Topic: Education and Child Policy

But Tell Us What You Really Think of the NCLB, Matt

Matt Ladner, VP for research at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, has some harsh words for the No Child Left Behind Act:

The latest incarnation, in fact, represents yet another step in the long sad history of ineffectually throwing money at public schools. NCLB is headed for the ash-heap of failed education reforms. The only question at this point is how expensive of a failure it will become.

Is Charles Murray’s Ceiling Their Fate?

Writing in this week’s Wall Street Journal, IQ expert Charles Murray argues that “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited.”

In one sense, he is almost certainly correct. No matter how much we improve the quality of schooling, there will always be intellectual pursuits that are beyond the reach of not just half the population, but beyond the overwhelming majority of us. He gives the example that he himself cannot follow proofs in the American Journal of Mathematics — not because he knows too little, but because he is not smart enough. Charles, I’m with you. After perusing this paper on “The Equivalence Problem and Rigidity for Hypersurfaces Embedded into Hyperquadrics,” I am prepared to agree with the now-discontinued Teen-Talk Barbie: ”[Abstract] math is hard.”

But in another sense, I suggest that Charles is mistaken. It is likely that a significantly improved education system could raise the academic achievement of all students substantially above their current levels. There are numerous examples of this happening, both anecdotally and in the research literature.

On the anecdotal front, recall star calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, and how he put LA’s Garfield High School on the map in the 1980s by constructing a math department that was truly top notch. So many of Escalante’s low-income Hispanic students started taking and passing AP calculus courses (more, at one point, than at Beverly Hills High School) that the program’s overseers insisted on a re-test (his students did remarkably well once again).

Are we to believe that the only children whose grasp of mathematics was greatly improved by Escalante’s instruction were those with above-average IQs? That seems unlikely. It would be hard to argue that calculus is as prohibitively difficult, when well taught, as “hypersurfaces embedded into hyperquadrics.”

On the empirical research front, consider the wealth of international studies comparing student achievement in parent-driven, competitive market schools with the achievement of similar students in bureaucratically-run, non-competitive schools. Are these academic advantages, which are sometimes substantial, concentrated only among those with 100+ IQs? Again, there is no reason to think so.

The problem, as I see it, with Murray’s argument is simply that he is assuming the “ceiling” on academic achievement is lower that it is actually likely to be. This may be due to the fact that, at present, the education system through which 90 percent of American students pass is badly designed, and consistently fails to raise students up to their full potential.

It is also worth noting that Charles makes no mention in this particular piece about the benefits of an improved K-12 education system for brighter students. Surely they deserve the opportunity to fulfill their intellectual potentials just as much as children on the left side of the bell curve.

In short, a better school system could do a lot of kids an awful lot of good.

False Fordham Hopes

For a moment yesterday, I thought that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, arguably the nation’s foremost neo-con education think tank, had gotten the message that the federal government can’t create education policies that work for parents and children rather than politicians and bureaucrats. Sure, I hadn’t had much success when I tried to make this point to Fordham vice president Mike Petrilli for a solid week last April, but maybe something had changed.

Why’d I think that? Yesterday, Petrilli had a surprising op-ed on National Review Online denouncing the No Child Left Behind Act, which set off my fleeting hopes. Indeed, Petrilli suggested that getting the feds out of education completely might actually be a better option than sticking with NCLB:

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen.
 

Could it be that Petrilli had come to realize that federal policies are doomed because the bureaucrats and policymakers that Washington promises to hold “accountable” have all the lobbying power, while parents have little to none? Is it possible that he went even further than that, realizing that the key to innovation and progress in education is the same as the key to innovation and progress in all other endeavors: Letting individuals freely pursue their own interests – in the case of education, through universal school choice – rather than government pulling their strings through rules, regulations, and standards?

Alas, no. The very day I read Petrilli’s NRO piece, I attended a New America Foundation event on Senator Chris Dodd’s (D-CT) new proposal to create national science and math standards. There I saw the Thomas B. Fordham Institute listed right above the National Education Association on a roster of organizations endorsing Dodd’s idea, and Petrilli himself spoke in favor of the proposal.

But I really didn’t need to go to the panel discussion to see that my hopes were unfounded. Petrilli’s piece itself reveals that he and Fordham still haven’t gotten the message. For one thing, it fails to explain that the only way to make schools really accountable is to enable all parents to remove their kids – and their money – from schools that don’t work and put them into schools that do. Moreover, at the same time Petrilli acknowledges that NCLB has been a failure – just like all federal involvement before it – he states that among many “powerful” ideals underlying the law that he still supports is the notion “that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.”

What a disappointment.

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.