Topic: Education and Child Policy

Quick Overview of McCain and Obama on Education

With the economy and financial system in turmoil, education has been a bit player in the election. Andrew Coulson has a new must-read overview of Obama and education at NRO (with a sequel to come).

But I thought I’d throw up my very short and simplified version of where I see both of the candidates on education…

The differences between Barrack Obama and John McCain on k-12 education policy center on school choice and funding. McCain is more supportive of school choice and local control than Obama, and Obama supports a much larger increase in federal education spending.

While both candidates speak favorably about school choice, only John McCain supports policies like vouchers and education tax credits that would allow parents to choose any school that works for their child, public or private. Barrack Obama wants to increase funding for charter schools, but speaks often of “accountability” for them. “Accountability” is often a code word used by political actors who wish to restrict the relative freedom of action and independence that make charter schools attractive to many parents.

Obama supports a large, $18 billion increase in federal education spending, with $10 billion of that increase devoted to an expanded federal effort in early education and preschool. Preschool, however, has been shown to be expensive and ineffective at increasing long-term achievement. And the federal government’s effort at other levels hasn’t worked either.

McCain proposes to hold spending at the same levels and focus on expanding virtual education, tutoring and school choice, and encouraging local reforms.

Today at Cato

Article: “Don’t Expand NATO,” by Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan in World Politics Review

Article: “Nuclear Energy: Risky Business,” by Jerry Taylor in Reason Magazine

Podcast: “Jacob Zuma and the Future of South Africa,” featuring Tony Leon

Op-Ed: “Questions and Answers About Obama’s Health Plan,” by Michael D. Tanner in the McClatchy News Service

Radio Highlight: Adam B. Schaeffer On Education

On Dropouts, Listen to Obama’s Favorite Economist

Libby Quaid of the AP reports today on a new Education Trust study of American high school dropout rates. According to that report, today’s kids complete high school at a lower rate than did their parents, NCLB hasn’t helped, and the solution is more federal money and sage oversight. Both the study and the AP story would have benefitted from a look at the work of two University of Chicago economists: James Heckman and Derek Neal.

Heckman, often cited as one of the biggest influences on Barack Obama’s education policy platform, co-authored in 2007 what is still the definitive study of U.S. graduation rates. He found that the graduation rate peaked around 80 percent in the late 1960s and has drifted down by four or five points since then. He also found a sudden up-tick immediately after the passage of NCLB. So did NCLB really help American kids? Not so fast. Heckman writes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority [student] retention [i.e., flunking] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups (Figure VI and VII)…. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., cheating].

The tons of money and federal oversight added by NCLB appear to be sweeping public schooling’s failures under the rug, not fixing them. The recommendation of the new Education Trust study, that even more money and better federal intervention will do the trick, does not inspire confidence. Unless one believes that a prospective Obama presidency will usher in a gilded age of wise bureaucrats and politicians immune to self-interest, there is no reason to expect that more of the same “solutions” will produce anything other than more of the same results.

If any politicians and voters in this country actually care about raising the graduation rate in a meaningful way, they might want to have a look at the work of Heckman’s colleague Derek Neal, and the subsequent work of Greene (2004) and Warren (2008) — all of whom find that private schools significantly increase the graduation rates of urban (especially minority) children over the rates of similar students attending public schools. And they do this, of course, for about two-thirds of the cost.

Alas, don’t expect Obama to listen to Neal, Greene, or Warren on this evidence any time soon, as Obama has publicly expressed his opposition to parental choice programs that include private schools.

Top U.S. School Districts Mediocre on World Stage

A new study by the American Institutes for research compares the performance of 11 large U.S. districts to that of countries participating in the international mathematics test known as ”TIMSS 2003.” As with earlier international comparisons, American kids do better the less time they have spent in school.

At the 4th grade, the earliest one tested, three of the 11 U.S. districts (Charlotte, Austin, and San Diego) score above the average of OECD countries participating in the test. (The OECD is a group of 30 or so nations, most of which are wealthy and industrialized, but a few of which are less wealthy transitional economies). By the 8th grade, the top two large U.S. districts (Charlotte and Austin) included in the report scored at the overall average of the participating OECD countries.

But the above results overstate the U.S. districts’ achievement. That’s because many industrialized countries that typically outscore us (France, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Finland, Switzerland, Iceland and Poland) did not participate in the TIMSS 2003 test. When the U.S. is compared specifically to other wealthy nations, it peforms worse than the AIR report will lead readers to believe. Finally, U.S. performance continues to deteriorate as students progress through high school, and so the absence of high-school test results also gives an inflated impression of relative U.S. performance.

In a nutshell, even two of the top large school districts in America can barely tread water internationally, when compared to students in other industrialized nations.

All Our Problems, in One, Easy Op-ed!

If you could endorse everything that’s killing our economy and inflating college costs in one op-ed, Michael Dannenberg of the New America Foundation has done it in this morning’s USA Today. Call for government-backed student loans to all comers, regardless of horrible credit history? Check! Trot out the old canard that penurious state higher ed spending drives tuition increases? Check! Demand deficit spending? Check! Declare that FDR ended the longest depression in American history with massive government outlays? Check!

Unfortunately, I am at a conference right now and can’t give this the full treatment it deserves, but just read the op-ed. Frankly, as we are now paying the stabbing price for years of too much easy, government-driven credit—not to mention massive deficit spending—the piece practically refutes itself.

Ohio Schools Take a Page from Stalin’s Playbook

The commissar vanishes from Stalin photo

School districts in Ohio systematically exclude the test scores of certain students, with the effect of raising the districts’ overall averages. According to the Columbus Dispatch, districts drop from their test results students who move to other districts before the end of the year (but after they’ve taken the test). Since kids who move around tend to perform worse academically, this practice bumps up district averages and presumably helps them to avoid penalties imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law. As in a retouched Stalin-era photograph, the offending low-scoring students are simply erased – appearing in no district’s test score average.

One of the key reasons that the free enterprise system works is that producers have incentives to find out what their customers want and to give it to them. Since the customers are spending their own money, they tend to be deeply interested in whether or not they’re getting what they’re paying for. All of this breaks down when the “customer” is a government agency spending other people’s money.

In the public school monopoly, state governments and the NCLB hold districts “accountable” for (manipulable) statistics. In competitive education markets, parents hold schools accountable for the success of their individual children. It’s pretty clear which approach better serves the interests of families.