Topic: Education and Child Policy

Highlights of the New PISA International Test Results

The latest (2012) PISA results are out! PISA is a test of fairly basic, practical skills given to 15-year-olds around the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • U.S. performance is essentially flat across subjects since 2003
  • Finland’s performance has declined substantially since 2003
  • Korea is continuing to improve, solidifiying its position as one of the highest performing nations
  • Already the highest-performing Latin American country, Chile has continued to improve, leaving the regional average further behind.

The U.S. story needs little elaboration. Neither the structure nor the content of American schooling has changed in educationally meaningful ways since 2003. We still have 50 state education monopolies, with a growing but still realtively small homogenizing federal presence.

The “Replicate Finland!” bandwagon was always misguided. It is simply not sensible to take a nation’s performance on a single test, in isolation, as evidence for the merits (or demerits) of its national education policies. There are too many other factors that affect outcomes, and there are too many important outcomes for a single test to measure. For those who nevertheless championed Finland as a model, the latest PISA results are a bit awkward (see, for instance, the book: The Smartest Kids in the World).

Though the Chilean student protests of 2011 and 2012 focused on the desire for free, universal college, the leaders of that movement also harshly criticized that nation’s universal K-12 private school choice program. About 60 percent of children in Chile attend private schools, most of them fully or substantially funded by the national government. One of the most famous protest leaders, Camila Vallejo, was recently elected to the Chilean congress as a member of the Communist party. The influence of Vallejo and her compatriots has shifted public sentiment against crucial aspects of the nation’s private school choice program, despite the fact that private schools themselves remain extremely popular with parents. It is quite possible that, in the coming years, Chile will unravel the very policies that have made it one of the fastest improving countries in the world and the top performer in Latin America.

The NEA has called for higher U.S. teachers’ salaries based on the PISA results, arguing that some of the top performing countries pay their teachers more relative to people in other careers. This is self-serving and scientifically dubious. The NEA presents no evidence for a causal link between overall teacher salaries and student performance, just a bit of random cherry picking that ignores countless confounding factors. To find the real link between average salaries and performance, we can look at domestic U.S. research on the subject. Hanushek and Rivkin, for instance, find that “overall salary increases for teachers would be both expensive and ineffective.” Not surprisingly, a recent review of Ohio’s data on teacher “value-added” and teacher pay finds an inverse relationship:

in Cleveland… teachers deemed “Least Effective” by the new state evaluation system earned, on average, about $3,000 more than the teachers deemed “Most Effective.”

There’s some evidence that tying teacher pay to student performance helps to improve learning, but that’s about it.

Finally, it’s important to remember that PISA is a test of everyday “literacy” in the three subjects it covers (math, reading, and science). If you want to know how well students are learning the specific academic content needed for continuing study at the college level, PISA isn’t your best choice. For that, take a look at TIMSS.

Leaning Too Hard on PISA

This morning the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment – or PISA – are available, and already some are declaring that they show the United States needs national curriculum standards. Conveniently, we’ve got an effort to implant such standards right now: the Common Core. But do the latest PISA results really show that national standards are what make, in particular, East Asian nations excel, and their absence here is what sticks us in the doldrums?

Of course not. As Jay Greene so helpfully points out as everyone scrambles to cherry-pick data to press their agendas, just “eyeballing” countries’ results tells us basically nothing. There is far too much that affects outcomes to declare your favored reform the right one based on a glance at PISA results. To begin to get at root causes, analyses that allow one to control for numerous variables are needed.

The good news is, such analyses have been done. The bad news, at least for national standards fans, is that they do not support the idea that national standards lead to superior results. Indeed, there is good evidence that national culture – not standards or tests – might be the most important determinant of outcomes on international exams. You can read all about it in Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards, a 2010 Cato report intended to weigh in on a debate about the merits of moving to national standards.  It’s a debate that, alas, we never really had thanks to the federal government telling states that they either adopt national standards right away, or lose out on federal dough.

With that in mind, maybe one good thing will come out of national standards aficionados declaring PISA vindication of their policies. It will open up the chance to have a serious national debate about how real that “vindication” is.

P.S.: Andrew Coulson will soon be furnishing a much broader analysis of the PISA results than I offer here. Stay tuned!

The Contempt’s the Thing

There’s been much ink spilled the past few days over U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s defense of the Common Core, delivered as an obnoxious attack on white, suburban women. Proclaimed Duncan to a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers (one of the Core’s progenitors):

It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.

Much of the uproar over Duncan’s attack has been over his injecting race and sex into the Common Core debate, and that certainly was unnecessary. But much more concerning to me – and indicative of the fundamental problem with federally driven national standardization – is the clear message sent by Duncan’s denunciation of Jane Suburbia: average Americans are either too dull or too blinkered to do what’s best for their kids. The masses need their betters in government – politicians, bureaucrats – to control their lives.

Alas, this has been a subtext of almost the entire defense of the Core. Every time supporters decide to smear opponents primarily as “misinformed” or “conspiracy theorists,” they imply that people who are fighting for control of what their children will learn are either too ignorant, or too goofy, to matter.

Of course, there are some opponents who don’t get all the facts right about the Common Core, but supporters ignore that many of these people are just finding out about the Core. Unlike major Core supporters, many opponents – often parents and plain ol’ concerned citizens – haven’t been working on the Core for years. And even when opponents use such regretably over-the-top rhetoric as calling the Common Core “Commie Core,” they are ultimately making a legitimate point: the federally driven Core is intended to make the learning outcomes of all public schools the same – “common” is in the name, for crying out loud! – and in so doing, nationalize learning. At the very least, that’s not a move in the libertarian direction.

DOJ Still Fighting School Choice in Louisiana

Last week I noted that it was “long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools.” The Louisiana Department of Education released a study that completely undermined the DOJ’s case against the state’s school voucher program, showing that the program increased racial integration in most of the schools under federal desegregation orders and had a miniscule impact in the remainder.

Today, Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard reports that the DOJ has dropped part of its fight against school choice in Louisiana:

The Obama administration’s Justice Department has dropped a lawsuit aiming to stop a school voucher program in the state of Louisiana. A ruling Friday by a United States district court judge revealed that the federal government has “abandoned” its pursuit of an injunction against the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a state-funded voucher program designed to give students in failing public schools the opportunity to attend better performing public or private schools. 

“We are pleased that the Obama Administration has given up its attempt to end the Louisiana Scholarship Program with this absurd lawsuit,” said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in a statement. “It is great the Department of Justice has realized, at least for the time being, it has no authority to end equal opportunity of education for Louisiana children.”

The move may have resulted from the bad press or a sudden acceptance of common sense, but more likely it was a simply legal maneuver to prevent the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Goldwater Institute, representing parents of voucher recipients, from intervening in the lawsuit as defendants. As Warren reports:

On Friday, Judge Ivan Lemelle of the U.S. district court of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled the parents could not intervene in the case because the feds are “no longer seeking injunctive relief at this time.” Lemelle explained that in the intervening months since the Justice Department filed suit, it had made clear both in a supplemental filing and in its opposition to the parent group’s motion to intervene that it was not seeking in its suit to end the voucher program or take away vouchers from students.

Lemelle continued: “The Court reads these two statements as the United States abandoning its previous request that the Court ‘permanently enjoin the State from issuing any future voucher awards to students unless and until it obtains authorization from the federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case.’”

Lemelle will hold an oral hearing on Friday, November 22, during which Justice will make its case for the federal review process of the voucher program. In his statement on Friday’s ruling, Jindal criticized the federal government’s efforts.

“The centerpiece of the Department of Justice’s ‘process’ is a requirement that the state may not tell parents, for 45 days, that their child has been awarded a scholarship while the department decides whether to object to the scholarship award. The obvious purpose of this gag order would be to prevent parents from learning that the Department of Justice might try to take their child’s scholarship away if it decides that the child is the wrong race,” said Jindal. “The updated Department of Justice request reeks of federal government intrusion that would put a tremendous burden on the state, along with parents and teachers who want to participate in school choice.”

In other words, the DOJ is still seeking the legal authority to prevent low-income kids from escaping failing public schools if the feds say they have the wrong skin color.

Cato Files Brief in New Hampshire School Choice Case

Opponents of school choice are once again seeking to restrict the ability of parents to select the best education for their child. New Hampshire’s Education Tax Credit program, enacted in 2012, permits businesses who donate to a state-approved scholarship organization to deduct 85% of that donation from their annual taxes. These scholarship organizations then offer students that meet specific criteria scholarships to attend nonpublic schools or schools outside the students’ district, or to homeschool.

Because a large number of New Hampshire’s nonpublic schools are religious, opponents of school choice have challenged the program under, among other things, an 1877 amendment to the state constitution frequently referred to as a Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments, which were passed during that period in many states for the sole purpose of preventing Catholic schools from receiving government funding, prohibits “money raised by taxation” from being “granted or applied for the use of the schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination.”

A New Hampshire trial court found that the Education Tax Credit program violated this discriminatory amendment and that scholarship funds could therefore not be granted to students attending religious schools. But the court incorrectly reasoned that money exempted from taxation under the tax-credit program was the equivalent of a government expenditure of public funds and therefore “money raised by taxation.” This type of reasoning—often referred to as “tax expenditure analysis”—has been explicitly rejected by other state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Indeed, as the Supreme Court held in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011), such an approach “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands … . Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” The trial court’s holding is similarly at odds with the original understanding of the Blaine Amendment and is unsupported by New Hampshire case law. 

The State of New Hampshire and the Network for Educational Opportunity, represented by the Institute for Justice, have taken the case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting them, arguing that the educational tax credits are not “money raised by taxation” according to the original understanding of the 1877 amendment, New Hampshire case law, and U.S. Supreme Court precedent. The New Hampshire Supreme Court should reverse the trial court and restore a vital source of educational freedom and opportunity.

The case is Duncan v. New Hampshire.

Cato legal associate Lauren Barlow co-authored this post.

New Study Explains How and Why Parents Choose Private Schools

Why do parents choose a particular school? What information do they consider in making that choice? Do they prioritize high standardized test scores, rigorous college preparation, moral or religious instruction, or something else?

This morning, the Friedman Foundation released a new study, “More Than Scores: An Analysis of How and Why Parents Choose Private Schools,” that sheds light on these questions. The study surveyed 754 low- and middle-income parents whose children received scholarships from Georgia GOAL, a scholarship organization operating under Georgia’s scholarship tax credit law.

The study’s findings provide analysts and advocates across the education policy spectrum with much to consider. 

New Study Completely Undermines DOJ’s Anti-School Choice Lawsuit

It’s long past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its embarrassing lawsuit which would keep black kids in failing schools.

The DOJ sued Louisiana earlier this year, claiming that its school voucher program may be negatively impacting desegregation efforts. When it became apparent that the DOJ’s evidence amounted to the thinnest of gruel, everyone from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Eric Cantor to the Washington Post called on the Obama administration to drop its frivolous lawsuit. Even after two PhD students at the University of Arkansas released a study estimating that Louisiana’s school voucher program had a positive impact on racial integration, the DOJ refused to back down. I wrote then:

If the DOJ’s case was already like a house of cards resting atop a rickety stool, then the new University of Arkansas study kicked out the stool. The study, “The Louisiana Scholarship Program,” by Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills, finds that the transfers resulting from the LSP vouchers statewide “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” Moreover, in the districts that are the focus of the DOJ litigation, the “LSP transfers improve integration in both the sending schools and the private schools participating students attend (receiving schools).”

Now a study sponsored by the state of Louisiana finds that the voucher program improves racial integration in 16 of the 34 districts under federal desegregation orders while having little to no impact on the remainder. Whereas the University of Arkansas study produced estimates based on publicly available data, the Louisiana study reflects the actual effect of the program during the 2012-13 school year. Politicoreports:

Louisiana hired Boston University political science Professor Christine Rossell to analyze the effect of vouchers in 34 districts in the state under desegregation orders. Rossell found that in all but four of the districts – some of which are majority white, some majority black and some more evenly split – vouchers improved or had no effect on racial imbalance. And in the districts where racial imbalance worsened, the effects were “miniscule.”

Louisiana’s voucher program allows students to transfer out of failing public schools into private schools using public funds. The majority of the students participating in the 2012-13 school year — almost 76 percent — were non-white. A total of 551 students used the vouchers.

In the 2013-14 school year, more than 85 percent of the nearly 6,800 voucher students were black. So long as the DOJ refuses to drop its lawsuit — which would have opposite of its supposedly intended effect — the Obama administration’s message to these students is: “If you don’t like your school, you can’t leave your school.”