Tag: education

A Lesson about Power

High school seniors pull a prank by pitching tents in the school courtyard and sleeping there overnight.  Does the school need to discipline them?  Perhaps.  Maybe have them stay after school and pick up litter or something.

But school officials want the police to arrest the students.  And when a student who had no involvement in the prank speaks out against the school authorities’ response by sending out an email, he too must be punished!  The lesson here is do not question authority.

Either praise your school principal or be very quiet and obedient.

MD Taxpayers Should Still Fear the Turtle

testudoI dread my morning commute, largely because of awful D.C. traffic, but also because I never know when I’m going to hear something on the radio that’s (1) going to anger me, and (2) force me to alter my day’s plans so I can lay the smack down on some education report that begs for clarification.

Today, (2) happened, with a reporter from the Washington Business Journal touting a new study on the University of Maryland, College Park – Maryland’s flagship public university – as cause for Marylanders to be ecstatic about the taxes they pay to support the school. According to the WBJ’s online article about the report, the Free State gets $8 back for every $1 taxpayers “invest” in UMCP – a clear winner!

Um, not so fast, WBJ! These kinds of too-good-to-be-true impact studies are usually just that – too good to be true. There are often many problems with them, but most important is that unless the analysts looked at opportunity costs – what would have been produced by the tax dollars had they been left with taxpayers – there is no way to say that Marylanders should be eternally grateful for having to fear the turtle. It is entirely possible, as economist Richard Vedder has demonstrated, that taxpayers would have gotten a better return had they kept their money rather than having to hand it over to  students and profs.

Of course, before I posted this objection, I had to check out the report to see if it is forthcoming about opportunity costs. Unfortunately, despite the university touting the findings yesterday and the WBJ reporting on them this morning, all I could find was the 2008 impact report, both looking on the site of the group that commissioned the study – the University of Maryland College Park Foundation – and the outfit that conducted the research. As a result, I can’t say with absolute certainty that the 2009 study doesn’t consider opportunity costs. If the 2009 report is like 2008’s, however, Marylanders have no cause for rejoicing. There’s zero reason to believe that they wouldn’t have been better off if they had just been able to keep their hard-earned ducats.

No Longer among the “Usual Left-Right Battles”

Christopher J. Christie just decisively won New Jersey’s Republican gubernatorial primary, but had to veer away from his middle-of-the-road plan and venture into some traditionally conservative territory to do it, according to news accounts. Will that be a problem for him in the general election? Not necessarily. As NorthJersey.com’s Charles Stile observes, Christie’s ardent support for private school choice is not the polarizing stance it once was: these programs “once championed by conservative ideologues, are being embraced by urban Democrats.”

As we’ve been saying at the Center for Educational Freedom for some time now, the post-partisan age of school choice is well within sight, and draws closer every day. The last politicos to see that will find themselves on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of voters in both parties.

Get Back to Me When They’ve Got Something to Launch

Over the past few days, it seems like every major state newspaper ran a story on the state’s governor signing onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort to establish national standards in mathematics and reading curricula. The only holdouts are Alaska, Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina.

I should probably be more worried, because national standards are a terrible idea.

First, there is nothing inherently better about having a single standard agreed to by numerous states than having individual states set standards for themselves. Either way, politicians – people inherently most responsive to mobilized, highly motivated public school employees who want as little meaningful accountability as possible – will be setting the standards, and the standards will therefore either start low or end up there pretty fast.

Second, the notion that national standards adopted by even just a few states will remain both voluntary for all states and non-federal is pure fantasy, like unicorns, or selfless bureaucrats. Once some version of national standards exist, Washington will tie money to adopting them, which is how the feds force states to “volunteer” for all kinds of odious stuff.

“Oh, sure, feel free to turn down the money, Mr. Arizona” Uncle Sam says. “But your citizens? Well, I don’t think we’ll be taking any volunteers on paying federal taxes…”

The Obama Administration has already got this in the works, suggesting that adopting some sort of national standard could make a state eligible for a piece of the Secretary of Education’s so-called “Race to the Top Fund,” a $5 billion “stimulus” pot of gold controlled by the secretary.

Of course, the ultimate threat is that once standards go federal they never go back, and we’ll be stuck with one-size-fits-all standards for every state, district, and child in America, standards controlled by the National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and every other card-carrying member of the self-serving education establishment. And even though we’ll finally live in a utopia in which “the child in Mississippi is held to the same standards as the child in New York,” we won’t suddenly see test scores skyrocket or heretofore untapped genius spring forth across the land. We’ll just see an even worse version of the hopelessly moribund, socialist education system we have today.

So why, in light of all these dreadful threats, am I not too worried? Because what governors have agreed to so far is just to draft national standards, not to adopt them, and as I wrote last month, while the national standards crowd seems unanimously exuberant about having a single set of standards for every kid in America, they can’t even come close to agreeing on what those standards should be. And if they can’t agree on what the national standards should be, what are the odds that millions of other people will simply assent to having someone else’s standards foisted upon them?

Not very high. Indeed, when establishing national standards was attempted in the 1990s the real fireworks didn’t begin until proposed standards were published. Then, it seemed that everyone had a different reason they were outraged – outraged! – by the standards.  At best, there was only one point of broad consensus: that the wannabe national standards simply had to go.

So are national standards a serious threat? They sure are: Were they to be enacted, the educationally deadly government-schooling monopoly would be complete, with even the ability to escape to better districts or states cut off. But the news of states agreeing to develop shared standards doesn’t raise the threat level to DEFCON 1. It’s only if they complete the task – if they can somehow agree on how many fins to put on their missile, what range to shoot for, what color to paint it, where to target it, whose names to put on it, what fuel to use, and so on – that we should really become concerned. And making those decisions is, of course, the really tough part.

Parents Fact Check Ed. Secretary. MSM AWOL

Caroline Grannan, erstwhile editor at the San Jose Mercury News, just posted a fact check of a recent speech by Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan. The fact checking was actually done by Chicago watchdog group Parents United for Responsible Education, and Grannan laments her former media colleagues’ “unwillingness to question claims like Duncan’s.” You and me both, Ms. Grannan.

According to PURE, Duncan claimed that a startling turnaround at one Chicago public school was achieved after its original students returned following a major restructuring. Citing Chicago Public Schools’ own data, PURE claims only 12 of the original students actually returned (more details in an earlier letter cited here).

That’s an interesting model for school improvement… ditch the low performing kids.

Not sure that could be brought to scale.

The Price of Ignorance

We here at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom spend a lot of time just trying to help people get their facts straight. You know, providing information that clearly shows that government schools are not the foundation of American democracy, or itemizing programs to show that school choice is not a political failure. That sort of thing.

Well, a new study in the journal Education Next demonstrates why just getting people solid information is so important: When the public has just a few basic facts about such things as public school expenditures or teacher salaries, support for heaping more dough on our sinkhole public schools takes a pretty big dip.

On spending, investigators William G. Howell and Martin R. West found that people provided with actual per-pupil expenditure data for their districts were significantly less likely to support increased spending, or to think that increased spending would improve student learning, than were respondents not given such data. Only 51 percent of respondents informed about actual outlays thought spending should be increased, versus 61 percent of uninformed respondents, and only 55 percent of informed respondents were confident that more spending would improve student learning (versus 60 percent of uninformed). Those levels are still way too high in light of the at-best very weak correlation between spending and achievement, but they do show that when people have good data to go on they tend to approach spending more rationally.

How about teacher salaries? Unfortunately, Howell and West didn’t inform respondents about teacher pay using hourly earnings, which in light of the relatively small number of hours teachers work is the fairest way to judge how well they are paid. The effect of knowing even annual salaries, however, is telling: While 69 percent of uninformed respondents supported increasing educator salaries, only 55 percent of informed people thought teacher salaries should be bolstered.

So when it comes to American education, it seems a little knowledge, far from being a dangerous thing, can be a pretty big step in the right direction.

Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.