Tag: schools

Politicians: Hopelessly Naïve about Government

There are numerous causes of federal government expansion, including special-interest pressures and the ability to borrow-and-spend endlessly.

Another cause was highlighted in a recent story about a Bush-Obama education program: politicians are excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve about their ability to solve society’s problems top-down from Washington.

Neal McCluskey mentioned the failure of the School Improvement Grant program the other day, but I wanted to highlight the Washington Post summary because this is such a classic failure:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday  hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.

The school turnaround effort, he told The Washington Post days before he left office in 2016, was arguably the administration’s “biggest bet.”

He and other administration officials sought to highlight individual schools that made dramatic improvements after receiving the money. But the new study released this week shows that, as a large-scale effort, School Improvement Grants failed.

It is excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve to think that a new federal spending effort would turn around the nation’s schools after that approach has not worked for five decades. But the Post reveals how deep the blind optimism was in this case:

Some education experts say that the administration closed its eyes to mounting evidence about the program’s problems in its own interim evaluations, which were released in the years after the first big infusion of cash.

The latest interim evaluation, released in 2015, found mixed results, with students at one-third of the schools showing no improvement or even sliding backward.

Even then, Duncan remained optimistic about the School Improvement Grants, which he said had — along with the Race to the Top grants — unleashed innovation across the country.

For more on the causes of government growth and failure, see here and here.

Equity vs. Excellence. Or…A Crank Phone in Every Home!

Education secretary Arne Duncan has just announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative to improve educational quality for low-income and minority students: pressure states to measure the distribution of “quality” teachers across districts; and then to make that distribution more uniform. The emphasis is on the pursuit of equity rather excellence. In fact, a state could make a massive leap forward on this scale by simply randomizing the assignment of public school teachers to schools. And if it turned out that some districts were badly managed and actually had a consistently negative effect, over time, on the performance of their teachers, well then the randomized teacher assignment process could be repeated every school year—or even every half-year!

But is a uniform distribution of today’s “quality” teachers really the best we can do for low-income and minority students (or, for that matter, everyone else)? Would they be better off today if Arne Duncan’s and Barack Obama’s equity focus had driven, say, the telelphone industry over the last century? Back around 1900, most telephones were hand-cranked, and not everyone had one. Would the poor, minorities, and others be better off today if we had achieved and maintained a perfectly equitable distribution of hand-crank phones?

The alternative, of course, is what we do have: a vigorously competitive phone market that has given rise to cell phones and then smart phones containing super-computers, global positioning satellite receivers, wireless networking, etc. But of course only rich whites have cell phones and smart phones, right? Not according to Pew Research. Based on 2013 data,

92% of African Americans own a cell phone, and 56% own a smartphone… blacks and whites are equally likely to own a cell phone of some kind, and also have identical rates of smartphone ownership.

In fact, Pew’s comparable smart-phone ownership figure for whites is 53%, but the difference is not statistically significant. With regard to income, Pew finds a 9 point difference in smartphone ownership between those making < $30,000 and those making between $30,000 and $49,999. Most of that difference seems to be accounted for by age, however. Among 18-24 year olds, 77% of those making < $30,000 own a smartphone vs. 81% for those making $30,000 to $74,999.

So pretty much everyone who wants one now has a cell phone which is rather more functional than the old hand cranked variety, and the majority of young people, at all income levels, even have smartphones. That’s a relatively high level of equity, coupled with excellence. Brought to you, again, by a competitive industry. Could the federal government’s Lifeline (a.k.a., “ObamaPhone”) phone subsidy programs be helping out? Certainly, to some extent. Though it’s far from true that every low-income American’s cell phone is paid for by Uncle Sam.

Ironically, many of the people who staunchly support subsidized access to the cell phone marketplace are dead set against programs that subsidize access to the educational marketplace. They’d much rather just redistribute teachers within our hand-crank-era public school systems, sentencing everyone—rich and poor alike—to more generations of academic stagnation. We can do better. We can encourage the same dynamism, choice, and entrepreneurship in education that have driven the fantastic progress in every other field, and we can ensure universal access to the educational marketplace via state-level education tax credit programs.

Can Litigation Save American Education?

Next week, the case of Vergara v. California goes to trial. The question being litigated is whether or not the state’s laws on teacher tenure (“permanent employment”), dismissals, and last-in-first-out layoffs disproportionately harm poor minority kids, thereby violating California’s constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case feel they have the evidence to prove this point (see the links above), and so far the courts have acknowledged that their view is at least plausible. Certainly these laws are incompatible with efforts to maximize the quality of the teaching workforce. And it does seem as though they do the most damage in districts and schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. But will a victory by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do substantial and lasting good?

That’s less obvious. For one thing, these employment practices can be found in many places where they are not codified in state statutes.They are employment guarantees and benefits of the sort that are often sought and obtained by teachers’ unions in collective bargaining with districts. So getting rid of the laws won’t necessarily get rid of the practices.

More broadly, over a dozen states have explicit constitutional provisions demanding that they create “uniform” education systems—a more stringent equality requirement than is contained in California’s constitution—and it’s not at all obvious that this seemingly strict legal guarantee has made any difference in the quality of educational opportunity in those states.

It’s easy to empathize with the desire to see state legal precedents enforced, and bad laws overturned. But neither state constitutions nor legal precedents have been able to secure either the uniformity or the quality of American education systems, and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter how the Vergara case is decided. More than half a century after the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, poor African-American kids are  still disproportionately likely to be assigned to lousy schools. I wrote about this 11 years ago, and little has changed since then. Lawsuits can redress specific legal wrongs, like compelled segregation, but they can’t produce educational outcomes that require the coordination and relentless dedication of thousands or even millions of people, year after year.

For those who really want to maximize the quality of education offered to disadvantaged and minority students—indeed to all students—the best hope is to study the different sorts of education systems that have been tried around the world and across history, and then ensure universal access to the best among them: a free educational marketplace.


When “Zero Tolerance” Means Zero Logic

Schools work very hard to curb drunk driving, so when a sober student offers to drive an inebriated friend home from a party rather than let her attempt to drive home herself, no doubt any school would hold her up as worthy of emulation, right? Wrong, sadly, at least at North Andover High School in Massachusetts:

Two weeks ago, Erin [Cox] received a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Erin drove to Boxford after work to pick up her friend. Moments after she arrived, the cops arrived too and busted several kids for underage possession of alcohol.

A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. In the middle of her senior year, Erin was demoted from captain of the volleyball team and told she would be suspended from playing for five games.

One of the central purposes of education is to teach students to consider the consequences of their actions. In this sense, Cox and her friend demonstrated greater wisdom than school officials. While the students clearly considered the potentially lethal consequences of attempting to drive drunk, school officials apparently haven’t considered how their “zero tolerance” policy might discourage sobers students from aiding inebriated colleagues in the future. As Alexander Abad-Santos notes at the Atlantic, “Cox did not break any laws; she did not drink, did not party — yet was still punished by the school. By reprimanding Cox, North Andover High is likely sending out a confusing and contradictory message to teens about drinking, designated drivers, and asking for help.” The Cox family lawyer agrees:

The Perils of Publicly Funded “Private” Schools

We support getting publicly funded schools public accountability…. No exceptions, no excuses, no special treatment.

Thus spake John Johnson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, on the subject of a new bill his agency co-wrote with Republican legislators. Among other things, the bill would allow the DPI to kick private schools out of the state’s voucher program if it rates them perennial failures.

Here’s the thing: Way back in … August of 2013, (a.k.a., “this month”), the head of a state department of instruction was forced to resign because, while in that same post in another state, he had personally revised his department’s ranking of a school run by a major political donor. State officials and agencies, contrary to the implicit assumption of “accountability” mavens, are not all wise, objective, beneficent philosopher-kings. They are people–and organizations made up of people–who have political and personal vested interests that do not always align with those of the families they nominally serve.

Fortunately, over the course of human history, a system evolved which tends to align the interests of producers and consumers more effectively than any other. It is the free enterprise system, in which producers must compete for the privilege of serving each and every customer, and consumers have the freedom to easily choose from among many competing providers. Let schools do their best to serve families and let families choose their schools: let the chips fall where they may. Some schools will succeed, others will fail. Those that succeed, grow. Those that fail are prevented from continuing to ill-serve families. It is a system that works not simply in theory, but in practice, as I found when I surveyed the worldwide within-country research comparing alternative school systems. The least regulated, most market-like education systems most consistently outperform state school systems, such as we have in the United States.

Education Policy, The Use of Evidence, and the Fordham Institute

In recent weeks, the Fordham Institute has repeatedly called for government testing and reporting mandates to be imposed on private schools participating in school choice programs (here and here), on the grounds that such “public accountability” improves private school academic outcomes. In defense of this claim, the Fordham Institute cites a study of Milwaukee’s voucher program in which test scores rose following the introduction of such mandates.

Patrick Wolf, director of the research team that conducted the study, has now responded, explaining that his team’s results do not necessarily support Fordham’s claim:

[B]y taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime….

What about the encouraging trend that lower-performing schools in the MPCP are being closed down?  [Fordham] mentions that as well and attributes it to the stricter accountability regulations on the program.  That phenomenon of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” pre-dated the accountability changes in the choice program, however, and appears to have been caused mainly by low enrollments in low-performing choice schools, as parents “voted with their feet” against such institutional failure. Sure, the new high-stakes testing and public reporting requirements might accelerate the creative destruction of low-performing choice schools in Milwaukee, but that remains to be seen. [emphasis added]

But there is a deeper problem with the Fordham claim, to which Wolf alludes: a single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

And Fordham’s preferred policy not only lacks a body of supporting evidence, it is undermined by a large body of evidence. When I reviewed the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide in 2009, I sorted the results into two categories: 1) all studies that compared “public” schools to “private” schools, where those terms were loosely defined; and 2) studies that compared “market” schools to “monopoly” schools. “Market” schools were those paid for at least in part directly by parents and only minimally regulated. “Monopoly” schools were public school systems such as those common in the U.S.

The purpose of these separate categorizations was to see if limited regulation and direct parent funding make a real difference, or if private schools that are paid for entirely by the state and subjected to Fordham’s “public accountability” have the same advantages as their more market-like counterparts.

The result of this breakdown of the literature was stark. Studies looking at truly market-like education systems are twice as consistent in finding a private sector advantage as those looking at “private” schools more broadly construed (and thus including state-funded and regulated private schools).

The pattern of evidence thus seems to contradict Fordham’s belief in the merits of “public accountability” in market education systems. What it favors are policies that promote the rise of minimally regulated education markets in which parents pay at least some of the cost of their own children’s education directly themselves, whenever possible.  That’s just the sort of system likely to arise under education tax credit programs.

The Profit Motive in Education

I’ve finally had a chance to look over a book published last year by the London-based Institute for Economic Affiars: The Profit Motive in Education–Continuing the Revolution. It turns out to be a great overview of current developments from all over the world, and has a particularly useful chapter by its editor James B. Stanfield, development director at the E. G. West Centre at the University of Newcastle, founded by James Tooley.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding how genuine markets can and do work in elementary and secondary education. Delightfully, the whole thing is available on-line as a .pdf file (see link above). E-mail it to your Kindle!