Topic: Education and Child Policy

“An expensive, time-consuming indignity”

Jefferds Huyck is not a “highly qualified” teacher according to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Sure, he’s got a doctorate in classics from Harvard, and his students bring home boatloads of awards for Latin proficiency, but being highly qualified in reality is not at all the same thing as being “highly qualified” under the NCLB. Under that law, “highly qualified” is almost universally interpreted to mean “possessing a four year degree from a state-approved teachers’ college.”

Mr. Huyck views this requirement, quite correctly, as “an expensive, time-consuming indignity.” The ubiquitous teachers’ college degree requirement means that Lance Armstrong cannot teach phys. ed., Bill Gates cannot teach business or computer science, and Johnny Depp can’t teach drama. That’s not to say that they would all make excellent teachers, but simply that they would never be given the chance.

As Cato Adjunct Scholar Marie Gryphon so ably explains in her recent Policy Analysis (and in the current issue of Business Week), public schooling’s hiring and personnel system is broken. There is, furthermore, no way to fix it within the confines of existing state school monopolies.

The way to ensure that the Huyckses of the world are not only allowed but encouraged to teach is to introduce market forces to the field of education. Anyone with Huycks’ abilities and results would be much sought after in a free education marketplace. Conversely, untalented, poor-performing teachers would be forced to improve or leave the profession, no matter how many ed. school degrees they had accumulated.

Counsel of Sanity

If someone asked you to play Russian roulette and told you that you had only a 6 percent chance of not shooting yourself, would you play? Not if you were sane. Yet that’s exactly what some conservatives, led by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, are asking people to do with their children’s education.

On National Review Online today, writing in reply to a piece I had there last week, Fordham vice president Michael Petrilli argues that I was foolish to assert that standards set by government are doomed to failure, and that school choice is the only way to get meaningful standards and accountability in education.

Sure, he says, choice is valuable – critical, even – but so too is government standard-setting and measuring. “In order for any market to work effectively, consumers need good information,” he writes. “If we want to know whether schools actually ‘add value’ to their students, we need rigorous tests tied to meaningful academic standards, plus a sophisticated ‘value added’ analysis system – the whole standards-based reform kit-and-caboodle.”

Really? Consumers need government to set the standards and tell them whether the things they buy work? Is that really how the unwashed masses find good cars, fast computers, clothes that fit, newspapers to read, companies to deliver packages on time, and so on?

Of course not! Consumers are able to get a seemingly infinite array of excellent goods and services because the market assures it.

For one thing, suppliers of goods and services have to offer items that consumers want or they’ll eventually go out of business. But that’s just the beginning. In a free market, most people don’t have to know very much about the products they want in order to get something excellent because experts, such as those at Consumer Reports, Auto Week, PC Magazine, and so on, make money by evaluating the products for them. Plus, of course, consumers can talk to friends and neighbors about their experiences with different products and service providers, as well as use their own experiences, to inform their choices.

Unfortunately, their inability to understand how market standards and accountability work is not the most astonishing thing about Petrilli and other conservatives’ sudden faith in federal education standards. No, the most astonishing thing is that they are well aware of big government’s constant failures, but call for federal standards anyway.

Here’s Petrilli on the state standards movement: “Unfortunately, most states have botched standards-based reform by setting the bar too low.”

Here he is on No Child Left Behind: “The [low standards] problem is aggravated by No Child Left Behind, which demands that all students reach ‘proficiency’ by 2014 but lets states define ‘proficiency’ to their low levels. Hence, NCLB has created a race to the bottom.”

How about the voluntary national standards we tried in the mid-1990s? Here’s Diane Ravitch – who yes, I know, supports national standards – in Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform: “The abortive attempt to create national standards revealed the deep fissures within academic fields, as well as the wide gap between avant-garde thinkers in the academic world and the general public.”

By Petrilli and Co.’s own accounts, it is obvious that the track record of government standards-setting has been pathetic. What’s to blame? Politics, pure and simple. Invariably, the people who would be held accountable by high standards – teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats – have fought ferociously to keep standards as low as possible, while parents have been ignored. It’s no wonder: Because their very livelihoods depend on maintaining the status quo, education special interests spend oodles of time and money on lobbying and political campaigns, while parents, who have to worry about their own jobs, children, and countless other concerns, can’t possibly mount strong and sustained political efforts to get the standards they want.

Given history and political reality, Petrilli and other like-minded conservatives have very few government standards successes to hang their hats on. Indeed, that’s why they’ve had to ask the country to play 6 percent roulette: “Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat,” Petrilli acknowledges. “But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.”

So, because three out of fifty states have gotten standards right, we should gamble on the feds getting them right, too, and give Washington the authority to set the standards for every public school in America? That’s crazy.

Maybe if we tweak Petrilli’s statement, its insanity will be more clear: “Getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. And McCluskey is right to insist that it almost certainly can’t be done. After all, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas – and the list goes on - haven’t managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can’t happen in Montgomery or Juneau, it probably won’t happen in D.C., either.”

Looked at that way, Petrilli’s reliance on the success of three states to justify national standards is a little frightening. And, it turns out, even the three successes are at best cautionary tales: California only improved its standards after it had adopted disastrous ones that dumped it into the bottom of all states academically. Massachusetts’ standards are under constant political threat and could easily be dismantled. Finally, no matter how good Indiana’s standards are, between 2002 and 2005 the share of Hoosier 4th graders scoring at or above “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam dropped from 33 to 30 percent, and 8th graders at or above proficient fell from 32 to 28 percent.

In his op-ed today, Petrilli says I offered “counsel of defeat” last week when I told conservatives to give up on national standards and get back to fighting for school choice. In light of political reality, it is clear that he is wrong. Mine was not counsel of defeat – it was counsel of sanity.

Why Is a Good Teacher Like a Needle in a Haystack?

If you have children, they’re likely settling into their school-year routine at this point.  But how much are they actually learning?  The answer to that question depends heavily on your child’s teacher.

With so much riding on teacher selection, surely school administrators go out of their way to hire the best, right?  Not so, I discovered!  My new policy analysis, Giving Kids the Chaff: How to Find and Keep the Teachers We Need, reports that administrators seem to hire mediocre candidates even when standouts are waiting in the wings.

While many of the qualities of good teachers are difficult or impossible to measure – charisma and dedication comes to mind – studies reliably show that a teacher’s own academic aptitude and a strong math or science background can make a difference in his effectiveness.  Nonetheless, aspiring teachers with top test scores are actually slightly less likely to be hired than their average counterparts.  More surprising still, education majors are inexplicably hired more frequently than math and science majors despite a recognized shortage of highly-skilled teachers in those fields.

School choice reforms could put an end to the madness by creating incentives for principles to hire teachers who will satisfy parents.  Finally: a way to separate wheat from chaff in the teaching profession.

New Jersey LOVES Education Tax Credits

A recent poll conducted by Monmouth University’s Polling Institute on behalf of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), showed that an overwhelming 74 percent of New Jersey residents support targeted education tax credits.

The support for tax credits is tremendous – you can’t find 74 percent support for apple pie – but it’s not all that surprising.  Education tax credits consistently outpoll vouchers and have been the most successful school choice legislation in recent years.  This new “blue” state poll adds to the mountain of evidence that people want school choice, and that education tax credits are the most promising way to get it.

The poll also found a solid majority, 54 percent, supports vouchers, although this is a significant drop from the 66 percent support found in a 2002 poll.  Only 38 percent oppose vouchers.  The level of support for vouchers is the same as it is for another popular reform, student-based funding, which determines funding for each student according to their need and allows that money to follow them.  54 percent of respondents support the proposal and 32 percent are opposed.

Maybe one more poll showing how big support for school choice really is will be enough to get politicians to stand up to the teachers’ unions … ok, maybe not.

Spelling Disaster for Higher Ed

In a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made the prophecy come true.

In November – not long after Spellings announced the creation of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education – I wrote the following in a National Review Online op-ed:

In September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the formation of a commission tasked with designing a “national strategy for higher education” to prepare us for the 21st century.

The commission is composed entirely of people in academia, government or big business, all of whom benefit when taxpayer money is shoveled into higher education. Its recommendations are therefore almost a foregone conclusion: The federal government should spend more on student aid supposedly to ensure, as Spellings demands, that we have a workforce for the 21st century, and on “basic” research that businesses want done, but on which they would rather not risk their own money.

Of course, with a unified national strategy two more things will come: federal control of academia and an end to the competition for students that has driven innovation in American higher education and made it the envy of the world.

In her speech yesterday, Spellings confirmed many of my fears from November, calling for more federal student aid, new federal databases populated with information on every student and college in America, and a federally funded program that would bribe schools into making all their students take standardized tests in order, supposedly, to measure their “learning outcomes.” And Spellings opened the door to do even more than that, announcing that she will be holding a “summit” this spring to discuss each and every proposal in the commission’s final report, which includes demands for substantially increased federal research spending, and a blanket charge to create a national “strategy for lifelong learning.”

What Spellings glossed over – as did the commission’s report – was the cause of higher education’s most basic problem, skyrocketing prices. Why? Probably because the federal government is to blame. Federal financial aid enables students to demand ever-more expensive college goodies, fueling, rather than grounding, the college cost rocket. Indeed, as George Leef of the John William Pope Center explains in a new study, it is abundant government aid, as well as politicians’ incessant and specious declarations that almost everyone needs to go to college, that drive almost all of higher education’s major problems. In addition to pushing up prices, government aid and political rhetoric have convinced woefully unprepared students to pursue schooling they can’t handle, fueled rampant “credentialism,” and rendered actual learning in college largely irrelevant.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Spellings’ efforts to control higher education, however, is that she openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher ed.

Maybe I’d better repeat that: She openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher education.

Apparently, our stagnant, embarrassing, public K-12 schools, which the federal No Child Left Behind Act has only made worse by encouraging states to lower academic standards and hide failures, have a lot to teach our colleges and universities, which are, if nothing else, hands down the most popular destinations in the world for international students.

Hopefully, it’s not too late for colleges and universities to realize what they’re heading for, and fight federal assaults tooth and nail. Today, we will begin to get an idea whether this will happen, both as reactions to Spellings’ plans hit the media, and at a special forum on overhauling the ivory tower to be held right here at Cato.

The prophecy about Spellings’ proposals has come true, but there’s still hope that those proposals won’t become reality.

Federal Voucher Advocates Ignore the Risks

Conservative school choice advocates seem almost unanimous in their desire for federal vouchers. Writing in National Review Online, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli supports such a program on the grounds that it would save urban Catholic schools from insolvency. I couldn’t agree more that Catholic schools have been an invaluable educational lifeline for many families, and are eminently worth saving. But I am mystified by the right’s apparent lack of concern about the risks of federal school choice programs.

And I’m not just talking about the 10th Amendment’s proscription against federal education policymaking, which Bill Bennett and Rod Paige dismissed last week as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” I’m talking primarily about the sobering examples of national voucher programs in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.

While these programs are superior, in many respects, to education monopolies such as our own, they suggest that federal voucher programs bring with them stifling federal regulation. In Sweden, the regulation was there from the start, while in the Netherlands it built up inexorably over time. There are no examples anywhere in the world of federal governments extending funding to private schools without also extending federal control – whether immediately or gradually. The end result is that independent schools lose their independence, and any hope for the rise of a truly competitive education industry is lost.

Why are conservatives ignoring this risk? Perhaps they no longer see federal regulatory encroachment as a risk at all. Many have specifically advocated increased federal intervention in the content of instruction (see this debate on federal standards between Michael Petrilli and Cato’s own Neal McCluskey, or Neal’s current piece in NRO).

There are alternatives. State level school choice policies are preferable to federal ones, and funding universal school choice with private dollars (through non-refundable tax credits) is preferable to doing it with government dollars. Short version of this argument here. Long version here.

Educational Excellence Through Central Planning?

In a Washington Post op-ed, former education secretaries Rod Paige and Bill Bennett call for a federal education testing regime. States that don’t like the idea would be free to keep their own standards, but only under the “rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats” that already takes place under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). What they’re saying to states is this: why don’t we replace those NCLB handcuffs – that you might slip out of anyway – with a nice new straightjacket.”

In trying to sell this idea, they acknowledge that the Constitution makes no mention of education – and hence, by the 10th Amendment, leaves power over it in the hands of the states and the people – but then dismiss adherence to that Amendment as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” It is federal officials like these, keep in mind, who would oversee the standards and tests in question. I can see it now. “Guess what I learned in school today, daddy: ‘The Bill of Rights is for wussies!’”

Even more puzzling, the secretaries acknowledge the virtues of competitive education markets in their double plus ungood argument for central planning. As a champion of the Western literary canon, surely Mr. Bennett has turned the pages of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which begins by explaining that markets depend on specialization and the division of labor. Imposing a single set of federal standards and tests would crush the diversity that markets require.

Most short-sightedly, the secretaries’ simply assume that a new federal standards and testing regime would necessarily meet with their approval. They make that gross assumption at a time when their own party’s control of congress is in doubt, and after acknowledging that “most states have deployed mediocre standards.”

In a nutshell, it’s a bad argument for a bad idea.

Remind me again, which of the two major parties stands for limited government?