Tag: american education

Educators Ought to Embrace Educational Choice

The discussion around private school choice legislation is almost always framed as an intense battleground with teachers on one side and families on the other. Political scientists are quick to point out that teachers win the skirmish more often than not because their interests are concentrated amongst a few, while their enemies, the parents, bear costs that are widely dispersed. While the political theory behind the claim is strong, the argument that school choice programs are at odds with the interests of professional educators is feeble.

Discouragement & Hostile Work Environments

The traditional public school system has utterly failed teachers in the United States. Educators operate in a system that does not reward them for performance or determination. Instead, their motivation levels are shattered after they find out that time served and meaningless credentials, rather than effort, lead to career success.

Perhaps even worse, public school teachers must function within a hostile environment where children are compelled to attend and parents are forced to pay. If citizens were forced to read my blog posts, I am sure that many of them would stress and complain. It would be impossible to please the diverse set of required readers, especially if they were grouped primarily by their zip codes. Alternatively, if families could choose their educational services, they could match with educators based on interests and learning styles, creating a friendly and feasible work environment for teachers.

Compensation

As critics of the U.S. education system often contend, current levels of teacher pay do not entice large quantities of highly skilled labor to enter the field. Perhaps more importantly, the uniform pay scale does not incentivize teachers to perform above minimal levels. Alternatively, as Andrew Coulson pointed out in School, Inc., high quality teachers in places like South Korea can earn millions of dollars each year through the system of voluntary exchange.

Private school choice can benefit teachers through increasing motivation levels, improving work environments, and rewarding high performance. In an educational system of voluntary schooling selections, institutions would need to compete for high quality talent through improving job satisfaction and compensation levels. Instead of searching for enemies within the education sector, we should realize that teachers ought to embrace school choice as tightly as possible.

The Problems with Centrally Planning School Choice

Even strong proponents of private school choice programs often disagree on who ought to have access. Many people that view private school choice as a means for social justice argue that programs should be targeted to the least-advantaged members of society. Alternatively, I have claimed that a universally accessible program could benefit the least-advantaged in society more than anyone because of amplified market entry. Other education scholars argue that program access should be determined based on the empirical evidence on student test scores. While we gain important information from scientific experiments, we should not make program access decisions based on them.

Experiments Can Only Tell Us about Groups

As a social scientist performing quantitative analyses on school choice programs across the United States, I have realized one thing that is particularly frustrating. Even the strongest quantitative scientific experiments do not tell us much about the individual children that we are studying. Since our statistical results rely on the law of large numbers, there is no way around this issue. We must group the people we are studying together in order to calculate a statistically significant treatment effect.

Sure, we can perform subgroup analyses to determine if there are heterogeneous effects for different types of individuals. Nevertheless, these subgroup analyses suffer from the same systemic flaw; they rely on grouping people to calculate average effects. While subgroup analyses give us important information about groups of people, they are often erroneously used by decision-makers to determine which specific children in society ought to have access to school choice programs. A large positive result for advantaged members of society and an insignificant result for the disadvantaged may lead one to solely support access for the advantaged.

The problem with this decision is that it assumes all members within the subgroup will respond to the treatment in the same way. This is far from true. An average overall result of “zero” for disadvantaged children likely means that the program worked for some of them and did not work for others. Why prevent disadvantaged students from accessing a program simply because they looked like those that did not benefit previously?

At Least 82 Percent of Education Is Politics

The big schooling story is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s assertion that this year 82 percent of public schools could be identified as failing under No Child Left Behind. That’s a huge percentage, and also hugely disputed. But the real story here, as always, is that government control of schooling is all about politics, not education.

Start with the 82 percent figure. It’s a consequence of NCLB’s demand that all students be “proficient” in mathematics and reading by 2014. That’s a severely reality-challenged goal, especially if proficient is supposed to mean having mastered fairly tough material. But the law largely wasn’t driven by reality – it was driven by politicians wanting voters to see them as uncompromising on bad schools.

Now the controversy. People who track NCLB results – including many Democrats – say the 82 percent figure is ridiculously inflated. Reports the Washington Post:

“I find it hard to believe,” said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who is president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent think tank that tracks the law. “I think they really stretched it for dramatic effect.”

And why the possible prioritization of “dramatic effect” over “reality”? Because the Obama administration is pushing to get the law rewritten along lines it likes, and might very well feel the need to scare the bejeepers out of the public to get momentum behind it:

Charles Barone, a former congressional aide who helped draft the 2002 law, called Duncan’s projection “fiction.” Barone tracks federal policy for a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which is generally in accord with Obama’s policies on education changes.

“He’s creating a bogeyman that doesn’t exist,” Barone said of Duncan. “Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic - a ‘Chicken Little’ statistic that is not true - just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility.”

But hold on! With only about 37 percent of schools identified as failing last year, the leap to 82 percent certainly does seem improbable. But quietly evading the spirit of NCLB – actually improving educational outcomes – some states backloaded their improvement goals to very late in the full-proficiency game, betting NCLB would be gutted by 2014 and they’d never be held accountable. So some states really might be on the verge of having to pay the piper big time, and the failure rate perhaps could be set to rise dramatically. But you’d have to know a lot about the political machincations in every state to figure that out. 

Indeed, that’s been the biggest problem with NCLB all along. It talks tough about proficiency, but leaves it to states to write their own standards, tests, and proficiency definitions. Again, it makes perfect political – but not educational – sense. Many of the federal politicians who voted for NCLB also know Americans cherish “local control” of education, so they wanted to appear to be both zealous protectors of local control and no-excuses enforcers of excellence. The result has been an endless stream of conflicting, confusing information – like the 82 percent figure – that few parents could ever hope to have the time or ability to sort through. And yet, as reported by the Post:

many educators agree that the law’s focus on standardized testing and minority achievement gaps shined a critical spotlight on problems that public schools have long sought to avoid.

A “critical spotlight”? NCLB is more like a deranged disco ball, randomly shooting out bits of light that make it impossible to ever know what’s really going on.

And the befuddling hits just keep on coming. At the same time the Obama administration is pushing national curricular standards that have little concrete content, as well as tests to accompany those standards that won’t be available until 2014, Duncan is decrying the “one-size-fits-all” nature of NCLB. Reports CNN:

“By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students,” Duncan said calling the concept “fundamentally flawed.”

So at the same time he’s championing the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution – national curriculum standards – he is attacking NCLB for eroding local and state control. Of course, if you want to get political credit for fixing American education you first have to demonize what’s there, even if your solution comes out of basically the same mold. Don’t, though, think national standards coupled with as-yet-unseen national tests will solve our problems by ending state obfuscation. If the administration gets its way, the games will all just be played in Washington.

Trying to understand what’s really going on in education is enough to make you pull your hair out. But that’s what you get when you put government – meaning self-interested politicians – in charge.

Some ‘Unsung Heroes’ These Colleges Are

Heating and cooling equipment installed upside down. A ramp for the disabled too steep for wheelchairs. A leaning tower of time. A $3.4 million renovation for a theater slated for demolition. Payouts to everyone from airborne videographers to feng shui experts.

Welcome to community college!

These and a litany of other failures and abuses are chronicled in a new Los Angeles Times article on the disaster that has been the Los Angeles Community College District’s decade-long, $5.7 billion building orgy.  It’s a tale made especially sickening by California college officials’ repeated wailing that state budget cuts are forcing them to dig “deep into bone.”  It’s also galling in the face of Washington politicians’ continued berating of for-profit schools and blind-eye-turning toward excess throughout higher ed. And topping it all off, President Obama recently proclaimed community colleges the “unsung heroes” of American education.

They’ve certainly earned the “unsung” part.

Waiting for Realityman

The edu-documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ continues to generate lots of noise about fixing American education. Unfortunately, like the film itself, most of the noisemakers ultimately ignore reality: The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents – the customers – to get their money. And that can mean only one thing:  transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

You would think that would be clear to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Think again: In a new report, the Chamber demonstrates that what’s really needed is not a visit from Superman, but for Realityman to give it a superpowered kick to the rear so that it will demand universal school choice, not the milquetoast tweaks of the government monopoly it meekly champions.

What follows are just a few examples of where the Realityman Signal shines brightly in the report – where the Chamber clearly sees the diabolical work of government monopoly, but ultimately fails to identify the culprit – calling out for our hero to save the Chamber.

First, the paper notes that “successful businesses use well-documented management and leadership practices that result in lean, accountable, flexible, high-achieving organizations.” Meanwhile, “these practices are often absent in school management. State [sic] and districts are not held accountable for their academic outcomes relative to their expenditures….”

No kidding: Businesses have to become ever-more efficient and effective or they’ll lose customers to better, cheaper competitors.  Public schools, in contrast, have no real competition and get paid no matter what.

Next, if you aren’t happy with the state of your schools, the Chamber advises getting “tough with candidates and elected officials…. Call candidates, conduct town hall forums and invite the press, write op-eds, and call your local newspaper reporters who work on education issues.”

Now, is this how most businesses work? If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Finally, the Chamber laments that “other industries are changing, adapting, and harnessing the power of new technologies, but our education system resists change.”

There’s a simple explanation for this: Public schooling isn’t an “industry.” WordNet defines “industry” as “the organized action of making of goods and services for sale [italics added].” But public schools don’t sell anything. They simply take, and because they don’t have to earn any business they have little incentive to adapt new technologies.

Surely most businessmen recognize the forces that push them to do their best. Why can’t they see the desperate need for the same forces in education?

Save us, Realityman!

Why is Waiting for “Superman” Pushing Kryptonite?

You’ve probably heard it already, but if not, you should know that on Friday the documentary Waiting for “Superman” – from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim – will be opening in select theaters around the country. The film, about how hard it is to access good education in America thanks to adults putting their interests first, follows several children as they hope beyond hope to get into oversubscribed charter schools. It is said by those who’ve seen it to be a tear-jerker and call to arms to substantially reform American education.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t promote real, essential reform: Taking money away from special-interest dominated government schools and letting parents control it.

The movie does flirt – from what I know, that is, without having yet seen it – with school choice, lionizing charter schools. But let’s not forget that while many charter schools and their founders have tremendous vision and drive, charters are still public schools, and as such are easily smothered by politically potent special interests like teacher unions. Moreover, while charter schools are chosen, charter schooling still keeps money – and therefore power – out of the hands of parents. Together, these things  explain why there are so many heartbreaking charter lotteries to film: there is almost no ability or incentive to scale up good schooling models to meet all the desperate demand.  

But isn’t the goal for no child to have to wait for Superman? If so, then why not give parents the power to choose good schools (and leave bad ones) right now by instituting widespread school choice? Indeed, we’re quickly losing room in good institutions because parochial schools – which have to charge tuition to stay in business – simply can’t compete with “free” alternatives. If we were to let parents control education funds immediately, however, they could get their kids into those disappearing seats while the seats are  still around, and we would finally have the freedom and consumer-driven demand necessary to see good schools widely replicated.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly – to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination – than to centralize power in one place.

The people behind Waiting for “Superman” are no doubt well intentioned, and their film worth seeing. But pushing kryptonite is pushing kryptonite, and it has to be stopped.

For Gates and Buffett, the Deity’s in the Details

As I write in the San Jose Mercury News today:

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett want the world’s billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity. If they’re successful with just their American peers, they’ll raise about $600 billion — an amount U.S. public schools spend in a single year. And therein lies a problem.

The problem is that one of their chief goals, shared by many of their billionaire peers, is to improve American education – an institution whose ultimate outcomes have not improved in four decades despite the infusion of trillions of additional dollars.

Buffett blames some of our educational woes on a “distorted” market system that rewards great investors ”with sums reaching into the billions,” while it “rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes.”

But the problem is not that our market system is distorted, the problem is that education isn’t part of it.

If we want educational excellence to be replicated and scaled up the way it is in other fields, we have to structure it as we have structured those other fields. Make it possible for the greatest educators to become billionaires, make it necessary for the worst to find different work, and let the former be separated from the latter through the countless choices of individual families.