Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Obama’s “Audacity” with NEA Proves Nothing

Some in the edublogosphere are making a big deal out of Barack Obama addressing the National Education Association—the nation’s most powerful labor union—from Montana instead of their convention in D.C., and for garnering some boos for his support of “performance pay.”

Joe Williams, writing on the Democrats for Education Reform blog, declares that Obama’s address proved him to be a candidate “who won’t be forced to play by the old rules, and one who is refreshingly willing to point out the extent of the very big problems he is trying to solve.” Meanwhile, Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency and provides invaluable insights into the nation’s teachers unions—as well as insider video of Obama’s speech to the convention—argues that Obama’s tepidly endorsing a few things NEA activists don’t like is pretty big news.

As Colonel Potter would have said on M*A*S*H, “horse hockey!”

It’s not the least bit shocking that Senator Obama threw something into his speech about performance pay. He knew darn well the assembly would reject it, just as they did last year. It’s exactly what he wanted: Something that people would swoon over as truly audacious change but that ultimately has no downside. It’s not like the NEA was going to withdraw its endorsement over a quick taste of veggies. The NEA is as Democratic as they come, and if you watch the whole address you’ll see Obama shoveling in all the red meat the union loves: demonizing vouchers, decrying underfunding of No Child Left Behind, lamenting the supposed scapegoating of teachers—the works!

The sound of inflatable “thundersticks” rumbling approval throughout almost all of Obama’s speech doesn’t lie: the Senator didn’t really hurt himself with the NEA. On the flip side, he very well might have gained important points with members of the electorate prone to mistaking shrewd strategy for real change.

The Most Valuable Reading First Lesson of All

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post exhorting Congress to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the voucher initiative for the nation’s capital that last year gave 1,900 children a chance to go to better schools. As far as the Fordham Foundation’s Mike Petrilli is concerned, it’s close to wasted ink. Instead of worrying about school choice, Spellings should be complaining that Congress is going to kill Reading First, a federal program that may or may not give an extra boost to reading ability, but that Congressional Democrats have had a field day demonizing as corrupt, one suspects not because they think Reading First doesn’t work, but because doing so plays to their NCLB- and phonics-despising teacher-union base.

As an optimist, I prefer not to think that Spellings wrote her piece because she forgot that somehow what’s of absolutely overriding importance is saving Reading First. I prefer to think that she might have actually learned from the Reading First saga and finally become convinced that politics tends to destroy programs she thinks are absolutely tremendous. I prefer to think that she is accepting clear reality: If we want real reform, we have to let kids out of a system in which political concerns always trump educational.

Of course, she probably hasn’t had any such epiphany, but at least there’s slim reason for hope. When it comes to Fordham, in contrast, the priorities they lay out for Spellings strongly suggest that there’s almost no hope at all.

Voucher Valedictorian

NRO has an editorial today by that title, sharing the story of Tiffany Dunston: class valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and first person in her family to attend college (she’s headed for Syracuse to study biochemistry and French). As it happens, she was attending Carroll thanks to financial assistance from DC’s voucher program, and her mother couldn’t otherwise have afforded the tuition. “I started praying every day because I didn’t want to go to a neighborhood school,” Tiffany told a reporter. “I was so nervous — there was no way to know if I was going to get the scholarship.”

Actually, though, there is a way she could have known that she would get the financial assistance she needed: if Congress and the City council replaced DC’s $24,600 per pupil monopoly with a universal system of school choice.

Instead, it seems likely that the next Congress will kill the fledgling school choice program that made Tiffany’s dreams come true. Over the coming year, congressional opponents of school choice must ask themselves: is it right to steal children’s dreams to curry favor with public school employee unions?

The NEA: America (Gulp!) in Microcosm

The National Education Association, the most powerful labor union in the country, wants it both ways. It wants every single nickel it can squeeze out of federal taxpayers, but it doesn’t want anyone in Washington telling public schools what they have to do for the money. So despite advocating an ever-greater federal role in education for nearly a century, and practically ramming the U.S. Department of Education down the nation’s throat in the late 1970s, the NEA has declared in the fact sheet for a new “great public schools” manifesto that “constitutionally, education is reserved to the states.” Of course, in just the next line it declares that “the federal government has a vital role to play in advancing the quality of America’s public schools”—that role primarily being to spend lots of money—so you can see the contradiction.

No doubt the NEA’s message would be different were it not for the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush’s administration’s signature domestic achievement that’s supposed to make schools show some progress for their federal booty. The law, as has been well documented, is at best unproven and at worst a cruel sham that promises high standards but delivers empty promises and deception. But that’s not why the NEA hates it. They hate it because they don’t want anyone telling them what to do with education money. They want to dictate terms, but the Bush administration prefers to do the dictating itself.

The root problem—aside from the fact that dictatorships pretty much only work for the dictators—is the utter disregard for the Constitution demonstrated by the NEA, big-government conservatives, and the millions of Americans who for decades have treated the Constitution as a wonderful relic to be admired in the National Archives, trotted out whenever they don’t like something the feds are threatening to do, but ignored when they come up with something they think it would be nice for Washington to give them.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand that the federal government fund something it’s not supposed to be involved in and then expect it to leave you alone. You can’t demand that the Constitution protect you from what you don’t like and then cast it aside to get things you do. You can either always respect the document that gives Washington only a few, specifically enumerated powers, or you can forget about having any protection at all.

That’s a lesson the NEA needs desperately to learn. Unfortunately, it’s far from alone.

Happy 4th of July…