Topic: Education and Child Policy

New Math: Anti-Common Core = Anti-Hispanic?

In an act of extreme tangent tying, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson just penned an op-ed linking Donald Trump’s wall-building immigration stance to his attacks on the Common Core national curriculum standards. The message Richardson may be trying to send: bigots don’t want Hispanics in the country, or able to access “high academic standards” when they’re here.

I’ll let others debate Trump’s motives, but I can speak for myself—and probably the vast majority of Core opponents—that none of my opposition to the Core is based on anti-Hispanic sentiment or a desire to keep anyone down. It is rooted only in the concerns I have constantly expressed: having a single, federally driven set of standards would stifle innovation; makes little sense considering that all children are unique individuals; and has no meaningful research backing. Others believe that the Core simply is not a good enough set of standards.

Richardson offers no evidence to refute any of the highly substantive objections that have been made for years and have helped render the Core a largely bipartisan pariah. He just pronounces that the standards “equip students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential to success in the 21st-century economy.” Then he attacks Trump again.

Far too often Core defenders have ignored powerful, important objections—and dodged serious debate—in favor of caricaturing Core opponents. Awkwardly tying Core opposition to anti-Hispanic animus seems to be more of the same.

Revising Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”

Does the American Dream exist? Are poor but highly skilled individuals able to achieve their full potential? These questions are at the heart of recent episodes of Malcom Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History.

In “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” Gladwell examines the idea of “capitalization,” or how well America makes use of its human potential. Americans typically believe people are able to climb the ladder to success through hard work and determination, but Gladwell uses the story of one smart, low-income student to express doubts about American meritocracy.

“Carlos” is a bright but low-income student in Los Angeles, who secured a spot at an elite private school thanks to entertainment lawyer Eric Eisner’s YES program. The episode is a stark reminder that low-income students—even the most talented ones—face large barriers to success. Gladwell calls Carlos’ journey a “one in a million shot.” He identifies two large obstacles that smart, low-income students must overcome, but fails to discuss the best solution to these problems: school choice. The public education system traps students like Carlos in underperforming schools that Gladwell likens to concentration camps, but choice policies could help more poor students like Carlos access good schools.

The first barrier to success is a lack of advocates for talented, low-income students. But must it take an Eric Eisner to discover such kids and help them capitalize on their potential? The underlying assumption is that advocates will not be parents or teachers, but only rare, outside forces.

Really? Most parents want the best for their children, and work hard to give them opportunities for success. The problem may well be that wealthier families can access private institutions or choose expensive homes zoned for high-quality public schools, while low-income families are relegated to cheap addresses assigning them to subpar schools. Low-income parents, as Gladwell and others imply, are not necessarily uninformed or uncaring. They just lack the resources of wealthier families.

School choice policies help to give parents those resources. In The School Choice Journey, Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf show that given choices, low-income parents transition from passive clients to active consumers, seeking out information on options for their children.

Setting the Record Straight on the Coulson Education Productivity Study

A recent op-ed in the Times Herald took aim at a study by our dearly departed colleague, Andrew J. Coulson. In short, the author claimed that the study’s “flaw” was supposedly failing to take into account something that Andrew actually did take into account, as he explained in his study. Since Andrew is no longer available to address specious attacks on his research, it falls to his colleagues to do so. What follows is the letter that Rachel Reese, a research associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and I submitted to the Times Herald:

In an op-ed urging support for a bond proposal for the Port Huron school district, Professor James Clatworthy took issue with a Cato Institute study by the late Andrew J. Coulson that found no correlation between spending and achievement. We take no position on the bond, but stand by our colleague’s research.

Despite a near tripling of the inflation-adjusted cost per pupil in public schools nationwide between 1972 and 2012, the performance of high school students on the SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress has been flat. Coulson’s study compared state-level SAT scores, controlling for changing participation rates and student demographics, to the total, inflation-adjusted cost of a K-12 education, finding no discernable link between spending and performance.

Clatworthy erroneously claimed that Coulson’s findings did not account for SAT scores being periodically “mean centered,” meaning that the average scores were reset. In fact, contrary to Clatworth’s assertion that the test was recentered “multiple times” over the period of the study, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) only recentered the SAT once between 1972 and 2012 and Coulson used ETS’s own formula to compare the pre- and post-recentering data.

Ironically, Clatworthy also criticized Coulson for supporting policies empowering parents to choose schools, claiming that choice would “return us to the status of the 1700s.” But choice is clearly the right model for the 21st century, in which a quickly changing world will need a nimbly adapting education system. That requires choice and decentralized control, not a bureaucratic system that demands evermore money without measurably improving results.

What Do We Know about Education?

It’s the 50th anniversary of the legendary Coleman Report, as George Will discusses today in the Washington Post. Will summarizes what experts in 1966 believed about education, and what additional experience revealed:

The consensus then was that the best predictor of a school’s performance was the amount of money spent on it: Increase financial inputs, and cognitive outputs would increase proportionately. As the postwar baby boom moved through public schools like a pig through a python, almost everything improved — school buildings, teachers’ salaries, class sizes, per-pupil expenditures — except outcomes measured by standardized tests.

Andrew Coulson put that key fact in a handy chart:

Education spending and results

Politicians, experts, and the education establishment still aren’t willing to accept the lesson demonstrated by this chart.

But if money doesn’t work, what does? Coleman emphasized cultural factors, notably strong families. Coulson believed that schools could improve, and that competition could help us discover best educational practices. This fall, public television stations will broadcast his documentary asking why educational innovations are so rarely tested and replicated.

We’ve Been over the Huge Price of “Free” College before

Hillary Clinton will be introducing a plan today that would enable students from families eventually making up to $125,000 not to have to pay tuition at in-state colleges or universities. This is a jump in college subsidization from her previously announced plan, which focused on debt-free tuition, and more in line with what Bernie Sanders has proposed. Presumably, it is going to be paid for by the federal government offering states more money for higher education in exchange for states saying they’ll increase their own spending, to a point of making tuition largely free.

We’ve been over how costly “free” college really is–massive overconsumption, credential inflation, big opportunity costs for taxpayers, etc.–which you can read about here and here. I won’t rehash it all now. But the political calculus hasn’t changed: People like getting things for free, especially when the ultimate costs are hidden. And the more people who think they’ll benefit–the estimate is 8 out of 10 for Ms. Clinton’s new proposal–the better.

Should Teachers Have to Pay for Gushing over Clinton? (Or Trump? Or Gary Johnson? Or…)?

At just about the same time FBI Director James Comey was discussing how “extremely careless” Hillary Clinton was with classified information during her time as Secretary of State, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, was tweeting this:

And this:

And doing this:

All of this, by the way, took place at the NEA’s national convention.

Now, is there anything wrong with a union endorsing and campaigning for a presidential candidate? Heck no! But there is a huge problem when teachers, as a condition of working at government schools, are required to furnish funds for those unions.

I know the response: The “agency fees” teachers in many states are compelled to supply only cover collective bargaining, which is not political. Of course, such bargaining is absolutely political—negotiating with government entities is inherently political—and somtimes coming in at 65 percent or more of full dues, a lot of agency fee money is almost certainly going to more than just collective bargaining and administrative stuff. And money is fungible. Dollars that free payers supply for collective bargaining ultimately frees up other bucks for, I don’t know, maybe straight-out politicking!

Sadly, as you probably know, the U.S. Supreme Court tied up on this 4-4 earlier this year, maintaining a lower court ruling that agency fees are not a violation of constitutional speech and association rights. But just because the Supreme Court stumbled doesn’t mean the political branches of government can’t act to end forced union funding. And from I saw on Twitter yesterday, justice requires that compelled support of unions end.

Good Schools Coming — in 10 or 20 Years (Maybe)

Kaya Henderson has gotten great reviews for her work as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Test scores are up during her tenure, though not as much as the hype. But take a look at this vision in an article on her departure:

Henderson cautions that improving schools that had long struggled does not happen quickly. And even with the school reform efforts over the the past decade, it may still be another decade — or more — before anyone can declare something approaching victory.

“There will be a day when every school in the city is doing amazing work and you won’t have to enter a lottery, you literally could drop your kid off at any school and have them an amazing experience. I believe we’re within reach of that, probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” she says.

Good schools “sometime in the next 10 or 20 years” – “probably”? Can you imagine a private-company CEO promising that his company would be good at its core business “probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” after his retirement?

No wonder Albert Shanker, the first head of the American Federation of Teachers, said back in 1989:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

Indeed, we have in each city in the United States an essentially centralized, monopoly, uncompetitive, one-size-fits-all school system that has been stagnating for more than a century. As I wrote in the book Liberating Schools,

The problem of the government schools is the problem inherent in all government institutions. In the private sector, firms must attract voluntary customers or they fail; and if they fail, investors lose their money, and managers and employees lose their jobs. The possibility of failure, therefore, is a powerful incentive to find out what customers want and to deliver it efficiently. But in the government sector, failures are not punished, they are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff — because, after all, its task is now bigger.  An agency that fails year after year, that does not simply fail to solve the problem but actually makes it worse, will be rewarded with an ever-increasing budget.  What kind of incentive system is this?  

This is ridiculous. Every form of communication and information technology is changing before our eyes, except the schools and the post office. It’s time to give families a choice. Free them from the monopoly school system. Give families education tax credits or education savings accounts. Make homeschooling easier. Let them opt out of the big-box school – and get their money back – and watch Khan Academy videos. 

Children spend 12 years in government monopoly schools. If they don’t get started right in the first couple of years, they’re running behind for life. It’s just not right to tell parents to wait 10 to 20 years for the tax-supported monopoly schools to start educating decently.