Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Death (and Rebirth?) of Peer Review

Here’s a headline from today’s Washington Post: “Sexism in science: Peer editor tells female researchers their study needs a male author.” Peer review is the usually-anonymous process by which articles submitted to academic journals are reviewed for quality and relevance to determine whether or not they will be published. Over the past several years, numerous scandals have emerged, made possible by the anonymity at the heart of that process.

The justification for anonymity is that it is supposed to allow reviewers to write more freely than if they were forced to place their names on their reviews. But scientists are increasingly admitting, and the public is increasingly noticing, that the process is… imperfect. As the Guardian newspaper wrote last summer about a leading journal, Nature:

Nature […] has had to retract two papers it published in January after mistakes were spotted in the figures, some of the methods descriptions were found to be plagiarised and early attempts to replicate the work failed. This is the second time in recent weeks that the God-like omniscience that non-scientists often attribute to scientific journals was found to be exaggerated.

In the 1990s I sat on the peer review board of an academic journal and over the years I have occasionally submitted to and been published by such journals. Peer reviews vary wildly in depth and quality. Some reviewers appear to have only skimmed the submitted paper, while others have clearly read it carefully. Some reviewers understand the submissions fully, others don’t. Some double-check numbers and sources. Others don’t. It’s plausible that this variability (particularly on the weak end) is a side-effect of reviwers’ anonymity. I have seen terse, badly-argued reviews to which I doubt the reviewer would have voluntarily attached his or her name. Personally, I try never to write anything as a peer reviewer which I would not happily sign.

Which Schools Best Serve the Public? New U.S. History, Civics Scores Point to Them

The latest 8th grade U.S. history, civics, and geography results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – have been released, and as usual, things seem bleak: only 18 percent of students scored proficient in U.S. history, 23 percent in civics, and 27 percent in geography. These kinds of results, however, should be taken with a few salt grains because we can’t see the full tests, and the setting of proficiency levels can be a bit arbitrary. Also, we don’t…

Oh, the heck with all that. As a fan of school choice, just tell me if private schools did better!

Based on the raw data, they did. 31 percent of private school students were proficient in U.S. history, versus 17 percent of public schoolers; 38 percent were proficient in civics, versus 22 percent of public schools kids; and 44 percent were proficient in geography, versus 25 percent of public schools kids. That said, to really know which broad swath of schools did better – and from a parent’s perspective, it is really only the individual schools from which they might choose that matter – you’d have to control for all sorts of characteristics of their students. From what I’ve seen, what was just released didn’t do that. Thankfully, others have.

What have they found? Controlling for various student characteristics and other factors, private schools beat traditional publics in terms of political knowledge, voluntarism in communities, and other socially desirable outcomes. Why?

There may be many possible reasons, but at least one seems to be intimately connected to choice: autonomous schools select their own curricula, and families willingly accept it when they choose the schools. That means chosen schools can more easily teach coherent U.S. history and civics than can public schools, which often face serious pressures to teach lowest-common-denominator pabulum lest conflict break out among ideologically and politically diverse people. Perhaps ironically – though not if you understand how a free society works – by not being public, private schools may actually serve the public better.

So no, you can’t conclude a lot from the latest NAEP scores. But that doesn’t mean they can’t point you in the right direction.

The Year of Educational Choice: An Update

Back in February, I speculated that 2015 might be the “Year of Educational Choice” in the same way that the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new or expanded school choice laws.

This year, in addition to a slew of more traditional school choice proposals, about a dozen legislatures considered new or expanded education savings accounts (ESAs). As I explained previously:

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Currently, two states have ESA laws: Arizona and Florida. Both states redirect 90% of the funds that they would have spent on a student at her assigned district school into her education savings account. The major difference between the two laws is that Arizona’s ESA is managed by the Arizona Department of Education while Florida’s is privately managed by Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarships, the nonprofit scholarship organizations that also issue scholarships through the Sunshine State’s tax credit law.

Both Arizona and Florida expanded their ESA programs this year. Earlier this month, Arizona expanded eligibility for the ESA to students living on Native American reservations. And just today, the Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously to expand its ESA. Travis Pillow of the RedefinED Online blog explains:

Debunking a Misleading Report on School Choice

Today, the left-wing Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA) released a misleading report on school choice programs in Indiana and elsewhere. Among its key findings include the following claims:

  • None of the independent studies performed of the most lauded and long standing voucher programs extant in the U.S.—Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.—found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.
  • According to the annual financial report of the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana spent $115 million on its voucher program in the 2014-2015 school year. In context, that means over $115 million of public, taxpayer money annually will be diverted from … the state’s public school system, and instead used to subsidize students attending private schools.

Both claims, while they contain elements of truth, are highly misleading.

Evidence for the Effectiveness of School Choice

To support its claim regarding the supposed lack of evidence for the success of school choice programs, CBTA points to a few studies of school voucher programs.

First, CTBA cites a longitudinal study of Milwaukee’s voucher program by researchers at the University of Arkansas, claiming that voucher students in grades 3-8 “performed statistically similar” to a matched group of district-school peers on standardized tests. Oddly, CTBA relies on the 2008-2009 findings, published in 2010, rather than the most recent 2012 report. In fact, as the study’s coauthor, Dr. Patrick Wolf, explains, the study found “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.

In the final year of the study, voucher students in grades 3-9 performed about 15 percent of a standard deviation higher on standardized reading tests, “a modest but meaningful educational difference.” The achievement growth in math was not statistically significant relative to the achievement growth of the matched district-school students, but the study concluded that Milkwaukee district-school students were “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” And because the vouchers were worth about half of the cost per-pupil at the district schools, the study found that the voucher program saved the state nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011.

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

The Right and Wrong Ways to Learn Policy Lessons from Other Countries

Back in the mid-1990s, I was often told that Americans had no interest in what other countries were doing policy-wise. As a result, it was purportedly futile to study policy using international evidence. Ignoring that warning, I wrote a book about education around the world, back to ancient times.

Whether or not the warning was valid at the time, there is now a great deal of interest in other nations’ education policies. Well… in one nation’s in particular: Finland’s. In that country, we are often told, every child is a Socrates—except for the ones who are Jane Austens or Hedy Lamarrs—and this is due, we are told, to one or more of its current education policies (the claimer gets to pick which ones).

A recent op-ed at Cleveland.com not only jumps on this Emulate Fantastic Finland bandwagon, it also purports to use the Finnish example to critique “market-based” education policies in general.

Here’s the main problem with the movement that proclaims “Country X is doing well educationally, so let’s emulate its education system!”: there are a lot of factors outside the classroom that affect educational outcomes, and that differ among countries—culture, resources in the home, etc.—and so it’s difficult to know to what extent a given nation’s performance is due to those factors or to its education policies. Fortunately, there’s a technique that not only circumvents this problem, it turns it to our advantage:

Comparing different sorts of school systems within nations. A study that compares public and private schools within India, for example, or that looks at the effects of private sector competition in Sweden on overall outcomes, eliminates international differences as a factor.  Still, the results of such studies, taken individually, have limited generalizability.

Maryland Seizes Kids (Again) For Walking Home From Park

On Sunday afternoon Montgomery County, Maryland police and Child Protective Services seized the free-range Meitiv children, 10 year old Rafi and 6 year old Dvora, after their parents, Danielle and her husband Sasha, had again let them play by themselves at a park in Silver Spring, just outside D.C. The Meitiv family became the center of a national cause célèbre in January when the county charged the parents with child neglect for letting the two kids walk home from a park. In March, CPS found the neglect charge “unsubstantiated” but puzzlingly deemed the parents “responsible” for it anyway. This time, according to news reports, the kids were again walking back from the park and had gotten to within 1/3 mile of home when police intercepted and picked them up pursuant to a 911 call from “a neighbor” who had spotted them walking alone. The kids were supposed to return home by 6; the police held them for hours in the back of a squad car and did not call the by-then-frantic parents until 8 p.m. 

The Meitivs were reunited with their kids after agreeing to “sign a temporary safety plan to take them home, which means they are not allowed to leave the children unattended at all. …Police say after a thorough investigation, a decision about whether or not the Meitivs will face charges will be made.” 

I’m familiar with downtown Silver Spring, but even if I weren’t I could assure you: this is an outrage, and a big enough one that even in the Washington suburbs, where government often gets the benefit of the doubt, there is widespread outrage. One who’s been writing eloquently on the issue is Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak (“Our rapid march toward police-state parenting has got to end,” she writes today) who emphasizes what is obvious to older readers – that kids used to walk on the street as a routine part of childhood – by quoting a checklist from a 1979 book on six-year-olds, on first-grade readiness: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”