Topic: Education and Child Policy

NCLB: The Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly

Want to know how the No Child Left Behind Act has actually affected overall student achievement and the gaps between students of different races and socio-economic backgrounds? Want a guided insider tour of the political sausage factory that produced it and the political calculus that allowed it to pass in the first place? Look no further than the podcasts that are available here.

They’re enough to make H.L. Mencken look like a political optimist.

Just one highlight, uttered by former House majority leader Dick Armey, who voted against national education standards under President Clinton but for the NCLB under President Bush: “My NCLB vote, perhaps more than any other one thing, was the reason I left Congress…. If I couldn’t be myself and vote my conscience, why stay?”

According to Armey, opposition to national education standards under Clinton and support for them under Bush were driven overwhelmingly by political considerations that had nothing to do with the evidence of what works. That’s not surprising, of course, but it’s one thing for pundits to opine about it and quite another to have a key player openly acknowledge it.

There are a lot of other interesting bits throughout the podcasts, including an appearance by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) pre-announcing legislation that he will formally reveal next week that would give control over federal education spending to the states. Perhaps not an ideal solution (the feds should not be involved in the first place, according to the Constitution), but it would be better than any other serious legislative proposal I’ve seen.

Further Evidence of Federal Silliness

As an irony junkie, I enjoy watching federal officials argue that they should be able to run the country’s educational system at the same time they flunk the basics.  For example, the Clinton Administration once posted this map on the White House website:

 

There are a number of interesting things about this map.

  • Apparently, Owensboro, Kentucky, isn’t in Kentucky anymore.  In fact, it looks like Kentucky isn’t in Kentucky anymore.  It has moved to Tennessee. 
  • Illinois has annexed the entire western portion of Kentucky, completely cutting off everything south and west of Union county, and with it Kentucky’s access to the Mississippi River.
  • It seems that Kentuckians were so infuriated by the loss of western Kentucky — and their state’s very name — that they invaded their neighbors to the east, capturing the city of Roanoke, Virginia.
  • Both Minnesota and Iowa have led incursions into South Dakota, conquering and dividing up that state’s southeastern corner.  South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, has fallen into the hands of wild-eyed Minnesotans.  Everything south of Sioux Falls is living under brutal Iowan occupation. 

So the other day, while in a lobby shared by CNN and the U.S. Department of Education (ED), a poster on the ED side bearing the following logo caught my eye:

U.S. Department of Education and Federal Student Aid logo (Start here. Go further.)

The proper usage of further and farther is the subject of some dispute.  Authorities have traditionally instructed that farther is used when discussing distance (Maine is farther from DC than New York) while further expresses a difference of degree (he further refined his craft).  Some argue that the distinction has been effectively erased by usage.  But I figured that since the ED’s new slogan was based on the common expression “you’ll go far,” there was a good chance that I had struck gold.

Yet the fun had really just begun.  When I pulled out my mobile phone to snap a photo, a very large man jumped up from behind the security desk and interposed himself between me and my prize.  He told me to put the camera away.  Irony or no irony.  Why?  Federal building.  Therefore, no taking pictures.   Of a poster.  In the lobby.  Of a building that doesn’t house, and isn’t near, anything even mildly important.  (Okay, that’s not fair.  If anything happened to those offices, who would all those former college attendees blow off?)

By the time I was done at CNN, an even larger man (the first man’s supervisor) wanted to have a word with me.  I wonder if their demeanors would have been different had the CNN reporter and cameraman not happened to follow me downstairs.

Hey! Teacher! Let the Facts Be Known, ‘Cause…

From today’s Cincy Enquirer:

More than 11,500 Cincinnati Public School students are eligible to receive state-paid vouchers to attend private schools next year, but state officials say that Cincinnati Public officials are hindering them from getting the word out.

The district is the only one in the state that has refused to provide to the state the addresses of students who are eligible for tuition vouchers.

This Saturday and next, the Ohio Department of Education is conducting free parent information sessions in Cincinnati to describe how students attending 27 Cincinnati schools that are in “academic watch” or “academic emergency” are eligible to receive Ohio EdChoice Scholarships to attend private schools.

All in all, CPS is just another brick in America’s educational Berlin Wall. They can try to keep kids from escaping to freedom, like East German border guards during the Cold War, but eventually that wall is coming down.

The only thing that these folks can do is choose whether to help the process of educational liberation, or hinder it.

Someday their grand-kids or great-grand-kids, who will enjoy school choice, will ask them which side they were on. How will they answer?

Market Education Could End the Culture War

Over at SayAnythingBlog, Rob notes a case of two Boston families complaining that their children were taught about homosexuality in elementary school. The parents, apparently religious conservatives, objected to the lesson being taught without parental consent. A federal judge has just told them: tough luck.

Yet another skirmish in the culture war. We’ve gotta keep fighting it, and we’ve gotta keep racking up winners and losers, right?

Wrong. Rob notes:

this is exactly the sort of thing school vouchers would solve.  School crossing the line and teaching your kid about things you find morally offensive?  Or things that should wait until they’re a little older?  Take your kids to a different school.

While I’ve argued that education tax credits do a better job than vouchers of avoiding such conflicts (scroll down the linked page to “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict”), this is essentially the same argument that Cato’s ed. staff has been making regarding all the values battles that arise due to our official government school system.

A free market in education can allow families to obtain the sort of education they value for their own children without forcing them to impose those values on their neighbors. Our existing school system, by contrast, creates an endless battle over what will be taught in the schools.

Rob gets it, and a lot of other people are starting to get it, too.

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.