Topic: Education and Child Policy

Slaughterhouse of Dreams

More than one in ten public high schools in America is a “dropout factory” according to an analysis by education researcher Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. At these schools, dropping out is the norm, not the exception, and their record of sky high dropout rates is consistent over time.

What can be done about it? The most obvious solution, to anyone familiar with school choice research, is to stop assigning students to these slaughterhouses of dreams, and stop sending tax dollars to them so that they can continue apace with their grizzly work. Instead, make it possible for all families to afford the schools of their choice, public or private.

Economist Derek Neal has shown that in urban areas, where most “dropout factories” are located, Catholic schools do a far better job keeping kids in school. African American students benefit the most. After controlling for differences in student background between the sectors, minority Catholic students had an 88 percent high school graduation rate, compared to just 62 percent for similar students in public schools. In other words, black students attending Catholic schools are almost one-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate as their public school peers. Still more impressive, these gains persisted through to college. Catholic school students were two-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate from college as similar public school students.

Jay Greene has found similarly favorable results for private schools (.pdf) in Milwaukee’s school choice program.

So let’s stop herding children into failing schools. Let’s give them a choice and a far better shot at educational success.

Get Middle-Class Mediocrity for Record-High Prices!

Expensive homes mean an expensive, but not necessarily a good education.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a great new book from the Pacific Research Institute, Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle-Class Needs School Choice. It’s packed with great statistics on under-performing, over-priced schools in some of the wealthiest California districts and case studies on fiscal mismanagement normally associated with big city schools. The findings are eye-opening, as the WSJ reports:

At Dos Pueblos High School in ritzy Santa Barbara, only 28% of high school juniors tested college-ready for English in 2006, slightly better than the 23% of students who did so at San Marin High School in Marin County, where the median home price recently hit $1 million.

That’s just a taste of the dirt they dug up with widely available information. And other state think-tanks can get a lot of mileage with the same model.

Kudos to PRI for advancing the argument for school choice with the middle class and up … that’s where the battle for educational freedom will be won or lost, and the school choice movement has largely failed to speak to middle-class concerns like the rising tide of mediocrity and skyrocketing property taxes that support over-funded and horribly inefficient and under-performing suburban school districts.

PRI’s not-much-bang-per-buck argument is particularly likely to resonate with the crucial two-thirds of the electorate that doesn’t have school-aged children but gets slammed in taxes for the schools. This constituency is typically left out of parent-centric arguments for school choice, but non-parents are the key to expanding school choice.

Mitt: Educational Marxist?

According to MSNBC, yesterday GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Hillary Clinton a Marxist, remarking that “she said we’ve always been an on-your-own society…we should be a we’re-all-in-it-together society, a shared responsibility society. So it’s out with Adam Smith and in with Karl Marx.”

Romney might be right about Hillary Clinton, but based on several things he’s said recently about education, one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a fair bit of Big Brother in him, too.

At the same event where Romney attacked collectivist Hillary, for instance, he lauded the intrusive, federal No Child Left Behind Act. He likes the testing, he said, apparently not caring that it’s mandated by the central government. Even scarier, he endorsed a national program requiring that “before a parent can send a child to school for the first time, they’ve got to go to a weekend where they learn about being prepared to support their child in school.”

To top all this off, yesterday the Associated Press reported that Romney has floated the idea of rewarding college aid based on what careers recipients choose. “I like the idea of linking the level of support that we’re able to provide to young people going to college to the contributions they’re going to make to our society.” So not only is Romney going to keep NCLB and force moms and dads into government parenting academies, he’s going to engineer who gets what based, apparently, on how much government decides different jobs contribute to society?

Maybe Hillary isn’t the only closet Marxist in the 2008 race.

The Political Possibility Delusion

Today the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – a neo-con education think tank – released The Proficiency Illusion, a report detailing how low many states have set their “proficiency” standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As discovered before, Fordham finds that many states set “proficiency” at surface-scraping levels, most likely in an effort to avoid sanctions under the law, or even more likely, just so their leaders can continue to tell their citizens “don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Diane Ravitch’s assault on NCLB in the New York Times, and took major issue with only one thing that she called for: national standards. Well, the Fordham folks make the same proposal, suggesting that it’s insane that we have no, single, curricular standard:

First, it’s crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement—stable, reliable, cumulative, and comparable. That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam should set them, but if Uncle Sam is going to push successfully for standards-based reform he cannot avoid the responsibility of ensuring that they get set.

Now, forget for a second that the Fordham folks are saying that Uncle Sam needn’t set national standards but that it should set them all the same. What’s more important is that Fordham fails to address the same unavoidable problem that Ravitch missed: As long as government controls education, political forces will ensure that standards stay low and easy to meet. It is, simply, the absolutely inescapable conclusion one reaches after examining the history of public schooling generally, and the 40-plus years of federal involvement. Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act and consistently bankrupt state standards prove this beyond a doubt, yet some conservatives still push for national standards, ignoring political reality and forgetting all the progressive educator, teacher union, and other special interest domination of education conservatives have been complaining about for decades.

The history of American education proves one thing: When government runs education, education works for the people in government, not parents and children. That’s why any national standards adopted by government – whether Uncle Sam or some consortium of states – are doomed to failure, and why the only way to get high standards – and critical competition and innovation to boot – is universal school choice.

It’s time for big government conservatives to accept political reality, forget about hopeless national standards, and put all their energy into giving parents – not politicians – the real power in education.  

So Close, Yet So Far

In today’s New York Times, education historian Diane Ravitch declares that Congress should kill the No Child Left Behind Act and get out of education. Well, almost.

In her piece, Ravitch runs through a litany of problems with NCLB, not the least of which is that the law encourages states to set “proficiency” standards as low as possible, and encourages NCLB supporters like President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings to exaggerate its effectiveness. Ravitch also rightly takes the law to task because through it Congress sets reforms and penalties for bad schools, “which is way beyond its competence.” Unfortunately, she stops short of calling for full federal withdrawal from education, asserting that Washington “is good at collecting and disseminating information,” and declaring the need for “a consistent national testing program in which officials have no vested interest in claiming victory.”

It is actually a very debatable proposition that the feds are good at collecting data – a look at the federal Digest of Education Statistics, for instance, shows some pretty long lags between when data is collected and when it becomes available to the public – but that’s not the big problem with Ravitch’s piece. The big problem is the national testing proposal. Quite simply, as long as we have public schools – meaning, schools run by government – government officials will always, always, always have a vested interest in “claiming victory.” As a result, unless the system is fundamentally changed, no matter how the standards are designed and implemented we will always get lowest-common-denominator outcomes:

  1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  2. Difficult standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
  3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  4. Difficult standards and tests, involuntary adoptions: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will exert constant political pressure to make them easier, just as we’ve seen with NCLB. The outcomes, again, will be poor.

So what’s the solution if not national standards? Fundamentally change the system: Get the feds out of education, and implement universal school choice at state and local levels. Then, since they won’t run the schools, public officials won’t have the same, dangerous, vested interests in the results, and schools that do a bad job will, at last, have a very strong interest in responding to parents, not running to politicians.

Do Texas Taxpayers Get Longhorn Straight through the Middle?

Let me make one thing clear right off the bat (pun not intended): I’m a fan of college sports.

As I’ve written before, though, I have some problems with big-time college athletics because I think that private schools are at a huge disadvantage against public schools, if for no other reason than private school alumni donors have to spend their money on lots of their alma maters’ needs, academic and athletic, while state taxpayers take care of public schools’ academic stuff, letting alums focus on sports. (There are lots of other problems, but I’ll stick to my favorite for now.) A fascinating breakdown of athletics spending at the University of Texas in Sunday’s Austin-American Statesman illustrates just how excessive at least one public schools’ athletics budget can get, with UT set to spend $107.6 million on athletics this year, double what the school spent just six years ago. Of course, UT probably needs to fork out that much cash to make sure its football players have such things as a “lounge area with game tables, 125 personalized lockers for the players, five flat-screen TVs and a three-dimensional, lighted 20-foot Longhorn on the ceiling.”

Of course, none of this proves that Texas taxpayers are footing the academic bills so alums can focus on the thrill of victory, but there is nationwide evidence that such displacement might just be happening. As the American-Statesman notes:

Big-time sports can cost schools money in other ways, too. This spring, an analysis of Division I-A schools by the Journal of Sports Management found athletic department donations represent a larger and larger share of total university giving. “In some cases, the increase in athletics giving may be coming at the expense of academic gifts,” said co-author Jeffrey Stinson, a North Dakota State University marketing professor.

So, while we don’t know for sure from this article, it seems quite possible that, at least in part, Texas fans are able to cheer because Texas taxpayers are getting a longhorn straight through the middle.