Topic: Education and Child Policy

Government Schools to Parents: Leave Your Money, Your Kid, and Shut Your Mouth

Jay Mathews, ed-beat superstar for the Washington Post, has a story today that perfectly sums up the government school response to involved parents; leave it to the professionals, stupid. 

Across the country, parents hit a solid wall of silence when they question the actions of school administrators.   But these same administrators have the gall to blame uninvolved parents for the sorry state of our government schools.  Mathews reports:

Schools nationwide are calling on parents to get involved. The Maryland State Board of Education endorsed a broad range of family outreach initiatives in a 2005 report that called public education “a shared responsibility.”

Yet some parents in Montgomery County and elsewhere have discovered limits on the get-involved policy when they ask questions about individual teachers, whether those queries are about alleged abuse of students or a decision to fire a popular instructor.

In Montgomery County, beloved third-grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was bounced on the word of one reviewer despite an outpouring of support from parents who knew what great work she had done with their children.  I can’t say it better than it’s reported:

But a panel of eight teachers and eight principals charged with reviewing Kim’s performance gave little weight to the parent letters when they considered her future in a closed-door meeting, according to panel members.

Doug Prouty, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association and co-chairman of the panel, said in an interview that the strong parental support for Kim was considered only a “secondary data source.”

The good test scores of Kim’s students, he said, were also secondary. The primary sources for the decisions, he said, were the judgments of Principal Elaine Chang, a consulting teacher assigned to evaluate Kim and the panel members themselves that Kim was ineffective in the classroom and hurting her students’ progress.

“That’s a bunch of hooey,” said Elyse Summers, one of the multitude of pro-Kim parents. “Our children went to Mrs. Kim’s class every day, came home and are performing extremely well.”

“We take parent feedback, both good and bad, about teachers very seriously,” Edwards replied. But the Montgomery schools spokesman added that “the final decision about the effectiveness of teachers must come down to those with the professional expertise.”

Thanks to Mathews for pointing out these object lessons in government schooling.  Teachers work for the government school system, not the children or the parents. 

I only wish that Mathews had pointed out the obvious solution to this problem; giving parents the power through school choice.  Otherwise, “those with the professional expertise” will continue to demand more money and less input from parents. 

Back Door Takeover

In September 2005, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the creation of a commission charged with formulating a “comprehensive national strategy” for higher education. The commission was chaired by long-time Bush pal Charles Miller – who’d helped create the Texas predecessor to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) when Bush was governor – and it seemed very likely the commission would recommend federally enforced standardized testing for all colleges and universities. Thankfully, federally mandated testing was not among the recommendations in its final report, an outcome almost certainly attributable to adamant opposition to such lunacy both from within and without academia.

Ah, but in Texas they don’t give up easily!

Unwilling to face what would no doubt be major opposition to publicly trying to force inane, NCLB-esque standardized testing on the Ivy League, Seven Sisters, etc., the Department of Education has chosen a different tactic: it’s tried to sneak it in through the ivory tower’s back door.  Rather than putting testing requirements into legislation that would have to get through Congress, the administration has been quietly trying to rewrite regulations governing accreditation in order to make accreditors force schools to administer standardized tests.

Thankfully, there’s been a lot of resistance among accreditors to this assault on academia, and Education Department negotiators have had to tone down their once explicit demands for testing. As Inside Higher Ed reports:

As the department’s various proposals have evolved over the weeks and months, they have become slightly less intrusive at each turn. Most recently, the department issued draft regulatory language — based, its officials repeated again and again, on a proposal that some of the “non-federal” negotiators had suggested — that would no longer require accrediting agencies to dictate to colleges the levels of performance they must achieve in student learning.

That’s good news, but as IHE continues, it hardly gets schools out of the woods:

But because the government would still require accrediting agencies to judge whether the standards that colleges set for themselves and their success in meeting those goals are sufficient — and because the accreditors would be doing so knowing that the Education Department can (through its process for recognizing accrediting agencies) punish any accreditor who doesn’t set the bar high enough to satisfy department officials — some members of the negotiating panel argued Tuesday that even the less-aggressive changes amount to federal control of accreditation, and ultimately of higher education.

In light of all this, I have a confession to make. When Spellings first announced the creation of her commission, and as the national strategizers conducted their work, I was almost certain we’d see the Bush administration try to assert explicit federal control over higher education, just as it had done in K-12. Well I was wrong. The administration hasn’t tried to do anything explicit in higher education. No, it’s tried to hide what it’s been up to ever since the commission’s final report came out.

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.