Nothing Innovative in Federal Education

I’m getting to this paper — a proposal from moderate-liberal, Democratic insiders Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead — kind of late because I was working on other things when it came out, but something in it begs for commentary, especially since folks like Rotherham and Mead will likely have at least part of President-elect Obama’s ear. The report is a call for a new federal role in promoting “21st Century educational innovation,” largely by funding “educational entrepreneurs” and developing “effective educational programs.”

Mike Petrilli over at Fordham has already done a pretty decent job of critiquing the proposal, so read his back-and-forth with Rotherham for a fuller treatment if you’re so inclined. For me, just one thing in the report goes a long way toward demonstrating how foolhardy it is to think that the federal government would ever consistently promote and scale-up truly effective education reforms: It’s never done so before. Indeed, Rotherham and Mead offer just two, lonely examples of past success — Brown v. Board of Education and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and they don’t really apply.

Don’t get me wrong, Brown v. Board was a critical turning point in American history, and IDEA was important at least for ensuring that public schools don’t ignore disabled kids. Neither of these federal offerings, however, are remotely similar to scaling up, say, KIPP schools, or identifying and nurturing the world’s most inventive reading program. Brown was an achievement of a federal court — specifically, the Supreme Court — not a federal bureaucracy. IDEA was essentially a piece of civil rights legislation for the disabled. Neither had anything remotely to do with picking and expanding the truly most promising educational waves of the future.

Looking at much more analogous precedent demonstrates clearly that the feds are about as capable of promoting effective innovation as John McCain is of appearing calm in the face of economic crisis. I give you Diane Ravitch, speaking in 2003. She headed the Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement in the early 1990s, an office intended to do just what Rotherham and Mead propose, and she has a very definite assessment of how much true “innovation” the feds have supported:

My impression, based on the last 30 years, is that the federal government is likely to be hoodwinked, to be taken in by fads, [or] to fund the status quo with a new name.

Or look at the once-vaunted New American Schools, a federal initiative launched under President George H.W. Bush to identify and replicate “break-the-mold” school designs. The effort failed because, according to researcher Jefferey Mirel, the schools that got funded weren’t really new, but old models already beloved by the educators authorizing the grants:

NAS asked for revolutionary ideas and for the most part got the “revolutionary” ideas that educators have been trying to implement since the nineteen twenties. Invited to diagnose and reform themselves, schools found the problem to be a misguided public policy emphasis on measurable knowledge and skills, not faulty ideas about teaching. The notion that their pedagogical ideals were at fault was-as E. D. Hirsch puts it-“unthinkable.”

Quite simply, the federal government will rarely if ever be able to promote true innovation in education, especially since in education, unlike defense or health — which Rotherham and Mead point to as areas of successful federal innovation efforts — people can’t even agree on the final goals. Protect troops from incoming missiles? I think all us Generals agree. Find a cure for cancer? OK. Foster critical thinking or content knowledge? Uh-oh…

Ultimately, to think the feds could effectively promote true educational innovation would be to conclude that the Department of Education — and any office within it, such as Rotherham and Mead’s proposed Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation—would not be staffed with human beings who have preconceptions, opinions, or experiences that bias them toward one thing or another, and that educators don’t have biases that tend to be skewed in particular ways. They do, and that is why having a single entity try to pick innovative winners just results in “the status quo with a new name.” People know what they like, and when you make just one set of them into innovation gate keepers, what you tend to get is what they would have given you anyway.

With that in mind, file this proposal in the already overflowing “history ignored” drawer.

Bread Lines Form at Whole Foods

According to the Delaware News Journal, “hundreds of shoppers lined up early this morning hoping to be among the lucky few to get their groceries at the Brandywine Whole Foods store, taking their place behind about 35 others who had camped out overnight for a spot at the front of the line.”

Crazy, right?


The story’s lede actually reads: “Hundreds of parents lined up early this morning to sign up for the Brandywine School District’s school choice program, taking their place behind about 35 parents who had camped out overnight for a spot at the front of the line.”

In our free-enterprise economy, popular retailers and service providers simply expand when demand increases. The idea that there would only be a certain limited number of places at Whole Foods or Barnes & Noble is ludicrous on its face. But in our education system, which operates outside the free enterprise system, the best schools do not grow and open up new locations, buying out their failing competitors and stimulating the rise of others. So when parents are offered even some paltry degree of choice within their public school district, it must be rationed like bread at a centrally planned Soviet bakery.

What was it that happened to that Soviet economic system again?

Scholarship or Advocacy?

I was interested to see that AEI’s Michael Rubin has published a paper titled “Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred?”  Rubin makes several points.

First, he argues, there is a real chance that Iran may just launch an unprovoked nuclear first-strike against Israel: “There is reason to take the worst case scenario seriously.”  He bases this judgment on a quote from Rafsanjani boasting to a domestic audience that Iran may be willing to suffer the nuclear strikes that would result from any Iranian strike against Israel, and argues that the anti-nuclear war statements from numerous other Iranian officials (he only cites one) “should not be taken at face value. They may be taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissimulation meant to lull an enemy.”

What he ignores is the track record of diplomatic behavior in Iran indicating that the most basic imperative of international relations–national self-preservation–has figured prominently (alongside brinkmanship and risk-taking) in modern Iranian diplomacy.  Attempting to divine intentions from conflicting public statements or even operational plans (which reminds one of the “Team B” experiment) is far less helpful in ascertaining whether the regime values self-preservation than is evaluating what the regime has done when faced with overwhelming force.

Rubin offers two observations on nuclear deterrence, the first of which is either confused or problematic: that for deterrence to work, Iran’s leaders must “prioritize the lives of its citizenry above certain geopolitical or ideological goals.”  Rubin does not cite any academic research on this point, but it should go without saying that his deterring actor–the United States–would be unlikely to focus any response on a countervalue strike as opposed to counterforce.  That is, the United States would not focus on holding Iranian citizens hostage to deter the Iranian government from striking, but rather would hold the Iranian government itself and Iranian military capabilities hostage.  Rubin’s framing of the issue is skewed toward the former conception, which makes it look much more likely (“well, the Iranian government mistreats its people anyway”) that the Iranian regime could convince itself that it could disregard the enormous costs of American retaliation.  Any conceivable response to an unprovoked nuclear strike would mean, at a bare minimum, the end of the Islamic Republic and an end to its “geopolitical or ideological goals,” unless those goals are achieved with self-immolation and handing the mantle of Islam to the Sunnis.

Rubin’s essay makes a number of other highly questionable assumptions and judgments.  The unfortunate reality is that the paper appears to have been published without a literature review, which would have uncovered a number of previous studies that dealt directly with the subject of his study and came to different conclusions.  I published a paper on the topic in 2006, but there is also Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, who authored a paper on the same topic, also in 2006.  There is also Christopher Hemmer, a professor at the U.S. Air War College, who authored a paper on the topic in the Autumn 2007 issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College.

It is important when researching topics as central as these to examine the existing scholarly work to determine whether there have been previous discussions that could serve to refine one’s own thinking.  The fact that this study (and the study that Dr. Rubin coauthored for the Bipartisan Policy Center) has been published without a literature review raises serious questions about the standards backing up the scholarship.

How “Public” Schools Serve the “Public” Interest

Public schools are uniquely capable of serving the public interest. Or so we are told. But here is a story from Greenville South Carolina that makes this belief a tad difficult to accept. It seems that “principals of Greenville County middle schools have been told not to allow charter high school officials inside their schools to tell students about their dual college credit programs, according to the chairman of the school board.”

LaBarbara Sampson, the district’s director of guidance programs, e-mailed the district’s counselors telling them that “our schools are not to be used for the recruitment efforts of the charter schools…. If a parent needs/wants to find out about a particular charter school, they can get all the information on that school from the school’s Web site.”

Now, if the public schools were serving the public interest, you’d think they’d want every student to be as well informed as possible about all their educational options, no? So how do we explain Greenville’s decision to suppress the charter option? Actually, it’s easy. We just replace the word “public” in the first sentence of this post with the word “government.”

Government schools are uniquely capable of serving the government interest.

The people who work in and run our district school systems are just like you and me. They are guided to a great extent by their own and their families’ interests. If they think charter schools are better, and will lure away many of their prospective students, they fear that their own jobs will be put in jeopardy. So they work to protect those jobs by making it more difficult for their students to find out about the charter school alternative.

If we really want to serve the public interest, we will stop assigning children to government schools based on where they live, and ensure that all families can easily choose from among a variety of public and private educational options. That way, no entrenched monopolist will be able to put its own interests ahead of childrens’ interests, as Greenville’s school district is currently doing.

A Sweeping Rejection of President Bush

Left-liberal groups are quick to declare Barack Obama’s win a broad endorsement of the “progressive” agenda, their highly inaccurate name for more taxes, more spending, more entitlements, and more regulation. After a trillion-dollar increase in federal spending during the Bush administration and the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, it hardly seems likely that what’s troubling the American economy or the American people is an insufficiency of government.

The big problem for John McCain and the rest of the Republicans last night was George W. Bush and his big-government conservatism. Bush had a 25 percent approval rating, and Congress’s was even lower. Republicans hoped up until election day that voters would notice that the unpopular Congress was run by Democrats. But after 8 years of Bush and 12 years of a Republican Congress, just recently ended, voters saw the Republicans as the incumbents who were responsible for the mess in Washington. Concerns about Obama were sufficient to allow McCain to run 20 points ahead of Bush’s approval rating in a time of economic crisis. But the hole was too deep.

Bush and the Republicans promised choice, freedom, reform, and a restrained federal government. They delivered massive overspending, the biggest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, centralization of education, a floundering war, an imperial presidency, civil liberties abuses, the intrusion of the federal government into social issues and personal freedoms, and finally a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street that just kept on growing in the last month of the campaign. Voters who believed in limited government had every reason to reject that record.

Commentators who talk about whether the Republican party moved too far to the right, or too far to the center, miss the point. There are different kinds of “right.” See this New York Times graphic on independent voters, which picks up on some of the themes we’ve talked about in our work on libertarian voters. Lots of independents – as well as voters who identify with one of the major parties – hold broadly libertarian, or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” views. A lot of those voters moved from voting Republican to voting Democratic between 2000 and 2006, and it looks like they did so again this year.

As we had predicted, Republicans racked up further losses in the most libertarian parts of the country, such as New Hampshire and the Mountain West. Obama won affluent, educated voters and professionals. And if conservative Republicans continue to respond to the loss of educated voters by declaring themselves proud to be “real Americans” who don’t care much for book learning and Darwinism and elite stuff, they will only accelerate the process.

Big-government conservatism, a toxic combination of the religious right and the neoconservatives, lost badly on Tuesday. But the voters didn’t give a ringing endorsement to big-government liberalism. Fifty-nine percent of voters call themselves “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” and that’s a rich vein the Republican party is ignoring. If Obama governs as a centrist, he may make it very difficult for the Republicans to recover. But a candidate in either party who presented himself as a product of the social freedom of the Sixties and the economic freedom of the Eighties would be tapping into a market that both parties have yet to nail down.

Cato Today

Op-Ed: “Will the GOP Learn from This?” by Michael Tanner in the Orange County Register

As it emerges from the electoral rubble, the Republican Party must decide what it actually believes in before beginning rebuilding its battered fortune.

Michael Tanner on the election landslide

Republicans now have two more years in the wilderness to decide whether or not they actually stand for limited government and individual liberty. One wonders, whether they will hear the message.

Article: “Advice to President-elect Obama,” by Will Wilkinson in Marketplace

Here’s my advice: First, you’ve got to get spending under control….Second, drop the xenophobic claptrap….Third, get real on the ‘new energy economy.’

Op-Ed: “Is It Constitutional?” by Richard Rahn in the Washington Times

Which section of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the power to bail out banks? If you don’t know, it could be because no constitutional authority exists for such an action. It is all too common for both Congress and the executive branch to ignore that the Constitution limits what they can and cannot do.

Op-Ed: “US Urged to Overhaul Nuclear Arsenal,” by David Isenberg in the Asia Times

The handling of US nuclear weapons and policy were recently center-stage due to two different events. First was the release on October 24 of a report billed as a nuclear weapons roadmap for the future by the US Air Force. Titled “Reinvigorating the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise”, it called for the establishment of a global strike command and a headquarters for air force staff to handle nuclear assets.

The Gap between Exit Polls and Reality

As of Wednesday afternoon with 97 percent of the results in, the poll results indicated that Obama had 52.4 percent of the popular vote. This means that everyone else (including John McCain, Bob Barr and Ralph Nader and “other”) received 47.6 percent. That is, Obama outpolled the rest by 4.8 percent.

But according to the exit polls, 13% of the electorate was black and they cast their votes 95 percent to 4 percent for Obama. This means that the black vote alone should have given Obama 11.8 percent more of the vote than the rest of the field [Because 11.8 = 13 x (0.95-0.04)].

In fact, based on the exit poll data, Obama should have outpolled the rest of the field by 7.3 percent, rather than 4.8 percent. See the following table.

% of voters



Spread (in %)




























Clearly, unless the vast majority of untallied votes are for Obama or voting machines are biased against him, exit polls are just too problematic to be used either because they don’t constitute a true random sample, there’s a lot of lying going on, or perhaps both.