Tag: Neal McCluskey

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.

Education Poll Exposes Moochin’ Americans

As we slide towards the “fiscal cliff,” President Obama’s stance seems pretty clear: Americans want lots of stuff but shouldn’t have to pay for it. (It’s a position the GOP has also often taken.) A new education survey suggests the President’s position is politically smart.

According to the poll, commissioned by the pro-spending Committee for Education Funding, 55 percent of respondents thought “education programs” should be spared automatic budget cuts, third behind Medicare (69 percent) and “tax credits for low-income families” (58 percent). That’s not surprising, since most people are rationally ignorant – how many have the time or inclination to delve into the minutiae of health, education, and tax policy?  – and assume that spending on good-sounding things must be, well, good. That rampant rent-seeking and bureaucratic inefficiency squanders the dough probably isn’t something of which many are aware.

From a moral standpoint this isn’t hugely troubling, though one would hope that people would care much more about effects than intentions. What is quite troubling is that while many Americans think education is crucial and should be spared cuts, it seems they aren’t willing to pay for it themselves. 55 percent of respondents thought education should be protected from sequestration, but only 45 percent said they would “definitely” or “probably” be willing to pay more taxes to do it. And odds are respondents were much more willing to say they would accept higher taxes than they would be to support concrete efforts to actually get them.

So who, if anyone, should pay? While the survey isn’t crystal clear on that – indeed, there is much wiggle room throughout the findings – at least one indication is “the rich.” When given the (false) choice of either cuts to federal programs or tax increases for “those with incomes over $250,00 per year,” 58 percent chose the latter.

It’s hard to fault people for not knowing the depressing outcomes of federal programs that purportedly promote good things.  It is not so difficult to fault them for saying that other people should pay for the initiatives they think are so dandy.

It seems there’s a fair amount of moochin’ goin’ on.

Teachers — and Unions — Like Profits, Too

By now you’ve probably seen the economically ignorant, Ed Asner-narrated polemic from the California Federation of Teachers that “explains” how the rich hurt everyone because they are just so darn greedy. At one point in the original version the already loathsome Richy Rich actually goes so far as to relieve himself on the middle- and lower-class people above whom he rises  on his pile of cash. Don’t look for that “trickle down” visual now, though. It seems the CFT has edited it out after getting, shall we say, less than positive reviews for it. The rest of the tedious allegory, however, isn’t much more subtle.

It’s the reality-denying hypocrisy of it all, though, that is so grating. You see, teachers and unions want to profit just as much as reviled “Wall Street fat cats.”

“What?!” I can hear the teachers reading this scream. “I don’t do this for the money! How dare you, sir!”

Mr. and Mrs. Teacher, please bear with me for a moment.  I mean you no harm.

First, undertsand what profit is. Basically, it is making more from providing something than it costs to produce it. So if you are a teacher and use your earnings to buy food, housing, cable television, garden gnomes, airplane tickets, plastic surgery – anything – you are making a profit. And on an hourly basis likely a good profit, outpacing accountants and auditors, insurance underwriters, registered nurses, and other professionals. And that is without considering quite generous benefit packages public school employees often get.

Those concrete things, though, are not the compensation limits. There’s also substantial job security that comes with tenure, and in conjunction with teaching not being especially hard to break into, relatively little personal risk. Contrast that to entrepreneurs – you know, people who sometimes become fat cats – who often risk much of what they have to try new things that often end in failure. Such risk is a huge cost teachers simply don’t deal with.

In addition, while working with children is often very challenging, it can also be very rewarding. Who doesn’t get a kick out of the antics, questions, and comments of little kids? (I mean, they say the darndest things, right?) Or enjoy seeing their smiling faces. And when they get older, it can be very gratifying to guide them or inspire them as they contemplate what they want to do with their lives. In contrast, running a business  involves often stultifying detail work such as running payroll, securing office space, keeping “the books,” dealing with detailed government regulations, etc.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is nothing wrong with making a profit! Indeed, being profitable is generally the key to knowing that what you are doing is in demand – that you are providing something that makes other people better off – and, because you are earning more than the cost of production, you are doing something sustainable. So teachers, don’t disdain profits – embrace them!

Perhaps, though, be concerned about how you are getting them.

While there is far too much crony capitalism at work – businesses enriching themselves through government and politics – in general, companies can only make profits by earning the voluntary business of customers. In other words, they have to provide something people want, at a cost they are willing to pay. Payers have to feel they are better off.

Not so for public school teachers. Rather than getting paid by voluntary customers, they are ultimately paid with money extracted through government. Whether taxpayers like it or not, they are forced to pay for public schools. Which is, of course, why teachers’ unions are so deeply involved in politics.  They want to take people’s money no matter what.

The real irony is that many teachers could probably get paid more – in Korea some get MUCH more – were free enterprise rather than socialism allowed to reign. But we have a government monopoly, which is ripe for union control. One system, without any real competition, is best suited to have one employee rep. Allow people to freely choose among autonomous schools, however, and schools would have big incentives to pay the best teachers well because providing a great service – not throwing around political weight – would be the key to success.

Teachers, ultimately, are human beings, and on the whole almost certainly enjoy profit as much as anyone else. That’s not a problem. The problem is how they – and much worse, their unions – make it.

Sports ‘Donations’ a Flagrant College Foul

I love me some Georgetown University basketball, and am happy to pay for the privilege of possessing season tickets. (Well, that is when the Hoyas win pretty regularly and don’t deliver too many abominations like this one.) I’m also more than willing to make the hoops club “donation” that’s required to secure my seats. But it’s high time to end the ludicrous college sports scam—especially in light of our fast-approaching rendezvous with the “fiscal cliff”—that is the tax deduction for ticket-securing “charitable” donations.

My forced giving, to be honest, is pretty small: $100 per seat for some decent, lower bowl (though not center court) seats. But it’s not like I’m spending the dough to support, say, a new science center, or endow a professorship. No, it’s going to support big-time, constantly televised, money-making sports entertainment. And, of course, it is the fun of being an in-person fan—not my selfless desire to, say, engineer mitochondria to better serve humanity—that is animating my “charity.” Nonetheless, 80 percent of my donation is tax deductible.

At many big-time sports schools, and for better seats than mine, such forced philanthropy can be much pricier. At some institutions, such as the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina, it is impossible to nail down just how much people have to donate per seat beyond sticker prices because one accumulates donation points over time. Just to make it onto the UT benefits chart, however, you have to donate at least $150, and the top-line is $25,000. Texas A&M lets you know that for “priority” football tickets you’ll have to give between $45 and $3,900 per seat. And for most of the lower-bowl seats at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, basketball season tickets require donations of between $850 and $5,000. But don’t worry—part of the price can be handled by corporate matching funds!

If people want to donate generously to college sports programs—including cash-cow football and basketball—that’s fine. And I don’t want government getting any more money than it already has … and flushes down noble-sounding toilets. But giving favored tax status to forced donations for season tickets, as if one were donating to famine relief or cancer research? Even without the nation facing a $16 trillion—and growing—debt, that’s ridiculous.

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

Academics’ Freedom vs. Everyone Else’s

A significant interest of mine is how public elementary and secondary schools—government schools—force diverse people into conflict rather than, as the gauzy mythology tells us, bringing them together. After all, unless people are prepared to ditch deeply held values and opinions about what’s best for their kids, they have no choice but to engage in political (and sometimes actual) combat. And whether it’s over evolution or “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” engage they do.

There is a corollary to this in higher education. All taxpayers are compelled to support colleges and universities, whether through direct aid to institutions or to students. As a result, either taxpayers are forced to support all academic speech—including speech they may find abhorrent—or government must deem some academic speech unacceptable. Either way, government impinges on individual liberty.

The negative consequences of this are not nearly as apparent as in K-12, where values-based conflicts make headlines almost every day. The reason such headlines aren’t nearly as prevalent in higher ed may be because far fewer people have strong connections to the ivory tower.

This is not to say that collisions of taxpayer funding and academic freedom never make a loud bang. When the Ward Churchill “little Eichmanns” situation blew up in 2005, Colorado Governor Bill Owens immediately seized on the compelled-support angle, stating that “no one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill’s right to express himself. But we are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado.”

Colorado taxpayers, however, were technically required to pay for Churchill’s “pro-terrorist views.” While academic impropriety—not his 9/11 essay—officially got Churchill canned, the academic accusations were almost certainly brought to the fore by Churchill’s essay-delivered infamy. Indeed, in 2009 a Colorado court concluded that Churchill had, de facto, been improperly let go due to his 9/11 essay, and awarded him $1 in damages. Just this past April, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that Churchill was neither entitled to back pay nor reinstatement.

Did you follow the clear principles guiding all those decisions, by the way? Me neither, but such is the malodorous hash you get when you try to reconcile the irreconcilable.

It is not individual cases, though, through which the death match between taxpayers’ and professors’ rights is most readily revealed. No, it is manifested most concretely in the seemingly endless war between conservatives and the politically correct academy.

There is little question that academia is a battleship of the left. Indeed, as the Higher Education Research Institute just found, its port-side tilt has recently gotten even worse. Conservatives, reasonably, find having to pay for their intellectual enemies disquieting. But the solution often proffered for this—achieving intellectual “balance” or “diversity”—is little better than the status quo.

For one thing, who would be the arbiter of proper balance, especially understanding that peoples’ views are not monolithically liberal or conservative? And even if brilliantly proportioned ideological representation could be achieved, on what grounds could the apolitical be compelled to subsidize it?

The only fully satisfactory solution to the compelled-support problem is to, well, end compelled support of higher education. But there are good, better, and best options for reducing the problem short of complete government withdrawal.

Good: End government subsidies that go directly to schools. These are pure compulsion, with no individual choice involved. It’s basically how we fund elementary and secondary education, the hottest of all culture-war battlefields.

Better: Connect all money to students, though in the form of loans, not grants. That would add a heck of a lot more choice—students would freely choose where to attend—and the decision would ultimately be paid for by the consumer. Of course, taxpayers would have no ability to choose recipients of the loans, so appreciable compulsion would remain.

Best: Move entirely to tax credits for individuals and corporations that donate to organizations providing scholarships—or perhaps even loans—to students at all levels. Donors would choose to donate and students would choose schools. There would still be government influence—your only choices would be to donate or pay taxes—but taxpayers would have the option not to subsidize higher ed at all.

Academic freedom is fantastic if it means academics have freedom from government coercion. But freedom for all is even better, and that requires ending subsidies for higher ed.

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

Care about the Poor? Consider Consequences

On the day of the second presidential debate, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at debate-host Hofstra University. The topic was “defusing the student loan debt bomb,” and I was the lone voice calling for an end to inflation-fueling federal student aid. My co-panelists were Tamara Draut of the think tank Demos, Above the Law blog co-editor Elie Mystal, and U.S. PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski.

I had perhaps the best interaction with Mystal, with whom I had interesting chats throughout the day. Mystal’s response to my proposal was basically that poor and minority students need help, and phasing out federal aid would disproportionately hurt them. It was an argument with which I could sympathize, and it made more sense than just proclaiming “college education is a public good and should basically be free.” Unfortunately, writing on his blog post-debate, Mystal said that my “view makes a certain kind of sense” but nonetheless smacks of “the classic, Republican ‘f**k ‘em’ approach that disproportionately screws the poor and minorities.”

Um, ouch. Ascribing callousness or cruelty to either me or Republicans because we don’t like the negative effects of aid is, frankly, precisely why we can’t have a reasoned debate about these things. Maybe I’m an exceptionally gifted multi-tasker, or maybe I’ve just contemplated some important logic and facts, but I can be against mega-inflation without being indifferent to the poor. Indeed, quite the opposite.

First, much aid goes to people with little regard to their income. Pell Grants might be pretty well targeted – though they’re getting less so by the minute – but “unsubsidized” federal loans, which are backed by taxpayers, are available irrespective of need. Tax-based aid also skews high-income. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, for instance, can be claimed by joint filers making up to $180,000. And the well-to-do are best positioned to maximize their aid because they can afford financial planners to tell them how to hide wealth, or temporarily reduce income to optimize their eligibility. The cumulative effect of all this is to push up college prices.

Then there’s the psychological effect of hugely inflated sticker prices. If the message “college is astonishingly expensive” is repeated often enough, who do you think will more often be deterred from attending college, the rich or the poor? Probably the latter.

Next, the poor and minorities are no doubt disproportionately burdened by debt. Data indicate that’s definitely the case for African-Americans, and is likely the case for the poor considering that even debt loads that are small compared to some totals might be huge relative to a poor student’s wealth.

Finally, while people of all income levels and races spend too much time and treasure on higher education, the poor and minorities are probably the most snookered by “college for all.” The unfortunate reality is that those groups tend to be the least prepared to do college-level work or pay mammoth, inflated bills, and as a result tend to most readily pursue degrees without completing them. Among first-time, full-time students entering college in 2004, a weak 58.3 percent that didn’t transfer schools completed a four-year program within six years. Much worse, only 39.5 percent of African-Americans completed their degrees, and 50.1 percent of Hispanics. In large part this is the fault of factors preceding higher education – including our moribund K-12 system – but the dismal college completion reality remains.

In light of all this, is it really fair to proclaim that those who want to phase out inflationary, consumption-driving aid don’t care about the poor and minorities? Or is it long past time to give them a full and fair hearing?

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

Is Common Core about to Melt Down?

Is the national curriculum standards debate about to go nuclear?

Proponents of national standards, as I’ve pointed out many times, have made a concerted effort to avoid attention as they’ve insidiously—and successfully—pushed the so-called Common Core on states. They’ve insisted the effort is “state led,” even though states didn’t create the standards and Washington coerced adoption through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers. They’ve called adoption “voluntary,” even with the heavy hand of the Feds behind them. And they’ve assiduously avoided what blew up past efforts to impose national standards: concrete content such as required readings or history lessons that were guaranteed to make people angry.

Well, with a recent unveiling of sample items for federally funded tests that go with the standards, all that might be about to change, and the whole thing could become radioactive to the public.

A couple of days ago the HechingerEd blog—from the education-centric Hechinger Report—published a post looking at preliminary testing items from the two consortia hand-picked by the Obama administration to create the national tests. Included in the post were links to sample items. I didn’t hit every one, but those I did check out contained, among other things,  confusing readings, poor questions, and lame functionality (in some cases the reading material on which questions were based didn’t even show up). And here’s one for the grammarians: A video-based item about the effect of weightlessness on astronauts’ bodies asked how weightlessness is like “lying” on a bed. The astronaut being interviewed, however, said it’s like “laying on a bed.” A small matter, perhaps, but one among many matters both small and big.

And here’s a really big one:

Smarter Balanced officials gave an example of a multi-part question in which high school students are asked to imagine they are the chief of staff for a congresswoman. Before they start working on the test, their teacher is supposed to lead a classroom activity about nuclear power. The students are then asked to come up with a list of pros and cons about nuclear power. Finally, they must write up a presentation for the congresswoman to give at a press conference later that day…. Questions like the one about nuclear power are more expensive, because they will likely require a trained evaluator to score them.

So much for avoiding controversy! Not only do we discover that the tests will have students take on hot-button topics like nuclear power, but scores will be meted out by human evaluators.

The fears and problems are clear: What should students be told about nuclear power—or any other contentious issue—that the tests address? Who decides? Will evaluators really just grade students on the structure of their presentations, or whether students write things with which the evaluators agree?  How will scoring be consistent among evaluators? Even if consistent, how will students and parents be assured of that?

This day had to arrive sooner or later. Eventually, something substantive had to come from the Common Core crowd. The question now is whether it will cause the whole, dubious undertaking to suddenly melt down.