Topic: Education and Child Policy

Garrison Keillor Gets Angry

Joanne Jacobs highlights a piece in Salon by Garrison Keillor in which he criticizes Democrats for opposing systematic phonics instruction just because it is associated with political and social conservatives.

But Jacobs is right when she says that “phonics instruction is not inherently the property of the GOP or George W. Bush.” Keillor isn’t familiar with the history of the U.S. reading wars if he thinks that ”progressive” opposition to structured phonics is a recent or merely political phenomenon.

After attacking phonics in his annual report of 1843, Horace Mann (godfather of U.S. public schooling) got into an email flame war a tense exchange of pamphlets with 31 Boston schoolmasters. Mann was advocating the “word” or “look-say” method of early reading instruction, which has since morphed into “whole language.” He thought children shouldn’t be taught to systematically sound out and combine letters and syllables, but rather to simply look at words as wholes and know how to say them out loud, as if by magic. The schoolmasters told him he was nuts. (The original sources are cited here, for the curious.)

Education was still too decentralized and market driven in this country in the early 1840s for nutty pedagogical methods to displace ones that had proven themselves effective. It was not until the 1920s, when modern state school systems and teachers’ colleges had become well established, that progressive educators were able to impose their philosophical and pedagogical predilections on teachers-in-training and the public schools as a whole.

The issue here has never fundamentally been a political one. It has always been philosophical. Progressive education philosophers and practitioners generally object to highly structured systematic teaching methods, in any subject, because those methods do not comport with how they believe learning should take place.

The fact that structured methods work, and for many children work far better than the magical osmosis processes of “whole language,” confers no competitive advantage within a monopoly school system that has no real competition. Do public school districts go out of business if they adopt lousy methods or materials? No. That’s why lousy methods have survived for so long in the public school monopoly, and that is why those same lousy methods (and Horace Mann) were laughed at by schoolmasters at a time when educators actually had to show results in order to make a living.

From the Ed Stats Truth Squad

Not long ago, Donald Luskin headed-up something called the “Paul Krugman Truth Squad,” a band of analysts devoted to keeping New York Times columnist Paul Krugman honest. Well, after years of seeing education stories in the media rife with misleading, incomplete, or just plain wrong “facts,” it seems that in the tradition of Luskin’s crusaders its time for a truth squad to get to work in education. Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom accepts that challenge, and will from here-on out work to debunk bad education data whenever and wherever in the media we find it (assuming we’re not working on other, bigger things, that is).

We begin with this today’s Washington Post, where a story about per-pupil funding in the nation’s capital—and the need to boost it—featured a very dubious statistic:

The recommendation to spend $8,770 a child when the school year begins in August came from State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist. Now, $8,322 is spent for each student [italics added].

Could it be true that only $8,322 is spent per child in the District of Columbia? Surely it is higher than that!

Indeed it is. According to the latest numbers from the federal Digest of Education Statistics, in the 2002-03 school year $14,419 was spent per-pupil in Washington, DC, a figure 73 percent larger than the one given by the Post and one that’s almost certainly even higher today.

The $6,097 question, of course, is how these different figures were arrived at. Unfortunately, the Post’s reporter didn’t give any details about how the $8,322 figure was determined, so we can’t explain the huge difference with absolute certainty. We can, though, probably make a good guess.

The first likely difference is that the federal figure includes not just operating expenditures such as outlays for transportation and teacher salaries, but also capital expenditures to finance construction or renovation of school buildings. Unfortunately, education officials usually only cite per-pupil expenditures based on operating costs either because they reason that day-to-day expenditures are what really matter, or that it’s easier to cry that you need more money when you discount how much you already have. The federal number also includes federal money spent on DC schools, which is generally a large sum and is likely not included in the numbers used by the Post.

One need not even look at federal stats, though, to see that the per-pupil figure in the Post story is low-balled. One can just use the figures reported in the article, which put the current budget at $796 million (presumably not including federal funds to come) and the total enrollment in DCPS and DC charter schools at “more than 70,000.” If you divide the total enrollment by the total budget you get a per-pupil expenditure not of $8,332, but $11,371!

And we wonder why people think public education is underfunded?

The second diabolical education statistic (or, at least, diabolical assertion that should be backed by statistics) that we will dispatch today was, according to Inside Higher Ed, put forth last night by former U.S Secretary of Education, and current U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Speaking at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Alexander reportedly declared that “a primary reason that tuition has been rising is that state funding has been flat.”

Uggh!

It’s simply not true that state spending on higher education has been flat while tuition has skyrocketed, nor does it follow that changes in state funding are driving tuition increases. Indeed, without even looking at the numbers, Alexander’s thesis makes little sense. For one thing, state expenditures would have very little bearing on tuition levels at private schools, which receive little state support, yet private school tuition has long been inflating. Moreover, if state spending truly were flat, then it follows from Alexander’s argument that public school tuition levels should also be flat, not rising precipitously.

Let’s go to the numbers. Again using data from the Digest of Education Statistics, we see that while total state appropriations for higher education have fluctuated, after adjusting for inflation they rose from about $46.8 billion in 1990-91 to $53.9 billion in 2003-04, a solid 15 percent increase. During that same time, prices at public four-year institutionsrose at a much faster rate, with the average real cost of tuition, room, and board rising from $6,831 to $10,674, or 56 percent, at public four-year institutions, and in-state tuition and fees rising from $2,460 to $4,587, or 86 percent.

Maybe Alexander meant that public expenditures per-pupil have been flat. If that were the case then he wouldn’t be wrong about state largesse. Using data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the trend line for inflation-adjusted, per-pupil public expenditures on higher education is roughly flat over the last 26 years, and would go downward between 1990 and 2003. (Figure 3 in the linked report.)  Alexander would be wrong, though, about declining state appropriations driving tuition increases. Eyeballing the inflation-adjusted expenditure line on the graph suggests that the decrease in spending per-pupil in that period is probably only about 10 percent, versus an 86 percent increase in in-state tuition and fees. And again, at least according to Inside Higher Ed, Alexander didn’t say “per-pupil,” making the assertion contained in the article dead wrong.

And so we see that just because a statistic is reported in the media doesn’t make it true. But the truth is out there.

The Very Models of a Modern Market School System

In an exchange with Sol Stern over at City Journal last week, I pointed out that existing school choice programs should never have been expected to transform American education, because they bear little resemblance to real education markets.

In response, Stern implied that real education markets are not real all, being instead “such stuff as dreams are made on.” (Did I mention we were waxing Shakespearean?)

As it happens, though, the free education marketplace of classical Athens was the first school system in the world that spread learning beyond a tiny ruling elite, and there have been numerous times and places throughout history where schooling was organized more or less as a free market. There are still such places today. And since I can’t think of a suitable Shakespeare quote to illustrate them, how about a little riff on Gilbert and Sullivan:

They are the very models of a modern market school system.
It doesn’t matter how often the punditocracy’s dissed ‘em.
In the shanty towns of India, Kenya and Nigeria
Are schools known to the readers of Cato and Edutheria.
They are private, parent-funded, and they outperform the public schools,
After application of the best econometric tools.
And poor countries are not alone; ed. markets thrive in rich ones, too –
For instance businesses that tutor children in Japan (“juku”).
Just think of “Kumon” here at home or of the “Sylvan” chain.
They thrive and make a profit ‘cause the ed. monopoly’s inane.

For a more extensive, if less poetic, rundown of the evidence on market education (and US school choice programs), have a look here.

Housing Slump Puts Schools in Danger … of Slipping Below $15K Per-Pupil!

It’s a sad day for America. The Washington Post brings us incisive reporting on the latest casualties of the housing slump:

The rapid cooling of the Washington area’s real estate market has hit school systems with force, abruptly ending years of plenty and compelling superintendents to ask their teachers, bus drivers and custodians to do more with less.

The summary news lede simply doesn’t do justice to this looming educational catastrophe … we need to turn to the numbers.

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, parents fear cuts in Montgomery County’s proposed $2.1 billion budget will threaten the math-science magnet program.

The desperate schools of Montgomery County will need to find some way stretch the $15,246 they have to spend on each of the 137,745 students in their schools. The Post informs us that the $2.1 billion budget is “a year-to-year increase of $110 million. But it would be the smallest annual increase since 1997.” This 5 percent increase is the smallest in 10 years! Surely bake sales must be held.

But the devastation is not confined to the wealthier Districts …

The financial hard times are even more visible in jurisdictions with less money to draw on. In Prince George’s County, no money for teachers’ raises is available in the proposed $1.67 billion budget, and an ambitious program to create schools that run from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is on hold.

Somehow, Prince George’s County must find a way to educate their 134,000 students with just $12,463 to spend per child.

And Virginia is perhaps the hardest hit of all. Fairfax County is staring down a $100 million shortfall that may force them to stop paying some students’ fees for taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests.

With only a $2.1 billion budget and $15,246 per student, there is no room for such extravagances in Fairfax County.

I have saved the most touching story for last …

In Loudoun County, School Board members approved a budget 14 percent higher than last year’s to accommodate an expected 3,000 new students. The county faces a projected $250 million shortfall, and the 54,000 student system will probably have to look for new places for savings.

My heart goes out to the Loudoun County administrators. I can’t see how anyone can be expected to educate a child with just $15,000 or to cover a 6 percent enrollment increase with just a 14 percent increase in the budget.

Clearly, our schools have fallen on hard times. We must dig deep into our pockets and pull out just a little bit more to get them through these trying times. We owe it to our children.

School Choice Still Increasing Graduation Rates, Still Popular, Still Being Blocked by the Teachers Unions

A report just released by School Choice Wisconsin provides more evidence that school choice programs increase graduation rates, in addition to improving student test scores and parental satisfaction.

And a new state survey from the Friedman Foundation adds more to the mountains of evidence that parents would rather choose another school for their children and that the public supports school choice policies.

But we all know that in politics, what’s right, what works, and what the public wants are far from the most important considerations. Which brings us to our next news item …

From the New York Sun comes a cautionary tale for politicians and Democrats in particular:

Lawmakers in Albany were given a powerful reminder of the political danger of siding in favor of school choice measures when the state’s largest teachers union yesterday endorsed the Republican candidate in an important special election that will take place next month for a seat in the state Senate.

The faint silver lining is that the teachers unions had to cross other liberal interest groups in the process, as the Democrat in the race “has won the backing of steelworkers and other local unions in the district.”

Keeping up Appearances in Higher Education

Over the last few days there’s been quite a to-do about colleges and universities with endowments that, in the case of wealth-leading Harvard, could buy almost eight aircraft carriers, nearly 1.7 million Toyota Priuses, or about 87 million 16GB iPod Touches. Just yesterday, in fact, Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) sent a letter to the 136 top colleges and universities on the latest endowment ranking asking what, exactly, all their booty was going to, and why it wasn’t being used to keep tuition down.

Grassley especially has been on a crusade over the last year-or-so to cajole wealthy institutions of higher education into keeping tuition down by spending from their endowments. If they don’t, he has threatened, federal law might be changed so that they have to spend 5 percent of their endowments annually to keep them tax exempt.

While it is absolutely legitimate to argue that government shouldn’t give preferential treatment to wealth hoarders, this is political grandstanding. Politicians use higher education as one of their greatest sources of middle-class bribery, and all the aid they lavish on students is almost certainly a much greater tuition inflator than tight-fisted endowment managers. Moreover, while Harvard has a ton of money, very few of the nation’s over four-thousand degree-granting institutions have even close to the kingly Crimson sum: only 19 have sufficiently hefty endowments to buy even one aircraft carrier, only 76 have endowments exceeding $1 billion, and most have either small endowments or none at all.

Interestingly, at almost the same time the annual endowment ranking came out, an article was published in Change magazine that gives the lie to one of the biggest justifications offered for throwing public money at students and schools: to survive in the flat world, almost everyone will need a college education. The final report from the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education put it right up front, declaring that, “ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven economy will require some postsecondary education” and therefore “colleges and universities must continue to be the major route for new generations of Americans to achieve social mobility.”

According to Paul Barton, an analyst at, of all places, the SAT-producing Educational Testing Service, the notion that we’ll need vastly more college-educated people to fill the future workforce is pretty much bunk. He breaks down many workforce projections to make his point, and you should read his whole piece, but I’ll give you just one glimpse of why you shouldn’t take a politicized statistic like the one trumpeted by the higher education commission and make policy based on it:

Looking…at the 10 occupations with the fastest or highest rate of growth, six of the 10 require either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree; the other four require from short-term to moderate-term on-the-job training. But looking at the projected increase in the number of jobs in the 10 fastest-growing occupations, 61 percent of those new jobs will not require college and 39 percent will. 

Even among the fastest growing jobs, it turns out, most positions won’t require any college education, which means that policymakers are wasting a lot of resources shoveling money into student aid and creating cozy conditions for colleges on the grounds that they need to ensure that more and more people can afford a college education. Don’t expect, though, to hear about that from any senators, colleges, or students. After all, like normal human beings, it’s not really what’s best for the country that they’re after, but what’s best for themselves.

Gimme that Ol’ Time Science…

Just had a nice chat with Brandon Weim, who’s writing a story on the evolution / creationism school wars for Wired magazine. It seems that eight Florida school districts (and in Florida, each district comprises an entire county) have passed resolutions calling for alternatives to evolutionary theory to be taught in biology classes. Brandon fears that:

If Florida opts for evolution-unfriendly textbooks and is followed by neighboring Texas – also undergoing its own curriculum revision – then other states, looking for less-expensive texts, may buy those same books. Much of an entire generation could be raised to think of evolution as a theory with no more grounding in reality than intelligent design.

The thing is… that’s already true. As a Gallup poll reported in 2004, only a third of Americans think that evolution is a theory well-supported by scientific evidence (Frank Newport, “Third of Americans Say Evidence has Supported Darwin’s Evolution Theory,” Gallup Poll News Service, 19 November, 2004).

And this is true, remember, generations after the scientific explanation of the origin of species became the only one legally permitted in public school biology classes around the country. As I’ve said before, we’ve already tried the “You evolved, Dammit!” approach for a protracted period of time, and it has failed.

Scientists pride themselves on being driven by the evidence rather than personal dogma. Well, here’s your chance, guys: Dump the failed government-mandated-curriculum approach and start campaigning for unfettered parental choice and a competitive education marketplace. Free schools to teach science properly if they so desire, and quit fooling yourselves into imagining that you can force the rest of the public to understand science by having government ram it down their throats. Make science humble, exciting, and welcoming again, in the vein of Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski, instead of calling our religious fellow citizens rubes or worse, and treating them like recalcitrant children.

And as for the fear that educational freedom would lead old time religion to eclipse science, consider that the Netherlands has had universal public and private school choice for a century, including religious schools, and has become one of the most secular nations in the world. Another datum for the science crowd to stick in their thinking caps….