Tag: education

Why Public Schools Can’t Have Nice Values

It’s nearing back-to-school time, and that means in addition to lots of yellow buses, we’ll be seeing the annual spate of education polls. The first one just came out—the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll—and it furnishes some interesting information illustrating why it’s so hard for public schools to inculcate values. Short answer: we just don’t agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught.

This edition of the survey—PDK, by the way, is an organization of professional educators—has a special focus on teaching religion, civics, and other values-based subjects, as well as presenting regular fare such as grades for public schools and lists of perceived “biggest problems.” Taken as a whole, it reveals that most people want values taught, but there is major disagreement about what values specifically, and the possible consequences of teaching them. It’s what we see play out in districts nationwide on Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, and no doubt in many places not on the Map because conflicts and concerns don’t make it onto reporters’ radars.

Start with civics. A central promise since the earliest days of American public schooling advocacy was that “common” schools would form good citizens. But to the extent that involves things like teaching how government works, it’s not happening. One reason may be that while those who are supposed to govern public schools—“the people”—overwhelmingly agree that civics should be taught, they don’t think it is nearly as important as other things. When asked what “the main goal of a public school education” should be, only 25 percent of respondents replied “to prepare students to be good citizens.” 21 percent said “to prepare students for work” and 53 percent “to prepare students academically.” The results specifically for parents, in the chart below, were similar.

The next problem is, if you do teach civics, what do you include? 27 percent of respondents, and 29 percent of parents, were at least “somewhat” concerned that “civics classes might include political content” with which they would disagree, with 35 percent of Republicans feeling that way. That’s less stark than one might expect if one thinks of such heated showdowns as those in Michigan and Texas over the core word “democracy,” but having more than one in four people fearing political bias means there’s a good chance of polarizing disagreement in lots of schools, making even basic civics something of a minefield to avoid.

Even more precarious is religion, but many Americans are religious, and we have seen several states pushing to include religious content, especially on the Bible, in schools. The PDK poll shows that while almost everyone thinks civics should be taught, if not prioritized, feelings are more mixed on religion. On whether comparative religion classes should be in public schools, only 7 percent of respondents said they should be required, 70 percent supported them as electives, and 23 percent did not want them at all. Bible classes were more polarizing, with 6 percent wanting them to be mandatory, 58 percent electives, and 36 percent nowhere in the schools. (Again, as the chart below shows, parents were similar to the general public.) Tracking with this, about one in four respondents feared comparative religion classes would cause students to question their families’ beliefs or change their faith, and more than one in three feared Bible classes “might improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.”

Again, those numbers may feel a little low, but having any sizable share of families potentially object to what is taught is a powerful deterrent against presenting the material. Indeed, while the pollsters found nearly unanimous approval for teaching generic “honesty” and “civility,” nearly 40 percent of respondents said it would not be possible to get people in their community “to agree on a set of basic values.”

All of this points to an inherent problem for public schools in a diverse society: It is very difficult get diverse people to agree on what to teach, especially on highly personal matters such as religion, or highly volatile such as politics. The result is that public schools often spark social conflict, downplay anything potentially controversial, or first do one and then the other, harming social cohesion and academic rigor. Of course, there is an educational arrangement that avoids the zero-sum nature of public schooling, fostering peace and rigor: school choice. This year, PDK did not ask about that.

Could Inefficiency Balance Out Overregulation?

The top left-hand story on the front page of the Metro section of today’s Washington Post:

Lawyers for the District argued Wednesday for the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenges city regulations requiring some child-care workers to obtain associate degrees or risk losing their jobs….

The requirements … stipulate that child-care center directors must earn bachelor’s degrees and assistant teachers and home-care providers must earn Child Development Associate (CDA) certificates.

Meanwhile, just across the page, in the top right-hand space:

About 1,000 teachers in D.C. Public Schools — a quarter of the educator workforce — lack certification the city requires to lead a classroom, according to District education leaders.

So how about this compromise: the child-care licensing requirement will go into effect, but it will be enforced by the crack management team at DC Public Schools?

Mixed News in the Trump Education Budget

Quickly reading through the overviews of President Trump’s proposed FY 2019 budget, the good news is that funding coming through the U.S. Department of Education would be cut. The bad news is that the budget would potentially include up to $1 billion applicable to private school choice, which would threaten centralized regulation of choice, rendering such choice far less meaningful. Think Common Core for all!

Overall it appears spending by the U.S. Department of Education would decrease by around $3.6 billion—or about 5.4 percent—from 2017, based on quick calculations using the Department’s budget summary and data in an addendum that alters the summary due to the budget legislation enacted last week. As I’ve noted before, eliminating such ineffective—and unconstitutional—undertakings as the $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers would be solid policy, and frankly the evidence is compelling that the overall K-12 and higher education federal endeavor has been an expensive mistake.

The bad news is that overall cuts would not be greater, while the budget would create a new, $1 billion Opportunity Grants program that would include money for private school voucher programs. The program would be broken into two pieces—Scholarships for Private Schools and Open Enrollment Grants—with only the former open to private choice programs. No specific funding split between the sub-programs is identified in any of the budget materials I’ve seen, so it is unknown how much of the funding would go to private choice. But even a small amount of money relative to overall education spending can be a powerful lever to get states and schools to open themselves to regulation—it just needs to look like a lot in news stories or ledgers—and that is the huge danger of federal school choice. Of course, the Constitution no more authorizes federal choice programs than it does other education undertakings.

The budget is likely dead on arrival, and there are certainly things I missed in a quick once-over. But at the very least it reveals an administration that has sort of the right inclination on education—shrink the federal footprint—but that will curb that inclination when it comes to school choice.

A Few PIRLS of Wisdom on New Reading Results

The latest international academic assessment results are out—this time focused on 4th grade reading—and the news isn’t great for the United States. But how bad is it? I offer a few thoughts—maybe not that wise, but I needed a super-clever title—that might be worth contemplating.

The exam is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—which was administered to roughly representative samples of children in their fourth year of formal schooling in 58 education systems. The systems are mainly national, but also some sub-national levels such as Hong Kong and the Flemish-speaking areas of Belgium. PIRLS seeks to assess various aspects of reading ability, including understanding plots, themes, and other aspects of literary works, and analyzing informational texts. Results are reported both in scale scores, which can range from 0 to 1000, with 500 being the fixed centerpoint, and benchmark levels of “advanced,” “high,” “intermediate,” and “low.” The 2016 results also include a first-time assessment called ePIRLS, which looks at online reading, but it includes only 16 systems and has no trend data so we’ll stick to plain ol’ PIRLS.

Keeping in mind that no test tells you even close to all you need to know to determine how effective an education system is, the first bit of troubling news is that the United States was outperformed by students in 12 systems. Among countries, we were outscored by the Russian Federation, Singapore, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Norway, and Latvia. Some other countries had higher scores, but the differences were not statistically significant, meaning there is a non-negligible possibility the differences were a function of random chance. Also, between 2011 and 2016 we were overtaken by Ireland, Poland, Nothern Ireland, Norway, Chinese Taipei, and England.

Odds of Horace Mann Being Right? About 1 in a Million

Last night I was reading AEI president Arthur Brooks’ excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the lottery, that seemingly ubiquitous government revenue scheme targeted at the poor, and it brought to mind Horace Mann, the “father of the common schools.” Did Mann pop into my brain because he was also the father of the “Diamond Dollars” scratcher, or “Pick 6 XTRA”? In a way, yes.  

Mann actually hated the unproductive, greed-fueled lottery, which he wrote “cankers the morals of entire classes of the people.” As was the case for seemingly every social ill perceived by Mann, he had a cure for the canker: universal public schooling. Lotteries, he wrote, “await the dawning of that general enlightenment which common schools could so rapidly give, to be banished from the country forever.”

Fast forward to the present day, and what do we have? Roughly 90 percent of school-aged Americans attending public schools—and all children with access to them—while slickly advertised state lotteries pull in $70 billion annually, according to Brooks, with a disproportionate amount coming from low-income Americans who have little chance of breaking even, much less striking it rich.

Contra Mann’s promise, common schooling did not doom the lottery. Far, far from it. Today, perhaps the primary justification for the lottery is that it provides money for the public schools!

Frankly, Mann, who pronounced with assumed authority on everything from proper chewing to the number of “bodies” in the solar system, should have seen this coming. He certainly identified the supposed beneficiaries of lottery proceeds in his day: “the erection of public works,–to build a bridge, a canal, or a church [italics in original].” Mann was especially incensed by the latter, decrying, “When a church is built by a lottery, can there be any doubt which has the best side of the bargain, the Evil Spirit or the Good?”

Today, the “churches” conceived by Mann—the public schools—are themselves enriched by lotteries. Maybe that’s because they could never spread the universal enlightenment that Mann confidently promised. Maybe it is also because, like most of us, those employed by the public schools want as much money as they can reasonably get, and government schemes like the lottery enable them to bring in more.

I Was Wrong on The Every Student Succeeds Act

I was wrong. When the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in late 2015, I identified two ambiguities I thought were most ripe for exploitation to keep the federal boot hovering over public schools: the requirement that states have “challenging” curricular standards and that standardized tests be given “much greater” weight in accountability systems than non-academic measures.

Certainly, DC may still seize upon these words to extend control. But according to a Friday New York Times report, it is the law’s call for “ambitious” student performance goals—a term not defined in statute—that the Trump administration, which I thought would be highly deferential to states (wrong again!), is citing to reject state plans:

In the department’s letter to Delaware—which incited the most outrage from conservative observers—[Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Jason] Botel took aim at the state’s plan to halve the number of students not meeting proficiency rates in the next decade. Such a goal would have resulted in only one-half to two thirds of some groups of students achieving proficiency, he noted.

The department deemed those long-term goals, as well as those for English-language learners, not ambitious, and directed the state to revise its plans to make them more so.

And so we remain pretty much where we were under the Obama administration in education, and where we are with every law that leaves it to regulatory agencies to fill in the meaning of crucial terms: with states, localities, and the people at the mercy of bureaucrats and secretaries. Government increasingly of men and not laws.

Alas, this bureaucratically dictatorial state of affairs is okay with some people in DC. In an exchange this weekend, a former Obama administration spokesman lauded the regulatory process as a “transparent” and “consistent” way to “fill in the blanks left by the law”:

Really? I sure can’t see how the regulatory process is “transparent” in any meaningful sense. Here is the web page to follow the ESSA regulatory process, and here is the “Notice of Final Regulation” for just one part of the ESSA. Read it all over. Now imagine every parent—with a full-time job, soccer practices to get the kids to, maybe even a desire for some leisure time—trying to read and influence every regulation for ESSA.

Done imagining? The painful reality, of course, is that making law by regulation is even more beyond the ability of an average American to follow and influence than the writing of actual laws. The ESSA itself is almost 400 single-spaced pages long.

Loads of atrocious problems are at work here—no apparent concern for whether the governed can know and understand the laws governing them; legislators sloughing off their responsibilities to bureaucrats—but underlying it all has been widespread disregard for the Constitution and its clear delegation of only specific, enumerated powers to the federal government, none of which mention education.

I was wrong about the specific opening by which the ESSA might be used to maintain federal control over the nation’s public schools. But in stating that federal control is itself unconstitutional, and rule by bureaucrats especially egregious, I remain clearly in the right.

Don’t Block the Education Secretary, End the Department of Education

Newly sworn-in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tried, and eventually succeeded, to visit a Washington, D.C., public school Friday morning. As warned by her opponents after she was confirmed by a razor-thin margin on Tuesday, she was met by protesters who intended to make good on the threat to block her at every turn. In this case, literally: according to videos like this, they physically tried to prevent her from entering the building.

The opposition to DeVos, as I’ve suggested over the last several weeks, has been over the top and, frankly, unfair. It also hasn’t done much to improve the sick state of the national political dialogue.

That said, there may be no one more sympathetic to objections to federal education meddling than me. Indeed, if the school refused to let DeVos visit because it did not want the disruption or political theater, I’d have been all for it.

But there is a way more constructive way to solve the problem of dangerous or unwanted federal intervention than blocking schoolhouse doors: work to end the federal Department of Education.

This does not, by the way, mean ending the federal role in keeping states and districts from discriminating in their provision of education, but that is much more properly a Justice Department responsibility.

The vast majority of what the Education Department does is collect taxpayer money, burn a bunch off in bureaucracy, then bundle the remainder into programs that tell states, districts and schools how to run education, all with little evidence of meaningful academic effects. This situation will likely improve a bit with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which does return some control to states, but a little better is still awfully bad.

The good news is that a window has opened for the protestors and anyone else worried about federal power — or maybe just interested in seeing the Constitution obeyed — to end the education department.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., has just introduced legislation to end the Education Department. The text of the bill is simple: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.” That’s it. I’d like to see what would happen to all the programs the department runs — they’re the meat of the problem — but the simple bill is a major step in the right direction.

I hope DeVos’ opponents would agree that ending most federal education intervention would be a good thing. But if not, don’t worry: I won’t try to visit your school.

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