Topic: Education and Child Policy

Naively Heroic Expectations for NCLB and National Standards

From the Teachers College Record, by way of AEI, we have Rick Hess of AEI and Checker Finn of the Fordham Foundation making another call for the federal government to fix most of what ails our K-12 education system.  NCLB, they argue, has major problems.  But in their view the way to fix it is relatively simple (emphasis added):

The trick is not to retreat from accountability, but to thoughtfully separate these components from one another and from naively heroic expectations.

Lawmakers should insist on a national X-ray using a uniform assessment that makes it simple to compare achievement across schools, districts, states, and demographic groups.

I’d really like them to unpack that black box. What exactly does insist entail?  A resolution expressing the sense of the Congress?  What should this very simple sounding uniform assessment look like, and what process and politics would get us to that goal?

The intense interest-group politics that would/has befall any attempt to create a national test makes this one of those naively heroic expectations that the authors warned us against.  I like the statements of the old Checker Finn who was skeptical of a high-stakes national test and concerned that even a NAEP used strictly for informational purposes was too vulnerable to political forces.  What happens when the results mean millions in federal funds?                                                                                             

And every state should be required to assess how effectively schools are boosting student achievement and to intervene appropriately in faltering schools and mediocre districts–or else forfeit federal funds.

I have to say this remedy also sounds like one of those naively heroic expectations.  Just think of what people would say about politicians who voted to fix failing schools and save poor children by providing them with less money!  This is called the “dual-clientele trap,” and it made welfare reform in the 1990’s an extremely difficult endeavor (and welfare spending, unlike education spending, was massively unpopular).

How can these proposals ever work in practice?  Experience and logic suggest they never can.

Another Great Moment in Local Government

At first, I thought this must be a gag story from The Onion, but a school in Arizona actually suspended an eighth-grade boy for five days (in a fit of generosity, later reduced to three days) for drawing a picture of a gun. It is not clear, though, whether the school’s absurd policy also means students are not allowed to do term papers about World War II, since that might necessitate discussion of weapons and violence:

An East Valley eighth-grader was suspended this week after he turned in homework with a sketch that school officials said resembled a gun… But parents of the 13-year-old, who attends Payne Junior High School in the Chandler Unified School District, said the drawing was a harmless doodle of a fake laser, and school officials overreacted. …Payne Junior High officials did not allow the Tribune to view the drawing. The Mostellers said the drawing did not depict blood, injuries, bullets or any human targets. They said it was just a drawing that resembled a gun. …The boy said…he was just drawing because he finished an assignment early.

Trouble in Utah, with a Capital “T”

School choice supporters were thrilled at the passage of the first universal voucher program in Utah this year. Unfortunately, the unions got enough signatures to put the law up for a referendum vote this fall and are gearing up to demolish it.

The Education Intelligence Agency Communiqué for this week reports that the National Education Association board of directors had an emergency conference call to consider a request by the Utah Education Association for $3 million to overturn the voucher law. The verdict?

“EIA has not yet heard the official results of the vote, but feels confident stating the request was approved.”

Referenda are very difficult to win under any circumstances. But with the referendum scheduled for the vote this November when there will be little or nothing else on the ballot for most communities, turnout for the voucher issue is going to be the one and only thing that matters.

The unions have their money, their network, and their members. And $3 million can help a lot of bodies turn out.

Voucher supporters are working overtime to make sure they top the union turnout, but every voucher supporter (and at least one friend wouldn’t hurt) will have to make it to the polls this November to give the union a run for its money. Otherwise, the first universal voucher program to pass in the U.S. won’t be the first to be implemented.

Starving College Students? Yeah, Right!

Read almost any news story about the price of college, and it will no doubt start with a heart-wrenching tale of some student who works approximately 3,000 hours a week, takes six classes, and has no idea how he’ll afford to pay tuition. Such human-interest hooks are great for grabbing readers’ attention, and certainly there are some students who struggle to pay for college. The problem is, these ubiquitous tales of woe have convinced many Americans that constant, on-the-edge subsistence is the plight of most college students, and that only copious amounts of taxpayer-financed aid — which itself helps drive rampant tuition inflation — can save them.

And then there is the other side of the story: all the money spent by college kids not on the basics, but creature comforts and extravagances that if he were transported to the present day would make yesteryear’s college student choke on his cafeteria mystery meat. From today’s Inside Higher Ed:

As she did her usual move-in day sweep of residence halls, Kathy B. Hobgood, director of residence life at Clemson University, noticed students in a dozen or so rooms unpacking their flat-screen televisions items that until recently might have been spotted in a campus café but certainly not in a dorm.

Up and down the halls, people piled their electronic gadgets on top of storage cubes and dishware, leaving behind a monumental trail of cardboard and packing foam.

“The volume of stuff is alarming,” says Hobgood, who is publications coordinator for the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. “This pile of boxes … you wouldn’t believe.”

Housing directors all over — and not just in places that tend to attract wealthy students — are reporting an increase in the number of belongings students bring with them to college. Carloads, they say, are becoming the norm.

Of course, one might say that tales of flat-screen TV’s and designer dorm furniture are as anecdotal as starving student stories. And one might be right. Some data in the Inside Higher Ed article, however — and in the survey linked to within — strongly suggests that student luxury is far from restricted to a few Richie Riches:

Back to college has become big business. According to an annual survey from the National Retail Federation, students and their parents are spending $5.43 billion this season on dorm and apartment furnishings, up from $3.82 billion a year ago. The survey shows that they will spend a combined average of $956.93 per student on back-to-college merchandise, up from last year’s $880.52.

According to the data, it certainly seems that a large number of college kids aren’t struggling just to survive. Indeed, it seems many aren’t wanting for anything at all.

Perhaps, though, hard statistics aren’t enough for you. Here, then, is one more heart-wrencher to help kill the starving student myth. It’s the Princeton Review’s vaunted — and infamous — list of the nation’s top-20 party schools, which, with one exception, contains all state — meaning directly taxpayer subsidized — universities.

Party on, “starving” students!

Cracking the Code on “Villainous” School Choice

Yesterday, over at The Huffington Post, education blogger Dan Brown – no relation to The Da Vinci Code’s author – posted a little homage to Democratic presidential candidates who have repudiated the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), toned down calls for teacher merit pay, and declared that all educators should be paid more. In other words, Mr. Brown praised candidates who boldly offered the same old, failed, “more money, thank you,” approaches to education reform we’ve been taking for decades. (NCLB is directly from that mold, but that’s not why Brown objected to it.) Indeed, Brown wrote that any presidential candidate who touted such bankrupt ideas is “inherently a champion of social justice.”

The absurdity of such over-the-top accolades, of course, deserves criticism. More galling, though, is how Brown characterized reforms that would lead to actual, transformative change:

If a candidate abdicates his responsibility to public education by offering superficial band-aids, or even worse, villainous profit-driven proposals like vouchers and privatization, then his true colors are seen.

“Villainous” school choice? Oh, come now, Mr. Brown! Advocating policies that have kept millions of poor kids trapped in bad schools while spending ever-greater sums of taxpayer money and protecting even atrocious teachers is the pinnacle of nobility, but parent-empowering school choice is villainous? It’s evil to let parents and children out of jail by enabling them to make their own educational decisions, but enlightened to keep them locked up and pay their jailers more?

One might not like school choice, but calling it villainous? Such dramatic, black-and-white characterizations might work for the other Dan Brown, but when it comes to educational reality, they just don’t make any sense.

A Textbook Example of Government Failure

DCPS superintendent Michelle Rhee is doing a heroic job trying to get textbooks into classrooms by the start of school. One problem is that school officials still can’t tell her how many books they actually need. Classes start on Monday. 

Is the problem insufficient funding? As it happens, DCPS’s total gross budget for the last school year was upwards of one billion dollars according to its own website, and its enrollment was about 52,000 students. That means DCPS had total per pupil spending of nearly $20,000 last year, or half a million dollars per class of 25 students. You’d think that would cover books. 

The District’s perennial problem with getting books into students’ hands is a great illustration of what’s wrong with the status quo. When was the last time you walked into a Barnes and Noble or a Borders bookstore in mid August and didn’t see a well-stocked “back to school” display? Why is it so easy for them to handle inventory issues when they don’t even know how many customers they are going to have, while DCPS is flummoxed, year after year, despite having a fairly accurate enrollment number up front?  

The reason is simple: if you’re a bookseller, and you don’t have the books people want to buy on your shelves… they shop somewhere else. Keep that up for a few weeks or months and your bookshop is history. The reason DCPS can keep limping along despite doing such a poor job is that it doesn’t face real competition for that $20,000 per pupil per year in guaranteed funding. Sure, there are charter schools, but places there are limited. Sure, there’s a private school voucher program, but it’s even tinier. DC schools will start demonstrating the efficiency and quality of a competitive business when they start having to compete for the privilege of serving District children. Until then, it simply does not matter how intelligent or dedicated the superintendent happens to be. The central problem is the uncompetitive design of the system itself, not the people in it.

The State Lives up to its Name

There’s a new report out arguing that even a modest school choice program in South Carolina that improved access to private schools would reduce the dropout rate and lead to significant savings for taxpayers. In covering that study, SC’s State newspaper tells us that

The dominant public education policy debate in the Legislature since 2004 has been whether the state can afford to provide incentives to parents who want to send children to private schools….

Two obvious implications of this sentence are that a school choice program would provide a net fiscal incentive for parents to choose private schools, and that it would add to the net cost of education in SC. Both are false.

At the moment, SC provides an enormous incentive for parents to choose public schooling over private schooling. It spends roughly $10,000 of compulsory tax dollars per pupil per year on families who choose public schools, and nothing on families who choose private schools. The tax credit programs that have been suggested in SC would only moderately reduce that existing incentive to choose public schools. The net financial incentive under such programs would STILL be to choose a public school, because the funding available per pupil would remain larger. 

And, as Clemson professor Cotton Lindsay’s fiscal analyses of the SC tax credit proposals showed (see here and here), the programs would actually have saved taxpayers money. Those reported savings, by the way, did not count the fiscal benefit of reducing the dropout rate, which was the subject of the recent State story. So, in fact, the total savings would likely be larger than Lindsay estimated.

Too much to ask that a newspaper called The State would correctly inform readers of these points?