Topic: Education and Child Policy

My Hope Was for Change

I really dislike political speeches, and the “bigger” the speech, the worse. More faux earnestness. More lofty rhetoric about “pulling together to realize the American dream.” More heartstring-pullers about “a man I met in [insert heartland state here] who has played by the rules, but who is on the brink of losing his house because this year’s crop was destroyed by a plague of locusts and his job at the vacuum-tube factory was off-shored to Bangladesh.” You know what I mean.

Despite this, last night I was torn. I really didn’t want to listen to Barack Obama’s speech — Logical Neal had read lots of Obama’s issue positions and didn’t see anything that struck him as the least bit new — but Optimist Neal said surely there must be something to all this talk of “change.” So I tuned in.

Stupid Optimist Neal!

There wasn’t a thing in last night’s spectacle that didn’t come right out of the shopworn (but, of course, not open-shop!) Democratic tool bag and Big Book of Clichéd Political Speeches. Demonizing corporations and “the rich”; assuming that “caring” is synonymous with “more government”; pronouncing that all of this is what it really means to be American — it was all there!

Now, I know that no one reads what I have to say to get my take on pure politics. I’m an education guy! Fortunately, I can make my point by sticking with what I know. Obama’s rhetorical exploitation of education and “the children” was his tired speech in microcosm:

  • Demonize opponent because he hasn’t proposed new programs — you know, because Washington spends nothing on student aid — to send kids to college?

Check!

“I don’t believe that Senator McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn’t know…How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people’s benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college…”

  • Talk like kids aren’t getting a decent education because government hasn’t done enough?

Check!

“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves, protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education…”

Check!

Oh, and promise to pay teachers—your most important foot soldiers and powerful lobby—more?

Check on that, too!

“I’ll invest in early childhood education. I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability. And we will keep our promise to every young American — if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.

I won’t go on. I’m sure you get the point. There’s nothing new — there’s no “change” — with Obama. There’s just the same old promise that whatever your problem, government will solve it, and there’s just another reminder that I should never, ever, listen to Optimist Neal.

Leftism in the Schools

Buried in his profile of Barack Obama’s background, David Maraniss discusses one of his mother’s favorite classes at Mercer Island High School near Seattle in the late 1950s:

Their curiosity was encouraged by the teachers at Mercer Island High, especially Jim Wichterman and Val Foubert, who taught advanced humanities courses open to the top 25 students. The assigned reading included not only Plato and Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Sartre, but also late-1950s critiques of societal conventions, such as “The Organization Man” by William H. Whyte, “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman and “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard, as well as the political theories of Hegel and Mill and Marx. “The Communist Manifesto” was also on the reading list, and it drew protests from some parents.

Seriously? This was the reading list? Hegel and Marx, but no Locke and Smith, the thinkers who actually revolutionized the world we live in? “Late-1950s critiques of societal conventions” like The Lonely Crowd and The Hidden Persuaders, but not Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Chambers’s Witness, or Buckley’s God and Man at Yale? Weren’t those critiques of societal convention? (True, Plato and Aristotle weren’t leftists, and Mill was a classical liberal. But there are no conservatives, free-market advocates, or contemporary libertarians.)

It’s hard to imagine that parents objected to such a reading list….

But Maraniss assures us that there was nothing leftist about it:

In tracking the Obama story this year, some conservative Web sites have seized on the high school curriculum of his mother as evidence of an early leftist indoctrination. [Her high school classmate Chip] Wall, who has spent his life challenging dogma from any ideology, and whose take on the world often veers from the politically correct, answered this interpretation with a two-word dismissal: “Oh, crap.”

Well, I wouldn’t hold Obama responsible for what his mother was taught in the Seattle suburbs before he was born. But it’s pretty clear that this high school course tilts far to the left. And of course such reading lists are even more common in college. Today the lists include more racial and gender diversity, though no more ideological diversity. And this list demonstrates that you can put together a plenty left-wing reading list composed entirely of Dead White European Men (some of whom weren’t even dead at the time).

“The [School Choice] Times, They Are a-Changin’ ”

Reporting from the Democratic National Convention two days ago, Salon’s Mickey Kaus was stunned to find a room packed with 500 people cheering as Newark mayor Cory Booker defended school choice. Booker complained of the viciousness of education politics, noting that “he’d been told his political career would be over if he kept pushing school choice.” And when Booker told the crowd that their party would “have to admit, as Democrats, we have been wrong on education,” he was greeted by “Loud applause!” [emphasis in Kaus’ original].

Liberal columnist and Newsweek editor and Jonathan Alter, who moderated the next panel, said it would have been hard to imagine such an event at previous Democratic conventions.  According to Kaus, Alter “called it a ‘landmark’ future historians should note.”

Universal, state-wide school choice programs may not be passed in the next year, or even in the year after that. But they are coming. A sea change in the politics of school choice has begun and it is hard to imagine how it might be stopped. As I noted on this blog few months ago, Democratic politicians are coming to see parental choice in education as an effective way of improving access to good schools for all families.

Of course there are still many holdouts. Sooner or later, though, even the holdouts will realize that the last politicians blocking the schoolhouse door, impeding children from leaving to attend schools of their families’ choosing, will be seen as the Oral Faubuses of the 21st century. Those holdouts might want to heed the words of Bob Dylan:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

National Standards = Terrible; Ed Tax Credits = Effective, Popular, and Passing

Over on Flypaper, Mike Petrilli takes a swipe at NEAL McCluskey for pointing out why national standards are doomed to failure.

And then he compares the infeasibility of national standards, as a method of improving education, to the political difficulty of passing something like our proposal for broad-based education tax credits that would open universal access to school choice.

You see, national standards that improve education are literally an impossible dream because the method is doomed to fail, regardless of its chances of becoming legislation. Broad-based school choice is merely a difficult endeavor like any major reform. But if enacted, it will improve education significantly.

Petrilli implies that a “universal” education tax credit system is impossible.

Really? You mean something akin to the universal voucher program that became law in Utah but was repealed by voters?

Or maybe the donation tax credit programs in Arizona and Georgia, which have no income limits? Those are universal in principle, Mike. A continuing expansion of funding will make them universal in fact.

Our Public Education Tax Credit model legislation combines personal-use credits like those that exist in 3 states with the kind of donation tax credits that exist in 6 states.

Polling consistently shows that universal programs are much more popular than targeted ones. And education tax credits are extremely popular … even a majority of current and former public school employees support education tax credits!

Wake up, Mike. We’re talking about the expansion and combination of widely used, popular, and increasingly bipartisan policies that work.

We Want Better Answers

I want to thank Mike Petrilli for trying to answer the big national standards question: Why would national academic standards be any less vulnerable to political forces dumbing them down than currently rock-bottom state and local standards? Unfortunately, Mike’s answer is far from satisfying, but since he wrote it while playing Jim McKay, he can probably be excused…for the moment.

Mike kicks off his response by pointing out that Fordham actually addressed this question two years ago in To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools. He even takes a snarky dig at Eduwonk—who recently asked the big politics question—for acting like he didn’t know the answer even though he was an expert voice in Impossible Dream

Mike will be glad to know that I read the report when it came out (despite my outrage at its exploiting a favorite inspirational song). I did not, however, really get an answer to my question from it, either the first time I read it or in my dutiful re-reading. The report was more a heavily excerpted roundtable discussion on national standards and tests than a rigorous analysis of specific proposals, and it offered thin treatments of the special-interest-power problem.

While we’re on the report, by the way, I need to stand up for the currently vacationing Eduwonk (he’s had guest bloggers for the last couple of weeks) because it seems that not only he, but Mike himself, may not have read Impossible Dream.

In the report, the Fordham authors, including Mike, endorsed the second model discussed, dubbed “If You Build It, They Will Come.” (Sappy movies and musicals really take a beating in this thing.) That model would have the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)—a quasi-independent entity that currently runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—create national standards, exams, and accountability metrics in reading, mathematics, and science, and would encourage state adoption either by offering states more money or regulatory relief.

Despite the endorsement of model #2 in the report, Mike points to the third proposal—“Let’s All Hold Hands”—in his blog post as the model to embrace. This Kumbaya little number would have Washington possibly provide financial or other incentives to get states to adopt common standards and tests, but the standards and tests would be created by consortia of states or other non-federal entities. This, Mike says, would evade teacher unions and other standards-sinking interests by furnishing “political cover for governors and state chiefs who want higher standards but can’t easily sell it to their local constituents.”

Since Mike seems to be presenting us with two favored national-standards scenarios, we’ll explore why neither offers anything akin to hope. Let’s start, though, with an assessment of the likely effects of all possible standards-and-adoption combos in a system in which those to be held accountable have outsized influence over the policies that would do the holding:

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. Challenging 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. Challenging standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will face constant political pressure to make them easier. The outcomes will ultimately be poor.

The conclusion here is clear: When schools are controlled by government, the incentive structure always leads to poor outcomes because the people who would be held to the standards — and who have the greatest incentive and ability to affect policy — have every natural incentive to keep standards low while maximizing their freedom and income. So, make the standards tough and they’ll either be ignored or pushed down. Make ‘em easy, and they won’t matter. Roughly a century of public schooling has shown this, and Mike seems to agree that, at least so far, neither the states nor Washington have disproven it.

So would “If They Build It, They Will Come” curb the scenarios above? Nope. If the feds—which includes the NAGB—were to set truly demanding standards and strong incentives to adopt them, serious pressure would be put toward easing the standards.

What could counter it? Fordham rests its hopes on two things: NAGB’s independence, and voluntary participation.

The former, frankly, seems worthless, predicated largely on the fact that the NAGB is currently insulated from politics. But currently there isn’t a dime connected to how well states or schools do on NAEP — it carries no tangible consequences. Attach real regulatory relief or money to adopting the standards and doing well on them, however, and it’ll be sayonara to political insulation. Indeed, Fordham concedes in Impossible Dream that the NAGB “could be compromised by the changes and added burdens here.”

Voluntary adoption is an even flimsier defense. Make the standards too high relative to the rewards of volunteering and states won’t sign-on. In contrast, couple high standards with big rewards and, well, re-read what I just wrote about the NAGB. 

How about “Let’s All Hold Hands”? Mike asserts that this lateral, state-consortia approach is seeing the most traction, with groups like Achieve getting states to sign onto common standards and assessments. But experience with these consortia so far gives little indication that if the groups were to create challenging standards that students struggle to meet, the standards wouldn’t soon be hollowed out. Most states in Achieve’s American Diploma Project, for instance, have only just started aligning their standards and graduation requirements with common benchmarks, and there’s been no time to see what happens if lots of kids or schools can’t hit the standards and are punished as a result.

As for “political cover” for state policymakers who would impose tough but unpopular standards and accountability, I see no reason why a consortium couldn’t just as easily furnish cover to weaken standards or accountability as raise them.

I can just hear it now:

“Mom! Washington State and Maryland are making things easier on themselves! Why can’t we?”

“Be quiet and finish your homework! What? You don’t have any…”

Make no mistake: I’m grateful to Mike for trying to answer my burning national-standards question. Really, I am. But harsh reality just seems to eclipse impossible dreams.

Pre-K Pushers Don’t Know and Don’t Care About the Evidence

Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell have a great article in the Wall Street Journal that argues we should be very concerned about the current mania for preschool.

In response, USA Today editorial page editor and president of the Education Writers Association Richard Whitmire pens this gem on Eduwonk:

I don’t see the need to defend the research behind the benefits of preschool, but here’s the latest I wrote on this.

You’d think his link would take you to a definitive statement revealing the indisputable benefits of preschool. That is, something substantive containing actual analysis.

Unfortunately, his “analysis” consists of a breezy and factually incorrect USA Today editorial swooning over Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program:

Oklahoma educators credit their decade-old preschool program with pushing up reading and math scores in the lower grades, and with raising achievement by low-income children.

In reality, Oklahoma lost substantial ground compared to the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, AKA “the nation’s report card”) during the 1990’s at the very same time the state was aggressively expanding preschool access, increasing attendance, and building a system that the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) rates 9 out of 10 on quality.

  • Oklahoma slipped from one point above the national average in 4th grade math in 1992 to two points behind in 2007.
  • Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading scores plummeted. In 1992, 4th grade reading scores were 5 points above the national average and in 2007 they were 3 points behind.

The one finding Witmire cites — from the High/Scope Perry Preschool project — included home visitations in addition to preschool and had serious methodological problems.

Phi Delta Kappa Scared to Ask About Education Tax Credits

The new 2008 PDK/Gallup poll on education is anti-school-choice advocacy masquerading as responsible research.

In 1999, the last year PDK/Gallup asked about education tax credits, 57 percent of the public supported credits to cover the full cost of private school tuition and 65 percent of the public supported tax credits for part of the cost.

Instead of asking clear and informative questions about vouchers and education tax credits in 2008, however, the survey recycles a generic, biased, and discredited question they introduced after support for vouchers began to climb in their own surveys.

The PDK/Gallup poll now asks about a respondent’s support for “allowing students and parents to choose a private school at public expense.”

This loaded and abstract language is meant to lower what other more balanced polls have shown is deep and widespread support for school choice and for education tax credits in particular.

That’s one reason Georgia passed a new tax credit program this year and why Arizona, Rhode Island, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Florida all recently passed or expanded education tax credit programs with crucial bipartisan support from Democrats.