We were warned.
When Washington passed the so-called "stimulus" bill, with its tens-of-billions for K-12 education, we were warned that the money wouldn't just provide a one-time infusion of supposedly economy-saving cash. No, it would furnish a towering new spending floor for already super-funded government schools and numerous other beneficiaries.
Well here come the sky lifts again. According to Education Week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is pushing legislation that would pile $23 billion in new federal funding into education once the stimulus cash dries up. And this money -- which, of course, we don't actually have -- is intended not only to protect the jobs of teachers and other staff, but add even more employees to the obscene jobs program that is public schooling.
Would this be a good time to mention that the Constitution gives the federal government zero authority to fund or control education? Oh, who cares about that?
If you follow education news at all, over the last week or so — until the national-standards stories took over — you probably saw a lot about education historian Diane Ravitch's supposedly sudden determination that school choice isn't good after all. That's one of the major selling points of her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and just about every major newspaper has devoted a fair amount of ink to it.
Now I've devoted some ink — okay, pixels — to it, too. You can check out my review of Ravitch's book on the brand-new School Reform News website. When you're done with that, you can take a gander at my Cato Journal review of Core Knowledge guru E. D. Hirsch's new offering, The Making of Americans. I think you'll detect a unifying theme: Ravitch and Hirsch are excellent at their specialties — history and pedagogy, respectively — but they ignore just about everything they have lamented for decades about government schooling in order to proclaim that, um, we somehow need more government schooling.
The Washington Post ran an incisive op-ed yesterday by Kelly Amis and Joseph Robert on the DC voucher program. As they noted, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is calling on the Senate to restore funding for the program which was terminated on a nearly party-line vote by Congress last December.
A few Democrats (Dianne Feinstein and Robert Byrd) have joined with Lieberman, but the rest of the party has apparently decided that producing better educational outcomes for poor kids at one quarter the cost of public schooling is not politically advantageous.
As Amis and Robert point out, private schools are far less unionized than the public school sector, so giving families an easier choice between the two will likely eat into to union revenues. And teachers union revenues end up disproportionately in the political piggy banks of Democrats.
The only thing that will change this situation is if voters decide they've had enough of such craven, Machiavellian politics, and vote the bums out. And some Democrats do indeed already seem to have had enough.
Who said public schooling is all about the adults in the system and not the kids? Everyone knows it's even more basic than that: Public schooling is a jobs program, pure and simple. At least, that's what one can't help but conclude as our little "stimulus" turns one-year old today.
"State fiscal relief really has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers and firefighters and first responders on the job," declared White House Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer today.
Throwing almost $100 billion at education sure as heck ought to have kept teachers in their jobs, and the unemployment numbers suggest teachers have had a pretty good deal relative to the folks paying their salaries. While unemployment in "educational services" -- which consists predominantly of teachers, but also includes other education-related occupations -- hasn't returned to its recent, April 2008 low of 2.2 percent, in January 2010 it was well below the national 9.7 percent rate, sitting at 5.9 percent.
Of course, retaining all of these teachers might be of value to taxpayers if having so many of them had a positive impact on educational outcomes. But looking at decades of achievement data one can't help but conclude that keeping teacher jobs at all costs truly isn't about the kids, but the adults either employed in education, or trying to get the votes of those employed in education. As the following chart makes clear, we have added teachers in droves for decades without improving ultimate achievement at all:
(Sources: Digest of Education Statistics, Table 64, and National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trend results)
Since the early 1970s, achievement scores for 17-year-olds -- our schools' "final products" -- haven't improved one bit, while the number of teachers per 100 students is almost 50 percent greater. If anything, then, we have far too many teachers, and would do taxpayers, and the economy, a great service by letting some of them go. Citizens could then keep more of their money and invest in private, truly economy-growing ventures. But no, we're supposed to celebrate the endless continuation of debilitating economic -- and educational -- waste.
You'll have to pardon me for not considering this an accomplishment I should cheer about.
With print media players disappearing faster than mosasaurs in the late Cretaceous, one would expect the last papers standing to be extra careful with their fact checking for fear of being blogged into extinction. One's expectations would be mistaken.
Yesterday's LA Times editorial on charter schools combined errors of fact and omission with a misrepresentation of the economic research on public school spending. First, the Times claims that KIPP charter public schools spend “significantly more per student than the public school system.” Not so, says the KIPP website. But why rely on KIPP's testimony, when we can look at the raw data? LA’s KIPP Academy of Opportunity, for instance, spent just over $3 million in 2007-08, for 345 students, for a total per pupil expenditure of $8,917. The most recent Dept. of Ed. data for LAUSD(2006-07) put that district's comparable figure at $13,481 (which, as Cato's Adam Schaeffer will show in a forthcoming paper, is far below what it currently spends). Nationwide, the median school district spends 24 percent more than the median charter school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Next, in summarizing the charter research, the Times' editors omitted the most recent and sophisticated study, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. It finds a significant academic advantage to charters using a randomized assignment experimental model that blows the methodological doors off most of the earlier charter research. The Times also neglects to mention Hoxby's damning critique of the CREDO study it does cite.
Finally, the Times' editors are mistaken in claiming that district operating costs “do not necessarily go down” as large numbers of students migrate to charters. Economists find that districts reap significant cost savings as students leave -- e.g., by cutting staff and consolidating buildings. The Times is claiming that the marginal cost of public schooling is essentially zero -- that it neither costs more to educate one additional student nor less to educate one fewer student. In reality, the marginal cost of public schooling is generally found in the empirical literature to be near or above 80 percent of the total cost.
There are certainly reasons to lament the performance of the charter sector, and the Times' editors even came close to citing one of them: its inability to scale up excellence as rapidly and routinely as is the case in virtually every field outside of education. Before getting into such policy issues, however, the Times should make a greater effort to marshal the basic facts.
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.
Tomorrow morning, the president's Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.
The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation's public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors' own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.
How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital -- improving the skills and knowledge of workers -- boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.
Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education's own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.
The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.
Based on this body of research, the president's decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.