Topic: Education and Child Policy

It’s the System, Comrade

In response to my recent Washington Post piece criticizing government-imposed curricula and standards, an ed prof. just wrote to say: “Yes, but….”

His objection was that he did not see the need for market forces to drive excellence in education, citing a consortium of public schools in the Chicago suburbs as an example of high quality within the current monopoly system.

This not only misses my point, it inadvertently proves it.

My point is not that pockets of quality and thrift are impossible within a monopoly system, but that those pockets generally remain isolated and transitory. Monopolies lack a mechanism by which excellence is automatically and routinely encouraged, identified, disseminated and perpetuated. That mechanism is what markets provide, and is why, as I wrote in the WaPo piece, iPods have gone from 5 to 80 gigabytes, and televisions from 4” black and white tubes to 4’ color panels.

While a monopoly school system can certainly have bright spots, they tend to be isolated and transitory. Brilliant government school teachers are at best given a plaque, and at worst driven out of the system (as happened to Jaime Escalante). Pointing to isolated public school successes from decades past – successes that were not replicated elsewhere, not expanded, and usually not even sustained for more than a generation – is proof that our government monopoly lacks the market’s excellence engine.

In education markets, like the Asian tutoring industry, top teachers are superstars who get to design curricula for thousands or even millions of students and train scores or hundreds of other teachers to use their effective methods. Quality providers expand and are emulated by competitors, and there is a powerful incentive for meaningful innovation.

One teacher in Korea’s private tutoring sector made $2 million last year because his web-based employer has profit sharing and he’s brilliant at what he does, so he gets tons of students. That’s what should have happened to Escalante. That’s the sort of success that should greet excellence in education at all levels. It doesn’t because we don’t have a market.

National Standards, Aussie Style

If the U.S. does decide to homogenize its education system with uniform national standards and tests, our misery may be lessened by some companionship from the land down under.

Australia is currently toying with the same idea, and columnist Kevin Donnelly is trying to keep his country from biting that particular bullet (or rather, the muzzle of the gun housing it).

Donnelly tempts fate, however, by suggesting a federal government role in evaluating national curricula proposed by independent sources. It’s a small political step from evaluation to prescription, and there’s no compelling reason to think that government involvement would help. 

Where’s the “D”?

Alexander Russo blogs today about the disconnect in education between research and practice.

Mike Lieberman has done a good job explaining this disconnect in books like Public Education: An Autopsy. He points to the fact that, in other fields, there is a powerful market incentive for applied research. It’s R and D, not just R, and the only justification for the former is the latter. When you don’t have a market, you don’t have that systemic incentive for applied R&D. Instead, pedagogical methods are chosen for their ideological appeal (e.g. whole language), by accident (the infamous California case where Nobel laureate in physics Richard Feynman revealed that several members of his textbook adoption committee had actually rated a blank math textbook), or by conflict of interest (because there ARE incentives in our current school systems, they just aren’t market incentives that make it desirable to find and implement the best, most efficient methods).

Welfare for the Wealthy (an Ongoing Series)

An earlier post noted the hot political trend of convincing the upper middle class and the wealthy that they are financially vulnerable and in need of government assistance.

From loan subsidies for McMansions to blue-blood public works, from the doling out of market power and financial support to businessmen, to the offering of government money and tax breaks to (usually well-to-do) people who consume in a government-approved manner, politicians of Red stripes and Blue are all about helping the down-and-out in the (gated) community.

Such welfare-for-the-wealthy is the subtext of Sunday’s NYT story about the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP was once intended to help children in families that are low-income but that do not qualify for Medicaid; now Congress is pushing for the state-operated/federally supported program to use its money to cover families up to four times the poverty level (e.g., a family of four earning $82,600 a year) — that is, nearly all families in the second-highest income quintile, aka the upper middle class.

The NYT article includes a provocative figure about the effects of CHIP. When the program was first implemented, the percentage of families with income between the poverty level and 200% of the poverty level (i.e., the families whom the program was intended to help) with uninsured children began to decline, falling from 20% in 1998 to about 12% by 2002. However, the percentage of those lower-income families with privately insured children also began to fall over that time, from about 55% to about 45%. Since 2002, the percentage of uninsured children in that income range has roughly plateaued while the percentage of children with private insurance has continued to fall, to about 35 percent by 2006. This suggests (though, by itself, does not prove) that, by 2002, CHIP had gone about as far as it could go in reducing the percentage of uninsured children in poor families; since then, CHIP has simply displaced private insurance — a dubious policy goal.

Given that, it’s no wonder politicians want to mission-creep CHIP into wealthier income brackets. But one must wonder what the next welfare-for-the-wealthy program will be. Perhaps a chicken in every pot and a Lexus in every garage?

Market Education Debate, Part Three

Sara Mead of Education Sector continues our discussion of education markets here. She rounds out her post by impugning my professional integrity, but not before she has misrepresented my position. I’ll begin at the beginning.

Mead claims that I advocate letting Chilean children languish under its current voucher system which financially discriminates against private schools serving the poor. I said no such thing. Among the many changes I would make to the Chilean system, the first would be to equalize public and private sector funding levels.

Mead then manages to combine two distinct errors into a single sentence: the first, a misrepresentation of the evidence, and the second, a non-sequitur. She writes: “Leave aside that it’s not clear [that expanding Chile’s choice program] would be desirable, since poor students in Chile’s private schools perform less well than those in its public schools.”

First, as I pointed out in my previous post, Chile’s government schools only outperform the private sector when they receive between 150 and 300 percent of the voucher amount – and it is government schools serving the poor that enjoy targeted federal funding programs not available to the private sector. When they receive only about as much as the voucher, or even somewhat more, government schools perform worse. So, by equalizing funding across sectors, Chile could make significantly more efficient use of its educational dollars in serving all its children. This 2002 finding by Sapelli and Vial is discussed in detail in the pieces to which I have previously linked.

Second, the non-sequitur: Even if Chile’s government schools were outperforming its private schools in serving the poor (which, taking funding levels into account, they are not) it would not follow that the choice program lacked value. That’s because the competition produced by the choice program has been improving achievement simultaneously in both government schools and private voucher schools. This result was demonstrated by researcher Francisco Gallego, and is also cited in the pieces I’ve linked to.

Next, let’s turn to the Netherlands. Ms. Mead complains that “Coulson doesn’t even engage with my argument that the situation of the Netherlands is fundamentally different from that of the United States in ways that make it unhelpful as an example here.” Mead presented no such argument. She simply claimed, without rational justification, that because the Dutch adopted a voucher system to end religious strife and ideological dissatisfaction over the content of government schooling, their experience doesn’t apply to us. A claim is not an argument, and this particular claim is simply wrong.

The earlier Dutch conflict over the content of its government schools is not a point of divergence between our countries, it is a point of similarity. St. Augustine’s Church was burned to the ground in 1844 during Philadelphia’s “Bible Riots” which were fought over which version of the Bible, Protestant or Catholic, would be used in government schools. To this day, there is a an ongoing cultural battle between Red and Blue America over what should be taught in public schools. Both our countries are pluralistic, and there is no reason to believe that the general international pattern of supply rising to meet demand under school choice programs would magically take a holiday in the United States.

If Mead wants to attempt an argument to the contrary, she is welcome to do so, but she hasn’t made one yet.

A related point that Mead does not seem to have internalized is that the usefulness of the international data is to be found in the patterns that exist across nations. When a consistent pattern of success or failure can be discerned for some given school system across many different times and places, it suggests that there is something truly systemic at work, and not simply accidents of circumstance – because the circumstances are different, but the results similar. The degree of confidence of such conclusions is proportional to the breadth of evidence across which the patterns are found – so the more evidence we look at, the more sure we can be.

Supply has always risen to meet demand in the private education sector, across nations, except to the extent it has been obstructed by government interference, such as the funding discrimination that exists in most nations, or the regulations imposed on private schools that stifle the specialization that contributes to their appeal. Sometimes it rises even despite these impediments, as in India and parts of Africa today.

This search for patterns across time and place has a name: “natural experimentation,” and it is used by researchers in fields from epidemiology to cosmology. It is also the methodology underpinning Jared Diamond’s fascinating analysis of the fates of human societies in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Ms. Mead, apparently unfamiliar with this analytic technique, is at a loss to understand why I have looked so far and wide to study market forces in education. Unable to discern that reason, she decides to impugn my integrity instead.

Mead characterizes me as a “disingenuous” ideologue who spends a lot of his “time trying to find examples that will support his ideological support for vouchers.” I, she claims, am “much more interested in expanding choice” for its own sake, whereas she, she tells us, is “much more focused on expanding the supply of high-quality schools serving poor kids.”

The truth, as I explained above, is more prosaic: I have studied the evidence of market versus bureaucratic school systems, serving children at all income levels, wherever it is to be found. Far from avoiding the study of conflicting evidence, I have sought it out, in both my historical work and my review of the modern international research. But Ms. Mead wouldn’t know that, because she is, by her own admission, unfamiliar with my work.

To impugn a scholar’s professional integrity by claiming that they cherry pick their data, without actually being familiar with that person’s work, shows poor judgment and a lack of intellectual rigor. Poor kids – all kids – deserve better from the education policy community.

Market Education — Understanding the Evidence

I recently wrote that that the private sector can and does expand to meet demand in response to large scale school choice programs. I gave as examples the Netherlands, Chile, Sweden, and Denmark, all of which have national school choice programs that resulted in expanded private education sectors.

Though she acknowledges that she is unfamiliar with the programs in Denmark and Sweden, The Quick and the Ed.’s Sara Mead claims that this evidence does not show “what Coulson believes it does.”

She supports that view by questioning the results in Chile and the relevance of the Netherlands, and by presenting American voucher programs as a putative counter-example.

These objections do not hold water.

First, Chile. As Ms. Mead correctly points out, the expansion of the private sector in that country has occurred more rapidly in middle and upper income areas than in low income areas. As I explained in my chapter in What America Can Learn from School Choice in other Countries, there are two main reasons for this: Chilean government schools serving the poor receive substantially greater per-pupil funding than do private voucher schools, and most of Chile’s poor are concentrated in rural areas.

The poor are poor, not stupid. Research shows that when Chilean government schools get total funding that is between 150 percent and 300 percent of the private school voucher amount, they start to do as well or even somewhat better academically. When they get roughly the same per pupil funding, they do poorly compared to private voucher schools. The poor in Chile are thus often making a wise choice when they decide to frequent the much higher spending government schools.

It is also the case that it is easier to open a viable school in an area of high population density than one of low population density. So, until the high-population density areas are saturated with schools, growth of private schooling in rural areas will be slower than in urban areas. If, as seems to be the case, Chilean private voucher schools continue to enroll a larger and larger share of students, this gap will eventually go away.

In the Netherlands, where government schools do not receive higher per pupil funding than private voucher schools, there is little difference in enrollment rates by income. In fact, the private Catholic school sector in the Netherlands has a slightly lower average socio-economic status than does the government sector, but its students nevertheless outperform their wealthier government school counterparts.

I could go on like this at length, picking apart the rest of Ms. Mead’s argument (e.g., existing U.S. voucher programs haven’t grown more because they are explicitly capped in size or funds!), but this is enough to make my point: if you actually look at all the relevant evidence, and make an effort to understand it, the kind of superficial objections that are offered by the anti-market crowd fall apart.

Ms. Mead adds that “If Mr. Coulson sends me a copy of his book and any other relevant materials, I would be happy to learn more about this.”

That’s a nice, polite thing to say. And I appreciate it. But, as scholars, we are not supposed to wait for the evidence to come to us with a bow on it. We are supposed to go out and find it, and if it is apparently contradictory, to try to make sense of it. And we should wait to offer policy advice until we’ve been able to complete that process with a reasonable degree of comprehensiveness and confidence.

I wish I could come up with a nicer way to say that, but it has to be said.