Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Real “Reading First” Scandal

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will testify before a House Education Committee hearing tomorrow, and the hottest topic for her appearance on the hot-seat will be the federal “Reading First” program. A centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind act, Reading First is a billion-dollar-a-year initiative to improve language instruction in the early grades. The idea behind the program was to encourage districts to adopt scientifically proven teaching methods, but it seems to have netted roughly a million bucks for people on the Dept. of Ed.’s payroll in the process. The Department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., has made several criminal investigation referrals to the Justice Department as a result.

As government scandals go, this is tepid stuff. A million dollars? Individual states and school districts around the country have often mismanaged or defrauded taxpayers of comparable or larger sums.

The real Reading First scandal is that anyone would imagine that a bureaucratic school system bereft of competitors and immune to market incentives could be made to adopt and consistently implement effective educational practices on a vast scale, let alone sustain them over time or improve upon them.

Anyone familiar with the research on so-called systemic reform is aware that implementation quality matters as much or more than program selection. If teachers are not committed to and well trained in the selected methods, they will not effectively implement them and will not persevere with them over time.

A case in point is the federal ”Follow Through” experiment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which put a score of different pedagogical methods in head-to-head competition. The number one method, by far, was called Direct Instruction, or Distar. As soon as “Follow Through” officially ended, most of the schools that had been using Distar abandoned it, and their test scores eventually fell back to pre-follow-through levels.

So the real question is, how do you simultaneously achieve all of the following:

  • Encourage the consistent identification and/or development of effective methods
  • Hire, train, and maintain a staff of teachers capable of properly implementing those methods
  • Ensure that, once adopted, effective methods are not displaced by the latest pedagogical fad

The only way to do that is to create powerful incentives that pressure school administrators and teachers to do these things. The only system that consistently creates these incentives is a competitive education marketplace. Until we have a market, dreams of the pervasive use of effective pedagogical methods in American education will remain just that: dreams.

Prospective Teachers: You Too Can Afford College!

As I was sitting at home on Saturday morning, flipping through the TV channels, I came across Education Sector’s Kevin Carey on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. Now, I’m not sure what his main topic was – as I said, I stumbled on him whilst channel surfing – but just as I tuned in he seemed to be offering a stale but unchallenged argument: College student debt is too high, and we know this because there’s no way on his salary a new teacher could comfortably afford to make his monthly debt payments.

Intuitively, my reaction to this all-too-common refrain was “hogwash.” But then, being properly skeptical about all things, including my own knee-jerk reactions, I thought I’d best test out the proposition that a new graduate saddled with an average student debt load couldn’t possibly afford to become a public school teacher.

To run my test, I sketched a rough expense estimate for a new graduate who will be starting off as a first-year teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city I thought seemed like “average” America.

So what would his expenses likely be? Below is a basic list, with bases for estimates:

Monthly Loan Payment: $300. (The State PIRG’s Higher Education Project reports that for a new graduate with $20,000 in debt – roughly the average for a new graduate who has taken out a loan – that must be paid back in 10 years at a 6.8 percent interest, the monthly payment would be $230. For the sake of a “fudge factor,” I boosted the payment to $300.)

Rent: $650 (This is from CNNMoney.com. It turns out rent in Indianapolis is relatively cheap. However, rents are likely at least partially reflective of overall lower living costs, which would in turn be reflected in salaries, evening this out.)

Food: $200 (I just guesstimated this based on my own food expenditures, and then added a bit on the off-chance I eat less than the average recent graduate.)

Transportation: $120 (My notional teacher is both living and working in Indianapolis so I didn’t figure he’d have too great a commute. I estimated that he’d fill his tank up about once a week at $30 a pop.)

Auto Insurance: $90 (Young Mr. Chips drives a 2001 Corolla and has a pretty good driving record. Allstate’s quote estimator reported that this would be close to his monthly premium.)

Renters Insurance: $20 (I got this quote through State Farm. Actually, their quote for an 800 square-foot apartment, about $40,000 worth of stuff, and $100,000 in personal liability was $16.50 per month.)

Clothing/Laundry: $100 (I guesstimated this too. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, but thought it might be a reasonable amount.)

So what’s our recently minted grad’s grand monthly total for all these essentials and student loans? $1480.

Now, let’s see if a first-year teacher working for the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) could afford such a load on their initial salary. Looking at the salary schedule for IPS teachers, one finds that our fresh graduate heading right into teaching will earn – get ready – an annual salary of $34,638, or a monthly salary of $2,887!

At this point I shouldn’t even have to do the math to see my test’s results, but let’s make this formal: If we subtract our new teacher’s monthly expenses from his monthly salary, we find that he has $1,407 left over! That’s right, almost half of the young man’s salary remains after paying off his monthly loan charge and all of his major expenses. That is a lot of beer money! (Or, I suppose, money he could save.)

Of course, there are expenses missing from this calculation – taxes, for one – but there are also major income boosters missing. After all, most teachers only teach for about ten months, and many get temporary jobs to fill the time. That means their teaching salary is generally not their only income. And I didn’t mention such major benefits as the generous loan forgiveness programs for which many teachers qualify.

Now, maybe I’ve overlooked some big expense, or grossly underestimated something, or my example isn’t representative of the financial challenges facing the average first-year teacher. If none of those things are the case, though, then there’s only one possible conclusion that can be drawn about the “student debt is too high and teachers’ salaries are too low” argument: It is utter hogwash, and ought never, ever, to be repeated again.

I’m not holding my breath.

Government Schools to Parents: Leave Your Money, Your Kid, and Shut Your Mouth

Jay Mathews, ed-beat superstar for the Washington Post, has a story today that perfectly sums up the government school response to involved parents; leave it to the professionals, stupid. 

Across the country, parents hit a solid wall of silence when they question the actions of school administrators.   But these same administrators have the gall to blame uninvolved parents for the sorry state of our government schools.  Mathews reports:

Schools nationwide are calling on parents to get involved. The Maryland State Board of Education endorsed a broad range of family outreach initiatives in a 2005 report that called public education “a shared responsibility.”

Yet some parents in Montgomery County and elsewhere have discovered limits on the get-involved policy when they ask questions about individual teachers, whether those queries are about alleged abuse of students or a decision to fire a popular instructor.

In Montgomery County, beloved third-grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was bounced on the word of one reviewer despite an outpouring of support from parents who knew what great work she had done with their children.  I can’t say it better than it’s reported:

But a panel of eight teachers and eight principals charged with reviewing Kim’s performance gave little weight to the parent letters when they considered her future in a closed-door meeting, according to panel members.

Doug Prouty, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association and co-chairman of the panel, said in an interview that the strong parental support for Kim was considered only a “secondary data source.”

The good test scores of Kim’s students, he said, were also secondary. The primary sources for the decisions, he said, were the judgments of Principal Elaine Chang, a consulting teacher assigned to evaluate Kim and the panel members themselves that Kim was ineffective in the classroom and hurting her students’ progress.

“That’s a bunch of hooey,” said Elyse Summers, one of the multitude of pro-Kim parents. “Our children went to Mrs. Kim’s class every day, came home and are performing extremely well.”

“We take parent feedback, both good and bad, about teachers very seriously,” Edwards replied. But the Montgomery schools spokesman added that “the final decision about the effectiveness of teachers must come down to those with the professional expertise.”

Thanks to Mathews for pointing out these object lessons in government schooling.  Teachers work for the government school system, not the children or the parents. 

I only wish that Mathews had pointed out the obvious solution to this problem; giving parents the power through school choice.  Otherwise, “those with the professional expertise” will continue to demand more money and less input from parents. 

Back Door Takeover

In September 2005, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the creation of a commission charged with formulating a “comprehensive national strategy” for higher education. The commission was chaired by long-time Bush pal Charles Miller – who’d helped create the Texas predecessor to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) when Bush was governor – and it seemed very likely the commission would recommend federally enforced standardized testing for all colleges and universities. Thankfully, federally mandated testing was not among the recommendations in its final report, an outcome almost certainly attributable to adamant opposition to such lunacy both from within and without academia.

Ah, but in Texas they don’t give up easily!

Unwilling to face what would no doubt be major opposition to publicly trying to force inane, NCLB-esque standardized testing on the Ivy League, Seven Sisters, etc., the Department of Education has chosen a different tactic: it’s tried to sneak it in through the ivory tower’s back door.  Rather than putting testing requirements into legislation that would have to get through Congress, the administration has been quietly trying to rewrite regulations governing accreditation in order to make accreditors force schools to administer standardized tests.

Thankfully, there’s been a lot of resistance among accreditors to this assault on academia, and Education Department negotiators have had to tone down their once explicit demands for testing. As Inside Higher Ed reports:

As the department’s various proposals have evolved over the weeks and months, they have become slightly less intrusive at each turn. Most recently, the department issued draft regulatory language — based, its officials repeated again and again, on a proposal that some of the “non-federal” negotiators had suggested — that would no longer require accrediting agencies to dictate to colleges the levels of performance they must achieve in student learning.

That’s good news, but as IHE continues, it hardly gets schools out of the woods:

But because the government would still require accrediting agencies to judge whether the standards that colleges set for themselves and their success in meeting those goals are sufficient — and because the accreditors would be doing so knowing that the Education Department can (through its process for recognizing accrediting agencies) punish any accreditor who doesn’t set the bar high enough to satisfy department officials — some members of the negotiating panel argued Tuesday that even the less-aggressive changes amount to federal control of accreditation, and ultimately of higher education.

In light of all this, I have a confession to make. When Spellings first announced the creation of her commission, and as the national strategizers conducted their work, I was almost certain we’d see the Bush administration try to assert explicit federal control over higher education, just as it had done in K-12. Well I was wrong. The administration hasn’t tried to do anything explicit in higher education. No, it’s tried to hide what it’s been up to ever since the commission’s final report came out.

Shouting “There’s No Fire” in a Burning Theater

In today’s Washington Post, government schooling advocate Gerald Bracey argues that American education is just fine, thanks. He makes this case by noting that NAEP 4th grade science standards are set too high. Only 29 percent of kids are deemed “proficient” on that test, while the U.S. ranked third in an international test of 4th grade science a few years ago. If these are the only data you look at, Bracey’s argument is not ludicrous on its face. If you look at all the available data on U.S. student performance, it is.

Jerry has a habit of glossing over the evidence on the performance of older U.S. students and young adults. I ran into this eight years ago when I had an on-line exchange with him over my book Market Education. As I explained then:

While U.S. students sometimes do well and usually do adequately at the 4th grade, their performance deteriorates significantly by the 8th grade, and they hit rock bottom by the 12th grade. American 16-25 year olds are among the most illiterate in the world, with nearly a quarter scoring at the lowest possible level measured by the International Adult Literacy Survey. Since most Americans are chiefly concerned with how well their children are prepared for adult life at the end of their education, the appalling performance of U.S. high-school seniors and recent graduates represents a genuine and not a manufactured crisis….

Regrettably, but not at all surprisingly, little has changed in the intervening years. I updated my analysis of U.S. peformance in an international context when the latest TIMSS and PISA tests were released two years ago. The data continue to show that “the notion [our] public school problems are confined to inner cities, and that our wealthy suburbs produce world-beating high school graduates is a myth.”

Give Us Back Our Monopoly!

The governor of Ohio is threatening to kill most school choice in his state, and several leaders of urban school districts are doing all they can to help him. If you ever wanted to know what really motivates people like this, your answer is clear as day in this Cleveland Plain Dealer article:

Columbus — Leaders of Ohio’s eight big-city school districts are lobbying lawmakers this week to support Gov. Ted Strickland’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools and ax a statewide school-voucher program.

“We strongly support his position that for-profit entities not operate in our state,” said Cleveland schools CEO Eugene Sanders, co-chairman of the Ohio 8, a coalition of superintendents and teachers union presidents from the state’s largest districts. “We think those funds can more appropriately be used in a public school context.…”

The school leaders want legislators to know they are weary of watching students, as well as tens of millions of tax dollars, fly out of their coffers and into the hands of charter schools — independent public schools that are privately run but publicly funded.

Simply put: Lousy competition is kicking our butts. We want our monopoly back!

Another $60 Million Down the Drain

From today’s New York Times:

Billionaires Start $60 Million Schools Effort

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

[…]

The project will not endorse candidates — indeed, it is illegal to do so as a charitable group — but will instead focus on three main areas: a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

No big surprise here, but man, it’s disappointing to see very intelligent, well-meaning people spending their money on ideas that have been tried and failed. The federal government has failed to improve education for very obvious reasons, and pushing failed state-level reforms to the federal level will end in even more expensive failure.

The government-run education system is the root of our problems in education, and the only mechanism for systemic reform and improvement is educational freedom (preferably through broad-coverage education tax credits).

The Center for Educational Freedom is ready and waiting to help Gates and Broad spend their education dollars more effectively.

Even if Gates and Broad don’t want to do what’s necessary to change the education system, they would do much more good by simply devoting this money to an endowed scholarship fund for low-income kids.