Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

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: