Topic: Education and Child Policy

Silver Lining in the National Science Standard Cloud

Andrew Coulson does a wonderful job illuminating just how misguided and doomed national curriculum standards are … but there is a silver lining!  With national science standards, we can all look forward to a vicious national debate on Intelligent Design versus Evolutionary Theory!

Just think of the fun: instead of those boring discussions of national security, we’ll have presidential debates and party litmus tests on Darwin … and if we’re lucky, on judicial nominees’ position on Darwin!  Perhaps each party can include an entire curriculum in their platform.  A national discussion about precisely what every single child should learn in their first 12 years of schooling is exactly what we need to bring a bit of heat and life back into this snooze-fest “Era of Good Feelings,” Part II that we’re living in.

Don’t SPEAK

I’ve just been perusing the “Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids” (SPEAK) Act. This is the bill, introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), that seeks to homogenize math and science education in America.

Dodd and Ehlers are to be commended for wanting to improve our schools, but SPEAK isn’t going to do that.

The bill’s preamble laments how the 50 curriculum standards laid down by our 50 centrally planned state school systems have fallen short of the mark. To fix this problem, it recommends central planning at the national level.

We have been inexorably centralizing control over the schools in this country for 150 years. We’ve gone from one-room schoolhouses overseen directly by the parents of the children who attended them to sprawling bureaucracies that consume half of the operating budgets of their respective states. We’ve gone from 127,000 school districts in 1932 to fewer than 15,000 today – despite a massive increase in the number of students.

Is anyone – ANYONE – arguing that this centralization of educational power has made schools better, more efficient, or more responsive to the needs and demands of families?

[crickets]

So how could anyone think that even more centralized planning – the most centralized planning we can possibly have in this country unless someone would like to turn the schools over to UN control – would be a good thing?

The most plausible explanation is that it is simply a triumph of wishful thinking over reason and evidence: “Maybe THIS time it’ll work!?!?”

There are, of course, a few more specific rationalizations embedded in the bill; some to help justify it, and others to make it seem less grossly incompatible with the liberal democracy we’re supposed to be.

On the justification front: SPEAK would ostensibly make it easier for students to transfer between states without finding themselves far behind or ahead of their classmates. This is like whacking your own hand with a hammer to distract yourself from a pounding headache. The only reason there is a problem with students transferring between states (or, for that matter, between schools within states) is that public schools started rigidly grouping students by age at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a pedagogically backward practice that was adopted for its bureaucratic simplicity, and competitive market schools often dispense with it, grouping students based on what they know and can do. Much easier to teach Calculus to a class full of people who all understand algebra, hmm?

On the rationalization front, the standards sought by SPEAK are referred to as “voluntary.” But voluntary for whom? Not for parents and students. It isn’t as though you’ll be able to walk into your local school and opt in or out. What the bill’s authors mean is that it would be voluntary for state school boards or state school superintendents. Once they decide, you, me, and Dupree don’t get a say.

America will start leading on the international education stage when it starts leveraging its strengths. We are an entrepreneurial nation that values individual liberty and recognizes the virtues of voluntary cooperation, competition between providers, specialization, and the division of labor. Instead of standardizing our schools and our kids, we should be energizing our education system with the same market freedoms and incentives that have made us a world economic power.

More on the recent interest in homogenizing American education here.

Napoleon’s Educational Dynamite

When Reagan education secretary Bill Bennett and the NEA start singing from the same hymnal, it’s time for a reality check. Both have now called for the federal government to promote uniform national curriculum standards, but neither has made a compelling case for doing so. Obviously, its important to set high standards for all students, but that does not mean that it’s a good idea to set precisely the same standards for every single child of a given age. Children are not all identical widgets who can be run along an educational conveyor belt and learn every subject at the same pace. The best thing we can do for our kids is to treat them as the individuals they actually are, helping them progress through their studies at the best pace they are capable of – and that pace is not going to be the same for every student.

The idea that the federal government should be dictating a single standard for what every child in America should be learning violates both liberal and conservative ideals. It is at odds with the progressive view that learning should be adapted to and guided by each individual student, and runs contrary to the conservative ideals of limited government and individual liberty.

To find a political tradition that really is compatible with this idea, you have to go back a ways. Hippolyte Fortoul, the education minister of Napoleon III, apparently liked to boast that he could pick up his watch at any time of the day and tell you what every high-school student in France was learning at that moment. So we’re taking our policy cues from 19th century French imperialists now?

More on why federal government education standards are a bad idea here.

Dear Oprah: You Just Visited the Wrong Schools

Oprah Winfrey has plunked down $40 million on a private school in South Africa to offer poor kids there a better education than can be had in their local government schools. When asked why she was investing in students from South Africa rather than, say, South Chicago, Oprah shot back that:

I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city [U.S.] schools that I just stopped going…. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.

Clearly, Oprah has not been visiting the Milwaukee private schools serving low income black and Hispanic students. Having done so recently myself, I can report first hand that those students are so ambitious, motivated, curious, and hungry for learning that they bring joy to the hardest heart and water to the driest eye.

The modern belief that poor urban kids don’t want to learn completely misunderstands the problem. It isn’t the kids. It’s the schools.

Visit independent, parent-chosen schools in America’s inner cities and you will seldom find the disaffection Oprah has apparently seen so often in (presumably) government-run schools. 

And when I say the it’s the schools, what I really mean is: “it’s us.” It’s our fault. If we would only realize that the ideals of public education can best be advanced by a system of universal parental choice, rather than a centrally planned government factory system, we’d see a lot more engaged, energized kids who not only want to go on to college and successful jobs and lives, but who have the educational foundation to do it.

I’ve collected some of the evidence on this point here, for those unfamiliar with it.

Maria Montessori

The Washington Post had an interesting article the other day about the popularity and success of Montessori schools.  The ideas of Maria Montessori are not a trade secret and they have been around for quite some time.  So … why has the education establishment been slow to adapt?  University of Virginia psychologist Angeline Stoll Lillard has a stinging observation.

The psychologist Lillard was at first skeptical of Montessori’s ideas when she started her research 20 years ago. But she found that a strong body of evidence in developmental psychology supports Montessori’s major conclusions – among them, that there is a close relationship between movement and cognition, that the best learning is active and that order is beneficial for children. …

[Montessori] looked for what worked rather than what fit a theory. “If schooling were evidence-based,” Lillard wrote, “I think all schools would look a lot more like Montessori schools.”

Unfortunately, instead of letting parents match individual children with a variety of schools, including Montessoris, that are tailored to kids’ unique and infinitely varied needs, politicians like the new mayor of Washington obsess over controlling current, hidebound, one-size-fits-all public school systems.  Such tinkering, however, won’t fix education.  It will only put someone new in charge.

Market Education: Will India Lead the Way?

Much is made of the fact that some sectors of the U.S. economy face increasing competition from the developing world. India, in particular, is singled out for its proliferation of call centers and computer programmers.

But few people stop to ask how a developing country in which English is only learned as a second language has been able to become such an important international contender for skilled jobs requiring English fluency. The answer, at least in part, is that a large and increasing number of Indian children are being educated in private, fee-charging schools that must compete vigorously for the privilege of serving them. Even in some of the poorest slums and rural villages of India and Africa, majorities of students attend these schools, and are better served educationally than their peers in the government-run sector (and at a lower cost, to boot). Among other advantages – from the standpoint of meeting parental demand – the vast majority of Indian private schools teach all their lessons in English, as opposed to state schools which typically offer English instruction only as a separate course, when they offer it at all.

But despite the considerable size and rapid growth of the private education sector, there are still millions of families in developing countries who find it financially difficult or impossible to gain access to it. But what if those countries kick it up a notch?

A recent story in DNA Mumbai quotes Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani as saying that, “There is an urgent need for the government [to] provide vouchers to parents from the economically backward section. That way they can choose to enroll their children in private schools instead of the government-run schools, which are in a pathetic state.”

Adopting a truly free market approach to education, with financial assistance to ensure universal access, would be an incredible boon to the Indian standard of living, and an excellent lesson for rich countries still languishing under the pall of calcified government school monopolies.

…and None of these Little Piggies Went to Market

How close are we to enjoying truly free educational marketplaces in this country? Not very, according to our newly released Cato Education Market Index (CEMI).

Well over a year in the making, CEMI measures how closely existing school systems resemble free markets and rates education policy proposals on their conduciveness to the rise of markets. The verdict? No state in the nation even comes close. The two top scoring states, Wisconsin and Connecticut, tied with a score of 26 out of 100. 

Why is Wisconsin – with its vouchers, charter schools, and public school choice – rated so low? Why is Connecticut – which lacks vouchers and has few charter schools – rated the same?

The answer to the first question is that Wisconsin’s voucher program enrolls only about 1 percent of the state’s students, while its charter schools only enroll about 3 percent. These numbers are too low to have a significant impact on the level of education market activity statewide. And public school choice just isn’t close to real market activity because public schools are too standardized by state and disctict policies and regulations, can’t be operated for profit, don’t charge tuition, and neither open nor close exclusively in response to consumer demand.

Connecticut has among the most public school choice and the least intrusive public school regulation in the country, along with a truly free private education sector that is larger than the national average. But private schools serve only 11 percent of the state’s population, so it, too, only rates a 26.

Anyone interested in how the numbers were crunched can have a look the paper linked to above. The brave of heart may also want to dig into the uber-Excel spreadsheet that contains all the input data (100 data points per state), the calculations, and the tabulated results.

The full technical report contains regression analyses showing that higher CEMI ratings are correlated with both higher test scores and higher graduation rates.

Brief explanations of all the state ratings can be found here.