Topic: Education and Child Policy

Barack Obama Walks the Walk

After telling a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes school voucher programs over the weekend, Senator Obama added that: “We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

Senator Obama sends his own two daughters to the private “Lab School” founded by John Dewey in 1896, which charged $20,000 in tuition at the middle school level last year. Though he says “we” should not be “throwing up our hands and walking away” from public schools, he has done precisely that.

That is his right, and, as a wealthy man, it is his prerogative under the current system of American education, which allows only the wealthy to easily choose between private and government schools. But instead of offering to extend that same choice to all families, Senator Obama wants the poor to wait for the public school system to be “fixed.”

I could editorialize about this, but I really don’t see the need. Readers of this blog are perfectly capable of drawing the obvious conclusions.

Teaching to the Test

A lot of people dislike No Child Left Behind–style test-driven reforms because they fear that schools will “teach to the tests.” That is, the schools will focus on content that will likely appear on tests, as well as teach strategies to game specific assessment tools, rather than effectively teach the broad content and understanding that tests, ideally, should merely sample in order to gauge student mastery. If this were the case, it would both severely constrict how much of educational value kids actually learn and call into serious question whether improved test scores really signify improved learning.

Whether or not this “teaching to the test” regularly happens is a highly debatable — and debated — matter. Reading today’s Washington Post article about considerable one-year improvements in D.C. test scores, however, certainly gives you pause to think that when test results are almost all that schools are judged on, mastery of the tests — not the subjects — could truly end up being all that really matters.

Pre-K Pushers Possess Paltry Proof of Preschool Payoff

My first pre-k post showed that Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading NAEP scores have dropped and stagnated compared to the national average, and that changes in poverty levels and per-capita income can’t explain why we don’t see improvement from the state’s model investment in preschool.

Regardless of the evidence that there is little or no long-term effect from preschool, the critics will always point to the remaining shadowy corners of uncertainty. With so many possible confounding variables, it is impossible to control for them all. There might be some hidden, overlooked factor that canceled out the real, substantial long-term effects.

That’s correct. Highly unlikely in the case of the spectacular absence of a return on Oklahoma’s preschool investment and no obvious alternative explanation. But possible nonetheless.

And that is why non-experimental analysis can only provide suggestive evidence, with a heavy dose of uncertainty. Among the available research methods, the only way to be fairly certain an educational treatment has had an effect on students is to conduct a controlled experiment akin to those used in medicine or drug testing. Researchers randomly assign each person to either get the treatment or to not get the treatment.

Unfortunately, the preschool pushers have no experimental evidence that the pre-k programs they promote have a significant, long-term, positive effect.

That’s why they rely so heavily on the few pieces of experimental evidence from programs that look nothing like those in Oklahoma, Georgia, or any other state that has adopted or is considering a pre-k program.

Preschool activists kneel before a holy trinity of early-intervention programs that supposedly prove preschool is our educational, nay … our societal savior: the Perry Preschool Project, Carolina Abecedarian Project, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers Program (Sara inexplicably forgot to mention the Abecedarian Project).

Unfortunately, they don’t come even close to proving what preschool activists pretend they do.

To find out why, stay tuned … .  (and yes, I’m sticking with the excessive title alliteration.)

Education Journalists: Free Markets Demand an Apology

What do you need to have a free market in education? Price change? Low barriers to entry? Product differentiation? Other good stuff? Nah! All you need is something slightly less restrictive than traditional, absolute command-and-control public schooling, and you’ve got and yourself a free market, Bub!

OK, obviously that’s not the case, but you wouldn’t know it from education stories you read in some of the nation’s biggest newspapers. A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article that called the hiring of private management firms to run some public schools in Philadelphia a test of whether the “free market could educate children more efficiently than the government.” Andrew Coulson took the Post to task for that, pointing out that “Philadelphia did not create a ‘free market’ in education. What it did was to subcontract aspects of its monopoly to providers of its own choosing.”

Today, the Houston Chronicle offers an arguably even more egregious abuse of the term “free market,” declaring that allowing some kids from outside of the Houston Independent School District to go to Houston schools free of charge—but carrying state dollars—“would employ a free market approach to increase revenue while addressing the needs of students just beyond the HISD boundary.” No new providers—not even new managers, like in Philly—no pricing, no product differentiation, just a few kids able to attend government schools in Houston rather than in their home districts.

It’s hard to tell whether this regular sullying of the free market’s good name is done to make free markets look bad, or out of ignorance. If it’s the former, then Houston (I can’t help myself!) we have a problem! If it’s the latter, thankfully we have a solution: Education journalists, give this kid a call!

Pre-K Pusher Pans Preschool Pessimist

Sara Mead of the New America Foundation, one of the growing number of pre-K pushers, takes issue with my pointing out that Oklahoma’s NAEP scores suggest no return on their massive and celebrated investment in preschool over the past 18 years.

This is just one small item in a box full of evidence that suggests preschool has at best a negligible impact on long-term student outcomes. There are a lot of problems with the edifice of misinformation and misunderstanding that the preschool activists have built. So, this will be an epic four-part series of posts. It will test my resolve and yours, but we must sacrifice for the greater good. Can you handle this much pre-k?

Sara correctly points out that the fact that Oklahoma’s performance has fallen and then stagnated compared to the national average is not definitive proof that pre-k failed to have a massive positive impact on student performance; many things could have happened to cancel out improvements from preschool … like a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants, or any number of changes in the educational system. (Considering the sloth-like speed of the government school system in executing any substantive change, I propose that this last concern be dismissed outright.)

So let’s take a look at some of the big factors that could have wiped out the huge academic boost preschool activists claim pre-k provides; income levels, poverty rates, and Hispanic population.

The percentage of students of Hispanic origin in Oklahoma is still very low – at eight percent, it’s less than half the national average of 19 percent. So let’s turn to the most important factors correlated with student performance, income and poverty:

We can see here that in Sara’s favorite pre-k impact subject, reading, Oklahoma has not improved at all compared to the national average despite a massive and acclaimed investment in government pre-k (and the nation as a whole has actually declined in its performance on international tests relative to other wealthy nations).

Oklahoma’s poverty rate has bounced up and down around an average of 16 percent higher than the national average, with no trend at all. Per-capita income has stayed at least ten percent lower than the national average but has trended ever so slightly higher.

So I challenge you, Sara, and any other preschool activist out there, to find the nefarious factor that has destroyed all the gains from pre-k. By all means, take this data and run it through statistical software with whatever controls you’d like related to documented demographic and education changes (as long as you include the national averages as a control). I’d do it myself, but I’m sufficiently convinced already that the null hypothesis won’t be rejected.

I offer a gentleman’s bet that you’ll find no significant positive correlation between the number of children attending pre-k and NAEP scores in 4th or 8th grades.

More on the poverty of preschool claims soon …

Supply Response to School Choice

Some people writing about education reform and school choice worry about how to supply good schools for kids to choose even if there’s a decent market in education.

Of course, the supply side is just a factor of how free the educational system is. Free enough money, children, and schools and the rest will follow.

It’s already happening in response to Georgia’s new special-needs voucher program:

Johnson led the push for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship program, which state lawmakers narrowly passed in 2007.

The program uses taxpayer money to provide vouchers so special education students who attend public schools can go to private schools instead. Modeled after a similar voucher program in Florida, it is designed to give families more schooling options.

Johnson said last week that he expects more private schools to open and existing campuses to expand to meet demand.

Some of the new schools may come from out of state, like the Center Academy opening in Smyrna.

The Florida-based company runs 13 private schools for students with disabilities and is opening its first school in Georgia. The company plans to open six more schools in metro Atlanta the next five to 10 years, said Steven Hicks, vice president of operations.

Hicks and others say Center Academy is the first private school to come to Georgia because of the voucher program.

“I assume others will follow,” Hicks said. “There is a demand for more private schools.”

Bias, Bias, Everywhere

Jay Greene and Eduwonkette—an anonymous education blogger whom Greene thinks is married to Eduwonk but I suspect is the original Wonkette’s kindergarten teacher—are having a tiff about the supposed superiority of peer-reviewed papers over think-tank reports. Unfortunately, Eduwonkette trots out the old saw that you can’t trust think tank reports because most think tanks have “stated ideological” agendas.

This ignore-the-report-because-of-the-messenger thing is getting pretty tiresome. Greene’s colleague Greg Forster has dealt with the phenomenon before, as has Cato’s Andrew Coulson and former AEI president Christopher DeMuth—but it’ll probably never go away. People will always dismiss the work of those who are upfront about their convictions in favor of those who are supposedly “objective.” But this is too often a sad excuse to ignore the merits of what the intellectually transparent have to say, and worse, it puts on blinders to the reality that all people are to some degree self-interested and, hence, biased.

In a stroke of serendipity, it just so happens that Inside Higher Ed reported yesterday on a new study finding that peer-reviewed research is often fraught with citation errors; so much for the assumption that “peer review” is synonymous with “quality.” Making matters worse, Inside Higher Ed notes, these errors are heaped on top of the “well-documented” presence of bias in academic research that emphasizes evidence supporting authors’ points of view, that includes citations intended to curry favor with influential colleagues, or that plays down contrary evidence:

Like any self-enclosed, loosely policed network, citations are far from perfect. It’s well documented, for example, that researchers tend to cite papers that support their conclusions and downplay or ignore work that calls them into question. Scholars also have ambitions and reputations, so it’s not surprising to hear that they might weave in a few citations to articles written by colleagues they’re trying to impress — or fail to cite work by competitors. Maybe they overlook research written in other languages, or aren’t familiar with relevant work in a related but different field, or spelled an author’s name wrong, or listed the wrong journal.

All of these shortcomings are reviewed and discussed in an article published this year in the management science journal Interfaces along with the critical responses to it.

As it turns out, scholars have already done some work quantifying problem citations, divided into two categories, “incorrect references” and “quotation errors.” The authors of the paper, J. Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Malcolm Wright of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, write of the former type, “This problem has been extensively studied in the health literature … 31 percent of the references in public health journals contained errors, and three percent of these were so severe that the referenced material could not be located.”

In the end, all research must be seriously scrutinized, and this will only be done when we accept that everyone has biases and we take every report, paper, or pronouncement with a healthy grain of salt.