Topic: Education and Child Policy

Shouting “There’s No Fire” in a Burning Theater

In today’s Washington Post, government schooling advocate Gerald Bracey argues that American education is just fine, thanks. He makes this case by noting that NAEP 4th grade science standards are set too high. Only 29 percent of kids are deemed “proficient” on that test, while the U.S. ranked third in an international test of 4th grade science a few years ago. If these are the only data you look at, Bracey’s argument is not ludicrous on its face. If you look at all the available data on U.S. student performance, it is.

Jerry has a habit of glossing over the evidence on the performance of older U.S. students and young adults. I ran into this eight years ago when I had an on-line exchange with him over my book Market Education. As I explained then:

While U.S. students sometimes do well and usually do adequately at the 4th grade, their performance deteriorates significantly by the 8th grade, and they hit rock bottom by the 12th grade. American 16-25 year olds are among the most illiterate in the world, with nearly a quarter scoring at the lowest possible level measured by the International Adult Literacy Survey. Since most Americans are chiefly concerned with how well their children are prepared for adult life at the end of their education, the appalling performance of U.S. high-school seniors and recent graduates represents a genuine and not a manufactured crisis….

Regrettably, but not at all surprisingly, little has changed in the intervening years. I updated my analysis of U.S. peformance in an international context when the latest TIMSS and PISA tests were released two years ago. The data continue to show that “the notion [our] public school problems are confined to inner cities, and that our wealthy suburbs produce world-beating high school graduates is a myth.”

Give Us Back Our Monopoly!

The governor of Ohio is threatening to kill most school choice in his state, and several leaders of urban school districts are doing all they can to help him. If you ever wanted to know what really motivates people like this, your answer is clear as day in this Cleveland Plain Dealer article:

Columbus — Leaders of Ohio’s eight big-city school districts are lobbying lawmakers this week to support Gov. Ted Strickland’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools and ax a statewide school-voucher program.

“We strongly support his position that for-profit entities not operate in our state,” said Cleveland schools CEO Eugene Sanders, co-chairman of the Ohio 8, a coalition of superintendents and teachers union presidents from the state’s largest districts. “We think those funds can more appropriately be used in a public school context.…”

The school leaders want legislators to know they are weary of watching students, as well as tens of millions of tax dollars, fly out of their coffers and into the hands of charter schools — independent public schools that are privately run but publicly funded.

Simply put: Lousy competition is kicking our butts. We want our monopoly back!

Another $60 Million Down the Drain

From today’s New York Times:

Billionaires Start $60 Million Schools Effort

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

[…]

The project will not endorse candidates — indeed, it is illegal to do so as a charitable group — but will instead focus on three main areas: a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

No big surprise here, but man, it’s disappointing to see very intelligent, well-meaning people spending their money on ideas that have been tried and failed. The federal government has failed to improve education for very obvious reasons, and pushing failed state-level reforms to the federal level will end in even more expensive failure.

The government-run education system is the root of our problems in education, and the only mechanism for systemic reform and improvement is educational freedom (preferably through broad-coverage education tax credits).

The Center for Educational Freedom is ready and waiting to help Gates and Broad spend their education dollars more effectively.

Even if Gates and Broad don’t want to do what’s necessary to change the education system, they would do much more good by simply devoting this money to an endowed scholarship fund for low-income kids.

School Choice and Government Education Realities

Blog-fight!  Very stimulating.  My thanks to Sara Mead at The Quick and the Ed, who responds to my response to her post about how advocates of educational freedom are hawking snake-oil. 

First, I’d like to happily and wholly agree with one of Mead’s points:  “[School choice programs that target students with disabilities] create perverse incentives for parents and schools that could exacerbate one of the biggest problems in special education: overidentification of students with disabilities.”  No argument there at all, and I would simply add that there are perverse incentives for disability over-ID in the public system right now.  Getting your kid classified as ADHD, or Asperger’s, etc. allows your child to receive extra consideration and a more individualized education.  If your child is difficult to control and only responds well in a particular educational environment, your only recourse may be a special classification.  Wouldn’t it be great if parents could just choose a school that works for their child in the first place, without the need to label them?

Now, on to the good stuff. 

Mead admits that these special programs “seem to be working okay,” but that “they don’t seem to be solving the problem they ostensibly were intended to solve–parent difficulties getting needed services or out-of-district placements for their children.”  I’m sorry, but I fail to see how giving parents another choice isn’t a general step forward.  No one ever claimed that vouchers would make the government system perfect, only that it would allow parents easily to look elsewhere for the services their child needs.  The program does that, and there’s nothing disingenuous about saying choice solves a lot of problems for thousands of families.  The report Mead cites claims only that children with less severe disabilities are the ones helped most by the program, not that it doesn’t help children with disabilities. 

I’d also like to point out that although political support is difficult to come by for any school choice program, the public actually supports universal over targeted programs by huge margins, often with two or three times the support.  This is a very consistent finding (I’ve found the same thing in my own recent opinion research).  And I think the school choice movement’s myopic obsession with hyper-targeted programs is both a tactical and a strategic mistake.

Mead concludes by conceding “there’s a compelling case that building an education system more premised on choice will have significant benefits, in terms of efficiency but more so in terms of customization and parent and student satisfaction and engagement.”  But then she insists “it’s also likely that educational policies that improve student achievement on average will end up leaving some [presumably low-income] children behind.”  I don’t know where this prediction comes from, other than from a general distrust of markets, but the relevant question here isn’t whether or not some children will be “left behind.”  The question is how many, and compared to what else?  How’s our current system doing in that department?  Pretty swell, eh?  And why, if the market is so likely to leave poor kids behind, are low-income families so desperate to get scholarships?  And why is a free market already serving the poor children in poor countries well?

And while we’re comparing school choice reform to present realities in the government system … school choice program problems with fraud and theft are nothing compared with the rampant corruption commonplace in the educational industrial complex.  Never mind the legal travesty of paying incompetent teachers large sums to malpractice because they are tenured and senior.

Finally, this sex-ed thing seems trivial, I know, but Mead shows a blind spot here that’s interesting. 

The conservatives she cites as supporting abstinence-only sex ed support it because they think it’s the best policy.  These conservatives also support a system of school choice in which liberals could send their kids to a free-range school where sex ed starts early and includes cucumber demonstrations of condom use.  In the absence of such a system, many of these conservatives support making abstinence-only sex ed the standard in sex-ed because without educational freedom, curriculum decisions are a zero-sum game.  You win, I lose.  I win, you lose.  This is a recipe for social strife, and we have it aplenty in our schools.

You see, there’s the system of education we have, and the one school choice supporters want.  The system we have forces diverse communities and families to decide, through a corrupt political process dominated by the educational industrial complex, on what every child will be taught. 

If you want your kid to have abstinence-only sex ed and can’t afford a choice, then you’d better throw your support behind those who want it in the curriculum.  The same goes for everything else under the curriculum sun. This doesn’t bear at all on the issue of support for educational freedom.

Ok, I think that’s all …

From the “When Will They Learn” File

The more wailing I hear from big-government conservatives about public education being monopolized by teachers unions, or progressive theorists, or a political system that just won’t see the light, the more amazed I am that these people obsess over conquering the hopeless system rather than letting parents and children out of it. When will they finally feel the mammoth weight of their own, huge complaints and realize that “more government, only with us in control” is a doomed reform strategy?

This morning, after reading a National Review Online piece by Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a leading neo-con education outfit, I found myself asking that same question again.

In his article, Petrilli discusses a House Education and Labor committee hearing scheduled for Friday that will focus on U.S. Department of Education staffers steering schools to specific, preferred curricula under the Reading First program. Reading First works, Petrilli declares, and he’s sickened that House Democrats will be playing politics with it by holding a hearing designed mainly to embarrass the Bush administration:

Whatever was done, it evidently worked for kids….The Office of Management and Budget recently declared [Reading First] the only “effective” No Child Left Behind program. A new report from the Government Accountability Office…is filled with plaudits from state officials, who have seen their reading scores skyrocket. This creates a bit of a conundrum for committee chairman George Miller, one of the architects of No Child Left Behind and thus of Reading First. His commitment to closing the achievement gap is well known….But so is his fealty to Speaker…Nancy Pelosi. And this supposed “scandal” gives the Democrats a shot at another Bush-administration scalp.

So what does Petrilli think our representatives ought to be doing instead of indulging in what he calls “political theater of the absurd”? Tackling questions like:

Should the federal government be in the business of prescribing and proscribing curricula for the nation’s schools, and if so how? What are the pros and cons?

Of course! Instead of wasting all their time on the political opportunism, grandstanding, and show-hearings to which they are addicted, federal politicians should be figuring out if they should exert even more control over American education.

Unfortunately, we know what Petrilli would like them to decide were they able to leave stupid and destructive politics aside for even just a moment and actually get down to business. As he and the Fordham Foundation have made clear many times before, he’d want these hopeless political opportunists to authorize the creation of national curricular standards, which in the end - though Petrilli and Fordham won’t admit it - would give the politicians even more control over American education.

Now THAT is absurd. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the neo-con course.

Drop the Excuses for Poor Coverage of School Choice

Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post, urges everyone to drop the voucher issue because:

1. “I am tired of the voucher issue.”

Mathews may feel like he’s had to write about vouchers too much, but most of the public hasn’t heard a thing about them, and certainly doesn’t know much about education tax credits, which get far less coverage and are usually called “vouchers” by journalists covering the education beat in any case. 

Being tired of covering an issue is a sorry excuse for a journalist to call for its dismissal.  Although, I have to say that it’s difficult to see how he could be tired of vouchers when he mentioned them in only 3 out of about 121 articles over the past year.  That’s just over 2 percent of his articles.

Perhaps Mathews could look into the bipartisan promise of education tax credits, which he mentions not at all over the past year.  Arizona, Rhode Island and Iowa passed tax-credit programs last year, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing business-tax credit program. The Arizona, Iowa, and Pennsylvania bills became law with Democratic governors, and the Rhode Island business-tax credit was born in a legislature controlled by Democrats. Finally, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer in deep-blue New York proposed an education-tax deduction in his first state budget.

And he could even give more attention to charter schools, which he mentioned only 8 times.

2. “I do not think such programs are going to solve our education crisis.”

I disagree.  Just because a reform won’t solve every problem, doesn’t mean that it won’t solve many of them. 

And it will solve the education crisis of many individual children.

3. “Few of us are willing to go the voucher route.”

So, because most people don’t want to use a voucher no one should have the chance? 

Mathews claims, “I don’t see anything wrong with the [voucher] idea itself… .  I could not think of a single thing to say [to try to persuade a low-income mother that using a voucher is wrong] that would not leave me feeling guilty and deceitful.”

How would Mathews’ third objection hold up with a voucher mom as an argument for dropping the issue?  How would any of these objections?

4. “It is too risky, and too inconvenient.”

For whom is it too risky and inconvenient?  How is it too risky?  The parents who desperately need options for their child aren’t bothered by the inconvenience, and they certainly know it’s more risky to leave their child in a failing and dangerous school.

Again, how would this argument fly with a voucher mom?

Mathews goes on to say that “the two major political parties find it very hard to drop the voucher issue,” because “they can raise money on that issue forever, while in the meantime not doing much for schools.” 

This is absurd.  School choice is no fundraising issue.  School choice is being driven by people who believe it will save children and money while improving education across the board.  Lawmakers who support school choice, especially Democrats, are siding with principle and risking the wrath of the educational industrial complex.  With a monopoly on education, control of school boards, and forced dues, the big education unions have a lot more money to throw around during election season than school choice activists. 

Mathews may be tired of the voucher issue, but I think a little more reporting on school choice might do justice to his vocation as a journalist.

Government Monopoly is our Educational Disease

Sara Mead over at The Quick and The Ed laments the one-note, “pro-voucher conservative insistence that choice will solve any and all educational problem one can imagine*,” including what she thinks is a phony “boy crisis.” The asterisk there is for sex ed – she is under the misapprehension that supporters of educational freedom want to make an exception here to force all children to be taught “abstinence-only.”

I really wonder whether Mead understands what choice in education means … it certainly doesn’t mean a state-mandated curriculum, conservative or liberal. A state mandated curriculum means no effective choice. That’s what we have right now, and choice in education is the way to change it.

The larger point here, though, is found in the utterly exhausted trope Mead trots out: our education problems can’t be solved with a “silver bullet” (she uses the hammer-nail metaphor, but you get the point).

Why don’t I try my hand at this: A single disease can cause many symptoms.

Brain cancer may cause debilitating headaches, but the cancer is the cause and the headache is a symptom of that disease. Some treatments of breast cancer might cause heart failure, but the cancer is still the root problem. If there’s no cancer, none of these problems exist.

The major educational problems in this country – poor student achievement, the achievement gap, low efficiency, high and climbing costs, social conflict, even discipline and safety – are not independent of each other. These problems are symptoms caused by the same disease: a government controlled and operated educational system.

Mead doesn’t understand how the mechanism of educational freedom can solve specific educational problems, and that’s too much to fully explain in a blog posting. A better way of putting it is that educational freedom is a mechanism that allows specific educational problems to be solved. This is the core difference between market and command and control systems.

I am not saying that in a system of educational freedom we would wake to find a Lake Wobegon America, where all children are above average, education costs nothing, and social ills have disappeared.

I am saying that the serious problems prompting all of our policy debates will be greatly mitigated by educational choice, and to an extent greater than under any other possible reform.

Government monopolies are very poor providers of all services, but they are especially poor providers of something as nuanced, personal, and value-laden as education.

The education industrial complex, Big Ed, is the disease. Educational freedom is the cure.