures would have very little bearing on tuition levels at private schools, which receive little state support, yet private school tuition has long been inflating. Moreover, if state spending truly were flat, then it follows from Alexander’s argument that public school tuition levels should also be flat, not rising precipitously.

Let’s go to the numbers. Again using data from the Digest of Education Statistics, we see that while total state appropriations for higher education have fluctuated, after adjusting for inflation they rose from about $46.8 billion in 1990-91 to $53.9 billion in 2003-04, a solid 15 percent increase. During that same time, prices at public four-year institutionsrose at a much faster rate, with the average real cost of tuition, room, and board rising from $6,831 to $10,674, or 56 percent, at public four-year institutions, and in-state tuition and fees rising from $2,460 to $4,587, or 86 percent.

Maybe Alexander meant that public expenditures per-pupil have been flat. If that were the case then he wouldn’t be wrong about state largesse. Using data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the trend line for inflation-adjusted, per-pupil public expenditures on higher education is roughly flat over the last 26 years, and would go downward between 1990 and 2003. (Figure 3 in the linked report.)  Alexander would be wrong, though, about declining state appropriations driving tuition increases. Eyeballing the inflation-adjusted expenditure line on the graph suggests that the decrease in spending per-pupil in that period is probably only about 10 percent, versus an 86 percent increase in in-state tuition and fees. And again, at least according to Inside Higher Ed, Alexander didn’t say “per-pupil,” making the assertion contained in the article dead wrong.

And so we see that just because a statistic is reported in the media doesn’t make it true. But the truth is out there.

The Very Models of a Modern Market School System

In an exchange with Sol Stern over at City Journal last week, I pointed out that existing school choice programs should never have been expected to transform American education, because they bear little resemblance to real education markets.

In response, Stern implied that real education markets are not real all, being instead “such stuff as dreams are made on.” (Did I mention we were waxing Shakespearean?)

As it happens, though, the free education marketplace of classical Athens was the first school system in the world that spread learning beyond a tiny ruling elite, and there have been numerous times and places throughout history where schooling was organized more or less as a free market. There are still such places today. And since I can’t think of a suitable Shakespeare quote to illustrate them, how about a little riff on Gilbert and Sullivan:

They are the very models of a modern market school system.
It doesn’t matter how often the punditocracy’s dissed ‘em.
In the shanty towns of India, Kenya and Nigeria
Are schools known to the readers of Cato and Edutheria.
They are private, parent-funded, and they outperform the public schools,
After application of the best econometric tools.
And poor countries are not alone; ed. markets thrive in rich ones, too –
For instance businesses that tutor children in Japan (“juku”).
Just think of “Kumon” here at home or of the “Sylvan” chain.
They thrive and make a profit ‘cause the ed. monopoly’s inane.

For a more extensive, if less poetic, rundown of the evidence on market education (and US school choice programs), have a look here.

Housing Slump Puts Schools in Danger … of Slipping Below $15K Per-Pupil!

It’s a sad day for America. The Washington Post brings us incisive reporting on the latest casualties of the housing slump:

The rapid cooling of the Washington area’s real estate market has hit school systems with force, abruptly ending years of plenty and compelling superintendents to ask their teachers, bus drivers and custodians to do more with less.

The summary news lede simply doesn’t do justice to this looming educational catastrophe … we need to turn to the numbers.

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, parents fear cuts in Montgomery County’s proposed $2.1 billion budget will threaten the math-science magnet program.

The desperate schools of Montgomery County will need to find some way stretch the $15,246 they have to spend on each of the 137,745 students in their schools. The Post informs us that the $2.1 billion budget is “a year-to-year increase of $110 million. But it would be the smallest annual increase since 1997.” This 5 percent increase is the smallest in 10 years! Surely bake sales must be held.

But the devastation is not confined to the wealthier Districts …

The financial hard times are even more visible in jurisdictions with less money to draw on. In Prince George’s County, no money for teachers’ raises is available in the proposed $1.67 billion budget, and an ambitious program to create schools that run from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is on hold.

Somehow, Prince George’s County must find a way to educate their 134,000 students with just $12,463 to spend per child.

And Virginia is perhaps the hardest hit of all. Fairfax County is staring down a $100 million shortfall that may force them to stop paying some students’ fees for taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests.

With only a $2.1 billion budget and $15,246 per student, there is no room for such extravagances in Fairfax County.

I have saved the most touching story for last …

In Loudoun County, School Board members approved a budget 14 percent higher than last year’s to accommodate an expected 3,000 new students. The county faces a projected $250 million shortfall, and the 54,000 student system will probably have to look for new places for savings.

My heart goes out to the Loudoun County administrators. I can’t see how anyone can be expected to educate a child with just $15,000 or to cover a 6 percent enrollment increase with just a 14 percent increase in the budget.

Clearly, our schools have fallen on hard times. We must dig deep into our pockets and pull out just a little bit more to get them through these trying times. We owe it to our children.

School Choice Still Increasing Graduation Rates, Still Popular, Still Being Blocked by the Teachers Unions

A report just released by School Choice Wisconsin provides more evidence that school choice programs increase graduation rates, in addition to improving student test scores and parental satisfaction.

And a new state survey from the Friedman Foundation adds more to the mountains of evidence that parents would rather choose another school for their children and that the public supports school choice policies.

But we all know that in politics, what’s right, what works, and what the public wants are far from the most important considerations. Which brings us to our next news item …

From the New York Sun comes a cautionary tale for politicians and Democrats in particular:

Lawmakers in Albany were given a powerful reminder of the political danger of siding in favor of school choice measures when the state’s largest teachers union yesterday endorsed the Republican candidate in an important special election that will take place next month for a seat in the state Senate.

The faint silver lining is that the teachers unions had to cross other liberal interest groups in the process, as the Democrat in the race “has won the backing of steelworkers and other local unions in the district.”