Topic: Education and Child Policy

Obama Administration: Federal Spending Essential to Technological Progress

According to Politico,

Innovation has been slow to reach classrooms across America in part because the federal government spends very little to support basic research on education technology, a senior White House official said Tuesday.

Really?

Does the presence or absence of federal research spending really determine an industry’s rate of technological progress? Was federal spending a driving force in the leap from cathode ray tubes to flat panel displays? Was it responsible for the birth of the “brick” cell phone of 1984 and its astonishing progress from a pricy dumb radio to an inexpensive supercomputer/GPS device/entertainment center? Is federal research spending the reason desktop laser printers went from a $15,000 (inflation-adjusted) plaything of the rich to a $100 commodity?

No. Not really.

If anything, the rate of technological progress across fields seems negatively correlated with federal spending—and indeed with government spending at all levels. As illustrated in my recent study of State Education Trends, education has suffered a massive productivity collapse over the past 40 years. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the only field in this country dominated by a government-funded, state-run monopoly.

Incorrect, Gov. Bush

Speaking off the cuff, it’s easy to make a mistake. But for a long time former Florida governor – and trendy presidential possibility – Jeb Bush has been criticizing Common Core opponents for, among other things, saying the Core was heavily pushed by the federal government. His still getting the basics wrong on how Core adoption went down must be called out.

Interviewed at this weekend’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of his father’s presidential election – an event where, perhaps, he actually knew which questions were coming – Bush said the only way one could think the Core was a “federal program” is that the Obama administration offered waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act if states adopted it. (Start around the 7:15 mark.) And even that, he said, basically came down to states having “to accept something [they] already did”: agree to the Core.

Frankly, I’m tired of having to make the same points over and over, and I suspect most people are sick of reading them. Yet, as Gov. Bush makes clear, they need to be repeated once more: Washington coerced Core adoption in numerous ways, and creators of the Core – including the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers – asked for it!

In 2008 – before there even was an Obama administration – the NGA and CCSSO published Benchmarking for Success, which said the feds should incentivize state use of common standards through funding carrots and regulatory relief. That was eventually repeated on the website of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The funding came in the form of Race to the Top, a piece of the 2009 “stimulus” that de facto required states to adopt the Core to compete for a chunk of $4.35 billion. Indeed, most states’ governors and chief school officers promised to adopt the Core before the final version was even published. The feds also selected and paid for national tests to go with the Core. Finally, waivers from the widely hated NCLB were offered after RTTT, cementing adoption in most states by giving only two options to meet “college- and career-ready standards” demands: Either adopt the Core, or have a state college system certify a state’s standards as college and career ready.

Gov. Bush, the facts are clear: The feds bought initial adoption with RTTT, then coerced further adoption through NCLB waivers. And all of that was requested by Core creators before there was a President Obama!

Let’s never have to go over this again!

Education, Standards, and Private Certification

Can there be standards in education without the government imposing them?

Too many education policy wonks, including some with a pro-market bent, take it for granted that standards emanate solely from the government. But that does not have to be the case. Indeed, the lack of a government-imposed standard leaves space for competing standards. As a result of market incentives, these standards are likely to be higher, more diverse, more comprehensive, and more responsive to change than the top-down, one-size-fits-all standards that governments tend to impose. I explain why this is so at Education Next today in What Education Reformers Can Learn from Kosher Certification.” 

Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable: Borg Enablers

Remember the Borg? You know, the Star Trek cyborgs who would encounter a ship, tell its occupants “resistance is futile,” then turn them all into Borg? Of course the Enterprise always resisted, and always survived. But what if Captain Picard had instead ordered, “Surrender. Then they’ll leave us alone.”

The crew response to that would certainly have been, “ol’ Jean-Luc is losing it!” At least, it would have been for the few seconds before everyone was converted into mindless drones. Yet that is just the sort of order a group calling itself the “Higher State Standards Partnership” is trying to issue to conservatives and libertarians when it comes to the Common Core. Yesterday, the Partnership – a front for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable – wrote in the Daily Caller that opponents of the Core should stop resisting if they want to keep schools from being assimilated by the federal government.

You read that right: After blaming the Obama administration for using the Race to the Top to meddle “in a clearly state-led, locally controlled education initiative,” the Partnership counseled Core opponents to end their resistance. Defeating the Core, they wrote, “would only bolster the hand of the Administration and invite federal control into our schools.”

Can Incentives Improve Performance of Public School Teachers?

A fundamental problem for most public schools is that teacher compensation is minimally related to performance, relying instead on years of service and credentials. So poor teachers face minimal incentive to improve or leave.

In a new study, Thomas Dee (Stanford) and James Wyckoff (Virginia) suggest this failure to employ incentives has substantial costs. Their analysis examines IMPACT, a

teacher-evaluation system introduced in the District of Columbia Public Schools by then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. IMPACT implemented uniquely high-powered incentives linked to multiple measures of teacher performance.

Dee and Wyckoff

compare the retention and performance outcomes among low-performing teachers whose ratings placed them near the threshold that implied a strong dismissal threat [as well as] … outcomes among high-performing teachers whose rating placed them near a threshold that implied an unusually large financial incentive. …

[Their] … results indicate that dismissal threats increased the voluntary attrition of low-performing teachers by 11 percentage points (i.e., more than 50 percent) and improved the performance of [low-performing] teachers who remained.

The financial incentives also improved performance by high-performing teachers.  

These results are not surprising; as economists are fond of saying, incentives matter!  

But failure to use incentives is one reason why public schools are a bad way to subsidize education, setting aside whether any subsidy is desirable. 

Dumping the Core? Washington Still Owns the Hoosiers

From an immediate political perspective, it’s great news: Yesterday, Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed legislation making Indiana the first state to officially drop the Common Core. (Four states never adopted it.) Now other states don’t have to be the first to say “sayonara, Core,” and anti-Core forces appear to have real political potency. But the change may well be superficial: While the new law officially dumps the standards called “Common Core,” Hoosiers are still taking curricular orders – and quite possibly the Core by another name – from the federal government.

Here is the operative part of the legislation:

Before July 1, 2014, the state board shall adopt Indiana college and career readiness educational standards, voiding the previously adopted set of educational standards. The educational standards must do the following:(1)Meet national and international benchmarks for college and career readiness standards and be aligned with postsecondary educational expectations.(2) Use the highest standards in the United States.(3) Comply with federal standards to receive a flexibility waiver under 20 U.S.C. 7861, as in effect on January 1, 2014

Unless I’m totally bleary eyed, there are two giant red flags billowing in the wind here.

The first is that points 1 and 2 call for meeting or beating some kind of national benchmark, and point 1 calls for hitting international benchmarks. To my knowledge, the only standards-producing group claiming to hit international benchmarks is the Common Core, and the Core is the only existing national benchmark. (The National Assessment of Educational Progress, to my knowledge, does not claim to offer “standards.”) At the very least, if the goal isn’t to de facto stick with the Core – as some standards writers claim is happening – these points raise two mammoth questions: Who will determine if new Hoosier standards meet international and national benchmarks, and who will decide if they are “the highest standards in the United States”?

Unfortunately, point 3 likely gives the answer to these questions: the federal government – more specifically, the U.S. Secretary of Education – will decide whether Indiana’s new standards cut the mustard. As NCLB waiver regulations currently stand, Indiana really only has two ways to meet the “college- and career-ready standards” provision: Either adopt the Common Core – or some set of standards the Secretary is willing to say are so close to the Core they are “common to a significant number of States” – or have a state college system declare the state’s standards college- and career-ready. And I don’t see the latter anywhere in the new law.

It is possible I am missing something – legislation, regulation, and unilateral waiver decisions can often be very opaque – but from what the statute seems to say, Indiana may be giving up the Core in name only. And even if it really can distance itself from the Core, Indiana doesn’t at all appear to be telling Washington, “we’ll run our own education system, thank you very much!”

There is one upside to this: It illustrates once again the great power of federal NCLB waivers, a power Core supporters continue to disingenuously pretend does not exist.

Cutting the Tie Between Education and Housing

We already have a market in education: the real estate market. Controlling for other factors, houses in districts with higher-performing government schools are more expensive than those in areas with lower-performing schools. In 2012, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” The report also found that “the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.”

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

With quality education tied to housing, middle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. Unfortunately, as a new Brookings report reveals, this too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live “hand-to-mouth” with very low levels of liquid savings though they have considerable non-liquid assets. The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien explains:

This shouldn’t be too much of a mystery. Imagine a couple that’s getting ready to have kids, and wants to buy a house near good schools. Well, that’s expensive. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out in The Two Income Trap, buying a house in a school district you can’t really afford is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies. Couples can only afford the mortgage with both their salaries, so they’ll get in trouble if either of them loses their job. 

But even if everything goes right, they’ll still be cash-poor for a long time. They’ll probably have to use most of their savings on the down payment, and use a big part of their income on the mortgage payments. In other words, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are parents overextending themselves to get their kids into the best schools possible in our de facto private system.

As O’Brien notes, a system of school choice would sever the ties between housing and education, which is a policy that could keep “many people from becoming cash-poor and wealthy—a precarious thing—in the first place.” School choice also provides a passport out of poverty for those students whose parents could not afford an expensive house at all.