Topic: Education and Child Policy

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

Opt Out Tests If Child’s a “Mere Creature of the State”

The Common Core War, over the last few months, has been fought on a largely new front: whether students can be forced to take state tests – in the vast majority of cases, Core-aligned tests – or whether parents and students can refuse. It is perhaps an even more fundamental question than whether the federal government may constitutionally coerce standardization and testing generally, and with Common Core, specific standards and tests. The testing battle is to a large extent about whether a child, in seeming opposition to the seminal Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, is indeed a “mere creature of the State.”

The opt-out numbers are hard to pin down, though there is little question that some districts have seen very large percentages while others – probably the large majority nationwide – have seen few. It is also probably reasonable to conclude that the leader of the opt-out crusade has been New York State, where animosity toward the Core has been high since the state first rushed implementation and state officials, in an effort to calm things, actually inflamed them with a condescending approach to public engagement that launched weeks of recriminations. Last year the state saw an estimated 60,000 students opt out, which leapt to nearly 200,000 this year.

The root question, of course, is should students and parents be able to opt out without fear of punishment? And since punishment would be coming from a government institution – yes, that is what a public school is – that means without fear of punishment by the state. If children are, in part, creatures of the state – and Pierce did not say there is no legitimate state role in education – than punishment is legitimate. If, however, the public schools exist to serve fully free citizens, then punishment cannot be meted out for refusing the test; it is up to parents to freely decide whether or not their children are subjected to the tests.

The Common Core Conundrum

Common Core is either meaningless or antithetical to a free and pluralistic society.

That’s the key conundrum that Professor Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, identified yesterday during his testimony before the Arkansas Council on Common Core Review, which is currently considering whether to keep, modify, or scrap the standards:

Because standards are about values, their content is not merely a technical issue that can be determined by scientific methods. There is no technically correct set of standards, just as there is no technically correct political party or religion. Reasonable people have legitimate differences of opinion about what they want their children taught. A fundamental problem with national standards efforts, like Common Core, is that they are attempting to impose a single vision of a proper education on a large and diverse country with differing views.

National standards can try to produce uniformity out of diversity with some combination of two approaches. They can promote standards that are so bland and ambiguous as to be inoffensive to almost everyone. Or they can force their particular vision on those who believe differently. Either way, national standards, like Common Core, are inappropriate and likely to be ineffective. If national standards embrace a vague consensus, then they make no difference since almost everyone already believes them and is already working toward them. If, on the other hand, national standards attempt to impose their particular vision of a proper education on those with differing visions, then national standards are oppressive and likely to face high levels of resistance and non-compliance. So, national standards are doomed to be either unnecessary or illiberal. Either way, they are wrong. [emphasis added]

Supporters of Common Core clearly hope it does bend educators to their will induce “instructional shifts” in our nation’s classrooms, but as Greene points out, for Common Core to be more than “just a bunch of words in a document,” it needs some sort of mechanism to coerce schools and educators into changing their practice to align with the Core. Prominent backers of Common Core have long promoted a “tripod” of standards, tests, and “accountability” measures – i.e. rewards or (more likely) punishments tied to performance on those tests.

When Overcrowding Happens in Vegas

What happens when the population of K-12 students grows faster than the government is able to build school buildings? Las Vegas is finding out the hard way:

Las Vegas is back, baby. After getting slammed by the Great Recession, the city today is seeing rising home sales, solid job growth and a record number of visitors in 2014.

But the economic rebound has exacerbated the city’s severe school overcrowding and left school administrators, lawmakers and parents scrambling.

This elementary school was built to serve a maximum of 780 students. Today it serves 1,230 — and enrollment is growing.

Forbuss Elementary is hardly alone. The crowding is so bad here in the Clark County School District that 24 schools will soon run on year-round schedules.

Forbuss already is. One of five sections is always on break to make room. Scores of other schools are on staggered schedules. More than 21,000 Clark County students are taking some online classes, in large part because of space strains. Nearly 700 kids in the district take all of their classes online.

“It’s pretty rough some days. I’m in a small portable with 33 students,” says Sarah Sunnasy. She teaches fifth grade at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School, a high-poverty school that is nearly 90 percent over capacity. “We tend to run into each other a lot. Trying to meet individual needs when you have that many kids with such a wide range of ability levels is hard. We do the best we can with what we have,” she says.

At Forbuss Elementary there are 16 trailer classrooms — the school prefers the term “portables” — parked in the outdoor recess area, eating away at playground space.

There’s also a “portable” bathroom and portable lunchroom. “It’s warmer in the big school,” a little girl tells me. “These get cold in winter.”

“You have to make do,” says Principal Shawn Paquette. “You get creative.”

“Our school is so overcrowded, that, you know, everybody’s gotta pitch in,” says school support staffer Ruby Crabtree. “We don’t have enough people.”

The Nevada legislature recently approved funding to build new schools and renovate old ones, but as NPR notes, the “handful of new schools won’t be finished for at least two years.” In that time, the Las Vegas school district is expected to experience 1 percent enrollment growth, or about 3,000 to 4,000 students, so the district will need “at least two more elementary schools every year.”

Maine Teacher Wins Million Dollar Prize. Why Not Let Teachers Make Big $ “The Old-Fashioned Way?”

The BBC reports that Nancie Atwell of Maine has just won the million dollar “Global Teacher Prize.” Congratulations Ms. Atwell! On the rare occasions such prizes are doled out, the reaction is universally celebratory. But is there really only one teacher in the world worth $1,000,000–and even then only once in a lifetime?

Here’s a radical thought: What if we organized education such that the top teachers could routinely make large sums of money “the old-fashioned way” (i.e., by earning it in a free and open marketplace)? In other fields, the people and institutions that best meet our needs attract more customers and thereby earn greater profits. Why have we structured our economy such that the best cell phone innovators can become rich, but not the best teachers? This seems not only deeply unfair but unwise as well.

Kim Ki-hoon, photographed by SeongJoon Cho for The WSJPerhaps some people don’t believe it would be possible for educators to become wealthy in an open marketplace. Their negativity is contradicted by reality. In one of the few places where instruction is organized as a marketplace activity, Korea’s tutoring sector, one of the top tutors (Kim Ki-Hoon) has earned millions of dollars per year over the last decade. His secret: offering recorded lessons over the Internet at a reasonable price, and attracting over a hundred thousand students each year. His employment contract with his tutoring firm ensures that he receives a portion of the revenue he brings in–so even though his fees are reasonable, his earnings are large due to the vast number of students he reaches. And his success depends on his performance. In an interview with Amanda Ripley he observed: “The harder I work, the more I make…. I like that.” Is there any reason we shouldn’t like that, too?

As Ripley reports, this tutoring marketplace receives favorable reviews from students:

In a 2010 survey of 6,600 students at 116 high schools conducted by the Korean Educational Development Institute, Korean teenagers gave their hagwon [i.e., private tutoring] teachers higher scores across the board than their regular schoolteachers: Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students’ academic performance.

That is not to say that the Korean education system is without flaw. Indeed, the government-mandated college entrance testing system creates enormous pressure on students and skews families’ demands toward doing well on “the test,” rather than on fulfilling broader educational goals. This, of course, is not caused by the marketplace, but rather by the government mandate. The marketplace simply responds to families’ demands, whatever they happen to be. While many hagwons prepare students for the mandated college-entrance exam, there are also those teaching such things as swimming or calligraphy.

If we liberate educators, educational entrepreneurship will thrive. There are policies already in place in some states that could ensure universal access to such an educational marketplace.

Do Baltimore Schools Need More Money?

Is the problem with Baltimore’s district schools a lack of funds?

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart argued as much during a recent interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.”

However, under even cursory scrutiny, Stewart’s claim falls apart like a Lego Super Star Destroyer dropped from ten feet. As economist Alex Tabarrok explained:

Let’s forget the off-the-cuff comparison to Afghanistan, however, and focus on a more relevant comparison. Is it true, as Stewart suggests, that Baltimore schools are underfunded relative to other American schools? The National Center for Education Statistics reports the following data on Baltimore City Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools, the latter considered among the best school districts in the entire country:

school data2

Baltimore schools spend 27% more than Fairfax County schools per student and a majority of the money comes not from the city but from the state and federal government. Thus, when it comes to education spending, Baltimore has not been ignored but is a recipient of significant federal and state aid.

The OECD’s “Perspective” on Swedish Education

The OECD has just released a report offering “its perspective” on Sweden’s academic decline. Its perspective is too narrow. In launching the new report, OECD education head Andres Schleicher declared that “It was in the early 2000s that the Swedish school system somehow seems to have lost its soul.” The OECD administers the international PISA test, which began in the year 2000.

Certainly Sweden’s academic performance has fallen since the early 2000s, but its decline was substantially faster in the preceding decade. PISA cannot shed light on this, but TIMSS—an alternative international test—can, having been introduced several years earlier. On the 8th grade mathematics portion of TIMSS, Sweden’s rate of decline between 1995 and 2003 was over five points per year. Between 2003 and 2011 it was less than two points per year. Still regrettable, but less grievously so.