Tag: andrew coulson

Yes, Randi Weingarten, Public Schooling Is an Innovation “Dead End.” Just Watch School Inc.

Today education secretary Betsy DeVos is paying a visit to an Ohio public school at the invitation of one of her most vociferous critics, and one of the most ardent opponents of school choice: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. The AFT is the second largest teachers union in the country, and Weingarten has repeatedly complained that DeVos has called public schools—institutions heavily influenced by union power—a “dead end.” One purpose of the invitation is to prove otherwise.

So are public schools dead ends? Of course not. Tens of millions of children attend them every year, and most will do fine in their lives. Of course, most likely would do well no matter where they went to school, and probably at a fraction of what we currently pay. But DeVos did not actually say that the schools themselves were dead ends. She said that the public schooling system—a government monopoly—is a dead end for entrepreneurship and innovation. “We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market,” DeVos said in a 2015 speech. “It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”

Is DeVos right? To see for yourself, watch Andrew Coulson’s School Inc., now showing on PBS stations around the country. Why we have so little innovation in education is the central point of the highly engaging documentary. Coulson examines education and other industries both historically and around the modern world, and illustrates that freedom for people who make things, or perform services such as teaching, coupled with paying customers and an ability to make a profit—yes, a profit!—are the keys to unleashing innovation at scale, to the benefit of all.

At the touch of a screen, you and I can now listen to tens-of-thousands of different pieces of music stored on a device that also makes telephone calls, lets you play video games, empowers you to surf the Internet, and much more. That is a quantum leap from how we listened to music even just a couple of decades ago. Yet education is pretty much the same instructor-in-front-of-kids model it has been for centuries.

Apple, HTC, Samsung, all work for profits. Public schools? Not so much.

Essentially, profit shows that something is in demand—that freely choosing people find it of value—and that others could make money by producing something similar, or better. This takes innovation to scale while driving prices down. Not only is that not evil, as emotionally charged critiques of profit imply, it is a classic win-win!

Today’s DeVos-Weingarten confab is likely to be a nice show for public schools, illustrating that they are not dead ends. But DeVos did not say they were, and what she did say—a government monopoly suffocates innovation—is grounded in extremely well documented—and documentary—reality.

A Year Gone by Since Andrew Passed, a Big Year to Come for His Ideas

Today marks one year since the death of former Cato Center for Educational Freedom director, and later senior fellow, Andrew Coulson. Many friends and colleagues had wonderful things to say about Andrew upon his passing, and we invite you to read all the testimonials that we were able to assemble.

Today, however, is not only a day for looking to the past, but to the future. Because Andrew’s ideas are about to enter their biggest stage yet. The project to which Andrew devoted most of his final years, and that encompasses the heart of his thought on education, has been accepted by PBS. School Inc., Andrew’s three-part documentary series on how free markets bring transformative innovation to countless parts of our lives, and how to achieve such dynamism to the world of education, will air on WNET in New York in June, and may begin airing on PBS stations around the country as early as April. We’ll keep you posted on all stations and times as soon as they are available.

As a supplement to the documentary—and for anyone who wants to explore the ongoing debates about Andrew’s ideas on education—Cato will soon be publishing Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, a free ebook that will be available on the Cato website, featuring essays by many education thinkers who knew Andrew and his ideas well.

As we said last year, “Andrew Coulson is no longer with us. Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.” Indeed, they will.

Setting the Record Straight on the Coulson Education Productivity Study

A recent op-ed in the Times Herald took aim at a study by our dearly departed colleague, Andrew J. Coulson. In short, the author claimed that the study’s “flaw” was supposedly failing to take into account something that Andrew actually did take into account, as he explained in his study. Since Andrew is no longer available to address specious attacks on his research, it falls to his colleagues to do so. What follows is the letter that Rachel Reese, a research associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and I submitted to the Times Herald:

In an op-ed urging support for a bond proposal for the Port Huron school district, Professor James Clatworthy took issue with a Cato Institute study by the late Andrew J. Coulson that found no correlation between spending and achievement. We take no position on the bond, but stand by our colleague’s research.

Despite a near tripling of the inflation-adjusted cost per pupil in public schools nationwide between 1972 and 2012, the performance of high school students on the SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress has been flat. Coulson’s study compared state-level SAT scores, controlling for changing participation rates and student demographics, to the total, inflation-adjusted cost of a K-12 education, finding no discernable link between spending and performance.

Clatworthy erroneously claimed that Coulson’s findings did not account for SAT scores being periodically “mean centered,” meaning that the average scores were reset. In fact, contrary to Clatworth’s assertion that the test was recentered “multiple times” over the period of the study, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) only recentered the SAT once between 1972 and 2012 and Coulson used ETS’s own formula to compare the pre- and post-recentering data.

Ironically, Clatworthy also criticized Coulson for supporting policies empowering parents to choose schools, claiming that choice would “return us to the status of the 1700s.” But choice is clearly the right model for the 21st century, in which a quickly changing world will need a nimbly adapting education system. That requires choice and decentralized control, not a bureaucratic system that demands evermore money without measurably improving results.

Andrew Coulson, In Memoriam

Earlier this week, we lost a giant. Andrew Coulson, Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, passed away after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer. In the days that followed, colleagues, friends, and admirers paid tribute to his achievements, reminisced about his character and virtues, and reflected on his legacy. What follows is a compilation of those tributes.

Neal McCluskey remembers Andrew in an interview with Caleb Brown:

Adam B. Schaeffer, former colleague and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute:

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. […]

Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.

Adam concludes his tribute with a recommended reading list of Andrew’s works, which are among “all the wonderful gifts he’s left us.” 

Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart

For the past few years I have charted the trends in American education spending and performance (see below). The goal is to see what the national data suggest about the productivity of our education system over time. Clearly, these data suggest that our educational productivity has collapsed: the inflation-adjusted cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system has almost tripled while test scores near the end of high-school remain largely unchanged. Put another way, per-pupil spending and achievement are not obviously correlated.

Not everyone is happy with these charts, and in this post I’ll respond to the critics, starting with the most recent: Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, an organization that honors the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. DiCarlo finds the chart “misleading,” “exasperating,” and seemingly designed to “start a conversation by ending it.” Since we’re actually having a conversation about the chart and what it shows, and since I’ve had countless such conversations over the years, perhaps we can agree that the last of those accusations is more of a rhetorical flourish than a serious argument.

U.S. Scores Up, but Why?

Today, bounteous new international academic achievement data were released, from the TIMSS and PIRLS battery of tests. The news for the United States wasn’t too bad, especially with the country ranking fairly high overall (but generally well below high-flying East Asian nations).

How have U.S. scores changed? On 4th grade mathematics average scores have risen precipitously, from 518 (out of 1000) in 1995 and 2003, to 541 in 2011. 8th grade scores were also up, but at a smaller clip, going from 492 in 1995 to 509 in 2011. Interestingly, scores rose ten points between 1995 and 1999, but only seven points between 1999 and 2011.

In science, 4th grade performance was pretty static: 544 in 2011, versus 542 in 1995, with a dip in the line in 2003 and 2007. 8th grade also saw some interesting kinks—the high score was 527 in 2003—but 2011’s score of 525 beat 1995’s 513.

Finally, only 4th graders are tested in PIRLS, the literacy test, and data only go back to 2001. Again there was a dip in the middle, but in 2011 the U.S. average was 556, versus 542 in 2001.

The really crucial question in all of this, of course, is why have the scores—both in the United States and other countries—moved as they have? Unfortunately these reports—at least the basic achievement parts and executive summaries—provide little insight into that. Yes, they tell us that schools with kids who do more math and reading with their parents get better scores, as do schools that are more orderly, but those could easily be functions of an underlying cause: say, families and communities that value education more. Indeed, as I found when looking at the empirical research on national curricular standards, one of the major possible reasons East Asian nations consistently outpace the rest of the world is a culture that values academic achievement, especially on material that is easily tested.

Unfortunately, some educationists are likely to seize on today’s news and declare that their pet policy variable—NCLB! Unionization! National standards! Spending! Even, to be fair, school choice!—explains high performance. But, just from the test scores, it is impossible to reach such conclusions. That requires much deeper analysis, such as the work Andrew Coulson has done in an effort to isolate the impact of  market-like factors on outcomes.

So for now, be happy: the United States has improved somewhat. But don’t make any policy declarations based on that.

Class Size, Dropouts, & the Windy Atlantic

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, I argued that America has too many public school employees, and has wasted those employees’ talents on a mass scale. Jordan Weissmann, an associate editor with The Atlantic, disagrees, accusing me of running “roughshod over a lot of important nuance.” As it happens, no nuances were injured in the composition of my piece.

Let’s consider Mr. Weissmann’s cruelty-to-nuance claims in turn. First, he feels that I ignored “significant evidence that smaller classrooms do indeed improve student performance,” citing two sources. The first source is an unsigned web-page by the “Center for Public Education” that is so biased in its selective coverage as to not be worth serious consideration. The second is a scholarly paper by Alan Krueger, author of one of the two best-known literature reviews of the subject.

What Weissmann doesn’t mention is the work of Eric Hanushek, author of the other best known literature review on class size. Krueger contends that class size reduction is usually educationally beneficial and cost effective, Hanushek argues the contrary on both points. It’s easy to compare their evidence and arguments because both contributed at length to the book: The Class Size Debate, published by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute. It is a testament to how comfortable Hanushek is with the strength of his case vis-à-vis Krueger’s that he links to a full .pdf of that book from his own web pages at Stanford University. I understand why. When Hanushek looked at the most methodologically sound estimates—those that measure changes in student performance over time instead of at just a single point in time—he found that 89% show either no statistically significant advantage or a significant negative effect to smaller classes. To arrive at his opposing conclusion, Krueger had to, among other things, overweight the lower quality studies.

Hanushek’s conclusion is also more consistent than Krueger’s with the national U.S. data. The average American classroom has gotten substantially smaller over the past 40 years (by about 7 students) but achievement at the end of high-school is essentially flat. The only way to counter this evidence is to claim—usually without systematic basis—that children must be so much more difficult to teach today that the gains we would have seen from smaller classes have been eclipsed by this reduced “teachability.” The only systematic study of “teachability” trends of which I am aware does not support that claim—finding net “teachability” to have been mostly flat over time, with some improvement in the past decade.

Hanushek’s conclusion has also been supported by new, large-scale research, published after his and Krueger’s reviews. Harvard researchers Antonio Wendland and Matthew Chingos reported in 2010 that Florida’s state-wide class size reduction had “no discernible impact upon student achievement,” but has so far cost the state roughly $28 billion.

Some journalists are aware of the evidence that smaller classes generally do not improve outcomes. Consider, for example, this bit of reporting from last December:

Think of the ingredients that make for a good school. Small classes. Well-educated teachers. Plenty of funding. Combine, mix well, then bake. Turns out, your recipe would be horribly wrong, at least according to a new working paper out of Harvard…. The study comes courtesy of economist Roland Fryer, an academic heavyweight who was handed a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” earlier this year…. Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.

In fact, schools that poured in more resources actually got worse results.

Who is the astute journalist who wrote these words and from whom Jordan Weissmann could learn a few lessons? You guessed it… it was Jordan Weissmann, writing just seven months ago. How soon we forget.

Next, Weissmann claims that “dropout rates, for instance, have fallen by almost half since the 1970s.” Presumably he is unaware that this statement and the table he cites in support of it do not reflect reality. The “dropout rates” published in that NCES table are statistical fabrications of the nation’s education bureaucrats, looking to placate the public with the help of the remarkably credulous education media. You needn’t take my word for it. That is the finding of the left-leaning, Nobel-prize-winning, cited-by-President-Obama-with-approbation economist James Heckman. Heckman’s 2007 study, with Paul LaFontaine, is still the definitive work on the subject (though it was not the first to report the truth). Here is what Heckman and LaFontaine established through a painstaking analysis of the nation’s graduation data:

(a) the true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics [the one cited by Weissmann]; (b) it has been declining over the past 40 years; (c) majority/minority graduation rate differentials are substantial and have not converged over the past 35 years; (d) the decline in high school graduation rates occurs among native populations and is not solely a consequence of increasing proportions of immigrants and minorities in American society;

They also note that the post-NCLB uptick in graduation rates probably does not imply a genuine improvement in educational outcomes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority retention [a.k.a. “flunking”] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups. A similar pattern is observed following the publication of A Nation at Risk. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., “cheating”].

The italics and the text in square brackets in the above quotations are mine.

The fact that public school systems report falsely rosy “dropout rates” is not a secret. Anyone who spends 60 seconds on Google will discover it. It’s even been reported in such popular media outlets as… Mr. Weissmann’s employer, The Atlantic. That page on the Atlantic’s website actually links to the very same Heckman and LaFontaine study I link to above. Heck, it’s even been mentioned in The New York Times (though they’ve managed to protect their most die-hard readers from cognitive dissonance by restricting coverage of these findings to David Brooks’ column).

Weissmann wraps up his blog post with a foray into the art of mind-reading:

I doubt Coulson truly believes we really have too many teachers in this country. He hints at so much in his last paragraph, writing, “While America may have too many teachers, the greater problem is that our state schools have squandered their talents on a mass scale.” Why the hedge? My guess is….

Kudos to any readers who correctly predicted that both Mr. Weissmann’s belief and his guess were wrong. The reason that I can make no certain statement about the ideal size of the U.S. education labor force is that no one can predict the allocation of human and capital resources that will occur in future in a free market. That said, there is reason to expect fewer teachers will be required under market conditions since our public school monopolies have been on a hiring spree 11 times faster than enrollment growth for forty years. Moreover, on-line learning and educational software options are only getting better and more numerous, and this should lessen demand for classroom teachers. Against those forces we have to consider that families may choose to invest some of the resulting savings from employing fewer classroom teachers in one-on-one tutoring, which is generally accepted as highly effective if, at present, too expensive to be much used.

One thing I can say with some certainty, based on the world-wide research literature comparing different sorts of school systems within countries, is that whatever particular allocation of teachers and capital resources the market arrives at will be more efficient than the gross, unproductive staffing bloat that has been perpetrated by state schooling. And, as I explained in that linked study, the existing small niche of non-profit private schools in the United States does not constitute a free education marketplace. A further explanation of the difference, should anyone find it necessary, can be found in this piece by economist John Merrifield.

To quickly correct some of Weissmann’s remaining errors: I am on record as not faulting teachers’ unions as the cause of our nation’s education woes. Their predations (e.g., contributing to the system’s demonstrably unproductive employment bloat) are a symptom, not the disease. And while some public school teachers are obviously overpaid, others have been equally obviously underpaid. The problem with public school teachers’ salaries at present is that they are allocated based on time-served and credentials (neither of which is consistently related to student achievement) rather than performance. Markets tend to compensate employees based on performance and so this problem, too, will likely be solved by liberalizing America’s education sector through programs like K-12 education tax credits.

This is probably all the time I will have to debunk the various flawed criticisms that were offered in response to my WSJ piece, so I thank Mr. Weissmann for conveniently collecting most of them in one place.