Why Is a Good Teacher Like a Needle in a Haystack?

If you have children, they’re likely settling into their school-year routine at this point.  But how much are they actually learning?  The answer to that question depends heavily on your child’s teacher.

With so much riding on teacher selection, surely school administrators go out of their way to hire the best, right?  Not so, I discovered!  My new policy analysis, Giving Kids the Chaff: How to Find and Keep the Teachers We Need, reports that administrators seem to hire mediocre candidates even when standouts are waiting in the wings.

While many of the qualities of good teachers are difficult or impossible to measure – charisma and dedication comes to mind – studies reliably show that a teacher’s own academic aptitude and a strong math or science background can make a difference in his effectiveness.  Nonetheless, aspiring teachers with top test scores are actually slightly less likely to be hired than their average counterparts.  More surprising still, education majors are inexplicably hired more frequently than math and science majors despite a recognized shortage of highly-skilled teachers in those fields.

School choice reforms could put an end to the madness by creating incentives for principles to hire teachers who will satisfy parents.  Finally: a way to separate wheat from chaff in the teaching profession.

New Jersey LOVES Education Tax Credits

A recent poll conducted by Monmouth University’s Polling Institute on behalf of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), showed that an overwhelming 74 percent of New Jersey residents support targeted education tax credits.

The support for tax credits is tremendous – you can’t find 74 percent support for apple pie – but it’s not all that surprising.  Education tax credits consistently outpoll vouchers and have been the most successful school choice legislation in recent years.  This new “blue” state poll adds to the mountain of evidence that people want school choice, and that education tax credits are the most promising way to get it.

The poll also found a solid majority, 54 percent, supports vouchers, although this is a significant drop from the 66 percent support found in a 2002 poll.  Only 38 percent oppose vouchers.  The level of support for vouchers is the same as it is for another popular reform, student-based funding, which determines funding for each student according to their need and allows that money to follow them.  54 percent of respondents support the proposal and 32 percent are opposed.

Maybe one more poll showing how big support for school choice really is will be enough to get politicians to stand up to the teachers’ unions … ok, maybe not.

Habeas Corpus

Today’s Washington Post has this to say about the detainee bill that is working its way through the Congress:

Some of the fiercest debates focused on whether foreign terrorism suspects should have access to U.S. courts for challenging the legality of their detention, a right known as habeas corpus.

House Republicans blocked Democrats from offering amendments, including one that would have extended the habeas corpus right to detainees.

Cato Institute adjunct scholar Richard Epstein, criticized the proposals to curtail habeas corpus in this statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days ago.

For additional background on the writ of habeas corpus, read this and this.

Costs vs. Spending

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt writes:

Mr. Wagoner’s argument has become the accepted wisdom about the [health care] crisis: the solution lies in restraining costs. Yet it’s wrong.

In fact, the solution does lie in restraining costs.  Leonhardt is wrong because he conflates costs and spending

Spending is the amount of money we devote to medical care.  Costs are different.  The money devoted to medical care represents a cost, because we give up the next-highest value use of that money (e.g., a skiing trip).  But we also bear costs due to illness, including pain, limited mobility, and shortened lifespans.  We spend money on medical care to reduce the total costs that we bear.  Spending a lot of money on medical care is therefore desirable – so long as the benefits (reduced pain, enhanced mobility, longer lifespan) exceed the costs for each increment of spending.  The solution to every economic problem undeniably lies in restraining costs. 

Leonhardt probably meant to shoot down the idea that the solution to America’s health care crisis is in restraining spending.  Indeed the thesis of his article seems to be that even though there are many wasteful medical expenditures, a lot of what America spends on health care is very worthwhile.  But he repeatedly confuses the two concepts:

But the No. 1 cause of the cost increases is still the one you can see at the hospital and in your medicine cabinet — defibrillators, chemotherapy, cholesterol drugs, neonatal care and other treatments that are both expensive and effective.  

But if those treatments are expensive and cost-effective, then they would reduce costs. 

The confusion keeps Leonhardt from reaching the $64,000 question: How can we eliminate waste while preserving what works?  Or to put it another way, How can we reduce spending without increasing costs?

Baltimore Sun: Deep-Six REAL ID

The Baltimore Sun opinion page recognizes that the REAL ID Act’s national ID system “will neither weed out terrorists nor make a dent in the flow of illegal immigration - the two problems it was devised to address.”  In light of the exorbitant cost and impossibility to implement, its advice is to junk the REAL ID Act.

Feariness about Data Loss

In the spirit of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” here’s another useful term for the pop lexicon:

fear i ness (fir’ e-nes) n. The quality of being feared, even though logic and/or evidence indicates there is little to fear.

A prime example of feariness right now is data loss — the loss of control over confidential information that could lead to violation of a person’s privacy, identity theft, and fraud. This feariness has been fanned by the recent thefts of government and corporate computer hardware containing important data files.

Though privacy violations and fraud are worrisome, an article in today’s New York Times explains that much of the alarm over data loss is just feariness:

The veterans’ laptop episode underscores the crucial distinction between data loss and malicious data theft — a distinction that has often been glossed over or ignored in the recent wave of alarming disclosures of data breaches at government agencies, universities, companies and hospitals. In most cases, the consequences — financial and otherwise — of the data losses have been slight.

But while high-profile data breaches are common, there is no evidence of a surge in identity theft or financial fraud as a result. In fact, there is scant evidence that identity theft and financial fraud have increased at all. Even when computer networks are cracked into, and troves of personal information intentionally stolen, fraudsters can typically exploit only a tiny fraction of it.

Readers of Cato’s Regulation Magazine already know this story. In last spring’s issue, Tom Lenard and Paul Rubin describe how the incidence of data theft–inducing fraud is fairly stable, how most of that fraud is the product of the theft of old-fashioned paper statements instead of electronic information, and how the response to data loss (including government-mandated response) is far more costly in aggregate than any resulting fraud.