Topic: Education and Child Policy

Conflicting Data? What Conflicting Data?

The public school advocacy group Center on Education Policy released a new report today, titled “Has Student Achievement Increased Since 2002?” Its answer is “yes,” based on relatively worthless high-stakes state-level testing data and on the more esteemed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). For reasons known only to the report’s authors, they make no use of the available U.S. trend data from either the PISA or the PIRLS international tests (though the CEP study mentions PISA results for a single point in time, it ignores the changes in that test’s scores over time.)

As it happens, U.S. scores have declined on both PISA and PIRLS in every subject and at both grades tested since they were first administered in 2000/2001. In the PISA mathematics and science tests, the declines are large enough to be statistically significant, that is: we can be confident (and disappointed) that they reveal real deterioration in U.S. student performance. In mathematics, our score has dropped from 493 to 474, causing us to slip from 18th out of 27 participating countries down to 25th out of 30 countries. In science, our score fell from 499 to 489, dropping us from 14th out of 27 countries to 21st out of 30 countries.

It is reckless and misleading to form judgments about trends in U.S. student performance without taking into account the declines on these respected international tests. And, as Neal McCluskey and I pointed out last year, the improving trends that exist on some NAEP tests predate the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, and have in some cases actually slowed since that law’s passage.

It is this rather discouraging reality that should guide policymakers in the coming year, as they debate the future of NCLB.

Fordham Follow Up

Yesterday, I wrote about a new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report on high-achieving students. I focused mainly on a bit of hyperbole issued by Fordham president Chester Finn and vice president Michael Petrilli concerning the “plainly” positive effect of government “standards and accountability” on low-achieving kids. Today, I just want to add a quick, seemingly obvious observation — but one barely hinted at in the report — concerning survey results that show teachers think high achievers in their schools get short shrift.

“Teachers say that while the public schools muster serious effort to improve the academic achievement of struggling students, their resources rarely converge on the needs of high achievers,” report Stave Farkas and Anne Duffett, who handled the survey section of Fordham’s report.

The problem is — you’ve got it! — one-size can’t fit all! A single system of public schools — especially one ever-more centralized with crude government accountability mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act — can only focus on one or two things at a time, and high achievers aren’t it.

So what’s the obvious solution? School choice!

In a market, consumers purchase things according to their individual preferences, needs, abilities, etc., and producers tailor products accordingly. I need a small, fuel-efficient car, I get a Corolla. You want a big beast to haul your soccer balls, you get a Suburban. I want dinner that’s also entertainment, I go to Benihana. You want buttered lobster bites, you head to Long John Silver’s.

When producers and consumers are free, diverse preferences that seem almost infinite are met by equally diverse providers, and everyone is better off. With school choice, gifted kids could go to schools that specialize not only in nurturing gifted children, but specific talents like artistic ability or scientific acumen. On the flip side, students with specific learning disabilities could go to schools that focus on their problems. In contrast, when everyone gets what government tells them they’re going to get, well, you know what happens.

Sadly, the only choices mentioned in Fordham’s report are district-run magnet schools and programs, but since the survey was of public school teachers, that’s understandable.  What’s not understandable is why in their NRO piece yesterday, Finn and Petrilli, while lionizing government “accountability” for supposedly helping low-achieving students, didn’t point to the huge promise of markets to educate each and every student.

What Fordham Can’t Say, But Does Anyway

Yesterday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act has encouraged schools to focus on the lowest-performing students and neglect the highest-performing. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis: National Assessment of Educational Progress data suggest it could be true, though the results are mixed and Tom Loveless, the author of the report’s NAEP analysis (the report also includes some interesting survey results), makes it clear that it is impossible to say what, if any, test-score changes have been caused by NCLB.

Unfortunately, the spin put on the “good news” in the report by Fordham president Chester Finn and vice president Mike Petrilli is not nearly as measured as Loveless’ caveat about NCLB. On National Review Online today, Finn and Petrilli write with total certainty that government-driven “standards and accountability” regimes have produced gains for low-performers.

“NCLB and state-level efforts to impose standards and accountability on the schools are plainly boosting the kids who need it most — surely a good thing,” they pronounce.

Rising achievement surely is a good thing. That government standards and accountability produced it, however, is far from sure.

First, compare the period that contains NCLB, which was passed in 2002, to score changes in the period preceding it. In reading, the lowest 10 percent of 4th grade performers saw a much bigger increase in scores immediately before 2002 than after, and 8th graders saw their scores drop under NCLB. In math, we have to start with 2003, the earliest testing year within the NCLB timeframe. Again, for the lowest performers, in both 4th and 8th grades scores increased faster in the period right before NCLB — 2000 to 2003 — than after.

Loveless notes in the report that it is impossible to be sure what effect NCLB had on math in the 2000 to 2003 period — where the fastest gains are seen — since NCLB was passed in 2002. He’s right. However, in light of long delays in issuing NCLB regulations, and the unlikelihood of a huge jump in just one year of NCLB, it is more reasonable not to ascribe improvements to the law than to give it credit. More importantly, one definitely cannot say, as Finn and Petrilli nonetheless do, that the law “plainly” has something to do with rising low-achiever scores.

To be fair, Finn and Petrilli say NCLB and “state-level efforts” — not just NCLB — boosted those scores. On what basis do they split credit?

In his analysis, Loveless examined states’ NAEP score changes for the highest and lowest performers, controlling for whether or not states had their own standards and accountability regimes before NCLB. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t list which are considered “accountability” and which “non-accountability” states, so it is impossible to search for other common characteristics — charter schools, private-school-choice programs, increasingly affluent populations, new curricula — that could have driven states’ performances. Even more damaging to Finn and Petrilli’s pronouncement, the data the report does make available simple cannot support their all-too-firm-sounding conclusion.

For one thing, for the four subject-grade combinations presented, only between 34 and 37 states are analyzed, leaving out one-third of the country. More important, while in three of the four subject-grade combinations the lowest performers in states with accountability regimes did see greater score increases than low perfomers in states without them, when you only have four comparisons you simply cannot declare uncontestable victory, much less when only three of the comparisons support your conclusion. Change one, and you’ve got a coin flip. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Petrilli and Finn.

In the end, Fordham’s new report doesn’t tell us anything definitive about the effect of NCLB or any other standards and accountability regimes. It offers some reason to believe that NCLB might help low scorers and leave high scorers behind — and it’s well worth reading just for that — but it provides nothing close to proof. It also suggests that standards and accountability regimes might help raise low-performers’ scores, but again has far too many holes and far too little information to support what Finn and Petrilli declare: that government-imposed standards and accountability “plainly” help low-achieving kids.

Suburban Opposition to Choice and the Money Misperception

Andrew Coulson has a great response to a recent “Best of the Web” column by WSJ’s James Taranto, which notes that there is widespread and self-interested opposition to vouchers from wealthier parents and homeowners.

I just wanted to add a bit about two things Taranto suggests are a major concern limiting school choice success; property values and taxes. He’s wrong on property values, but correct about taxes.

Coulson notes that the property value effects of choice are not as predictable as many political elites think, and that might help explain one interesting finding from my doctoral research.

In a large-scale survey of close to 2,900 respondents, I found that property value concerns were a negligible consideration in regard to school choice. In fact, around 40 percent of respondents think that property values will increase with school choice. Most of the rest think choice would have no impact at all on property values. And even high-income respondents without school-aged children believe, by 30 percent to 16 percent, that the adoption of school choice policy will increase property values in their area. 

Property values, in other words, do not seem to be an important drag on support for school choice. Coulson points to what does seem to be the major concern for higher-income suburbanites; cost.

Most people think that school choice will increase academic achievement and have other beneficial effects. But most people also believe, incorrectly, that choice will substantially increase costs. And why wouldn’t they? What new government program promising substantial improvements in anything ever cost taxpayers less?

Regression analyses reveal that cost concerns are the biggest drag on support. It should therefore come as no surprise that exposing respondents to an argument for school choice that emphasizes the cost savings was the most effective in increasing support for school choice.

If we want to make inroads with those who are skeptical of school choice, we need to do more to educate them on the fiscal benefits of choice.

School Choice: What Would Bartlet Do?

The federal voucher program that enables nearly 2,000 children in the District of Columbia to attend private schools is facing opposition in the Democratic Congress and may be discontinued. Some people just can’t stand to think that kids might get educated outside the grasp of the government. 

The most honest, decent, and thoughtful Democratic president of modern times, Jed Bartlet, was surprised to find himself supporting vouchers on an episode of NBC’s “The West Wing.” Bartlet’s staff summoned the mayor of Washington, D.C., to the White House to plot strategy for his veto of a Republican-backed bill to provide vouchers for a few students in D.C. schools–and was stunned to discover that the mayor and the D.C. school board president both supported the program, as indeed Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did in real life. Why? the president asked the mayor. “After six years of us promising to make schools better next year,” the mayor replied, “we’re ready to give vouchers a try….We spend over $13,000 per student–that’s more than anywhere else in the country-and we don’t have a lot to show for it.” (As Andrew Coulson wrote recently in the Washington Post, the real cost is actually much higher than that.)

Then the president summons his young personal aide to testify to the merits of D.C. public schools and gets another surprise:

Faced with the evidence, President Bartlet decided to do the right thing. Will Congress?

Should Suburbia Fear School Choice?

In a recent “Best of the Web” column, the WSJ’s James Taranto uncharacteristically ventures into the world of education policy. Suburban conservatives, he notes, often oppose school choice because they fear the impact of choice programs on their property values and their own children’s schools. “A voucher program,” he adds, “offers little to those who already have choice.”

Taranto, as always an astute political observer, is right that this perceived self-interest on the part of suburbanites is a serious hurdle for school choice advocates. Where he goes astray is in assuming that the perception is correct.

According to Taranto, parents who are wealthy enough to pick from among existing public school districts and private schools “already have” everything that a free educational marketplace could possibly offer them. That’s like saying upscale Soviet apparatchiks already enjoyed the benefits of capitalism because they could choose between a Lada and Yugo. The system of schools we have today is not a free market system. We have a legally protected 90 percent state monopoly school system with a small niche of non-profit schools mostly serving the religious education market due to the “free” government schools’ inability to serve that niche. This hobbled and distorted system no more captures the full panoply of options a true market would provide than the Yugo and Lada represented the full range of vehicle options in the capitalist West. Furthermore, no existing U.S. school choice program comes close to creating a genuine free market in education, as economist John Merrifield pointed out in a recent Cato Policy Analysis (“Dismal Science: The Shortcomings of U.S. School Choice Research and How to Address Them”).

Getting Americans to realize what they’re currently missing is indeed going to be a tough hurdle for school choice advocates. But it’s a hurdle that can be overcome.

As for the impact of school choice on property values, Taranto is right that there would likely be an important effect, but it is more subtle than he imagines, and there are countervailing forces he ignores. It is more subtle because property values and school district quality are not perfectly correlated. Some desirable places to live have better schools than others, and most homeowners do not currently have children in school. In otherwise desirable areas with mediocre or relatively poor schools, property values would go up, just as they would likely fall in expensive districts with relatively better schools. So, for some suburban homeowners the property value effect would be negative, while for others it would be positive. More importantly, well-designed market education reforms will generate very substantial state and local tax savings, year after year, because the current monopoly system is ridiculously expensive. Cato is about to release a study of the fiscal impact of a large-scale education tax credit plan, and it would save taxpayers billions of dollars in all five states analyzed. A one-time hit in property values may not seem so grim a prospect when offset by this falling tax burden. Most people own their homes for many years, and so would have plenty of time to reap tax savings.

Finally, the idea that a competitive education marketplace would lead to a mass migration of urban children into suburban schools is highly unlikely. Urban parents want the same things as suburban ones: good schools in their own neighborhoods. Urbanites do not commute to suburbia to go to Barnes and Noble or Starbucks. There are already good bookstores and coffee shops in our nation’s cities (in fact, there are good coffee shops in good bookstores in our major cities). Supply rises to meet demand in education as in every free marketplace. Once all families have the financial resources to easily choose schools, more and better private educational options will emerge in cities – just as has been the case with even the tiny Milwaukee voucher program. Most urban families will prefer good local schools to good schools in remote suburbs that would require long bus rides for their children.

Democratic Dodges

Democrats love to insist that they’re out to empower the little guy, to help “working-class” people. Maybe that’s why they have to tap dance so much when it comes to school choice, a reform that really does empower poor and working-class folks, but that also ticks-off some very powerful big guys who like their monopoly just the way it is.

In an interview yesterday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama offered the sort of lame excuse-making that all too often characterizes the Democratic approach to school choice.

TAPPER: You talked about the need to change the status quo in education today.

OBAMA: Right.

TAPPER: But…proponents of school choice say that the best way to change the status quo is to give parents, inner-city parents a choice. Why not?

OBAMA: Well, the problem is, is that, you know, although it might benefit some kids at the top, what you’re going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom. We don’t have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school. And what you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools.

So what I’ve said is let’s foster competition within the public school system. Let’s make sure that charter schools are up and running. Let’s make sure that kids who are in failing schools, in local school districts, have an option to go to schools that are doing well.

But what I don’t want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools. That’s going to make things worse, and we’re going to lose the commitment to public schools that I think have been so important to building this country.

TAPPER: So it would help some kids, but overall it would be bad for the system?

OBAMA: I think it would be overall bad for most kids.

Oh please! It stretches credulity beyond the breaking point that someone as smart as Sen. Obama could actually believe these things. Let’s break ‘em down:

School choice would “benefit some kids at the top.” The kids at the top clearly aren’t the ones school choice is serving, or hasn’t Sen. Obama noticed that most school choice programs are means-tested? And parents with money have huge advantages in the current system because they are able to choose schools by buying a house in a good district.  The poor have no such option, and are the ones who need school choice the most.

“We don’t have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school.” Well of course we don’t now because everyone is already paying for “free” public schools. Give parents education money instead of public schools, however, and private institutions will expand to meet newly liberated demand.

“What you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools.” Some quick math: Say we spend $10,000 per public-school student and have two students. Then say one is given a $7,500 voucher to go to a private school, and the remainder stays with the public school. Suddenly, the remaining student is getting $12,500, a huge per-pupil increase in resources. Of course, the district could lose the entire per-pupil amount, but it still wouldn’t lose resources. It would break even.

“So what I’ve said is let’s foster competition within the public school system.” While we’re at it, let’s not allow multiple auto producers, let’s just foster competition within General Motors and see how that works

“What I don’t want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools.” Guess what? Public schools actually send the hardest-to-teach kids to private schools right now, so we don’t need to worry; this one came to pass long ago.

“I think it would be overall bad for most kids.” Just like freedom and competition are bad for most people who want news and information, food, consumer electronics, cars, clothes, telephone service….

To be fair to Sen. Obama, at least his objections are comprehensible. Much worse is DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s attempt in today’s Washington Post to show that she really does care about kids in the DC voucher program, a program she intends to see die:

Far from conducting a “campaign” to cut off funding, as The Post alleges [editorial, June 12], I have asked that there be no cutoff at the end of the pilot program, which would leave these children rudderless, and for a plan for the children’s education in case funding does not continue.

What does this mean? Is Norton saying that the kids in the program should keep getting vouchers even if the program ends? If so, why not just say that? And what does “a plan for the children’s education” mean? That we plan to put kids right back in the rotten schools they were trying to escape?

Unfortunately, Norton furnishes what appears to be an answer to these questions. She wants private individuals to fund scholarships after they’ve paid their public school taxes, just as they did before the voucher program. But the public sector won’t just sit there. It will do, um, something:

But whatever Congress decides, surely the private and public sectors working together can develop a plan to satisfy a finite group of children. The Washington Scholarship Fund, which has administered the pilot program, was funding more than a thousand scholarships without federal dollars when it came to Congress in 2003 to urge approval of this program. This and other private funding could be reactivated.

No one is likely to be fooled by Del. Norton’s ham-fisted attempt to seem to care about the kids she’s tossing back into the dens of ignorance. It’s so sloppy and fractured an illiterate could see she’s an artless dodger. But then, she and many other Democrats aren’t really trying to send the message that they care about kids. Their message is that they care about the teachers unions, administrators associations, and other special interests that live off of our decrepit public schooling monopoly, and that message keeps coming through loud and clear.