Tag: dc public schools

Good Schools Coming — in 10 or 20 Years (Maybe)

Kaya Henderson has gotten great reviews for her work as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Test scores are up during her tenure, though not as much as the hype. But take a look at this vision in an article on her departure:

Henderson cautions that improving schools that had long struggled does not happen quickly. And even with the school reform efforts over the the past decade, it may still be another decade — or more — before anyone can declare something approaching victory.

“There will be a day when every school in the city is doing amazing work and you won’t have to enter a lottery, you literally could drop your kid off at any school and have them an amazing experience. I believe we’re within reach of that, probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” she says.

Good schools “sometime in the next 10 or 20 years” – “probably”? Can you imagine a private-company CEO promising that his company would be good at its core business “probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” after his retirement?

No wonder Albert Shanker, the first head of the American Federation of Teachers, said back in 1989:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

Indeed, we have in each city in the United States an essentially centralized, monopoly, uncompetitive, one-size-fits-all school system that has been stagnating for more than a century. As I wrote in the book Liberating Schools,

The problem of the government schools is the problem inherent in all government institutions. In the private sector, firms must attract voluntary customers or they fail; and if they fail, investors lose their money, and managers and employees lose their jobs. The possibility of failure, therefore, is a powerful incentive to find out what customers want and to deliver it efficiently. But in the government sector, failures are not punished, they are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff — because, after all, its task is now bigger.  An agency that fails year after year, that does not simply fail to solve the problem but actually makes it worse, will be rewarded with an ever-increasing budget.  What kind of incentive system is this?  

This is ridiculous. Every form of communication and information technology is changing before our eyes, except the schools and the post office. It’s time to give families a choice. Free them from the monopoly school system. Give families education tax credits or education savings accounts. Make homeschooling easier. Let them opt out of the big-box school – and get their money back – and watch Khan Academy videos. 

Children spend 12 years in government monopoly schools. If they don’t get started right in the first couple of years, they’re running behind for life. It’s just not right to tell parents to wait 10 to 20 years for the tax-supported monopoly schools to start educating decently.

By Grapthar’s Hammer… What a Savings

Researchers Patrick Wolf and Michael McShane write in the National Review Online today that the DC Opportunity Scholarships Program saves money. They estimate that the ultimate net savings from the private school choice program’s initial 5 year trial period will amount to $113 million ($183 million in savings set against a cost of $70 million). That’s good news, but I, like Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest, am somewhat ambivalent about this savings figure.

The trouble is that the real savings are substantially greater, because the above estimate doesn’t seem to take into account not having to pay for these students to attend DC public schools (which would have been necessary, without the private school scholarship program). And as readers of this blog may remember, DC spends a whole lotta money on its public schools. Just shy of $30,000 per student, per year in fact. Assuming that the average program enrollment during the trial period was 1,500 students, it saved taxpayers an additional… $225 million. Added to the Wolf/McShane figure, the total savings is $338 million—for just a tiny program.

By Grapthar’s Hammer, that IS a savings!

Raw Onions Served As Snack in D.C. Schools

Fifty-three elementary schools in the District of Columbia take part in the federal government’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a recently ramped-up federal initiative that dishes out millions to local schools to get them to use raw produce as snacks. According to the Washington Examiner, it was by inadvertence that students at Turner Elementary School were given raw green onions (scallions) as a snack the other day when they were supposed to be given zucchini slices instead. Children were observed making “yuck” faces before throwing the offerings in the trash or, in some cases, resourcefully tucking them into their bags to take home for their parents to cook.

Are we sure this is the best way to keep students from sneaking Doritos into the building?

On a less tear-inducing note, the school board in the town of Darien, Conn. has unanimously voted to pull out of the federal school lunch program. Finance director Richard Huot cited current and forthcoming federal mandates that, among other things, ban chocolate milk, discourage reliance on refillable sports water bottles, and require schools to push salads in preference to longtime favorites such as fruit. The regulations also drive up labor costs, Huot said, and make the lunch program more complex to run generally. “The children in this town are savvy consumers,” Huot said. “You put a lousy product on the table; they are not going to buy it.”

As a famously affluent suburb, Darien can afford to turn down the bribes — sorry, subsidies — that come with doing it Washington’s way. Isn’t it a shame so many other communities feel they have no real financial choice but to go along?

New Report: DC Voucher Program Still a Success

The latest and final scheduled report on the DC voucher program is out.

Conclusion?

Even a tiny, restricted program that’s only been around for six years increases graduation rates, has a positive impact on at least some groups of students, harms no groups of students, and does this for less than a third of what the DC Public Schools spend.

DCPS spends around $28,000 per student. The last report pegged the average voucher at just $6,620. The maximum voucher cost is just $7,500.

Huge sums of money saved, student performance increased, parents happier … why is this program being killed?

Oh, right.

Do You Still Think DC Spends Only $15,000/Pupil?

The District of Columbia spent over $28,000 per pupil in the 2008-09 school year. This year is probably similar. So why does (almost) everyone still claim the figure is around half that much? John Stossel has a good summary here.

If you’d like all the gory details, drawn from the official DC budget documents and the District’s own audited enrollment figures, then have a look at this Excel spreadsheet file.

I’m happy to go over the calculation with any DC or DCPS official – or journalist – who would care to dispute it. (It’s only been challenged once before, and the official in question fell silent after seeing the spreadsheet.)

Isn’t it about time that the local media start telling it like it is, and acknowledge that the District of Columbia spends four times as much per pupil as local voucher-receiving private schools charge in tuition ($6,620), while still getting worse academic results?

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

Rally to Save DC Vouchers Tomorrow. Why?

Tomorrow afternoon at 1pm, supporters of Washington DC Opportunity Scholarships will be rallying in Freedom Plaza to save the school voucher program. Why? That’s easy: Because a federal Department of Education study shows that parents are overwhelmingly more satisfied with it than they are with DC’s public schools. Because the same study shows that the program is raising student achievement above the level in the public schools. Because the children participating in it feel it is giving them a chance to realize their full potential in life – a chance that will disappear if the program is allowed to die, as they have attested in numerous YouTube videos.

The harder question is why Congress – particularly congressional Democrats led by Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) – want to kill the vouchers. Their stated reason is that it robs money from needy public schools and gives it to private schools that are already flush from lavish tuition fees.

But the voucher program not only does not take money away from DC public schools, the language of the law actually includes an extra $13 million annually for DC public schools, above their normal funding stream. As for lavish vs. needy schools, it’s true that there’s a huge gap between what is spent per pupil on public education in DC and the average tuition charged at the voucher-accepting private schools: a yawning $20,000 gap. The current year budget for the District of Columbia allocates $26,555 per pupil for k-12 education – up from $24,600 last year. Meanwhile, the Department of Education study linked to above puts the average tuition at voucher schools at $6,620. So vouchers are getting better results at one quarter the cost.

Clearly, Democrats have other reasons for opposing the voucher program, and this letter from the NEA might have a little something to do with it.