Topic: Education and Child Policy

Watch Your Libertarian Language

Colleges often have to decide what their rules are about language that offends people. Is a professor’s criticism of affirmative action offensive to black students? Is a gay-rights group’s advocacy offensive to Christian or morally conservative students? And people can debate how to weigh free speech versus a nurturing atmosphere in a particular college.

But Marquette University seems to have reached new heights, or depths, in what it considers offensive. A graduate student there posted on his office door a pithy quotation from humorist Dave Barry:

 “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”

A strong opinion, to be sure. One that I’d bet is shared by many but certainly not all Americans. Apparently Barry’s sentiment is not shared by the chairman of Marquette’s philosophy department, who took it upon himself to take down the quotation and sent a department email declaring it “patently offensive.”

Offensive to whom? Surely not to any of the usual identity groups, ethnic or religious or sexual-orientation or gender or whatever. Nor does it use the four-letter words that might be inappropriate for a public space. Perhaps it’s offensive to employees of the federal government, or to those who have a great deal of respect and admiration for the federal government. But one would think that at a university it falls within the parameters of debate. And while Dave Barry writes more effectively and memorably than most philosophers, his statement still qualifies as humor or political commentary or both.

Marquette is a private university and is thus free under the First Amendment to regulate speech as it chooses. But if libertarian jests are “patently offensive” and subject to censorship at Marquette, it might want to note that in a new paragraph of its academic freedom guidelines and perhaps in the catalog provided to prospective students.

Private Schools Now 33% Off!

There’s a common perception in this country that public schools are underfunded, and that if they could only spend as much as private schools do, they’d be in clover. When it is pointed out that the average private school tuition is around half of total public school spending per pupil, defenders of the status quo counter that tuition only covers a fraction of total costs.

So wouldn’t it be interesting to know how much private schools actually spend, in total, per pupil? Well now we do, at least for the state of Arizona.

In a study released yesterday by the Goldwater Institute, I analyze the results of their most recent private school survey. Among the other fascinating findings is that public schools spend one-and-a-half times as much per pupil as do private schools. Or, looked at the other way, private schools spend a third less than public schools.

Some other fascinating tidbits:

Teachers make up 72 percent of on-site staff in Arizona’s independent education sector, but less than half of on-site staff in the public sector. In order to match the independent sector’s emphasis on teachers over non-teaching staff, Arizona public schools would have to hire roughly 25,000 more teachers and dismiss 21,210 non-teaching employees.

When teachers’ 9-month salaries are annualized to make them comparable to the 12-month salaries of most other fields, Arizona independent school teachers earned the equivalent of $36,456 in 2004 – about $2,000 less than reporters and correspondents. The 12-month-equivalent salary of the state’s public school teachers was around $60,000, which is more than nuclear technicians, epidemiologists, detectives, and broadcast news analysts. It’s also about 50 percent more than reporters or private school teachers earn.

I wonder what effect these numbers will have on the flood of education stories about how desperately underpaid public school teachers are… given that those teachers are earning the equivalent of 50 percent more than the journalists who cover them.

There are many other gems in the full report, including a comparison of the condition of physical facilities between public and private sector schools. Public school lobbyists claim they need loads more money to repair and maintain their buildings, so it’d be interesting to know how private schools cope with this issue on a fraction of the public sector’s budget, hmm?

School Vouchers on the Way in India?

According to an article in The Hindu, an education planning commission in India has recommended the creation of pilot voucher programs in its final “Approach Paper.”

I have no doubt that the impetus for this recommendation comes at least in part from James Tooley’s work in India and Africa over the past decade, including his most recent study showing the effectiveness and efficiency of private schools serving the poor in the city of Hyderabad.

A particularly interesting aspect of the article is the extent to which the Union Human Resource Development Ministry (in charge of education) misrepresented the facts in its statements to the reporter, Anita Joshua. I just fired off an e-mail to Ms. Joshua, setting the record straight. Some highlights below the fold…

Most notably, the Ministry claims that “the average cost of schooling in private unaided schools [in India] is much higher than in government schools.” The converse is true. I summarize the evidence from a variety of public/private sector comparisons of Indian schools in pages 6–10 of a book chapter that is available online here: http://www.schoolchoices.org/roo/How_Markets_Affect_Quality.pdf

In one of those studies (of Uttar Pradesh), for example, Oxford University professor Geeta Gandhi Kingdon found that unaided schools spend roughly half of what is spent by government schools, per pupil. (Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, “The Quality and Efficiency of Private and Public Education: A Case-Study of Urban India,” Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 58, No. 1 (1996), pp. 55–80.) Interestingly, the same is largely true in the United states, where the average private school tuition fee is about half the total public school per-pupil expenditure. 

Also, a recent study published by the Cato Institute, conducted by University of Newcastle professors James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, found that personnel costs in Hyderabad’s unaided slum schools were a small fraction of those in nearby government schools — and personnel costs represent the lion’s share of school expenditures. Furthermore, Tooley and Dixon found that students in the private slum schools significantly outperform their peers in the more expensive public schools. 

Nor is there any validity to the Ministry’s claim that private schools are unavailable in rural areas. An extensive 1999 report found private schools in many rural areas across northern India, and also reported that they were providing better facilities and more actual teaching than their public counterparts. (Anuradha De, Jean Drèze, Shiva Kumar, Claire Noronha, Pushpendra, Anita Rampal, Meera Samsom, and Amarjeet Sinha, Public Report on Basic Education in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.)

Let’s hope Ms. Joshua brings this ammunition to her next interview with the Ministry.

University Lockdown Costs You Plenty

Gallaudet University, the only university in the world focused specifically on deaf and hard-of-hearing students, is locked down. Some students — though it’s never clear how many or what percentage of the overall student body — have barred the entrance to the school to protest the pending installation of a new president, Jane K. Fernandes.

The complaints against Fernandes are myriad, ranging from displeasure with her purported top-down management style to accusations that the presidential search process was not racially inclusive. No one issue, though, appears to be an overriding concern, nor do the reported issues, together, seem to justify students taking the school over Taps style, with football players providing muscle at the gates and even Gallaudet’s elementary and high schools shut down.

As overblown as all this seems, though, it shouldn’t be of much concern outside the university, right? After all, isn’t Gallaudet a private college, meaning that whether or not students shut it down should ultimately be a matter between the students, the school, and maybe a few parents who’d like to know what their tuition payments are going for?

If only.

For one thing, almost all American institutions of higher education receive substantial funds from taxpayers, whether it’s state money going directly to public colleges or federal dollars going to research grants, student aid, or just plain pork at public and private schools. As a result, almost any college shutdown not only costs students and schools time and money, but taxpayers as well.

The Gallaudet situation, however, is even worse. Two universities in the nation receive huge, direct appropriations from the federal government every year, and Gallaudet is one of them. (Howard University is the other.) For FY 2006, Gallaudet received a direct federal appropriation of more than $104 million, plus another $3 million in government grants and contracts. That same year, the school’s total revenues were slightly less than $149 million, meaning that 71 percent of Gallaudet’s money came directly from federal taxpayers. That makes Gallaudet, for all intents and purposes, a federal university.

Who knew? 

Unfortunately, now you know, and what seemed to be just Gallaudet’s problem, it turns out, is yours as well.  

“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.