Topic: Education and Child Policy

George Lucas Rediscovers a Sci-Fi Classic!

I’m indebted to George Lucas for conceiving Star Wars and the Indiana Jones franchise —episode 4 in 2008, whoooo! But the latest issue of his education magazine, Edutopia, rediscovers a cult science fiction classic that’s particularly dear to my heart: The 1991 Sandia National Labs report titled “Perspectives on American Education.”

The “Sandia Report,” as it’s known to its devotees, claimed that America had not suffered an academic decline as critics alleged. Though the original Sandia Report was never published, it became an instant hit. Anyone wanting to defend the record of U.S. public schools seemed to have — and quote — a copy.

By far, the Sandia Report’s most popular claim was that despite declining average SAT scores, SAT performance was actually going up! How could that be? “Simple” explains Lucas’ Edutopia:

[S]tatisticians call it Simpson’s paradox: The average can change in one direction while all the subgroups change in the opposite direction if proportions among the subgroups are changing.

Sandia claimed, as Edutopia repeats, that “[b]etween 1975 and 1988, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup.”

The funny thing is they didn’t. The scores for at least one of the ethnic subgroups went down, the subgroup that made up the majority of test takers: white students.

I first came across, and debunked, Sandia’s claim in 1994, after it was cited by David C. Berliner in his essay titled (ironically, it turned out) “Educational Reform in an Era of Disinformation.”

I looked at Berliner’s figures, looked at the Department of Education figures, and called “Baloney!” Berliner subsequently added a correction to his essay.

There are several other problems with Sandia’s assertions, but claiming that a score had gone up when it had really gone down is a pretty tough act to top.

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Edutopia. After all, the magazine has just repeated a myth that has taken on a life of its own. But it’s a good lesson for anyone writing about the U.S. public education monopoly: “If it doesn’t sound bad enough to be true, then it probably isn’t.”

Parents More Schooled. Kids Less Educated. — NAEP

The 2005 NAEP Reading and Mathematics test scores for 12th Graders have just been released.

Here’s the detail you’ll hear in all the media coverage: Reading achievement has hit its lowest point in the entire period since the first comparable score was collected back in 1992. (The math test has changed, so no trend analysis is possible).

Here’s a detail you won’t see in many news stories: The highest degree earned by students’ parents has gone up substantially since 1992. In that year, 41 percent of students reported that at least one of their parents was a college graduate. Today, it’s 47 percent. Researchers have long known that parents’ level of education is a strong predictor of children’s academic success, so this increase in the share of college graduates among parents should be associated with higher student achievement (other things being equal). But achievement went down. Significantly. If the home environment is now more conducive to learning, but less learning is actually taking place, that leaves… the schools.

So: No, the NCLB isn’t helping. No, more money isn’t helping (it’s up more than 20% per pupil since 1992, in real inflation-adjusted dollars). It’s. The. Schools. We suffer from an education monopoly. Monopolies are bad.

A one-size-fits-few state-run school system simply can’t produce the kind of innovation and improvement we take for granted in the competitive, free enterprise sector of our economy. We need to inject parental choice and competition into our education system if we want to see the trend lines going up instead of down.

War of the Amateur Education Analysts

Here’s Apple’s Steve Jobs on education policy:

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” the Apple CEO told a school-reform conference in Texas on Saturday. “This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”

But it’s not a news story.  This is from a column by Wired’s Leander Kahney, who goes on to say: 

Jobs knows a lot about schools; he’s been selling computers to them for more than 30 years. But don’t you love it when a billionaire who sends his own kids to private school applies half-baked business platitudes to complex problems like schools? I’m surprised Jobs didn’t suggest we outsource education to the same nonunion Chinese factories that build his iPods.

It’s amazing to see a thoughtful technology writer heap derision on education reform as if the innovation and creativity in the highly competitive technology field somehow can’t happen elsewhere.  Schools have “complex problems” … .  Designing and marketing consumer electronics is pat-a-cake?

Luckily, Tim Lee is on the case.  Writing at Technology Liberation Front, he says:

In his conclusion, Kahney chalks up our poor educational performance to “enormous economic inequality and the total absence of social safety nets.” I wonder if it’s occurred to Kahney that one of the major contributors to economic inequality is our quasi-feudal education system, in which access to a good school is tied to your parents’ ability to purchase a home in a good school district (or to afford tuition at a private school)? The whole point of school choice is to give low-income parents the same opportunities that wealthier parents now enjoy—to send their children to the school that works best for their own child. If Mr. Kahney is concerned about inequality, supporting school choice should be a no-brainer.

The Economist or The Statist?

A blogger at The Economist has been furiously scratching his head in response to my earlier posts on evolution, trying to understand how an evolutionist such as myself could oppose government mandated instruction in this (and every other) field. I’d like to offer some answers, and at least one factual correction.

First, the correction. The anonymous Economist blogger writes: “We live in a democracy, and most people want their children to be taught scientific truth, or more properly, scientific method.”

In some areas, like elementary physics, that’s undoubtedly true. And I’d be delighted if it were true across the board. It is not. As the polling data I have previously cited demonstrate, either a plurality or an outright majority of Americans (depending on the poll) believe human beings were created by God, in their current form. Most of the rest believe we evolved under God’s guidance. Furthermore, a strong majority of Americans would like to see, at the very least, creationism taught alongside evolution (many probably do not want evolution taught at all – but that option wasn’t offered in the poll question). These beliefs and preferences are not consistent with the teaching of evolutionary theory as understood by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

So the first of my earlier points remains: instruction in a purely naturalistic view of evolution is NOT desired by the majority of the American public, and because the majority has considerable influence over school policy, the teaching of evolution has been hobbled and sidelined in many public schools for generations.

Next, The Economist blogger devises an imaginative but mistaken explanation for my position:

The only way I can make sense of Mr. Coulson’s position is as a form of surrender to fundamentalist Christians: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to upset you, so here’s a compromise whereby I contort my views to support your position.”

The Economist confuses respect for liberty with “surrender.” Recognizing the right of our fellow citizens to disagree with us is a pillar of free societies. That is the insight behind Voltaire’s famous line: ”I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To anyone who grasps the importance of that principle, no ideological “contortions” are necessary to defend the right of families to make their own educational decisions.

It is troubling that so much of today’s intellectual elite seems to have forgotten the crucial role of individual liberty.

There is also a gross contradiction between the lip service given to the limits of scientific knowledge and the desire to see such knowledge established like a state religion.

While the blogger catches himself in the quote above, moderating the term “scientific truth” with “or more properly, scientific method,” he slips later on, rhetorically asking: “Should the teaching of the truth not be compulsory in education?” [emphasis added]

Here he leaves “the truth” unmodified. We KNOW what the truth is, he seems to say, why SHOULDN’T we force everyone to listen to the Good Word?

But anyone serious about science understands that scientific knowledge is provisional. Induction, on which science rests, is incapable of identifying Truth with a capital ‘T’. Science is by far the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it isn’t a Truth machine. The rational thing to do is to treat what we learn through science as useful working assumptions – as the best approximation to Truth that we can find. Science, well practiced, is humble.

Statist rationalists are not. They want to compel everyone to be taught the methods and provisional conclusions of science, and that is precisely the opposite of what scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski so wisely encouraged us to do. Bronowski exhorted us to imbue politics with the empiricism – and more importantly, the humility – of science. He felt that by keeping in mind the imperfection of all human knowledge we could avoid the absolutism and totalitarianism that brought so much death and suffering in the mid-20th century.

But instead of moderating governments by injecting them with the circumspection of science, rationalist statists seek to inject the absolutism and compulsion of government mandates into the teaching of science.

Before continuing down that unsavory road, I hope that The Economist will pause to consider how a free market in education could advance quality science instruction, show greater respect for the limits of scientific knowledge, and comport better with the founding principles of the United States.

And if they’d like someone to do that, or to debate Dawkins on the merits of compulsory instruction in evolution, I’ll be happy to help. There are areas in which the state must demand conformity, such as adherence to a body of basic laws, but uniformity in the teaching of human origins serves no such essential role in the perpetuation of a free society. On the contrary, granting the state the power to decide and proselytize the “Truth” is a danger to free societies.

Utah Vouchers: What Should We Expect?

I’ve got an op-ed in the American Spectator today about Utah’s newly passed, and nationally unprecedented, statewide voucher program.

The upshot is this: it is the most significant school choice legislation ever passed in the United States, but it isn’t going to create a vigorously free market in education overnight, and it will have to be stalwartly defended if it is to preserve the independence of participating private schools.

So let’s all sing along with George Harrison:

It’s gonna take patience and time, ummm
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it
To do it right

NYC Parents Need Actual Power

Probably only because it involved “privatizing” education, on Saturday the New York Times ran an editorial criticizing the Bloomberg administration, and new deputy schools chancellor Chris Cerf, because Cerf failed to quickly and fully disclose that until very recently he held stock in for-profit Edison Schools. Lamented the Times:

Mr. Cerf should have provided this relevant public information. It may seem like a small matter, but it adds to the perception of many parents that they are not being taken seriously, despite the creation of parent groups in every school.

“Perception”!? It’s a cold, hard fact that parents aren’t being taken seriously, and that’s because they have no serious power. Until they can take their children – and the money attached to them – out of the public school system, no public school or bureaucrat has any reason to take them seriously. Unfortunately, the Times seems to think that the solution to the problem is just for education officials to spruce the “we care what parents think” window dressing up a bit, not empower parents to leave a system that all too often holds them in contempt.

The School Choice Revolution Continues

The teacher unions are not having a very good year. Utah is on the verge of a sweeping school choice plan, and South Carolina may be next.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

South Carolina could be next. Legislation is now being drafted to allow nearly 200,000 poor students to opt out of failing public schools by giving them up to $4,500 a year to spend on private school tuition. Middle class parents would be eligible for a $1,000 tax credit.

Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, also wants to create more choice within the public system by consolidating school districts so students who can’t afford to live in a certain zip code aren’t forced into the worst public schools — a system that now consigns thousands of African-American students to failing schools. In his State of the State Address last month, Mr. Sanford branded the current districts a “throwback to the era of segregation.” The comment drew hardly a flutter in the legislature, he told us, because “everyone knows it’s true.”

Despite a 137% increase in education spending over the past two decades and annual per pupil spending that exceeds $10,000, South Carolina schools trail the nation in performance. The state ranks 50th in SAT scores, only half of its students graduate from high school in four years and only 25% of eighth graders read at grade level. The Governor’s budget puts it this way: “The more we expose students to public education, the worse they do.”

In last year’s elections three legislators paid for their opposition to school choice with their seats. One freshman reformer is Representative Curtis Brantley, an African-American Democrat from rural Jasper County who defeated a white incumbent in a June primary. He told us he supports school choice because something must be done to shake up the status quo.