Tag: public schools

Neither Standards Nor Shame Can Do the Job

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has done it again: lifted my hopes up just to drop them right back down.

In November, you might recall, Mathews called for the elimination of the office of U.S. Secretary of Education. There just isn’t evidence that the Ed Sec has done much good, he wrote.

My reaction to that, of course: “Right on!”

Only sentences later, however, Mathews went on to declare that we should keep the U.S. Department of Education.


Today, Mathews is calling for the eradication of something else that has done little demonstrable good – and has likely been a big loss – for American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Mathews thinks that the law has run its course, and laments that under NCLB state tests – which are crucial to  standards-and-accountability-based reforms – “started soft and have gotten softer.”

The reason for this ever-squishier trend, of course, is that under NCLB states and schools are judged by test results, leading state politicians and educrats to do all they can to make good results as easy to get as possible. And no, that has not meant educating kids better – it’s meant making the tests easier to pass.

Unfortunately, despite again seeing its major failures, Mathews still can’t let go of federal education involvement. After calling for NCLB’s end, he declares that we instead need a national, federal test to judge how all states and schools are doing.

To his credit, Mathews does not propose that the feds write in-depth standards in multiple subjects, and he explicitly states that Washington should not be in the business of punishing or rewarding schools for test performance.

“Let’s let the states decide what do to with struggling schools,” he writes.

What’s especially important about this is that when there’s no money attached to test performance there’s little reason for teachers unions, administrators associations, and myriad other education interests to expend political capital gaming the tests, a major problem under NCLB.

But here’s the thing: While Mathews’ approach would do less harm than NCLB, it wouldn’t do much good. Mathews suggests that just having the feds “shame” states with bad national scores would force improvement, but we’ve seen public schools repeatedly shrug off massive ignominy since at least the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. As long as they keep getting their money, they couldn’t care much less.

So neither tough standards nor shaming have led to much improvement. Why?

As I’ve laid out before, it’s a simple matter of incentives.

With punitive accountability, the special interests that would be held to high standards have strong motivation – and usually the power – to demand dumbed-down tests, lowered minimum scores, or many other accountability dodges.  The result: Little or no improvement.

What if there are no serious ramifications?

Then the system gets its money no matter what and again there is little or no improvement.

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

So what are reformers to do? One thing: Take government – which will almost always be dominated by the people it employs – out of the accountability equation completely. Give parents control of education funds and make educators earn their pay by having to attract and satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be too great a leap for Jay Mathews. But one of these days, I’m certain, he’ll go all the way!

DC Vouchers Solved? Generous Severance for Displaced Workers

Colbert King argues that DC should continue the opportunity scholarships private school choice program on its own dime, instead of complaining that Congress is killing it off. He starts off with a refreshing dose of realpolitik: “It should come as no surprise that Democratic congressional leaders are effectively killing the program. They, and their union allies, didn’t like it in the first place.” Too true. This is what disgusts many Americans about politics, but hey, that’s the reality.

But then he seems to descend into uncharacteristic naivete with this:

If the city likes vouchers so much, why shouldn’t the District bear the cost? The answer is as clear as it may be embarrassing to voucher proponents: D.C. lawmakers don’t want to ask their constituents to shoulder the program’s expense.

That is NOT the answer. DC lawmakers are familiar with DC’s budget. DC’s FY 2009 budget, as I show in this Excel spreadsheet file, allocated $28,170 per pupil for k-12 schooling. And the average voucher amount is not $7,500, as King claims. That’s the maximum. The average is $6,620 one quarter of what the district is spending on k-12 schooling. So operating the voucher program entirely out of the District of Columbia’s own budget would not cost a dime. And if expanded, it would save DC tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

So DC lawmakers are most certainly NOT afraid of asking constituents to pay for it – it would more than pay for itself. What DC lawmakers must be afraid of is that DC schools have become a massive jobs program instead of an educational program. They must fear that if the voucher program were expanded it would put many non-teaching staff out of work – including perhaps some of their own supporters.

Well how about a realpolitik solution to that problem: offer displaced workers 18 months of severance pay at something like 75% of their current salary. That would give them plenty of time to find other work, and it could be paid for from the savings of students migrating from public schools to the voucher program. This would mean that taxpayers would not see savings in the first couple of years, but after that the District would be able to offer taxpayers generous tax cuts while also offering kids significantly better learning opportunities.

Surely the details of such a deal could be hammered out by experienced politicians and negotiators. Because, really, the status quo is insane. Why keep paying $28,000 for a worse education than the voucher program is providing for $6,600? That is sheer madness.

Vermont Could Save Millions with Private School Choice

The Ethan Allen Institute has just published a report suggesting that Vermont could save $80 million a year by voucherizing its education system. What’s most interesting is how generous the prospective vouchers would be: $10,000 for K-6, and $14,900 for grades 7-12. How could such a system save money? The main reason is that Vermont was already spending $14,000/pupil on public schools across all grades four years ago. Taking into account the inevitable increase since then and the effects of inflation to 2009 dollars, the state is no doubt spending well over $15,000 per pupil today, so EAI’s ample voucher funding would still cost far less than the status quo.

The only problem is that, as the EAI report notes (see p. 10), Vermont’s state supreme court has ruled against state funding of sectarian schools. So tax credits would be a better option for that reason, among others.

GAO: Dept. of Ed. Suffers Oversight Deficiencies

A report released today by the federal government’s non-partisan General Accounting Office finds deficits in the Department of Education’s financial and program oversight. According to the GAO, “These shortcomings can lead to weaknesses in program implementation that ultimately result in failure to effectively serve the students, parents, teachers, and administrators those programs were designed to help.”

The GAO’s findings are consistent with the longstanding pattern: for forty years, Americans have steadily increased spending on public schools without any resulting improvement in student performance by the end of high school (see the figures here and here).

The Obama administration has touted its $100 billion in education stimulus spending as a key to long term economic growth. What the data show, however, is that higher spending on public schools over the past two generations has not improved academic outcomes. And economists such as Stanford’s Eric Hanushek have shown that it is improved academic achievement, not higher public school spending, that accelerates economic growth.

So if the administration is serious in wanting education to boost the American economy, it must support reforms that are proven to significantly raise achievement, such as those that bring to bear real market freedoms and incentives – programs like the DC private school choice program that the administration has decided to kill despite its proven effectiveness.

Federal Education Results Prove the Framers Right

Yesterday, I offered the Fordham Foundation’s Andy Smarick an answer to a burning question: What is the proper federal role in education? It was a question prompted by repeatedly mixed signals coming from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about whether Washington will be a tough guy, coddler, or something in between when it comes to dealing with states and school districts.  And what was my answer? The proper federal role is no role, because the Constitution gives the feds no authority over American education.

Not surprisingly, Smarick isn’t going for that. Unfortunately, his reasoning confirms my suspicions: Rather than offering a defense based even slightly on what the Constitution says, Smarick essentially asserts that the supreme law of the land is irrelevant because it would lead to tough reforms and, I infer, the elimination of some federal efforts he might like.

While acknowledging that mine is a “defensible argument,” Smarick writes that he disagrees with it because it “would presumably require immediately getting rid of IDEA, Title I, IES, NAEP, and much more.” He goes on to assert that I might “argue that doing so is necessary and proper because it’s the only path that squares with our founding document, but policy-wise it is certainly implausible any time soon.” Not far after that, Smarick pushes my argument aside and addresses a question to “those who believe that it’s within the federal government’s authority to do something in the realm of schools.”

OK. Let’s play on Smarick’s grounds. Let’s ignore what the Constitution says and see what, realistically, we could expect to do about federal intervention in education, as well as what we can realistically expect from continued federal involvement.

First off, I fully admit that getting Washington back within constitutional bounds will be tough. That said, I mapped out a path for doing so in the last chapter of Feds In The Classroom, a path that doesn’t, unlike what Smarick suggests, require immediate cessation of all federal education activities. Washington obviously couldn’t be pulled completely out of the schools overnight.

Perhaps more to Smarick’s point, cutting the feds back down to size has hardly been a legislatively dead issue. Indeed, as recently as 2007 two pieces of legislation that would have considerably withdrawn federal tentacles from education – the A-PLUS and LEARN acts – were introduced in Congress. They weren’t enacted, but they show that getting the feds out of education is hardly a pipe dream. And with tea parties, the summer of townhall discontent, and other recent signs of revolt against big government, it’s hardly out of the question that people will eventually demand that the feds get out of their schools.

Of course, there is the other side of the realism argument: How realistic is it to think that the federal government can be made into a force for good in education? It certainly hasn’t been one so far. Just look at the following chart plotting federal education spending against achievement, a chart that should be very familiar by now.

Education Spending

Notice anything? Of course! The federal government has spent monstrous sums on education without any corresponding improvement in outcomes!

Frankly, it’s no mystery why: Politicians, as self-interested people, care first and foremost about the next election, not long-term education outcomes. They care about what will score them immediate political points. That’s why federal politicians have thrown ever-more money at Title I without any meaningful sign it makes a difference. That’s why No Child Left Behind imposed rules that made Washington politicians look tough on bad schools while really just pushing more dough at educrats and giving states umpteen ways to avoid actual improvement. That’s why Arne Duncan vacillates between baddy and buddy at the drop of a headline. And that basic reality – as well as the reality that the people employed by the public schools will always have the greatest motivation and ability to influence government-schooling policies – is why it is delusional to expect different results from federal education interventions than what we’ve gotten for decades.

OK. But what about a law like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Hasn’t it helped millions of disabled kids who would otherwise have been neglected by states and local school districts?

For one thing, it is constitutional and totally appropriate under the 14th Amendment for the federal government to ensure that states don’t discriminate against disabled children in provision of education. IDEA, however, does much more than that, spending billions of federal dollars, promoting over-identification of “disabilities,” and creating a hostile, “lawyers playground” of onerous, Byzantine rules and regulations, all without any proof that the law ultimately does more good than harm. And again, this should be no surprise, because federal politicians care most about wearing how much they “care” on their reelection-seeking sleeves, no matter how negative the ultimate consequences may be.

Alright-y then. How about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Isn’t it an invaluable source of national performance data?

NAEP results are used in the above chart, so obviously I have found NAEP of some value.  But does its usefulness justify ignoring the Constitution? Absolutely not. For one thing, instead of NAEP we could use extant, non-federal tests such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, Stanford 9, Terra Nova, and many other assessments to gauge how students are doing. And as useful as NAEP may be, it sits perilously close to being as worthless as everything else that Washington has done in education. All that has kept it from being hopelessly politicized is that there is no money attached to how states and local districts do on it. And as Smarick’s boss at Fordham, Chester Finn, testified in 2000, even with that protection NAEP and other supposedly netural federal education undertakings are under constant threat of political subversion:

Unfortunately, the past decade has also shown how vulnerable these activities are to all manner of interference, manipulation, political agendas, incompetence and simple mischief. It turns out that they are nowhere near to being adequately immunized against Washington’s three great plagues:

• the pressing political agendas and evanescent policy passions of elected officials (in both executive and legislative branches)and their appointees and aides,

• the depredations and incursions of self-serving interest groups and lobbyists (of which no field has more than education), and

• plain old bureaucratic bungling and incompetence.

Based on all of this evidence, it is clear that the only realistic avenue for getting rational federal education policy is, in fact, to follow the Constitution and have no federal education policy. In other words, the very realistic Framers of the Constitution were absolutely right not to give the federal government any authority over education, and it is time, right now, for us to stop ignoring them. Doing anything else will only ensure continued, bankrupting failure.

Paul Krugman vs. The Daily Show

In a recent New York Times column (“The Uneducated American”), Paul Krugman writes that, “for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” As a result, Krugman continues, U.S. education has been “neglected” and “has inevitably suffered.”

Readers who put their trust in Krugman might thus conclude that per pupil spending has stagnated or declined. In reality, as the chart below reveals, it has more than doubled since 1970, after adjusting for inflation.

Paul Krugman may not be an “uneducated American,” but he’s certainly a badly misinformed one.

andrew coulson cato education spending

Much more troubling is the fact that Krugman and the Times are spreading this misinformation on a grand scale. And that got me thinking about Jon Stewart. When Time magazine recently asked Americans to name their most trusted newscaster, the comic and Daily Show host won in a landslide.  Many pundits have taken this as a sign of the Apocalypse, worrying that so many Americans are getting their facts from a presumptively unreliable source. But is the Daily Show really less reliable than Paul Krugman and the New York Times?

To find out how they stack up on this particular question, I Googled the Daily Show’s website for any discussion of education spending. The most relevant hit was an exchange in the show’s on-line forum. In it, a commenter claims that spending per pupil has risen by a factor of 10 since 1945, after adjusting for inflation. That’s not too far off the mark. The actual multiple is just under 8. So folks who get their facts from the Daily Show’s website will be better informed on this subject than those who trust the Nobel Prize winning New York Times economist.

Not only is Krugman wrong to claim that public schools have been financially “neglected,” he is wrong to imagine that higher public school spending spurs economic growth – which is the central point of his column. Better academic achievement does help the economy – but, as the chart above illustrates and many scholarly studies have demonstrated, higher public school spending does not improve achievement. And by raising taxes without improving achievement, it may actually slow economic growth.

Media elites have been wringing their hands over the collapse in public demand for their products, over the two thirds of Americans who now doubt their credibility, and over the fact that more people now get their information from the Daily Show’s website than the New York Times’s.

Perhaps the media might attract more readers and rebuild trust if they were to stop publishing material less reliable than the blog discussions on a comedy show’s website. Just a thought.

Throwdown with Charles Murray

In a response to my post this morning, Charles Murray remains unconvinced that changes to our school system could result in dramatic improvements in educational outcomes.

He asks to see the scholarly study showing that a school has miraculously boosted achievement above the norm. In one way, this hurdle is too low, and in another it’s too high.

If we could only point to a single study of a single school, it wouldn’t instill much confidence in the generalizability of the phenomenon. A consistent pattern of scholarly results is necessary for that. On the other hand, asking for “miraculous” improvement is a needlessly high standard. My disagreement is with Murray’s earlier, lower threshold claim that:  “reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

Let’s call a marginal improvement an increase of less than .15  standard deviations above the current mean (typically considered a “small” effect in the social sciences). Taking that as our litmus test, is there a consistent pattern of scholarly evidence that better school system design can boost achievement by more than .15 standard deviations? Yes.

education markets v monopolies -- coulson

That pattern is presented in the figure above, drawn from my recent review of the global econometric literature comparing educational outcomes across different types of school systems. The figure relates the number of statistically significant findings favoring free education markets over state school monopolies (in white), significant findings of the reverse (in light grey), and insignificant findings (in dark grey). Markets beat monopolies by a ratio of 15 significant findings to 1, across the seven educational measures for which data are available.

While a few of these findings have small effect sizes, many are above .15 standard deviations – some of them well above it. A paper by Tooley, Dixon, Bao, and Merrifield (under consideration by the journal Economics of Education Review), for instance, finds that in Nigeria private schools outscore public schools by double that amount, after controls, while “in Delhi and Hyderabad private unrecognized schools top state-run schools in math instruction by about 2/3 of a standard deviation.” A recent randomized assignment study of the DC voucher program finds that voucher students who’ve been in the program for three years are reading two grade levels ahead of their public school peers (.42 std deviations), though the average voucher is worth only a quarter of what DC spends per pupil on public k-12 education.

These are more than marginal improvements, and they are part of a consistent pattern. That pattern strongly suggests that moving from our current monopoly school system to a free and competitive education marketplace would shift the bell curve of academic achievement significantly to the right, raising the mean achievement substantially above its current level.

No one should be surprised by that. Imagine how far the bell curve for median income across modern nations would shift to the left if all free markets were supplanted with centrally planned monopolies such as have ruined the economies of Cuba, North Korea, and until recently many other nations.