Riddle Us This

I’m currently attending Cato University – extraordinary academics, so-so athletics – so I’ve neither been able to get to the edublogs in too timely a fashion, nor ruminate extensively on their content. I have, though, managed to get to a few blogs, and couldn’t help but notice a question-and-answer in need of facilitation.

Over at Flypaper – the blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – Mike Petrilli has returned from vacation and not missed a beat in his national-education-standards march. Picking up on a recent Jonathan Alter column dealing largely with crippling teacher-union obstructionism, Petrilli declares that:

if we harnessed the resources we currently spend on our fifty-state system of tests for one common system, we could afford to measure subjects beyond reading and math, online, in a way that encouraged intellectually-challenging schoolwork rather than test prep.

My concern here is not with the money-saving proposition. It’s with the “intellectually-challenging schoolwork” assumption. It goes back to an argument I’ve made many times before, but this time another blogger has brought it up, and one quite different than libertarian ol’ me. Asks Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk, contemplating the gaming of state tests under No Child Left Behind:

Can someone explain exactly how a national, federal, or “American” in the new parlance, test will be any different?  If indeed there is a political pathology out there to make schools look better, regardless of whether they are better, a proposition that seems pretty spot on to me, then how are the politics somehow so radically different at the national level?  National test proponents have never really answered this question except to point to the NAEP.  But, the NAEP is a no-stakes test right now so it really doesn’t make the point.

Terrific questions, Andy, to which I’d just add: How especially would you expect high-stakes national tests to escape gaming pressures when the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, and just about every other major education interest group has its headquarters right in the DC area?

I – and I assume Andy – would love to hear the answers to these questions.  

The Bloggingheads of the Conservative Legal Movement

On May 14 I ran a book forum for Steve Teles’s insightful and provocative new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.  The book is groundbreaking, in part because Teles is neither a lawyer nor a conservative – yet remains completely objective and analytical toward his subject matter.  Well, it seems that the book tour/publicity train keeps going, and yesterday Steve appeared on that vaunted new media institution, bloggingheads, opposite Newsday columnist and Fox News commentator Jim Pinkerton.    I’ve only watched a brief bit so far, but it looks pretty good.

Pre-K Pushers Pathologically Panglossian?

The preschool evangelists will not shrivel before arguments or facts, for they believe. Their faith in preschool is strong and pure.

Just because the short-term gains for low-income students don’t last doesn’t mean they can’t last. If we can just make all preschools high-quality, and then make all elementary schools high-quality, and then make all high-schools high-quality, and then make all parents high-quality … then preschool might sustain something other than negligible improvements.

Perhaps, but almost certainly not.

More likely, if we had all high-quality schools and parents we’d once again find that whether a child learns her letters at 4 instead of 5 doesn’t make one flea-hair’s bit of difference by the time she (hopefully) graduates high-school.

Finland should give the preschool activists pause. It doesn’t, but it should.

Children don’t begin formal schooling until around 7. At first, no surprise, they don’t score as well as many countries who park their kids in classrooms at age 3 or 4. By high school, however, Finland’s students are at the top of the pack internationally, and far outperform the laggard US.

So why this national obsession with preschool? Is it to take the blame off of our ossified government k-12 system? More money for the teachers unions?

I don’t think Sara Mead and many of her fellow travelers are henchmen for the union bosses.

Perhaps it provides hope to progressives who place their faith in the power of government but have witnessed only an unyielding failure to sustain effective and meaningful reform in the government k-12 school system.

Perhaps preschool offers a distraction from the despair and fatalism fostered by so obvious a failure of the public sector. A crusade to invigorate the faithful.

Preschool is not our educational salvation, and “reform” of a moribund government k-12 system is a fool’s errand.

The most certain way to improve academic performance and life outcomes for all students in this country, rich and poor, is to expand educational freedom. Oh, and it would save each state billions of dollars too.

Look for more soon in what will soon be the inaccurately-named Preschool Tetralogy

Arrogant European Bureaucracy Run Amok

The European Commission is an unelected bureaucracy that is slowly but surely seizing powers to govern member nations. This is bad news for national sovereignty and jurisdictional competition, but it also leads to crazy regulations, including proposals to prohibit the British from using acres instead of hectares, banning the traditional preparation of Peking Duck, and detailed rules about the proper size and shape of vegetables. 

But regulatory overkill is just the tip of the iceberg. Far more troubling is the effort to subvert democracy in order to further centralize power in Brussels. The EU Constitution, which would have expanded the powers of the European Commission, was rejected by the voters of France and the Netherlands a few years ago. Rather than shelve the proposal, the European elites renamed it the Lisbon Treaty and said that it no longer was necessary to let the people vote. Fortunately, Ireland still has the rule of law and held a referendum - and the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty was decisively rejected. 

The French President has since asserted that the Irish should vote again (and presumably again and again) until they reach the “right” decision. But perhaps the most Kafkaesque reaction came from a French bureaucrat, who was quoted in Le Figaro stating, “It isn’t about putting pressure on the Irish.  We well understand that they have expressed themselves democratically.  But so have the other 26!” Only the French could deny their people the right to vote and then claim their voters (and the disenfranchised people in the European Union’s other 25 nations) had somehow expressed their views.

Naomi Klein Doesn’t Know What She’s Talking About

Johan Norberg has done the world a service with his workup of Ms. Klein’s rubbish, but now here’s Jonathan Chait to pile on:

[Klein] pays shockingly (but, given her premises, unsurprisingly) little attention to right-wing ideas. She recognizes that neoconservatism sits at the heart of the Iraq war project, but she does not seem to know what neoconservatism is; and she makes no effort to find out. Her ignorance of the American right is on bright display in one breathtaking sentence:

“Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think-tanks with which [Milton] Friedman had long associations–Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute–called itself ‘neoconservative,’ a worldview that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda.”

Where to begin? First, neoconservative ideology dates not from the 1990s but from the 1960s, and the label came into widespread use in the 1970s. Second, while neoconservatism is highly congenial to corporate interests, it is distinctly less so than other forms of conservatism. The original neocons, unlike traditional conservatives, did not reject the New Deal. They favor what they now call “national greatness” over small government. And their foreign policy often collides head-on with corporate interests: neoconservatives favor saber-rattling in places such as China or the Middle East, where American corporations frown on political risk, and favor open relations and increased trade. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has always had an uneasy relationship with neoconservatism. (Russell Kirk delivered a famous speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he declared that “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”) And the Cato Institute is not neoconservative at all. It was virulently opposed to the Iraq war in particular, and it opposes interventionism in foreign policy in general.

Finally, there is the central role that Klein imputes to her villain Friedman, both in this one glorious passage and throughout her book. In her telling, he is the intellectual guru of the shock doctrine, whose minions have carried out his corporatist agenda from Santiago to Baghdad. Klein calls the neocon movement “Friedmanite to the core,” and identifies the Iraq war as a “careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology” over which Friedman presided. What she does not mention–not once, not anywhere, in her book–is that Friedman argued against the Iraq war from the beginning, calling it an act of “aggression.”

It ought to be morbidly embarrassing for a writer to discover that the central character of her narrative turns out to oppose what she identifies as the apotheosis of his own movement. And Klein’s mistake exposes the deeper flaw of her thesis. Friedman opposed the war because he was a libertarian, and libertarian conservatism is not the same thing as neoconservatism. Nor are the interests of corporations always, or even usually, served by war.

No word on any forthcoming apology from John Cusack.

Secretary Chertoff Brings Security Revelation to Capitol Hill … After Four Years

But will it change policy?

To the amusement of those of us who have focused on the security value of watch-listing for some time now, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said some interesting things on Capitol Hill last week. Reports CBS News:

“The terrorists are deliberately focusing on people who have legitimate Western European passports, who don’t appear to have records as terrorists,” Chertoff told lawmakers. “I have a good degree of confidence we can catch people coming in. But I have to tell you … there’s no guarantee. And they are working very hard to slip by us.”

Perhaps this is new information to Secretary Chertoff. Perhaps this is revelation to lawmakers. But some of us have had in inkling about this problem for a little while now. In August 2004, the 9/11 Commission reported that two out of three terrorist planners prefer clean-skin terrorists. (Sound like a toothpaste commercial?) From page 234:

Khallad claims it did not matter whether the hijackers had fought in jihad previously, since he believes that U.S. authorities were not looking for such operatives before 9/11. But KSM asserts that yound mujahideen with clean records were chosen to avoid raising alerts during travel. The al Qaeda training camp head mentioned above [not identified by name in the report] adds that operatives with no prior involvement in activities likely to be known to international security agencies were purposefully selected for the 9/11 attacks.

Given the availability of this tactic, I wrote in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood (available to anyone in Congress free for the asking going on two years now) that watch-listing is essentially impotent against terrorism.

So maybe Congress will now get it. But will it change policy?

Bob Blakely of the Burton Group has used the occassion of the millionth entry on the terrorist watch list to write on his personal blog about the chance of catching terrorists with watch-listing. He does an elaborate examination of the process given various reasonable assumptions about the number of border crossers and the number of terrorists, known and unknown. Read through it to take the nature of the problem and Bob’s thinking to heart, but here’s his conclusion:

[T]his system is trivially easy for even the dumbest terrorist to circumvent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the thing to do to defeat this system is stop sending known terrorists through it. Catching a new recruit without a terrorist history happens only by accident, and it happens with very low probability. We’re spending God knows how many millions of dollars on this list, and it cannot possibly do the job for which it’s intended.

Bob has some understanding of bureaucratic behavior, and he has a clever answer to the question whether all this knowledge will change policy.

I realize that it’s bureaucratically impossible to dismantle a large government system which has been publicly criticized, so in a helpful and public-spirited gesture I’ll offer the following alternative suggestion:

Put everybody on the list.

It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s inevitable eventually anyway as long as the list continues to grow at its current rate, and it makes checking people against the list really easy (you can do it even without a computer!).

Hilarious! That will satisfy the political impulse to double-down on bad policies, and once everyone is on it, the list can be ignored by our security bureaucracy, freeing it to focus on security measures that work.

Public Schooling as a 1971 Chevy Impala

U.S. student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated (reading and math) or declined (science) since nationally-representative NAEP tests were first administered around 1970. Meanwhile, education spending has risen by a factor of 2.3 over that same period, from $5,247 per student to about $12,000, in inflation-adjusted (2008) dollars. [To get the most up-to-date figures you have to use multiple sources and adjust to 2008 dollars yourself, but an older data series can be found in this table.]

1970 Chevy Impala

What would the U.S. automobile industry look like if it were run the same way, and had suffered the same productivity collapse, as public schooling? To the left is a 1971 Chevrolet Impala. According to the New York Times of September 25th, 1970, it originally sold for $3,460. That’s $19,011 in today’s dollars. If cars were like public schools, you would be compelled to buy one of these today, and to pay $43,479 for that privilege (2.3 times the original price).

But, thank heavens, the automobile industry is part of the free enterprise system that thrives everywhere in our economy outside the classroom. A brand new 2008 Impala, pictured to the right, costs only slightly more in real terms than the 1970 model did: $21,975. But it is a very different beast.2008 Impala

Apart from its far superior fit and finish, it comes standard with technologies that could barely be imagined 40 years ago: OnStar satellite communications, side-curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes, to name a few. And if you don’t like the looks of it, or if it doesn’t fit the needs of your family, you can buy something else  — something bigger or smaller, faster or more fuel efficient.

So, do you wish the automobile industry were run like public schooling, or do you wish that public education was part of our free enterprise system, with financial assistance to ensure universal access to the marketplace?