Topic: Education and Child Policy

Homeschooler Wins Heisman

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is the first sophomore to win the Heisman trophy as the nation’s outstanding college football player. Since 1935 every previous winner had been a junior or senior. He’s also surely the first homeschooled athlete to win the award. In the past decade or so we’ve gotten used to homeschoolers winning spelling bees and geography bees and science fairs. But who ever heard of a homeschooler winning a top athletic prize? Well, now we have.

Tebow benefited from a Florida law that allowed homeschooled students to play on public school athletic teams. Some states bar students who don’t attend a particular school from participating in extra-curricular activities. No doubt fans of the University of Florida Gators are glad that their state was so open to letting homeschoolers develop their athletic skills.

He sounds like a fine young man–born in the Philippines, where his parents were Christian missionaries and where he often spends summers preaching and doing charity work. And even more startling, he says he’ll return to the University of Florida for two more years rather than taking the big bucks from the NFL now.

Isabel Lyman wrote about homeschooling in a Cato study here. Of course, some people, like Russell Shaw at HuffingtonPost, don’t like homeschooling. They want to require that all parents turn their children over to the all-knowing, all-wise, efficient, effective, politically correct government schools. And they’re appalled at the idea that parents, not the state, should assume primary responsibility for the upbringing of the children they bring into the world. Shaw is afraid that Christian parents will teach their children creationism and other anti-scientific ideas. (Presumably not the parents whose homeschooled children are winning science fairs.) I wonder if he’d feel differently if he knew that homeschooling families are politically and culturally diverse; as Lyman writes, “There are two historical strains of homeschooling, a religious-right thread inspired by author Raymond Moore and a countercultural-left thread inspired by John Holt.” Or does he just think that, left or right, all children need to get the same thoughts drilled into their heads from the same textbooks?

In U.S. vs. the World, the World Keeps Winning

Last week, I wrote a bit about the latest results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which showed U.S. fourth graders losing ground against kids in competitor nations. Well, yesterday another report came out — the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examines high school-aged kids’ math and science literacy — and the news was bad again. (PISA, by the way, usually assesses reading in addition to math and science, but the U.S. had a bit of a test-booklet malfunction this time around, invalidating our scores. Apparently, we lag behind other nations in standardized-test quality control, too.)

Let’s look first at science literacy. In 2000, the first year the PISA assessment was conducted, U.S. students’ average science score was 499 on a scale of 0 to 1000, just about equal to the 500 average for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of leading industrialized nations. In 2003, the next year PISA was administered, we fell further below the OECD mean of 500 with an average score of 491. Finally, in 2006 (the year covered in the latest report), we averaged 489, our lowest relative score yet.

How about mathematics literacy? In 2000, we were below the OECD average of 500, hitting 493. In 2003 we dropped further, with an average score of 483. And 2006? The OECD average was 498 and ours was 474, which, as in science, was our biggest deficit in PISA history.

So what does all this mean? As I wrote last week, one test does not a final verdict make, but combine PISA with PIRLS and other bad, recent testing results, and one can’t help but conclude that U.S. education is going in the wrong direction, and the biggest name in education reform—the No Child Left Behind Act—is a significant part of the problem.

NCLB: Putting Swine before PIRLS?

At least among education wonk-ish types, it’s well known that on national and international assessments American students perform best in 4th grade, decline by 8th grade, and do dismally in high school. Well yesterday a report was released—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)—which hinted that even our vaunted 4th graders might be losing ground. And this despite the fact that since 2002 the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has “demanded” good results starting in the 3rd grade.

There is, it should be noted, a bit of good news in PIRLS: Our kids scored above the PIRLS average—set at a “scale score” of 500—in both 2001 and 2006. But then, one would expect our kids to perform above average since we are the world’s leading economic power and, according to the PIRLS report, our gross national income (GNI) per-capita, after adjusting for purchasing power, was surpassed by only Norway and Luxembourg among PIRLS participants.

And then there’s the bad news. It starts with our average score dropping a tad between 2001 and 2006, going from 542 to 540. Worse, several countries and territories we’d beaten in 2001, including Russia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, surpassed us in 2006. And we can’t blame poverty for our problems: None of the places that moved ahead of us, at least as measured by GNI, are as well off as we are economically.

Importantly, the analytical limitations of average scores, and the generally small changes seen between 2001 and 2006, make PIRLS far from a final word on either NCLB or the general progress (or lack thereof) of American education. However, when coupled with other recent testing results, PIRLS adds to an increasingly clear conclusion about NCLB: the law is at best having no positive impact on American education, and is very likely having a negative one.

The Biological Process that Dare not Speak its Name

A century and a half after Darwin penned On the Origin of Species, the Florida state board of education is considering adding the word evolution to its official curriculum. Until now, it has been referred to only obliquely as “biological changes over time.”

At least one school district (of which Florida has only a handful) is already balking at the proposed change.

Most of my fellow evolutionists seem to think that government-mandated instruction in evolution, in state run schools, is the ideal path to biological enlightnment. Personally, I think 150 years of foot-dragging before seriously considering the use of the word evolution bodes ill for the quality of instruction that will follow.

The Good News on Cultural Decay — You Read It Here First

In Friday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson hails “a groundbreaking essay by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin in Commentary magazine, which notes that most “social indicators” have improved:

“Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker,” the authors argue, “but almost every other social indicator has improved.” Crime rates have plunged, teen drug use and pregnancy have declined, educational scores are improving, welfare caseloads have fallen 60 percent, and the number of abortions has dropped.

That is indeed important news, often lost in conservative jeremiads about the state of the culture. But I’m not sure it’s actually “groundbreaking,” considering that you could have read it more than a year ago in Cato Policy Report or indeed right here at Cato@Liberty. As Radley Balko wrote in the September/October issue of Cato Policy Report,

Nearly every social indicator is trending in a direction most of us would consider positive.

Here are just a few examples, culled from government agencies and advocacy groups: Teen pregnancy is at its lowest point since government researchers have been keeping statistics. Juvenile crime has been falling for 20 years (though there was, admittedly, a slight uptick last year). Crimes against children are down. The number of reported rapes has dropped dramatically over the last two decades, even as social stigma against rape victims has subsided. Despite a negligible increase last year, overall crime in the United States has also been in decline for 15 years.

There’s more: Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropout rates are down. Unemployment remains low. And over the past decade, the overall abortion rate has dropped significantly.

If Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Internet porn, and violent video games are indeed inducing a nationwide slouch toward Gomorrah, as conservative icon Robert Bork once put it, it’s difficult to discern from those statistics.

Or indeed you could have learned it earlier from former Cato fellow Stephen Moore, who noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1999 that:

  • Teen sexual activity in the U.S. fell by 11% from 1991 to 1997.
  • Cocaine and marijuana use have fallen by almost half since 1980.
  • Welfare caseloads have dropped by nearly 40% since 1993.
  • The crime rate has fallen by one-third since the mid-1980s and burglaries are down by half in many inner cities.
  • The abortion rate is down nearly 20% since 1990.
  • The divorce rate dropped 19% from 1981 to 1996.

Conservatives know that there is nothing new under the sun and that most great ideas are old ideas. So as long as the information celebrated by Wehner, Levin, and Gerson is true, it’s of little moment that it isn’t actually groundbreaking.

USA Today is Confused on Vouchers: It’s demand in a free market that drives supply.

USA Today knocks vouchers today on the basis of an unbelievably maddening canard about school choice in general and vouchers in particular:

Vouchers, which give students public dollars that can be used to pay tuition at private schools, are supposed to promote competition and improve schools. But they have never flourished as a national school reform because their logic contains a flaw. Vouchers don’t create new, high quality schools.

Economics 101 would be helpful for the folks at USA Today. Vouchers aren’t meant to create new schools. They are meant to moderate the ills created by a government-run monopoly by marginally reducing the penalty parents pay for choosing private education.

It is difficult to get new businesses to enter the kind of market that characterizes existing school choice programs: entry barriers are huge, the potential customer base is small, profit is small or non-existent (most private schools are non-profit), and the very existence of the market in question is subject to frequent elections and political whims.

That’s not a recipe for entrepreneurship and skyrocketing supply. But supply has increased substantially in Milwaukee and elsewhere despite the severe handicaps of that education market.

And Utah’s law would have created the largest education market to date, although still restricted and at a massive disadvantage to public schools that receive much more funding per-pupil.

John Stossel on Utah, Vouchers, and Education Tax Credits

John Stossel has some sober thoughts today on school choice in the aftermath of the Utah voucher law’s defeat. He considers the dangers that vouchers might pose to private schools because government funding typically brings government control, and asks:

If vouchers contain this potential danger, what can be done to help get kids out of dismal government schools? A better alternative is a tax credit for any parent who pays for private schooling or anyone else who helps put child through non-government schools.

All of us who work for educational freedom need to be wary of the risks of regulatory encroachment, and should be on the lookout for policies that can deliver parental choice while minimizing those risks.

Education tax credits not only provide an extra layer of protection from government control, they provide an additional level of freedom by allowing taxpayers to direct their own dollars to the kind of education they support – relying on private rather than government funding