Topic: Education and Child Policy

Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart

For the past few years I have charted the trends in American education spending and performance (see below). The goal is to see what the national data suggest about the productivity of our education system over time. Clearly, these data suggest that our educational productivity has collapsed: the inflation-adjusted cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system has almost tripled while test scores near the end of high-school remain largely unchanged. Put another way, per-pupil spending and achievement are not obviously correlated.

Not everyone is happy with these charts, and in this post I’ll respond to the critics, starting with the most recent: Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, an organization that honors the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. DiCarlo finds the chart “misleading,” “exasperating,” and seemingly designed to “start a conversation by ending it.” Since we’re actually having a conversation about the chart and what it shows, and since I’ve had countless such conversations over the years, perhaps we can agree that the last of those accusations is more of a rhetorical flourish than a serious argument.

School Choice Safe in Florida…for Now

Earlier this year, Florida’s largest teachers union filed a legal challenge to prevent the expansion of school choice. As I explained then:

The Florida Education Association is suing the state of Florida to eliminate the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program, among other recent education reforms, including an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit law. Modeled after Arizona’s popular education savings account (ESA), the PLSA would provide ESAs to families of students with special needs, which they could use to pay for a wide variety of educational expenses, such as tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online learning, and educational therapy. Six families with special-needs children who would have qualified for the program are seeking to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, represented by the Goldwater Institute’s Clint Bolick.

The union’s lawsuit argues that the legislation creating the PLSA, Florida’s Senate Bill 850, violated the state constitution’s “one subject rule” because it contained a variety of education reforms.

Today a circuit court judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not show how they were harmed by the law. Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Granite State’s scholarship tax credit law because they also could not demonstrate that they suffered any harm.

How Common Are School Shootings?

Schools are stocking up on M16s and modified grenade launchers and holding drills involving shooting blanks in middle and high school hallways, but is the risk really worth the expense and possibility of preemptively traumatizing children?

Groups like Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety argue that our nation’s schools are dangerous, claiming that there have been 74 school shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 in an infographic that went viral earlier this summer. But a closer look at their numbers revealed that they artificially inflated the statistic by including suicides, accidents, incidents related to criminal activity (e.g. - drug dealing or robbery), and incidents that took place outside of school hours or were unconnected to members of any school community. Moreover, half of those incidents took place on college campuses. Since Sandy Hook, the actual number of K-12 school shootings in which the shooter intended to commit mass murder has been ten—a far cry from the “one school shooting per week” that President Obama claimed back in June.

Surely even one such incident is too high, but with nearly 106,000 public and private schools in the U.S., there were shootings at only 0.009% of schools since December 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2013 “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report, from the 1992-93 school year until the 2010-11 school year, there were between 11 and 34 homicides of youths ages 5-18 at schools each year (including attacks with weapons other than firearms), with an average of about 23 homicides per year. Comparing that to NCES’s enrollment statistics, about 0.000044% of public and private K-12 students were killed at school per year between 1992-93 and 2010-11. That’s about one out of every 2,273,000 students per year. By contrast, the odds of being hit by lightning in a given year is one out of 700,000 according to National Geographic. 

School Year K-12 Student Homicides  Fall Enrollment (thousands)  % Homicides
1992-93 34  48,500 0.000070%
1993-94 29  49,113 0.000059%
1994-95 28  49,898 0.000056%
1995-96 32  50,759 0.000063%
1996-97 28  51,544 0.000054%
1997-98 34  52,071 0.000065%
1998-99 33  52,526 0.000063%
1999-00 14  52,875 0.000026%
2000-01 14  53,373 0.000026%
2001-02 16  53,992 0.000030%
2002-03 18  54,403 0.000033%
2003-04 23  54,639 0.000042%
2004-05 22  54,928 0.000040%
2005-06 21  55,224 0.000038%
2006-07 32  55,524 0.000058%
2007-08 21  55,762 0.000038%
2008-09 17  55,966 0.000030%
2009-10 19  56,186 0.000034%
2010-11 11  56,480 0.000019%
       
     Maximum:  0.000070%
     Minimum:  0.000019%
     Average:  0.000044%

It makes sense for schools to take precautions and have contingency plans, but they should keep a sense of perspective. School shootings, especially the mass casualty incidents like Sandy Hook, are exceedingly rare. Schools should dispense with the M16s, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles.

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students’ falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday’s Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don’t support that narrative. Here’s the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

Grenade Launchers: The Newest Must-Have School Supply

The Wall Street Journal reports [$] today that government-run schools are stocking up on military surplus equipment—including M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, and even multi-ton armored vehicles—through a controversial federal program. 

In the wake of school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., and elsewhere, some school security departments developed SWAT teams, added weapons to deal with any contingency and called on the federal government to help supply the gear. But now the program is facing renewed scrutiny from both outside observers and police using the program.

In south Texas, near the Mexican border, the sprawling Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District has 34,700 students and operates its own SWAT team, thanks in part to military gear it was given in recent years.

The department received two Humvees and a cargo truck from the surplus program, as well as a few power generators, said district Police Chief Ricardo Lopez. The district applied for weapons, too, but wasn’t given any, so instead purchased its own M-4 and AR-15 assault-style rifles, he said.

The Humvees have turned out to be helpful in responding to events such as burglaries at some remote elementary schools on ranchlands, he said, though the 12-member SWAT team hasn’t responded to any major incidents.

They need Humvees to respond to burglaries? And under what conceivable scenario is a grenade launcher needed in a school? At least the officials at L.A. Unified claim that they never intended to put grenades in the grenade launchers:

Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, stocked up on grenade launchers, M-16 rifles and even a multi-ton armored vehicle, only to realize the downside of the free gear is the cost to maintain it and train officers to use it.

The district is getting rid of the grenade launchers, which it never intended to use to launch grenades or use in a school setting, said Steven Zipperman, chief of police of the Los Angeles Schools Police Department. The launchers, received in 2001 and classified “as less lethal munitions,” might have been useful to help other police forces in the county disperse crowds by shooting foam or rubber bullets, he said.

Reason’s Zenon Evans reports that officials claim they need the wanna-be tanks “victim rescue vehicles” to extract students from a school shooting:

The L.A. school cops also have a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle (MRAP), a piece of equipment that often weighs upwards of 14 tons and was designed to fight asymmetrical warfare against Iraqi insurgents, not provide backup during study period patrol. Los Angeles school officers also have 61 M-16 rifles, presumably to prevent food fights from breaking out. The MRAP is worth $733,000 and each rifle is worth $499, but the DoD gives equipment away for the price of shipping.

L.A. cops aren’t the only ones with MRAPs this back to school season. The San Diego Unified School District has one, too. Oakland got stuck with a “tactical” utility truck. 

“We recognize the public concern over perceived ‘militarization of law enforcement,’ but nothing could be further from the truth for School Police,” Capt. Joseph Florentino of the San Diego district told NBC yesterday. Apparently, his department is converting it to a “victim rescue vehicle” that will “be designed for us to get into any hostile situation and pull kids out.”

Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas cuts right through the absurdity of schools stocking up on military equipment:

This is a toxic combination of 1) school districts lining up for anything the feds are handing out, 2) the excessive militarization of local police (and apparently school security) forces, and 3) schools focusing on incredibly rare events, like school shootings, as opposed to incredibly common ones, like incarcerating millions of children in schools that fail to serve their needs.

Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education could set an example for school districts by dismantling its SWAT team

Chile’s Proposed Education Reforms Would Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

For the past three decades, Chile has had a nationwide voucher-like school choice program. Parents can choose among public and private schools, and the government picks up most or all of the tab. But, since the election last fall of a left-leaning government led by Michelle Bachelet, the future of the program has been in doubt. In May, President Bachelet introduced a first round of reforms aimed at dismantling aspects of the program, though these are still under debate. I’ve written about what that could mean for Chile’s educational performance and equality in today’s edition of the Santiago-based El Mercurio. Here’s the original English version:

Chile’s elementary and secondary education system has been harshly criticized in recent years for academic underperformance and for having large gaps in achievement between lower-income and higher-income students. There is significant truth to both charges. What is less widely known is that Chile has been improving substantially in both respects for at least a decade, and that president Bachelet’s proposed reforms are likely to reverse that improvement.

Though Chilean students perform in the bottom half of countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, many of the nations that participate in that test are rich and fully industrialized. When compared to other Latin American countries, Chile is number one across all subjects. More importantly, Chile is one of the fastest-improving countries in the world on international tests, and so it is gradually closing the gap with rich nations.

Bennett Piece Exemplifies Core Problems

This morning, former Reagan administration education secretary Bill Bennett took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make the “conservative” case for the Common Core. In that effort, he actually made a great case for Core opponents, illustrating the contradictions of the Core while furnishing several examples of all-too-frequent Core spin. And he did it, ironically, while implying that Core opponents have “badly and sometimes mischievously muddled” the Core story.

To lay all of this out I’ll provide some quotes, then either respond to them with my own information, or with another, largely contradictory, quote from Bennett’s piece. Let’s begin:

First, we can all agree that there is a need for common standards of assessment in K-12 education.

We can? What’s the evidence for that? Bennett offers none, and even loaded polling questions find that only about two-thirds of Americans support generic standards “that are the same across states.” And I, for one, think there need to be competing standards in order to see what works, what works better, and what works for different subsets of the unique individuals we call “children.”

When I was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, I asked 250 people across the political spectrum what 10 books every student should be familiar with by the time they finish high school. Almost every person agreed on five vital sources: the Bible, Shakespeare, America’s founding documents, the great American novel “Huckleberry Finn” and classical works of mythology and poetry, like the Iliad and the Odyssey….That’s the fundamental idea behind a core curriculum: preserving and emphasizing what’s essential, in fields like literature and math, to a worthwhile education.

Presumably, the Core includes these readings that almost everyone Bennett polled agreed students should tackle. Right? Um, no:

Why then is Common Core drawing such heavy fire? Some of the criticism is legitimate, but much of it is based on myths. For example, a myth persists that Common Core involves a required reading list. Not so.

Here we see a basic problem for Core supporters: they want the public to believe either that the Core is rich and rigorous, or that it is empty and just a floor, depending, is seems, on whom they are trying to convince to support it. So in one breath they’ll talk about the obvious need for core content, and in the next they’ll protest if anyone says the standards have, well, core content. This may be because there actually is no unanimous agreement on what students should read.

Governors, state education administrators and teachers used these principles as a guide when they developed a set of common standards that were later presented to the country as Common Core. Forty-five states signed up originally.

Let’s be clear: States adopted the Core, in the vast majority of cases, only after the federal government all but said they had to in order to compete for $4 billion in Race to the Top money. Federal force was further applied by the No Child Left Behind waiver program. And all this occurred in the context of federally driven standards and testing since at least 1994. So, would most states have adopted the Core on their own? We don’t know for sure, but the evidence is heavily stacked against it.

Critics accused President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan of dangling federal money to encourage states to adopt the Common Core. The administration never should have done this. It made a voluntary agreement among states look like a top-down directive from the federal government. But remember: The original Common Core standards were separate from the federal government, and they can be separated once again.