Tag: schools

Could You Modify It ‘To Stop Students From Becoming This Advanced?’

The free Web tutoring service “Khan Academy” has gotten much well-deserved attention, including a feature story in the current issue of Wired. That story includes a quote that literally took my breath away:

Even if Khan is truly liberating students to advance at their own pace, it’s not clear that the schools will be able to cope. The very concept of grade levels implies groups of students moving along together at an even pace. So what happens when, using Khan Academy, you wind up with a kid in fifth grade who has mastered high school trigonometry and physics—but is still functioning like a regular 10-year-old when it comes to writing, history, and social studies? Khan’s programmer, Ben Kamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”

This attitude is a natural outgrowth of our decision to operate education as a monopoly. In a competitive marketplace, educators have incentives to serve each individual child to the best of their ability, because each child can easily be enrolled elsewhere if they fail to do so. That is why the for-profit Asian tutoring industry groups students by performance, not by age. There are “grades,” but they do not depend on when a student was born, only on what she knows and is able to do.

But why should a monopolist bother doing that? It’s easier just to feed children through the system on a uniform conveyor belt based on when they were born.

Michelle Rhee Endorses Private School Choice…Sort of

Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee declares in a new op-ed that she endorses private school choice for low-income families, but adds: “I’m not for school choice for its own sake. I am for choice because it can, directly and indirectly, provide better opportunities for low-income children—not simply more opportunities.”

I’m not sure I understand her. Is Rhee saying that given two alternatives: one in which parents have many different educational choices and one in which they don’t, she inherently prefers the option that gives parents no choice if test scores are not impacted either way? Why not prefer choice for its own sake, as well as for its academic benefits?

Rhee then goes on to say that private schools receiving government funding should be under government oversight, and be required to do such things as administer standardized tests in order to ensure “accountability.” But isn’t this precisely the sort of “accountability” to which state-run schools are already subjected in minute detail, and which has coincided with stagnation or decline in academic achievement for two generations (depending on the subject) and a catastrophic productivity collapse? It’s worth noting that it is the freest, least regulated, most market-like education systems that consistently produce the most effective, efficient schools.

It’s a short op-ed, providing little room for Rhee to explain how she came to hold the particular policy views she espouses regarding private school choice. It will be interesting to learn more.


I have an op-ed in the Huffington Post today arguing that it’s possible to ensure universal access to education without compelling anyone to support types of instruction that violate their convictions. This eliminates the central objection that the ACLU and ADL have given for their opposition to private school choice. Indeed, if those organizations really care about freedom of conscience, they should prefer the policy solution I outline to the status quo system in which every taxpayer is compelled to support a single government organ of education. Or is there some other reason why the ACLU and ADL oppose liberating American education?

Feel free to chime-in in the comments section on Huff Po.

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.

No Cheers for Title IX

For supporters of Title IX, it’s time to put down the pom-poms.

From the start, Title IX has been an unnecessary and destructive imposition of government and bureaucracy into college sports, substituting regulation and litigation for the free choices of women and men. But yesterday’s ruling that competitive cheerleading isn’t a sport – a decision worth reading just for its brilliant illustration of the torturous athlete-accounting and word-parsing Title IX demands – highlights how truly absurd it has become.

For one thing, tell the women (and men) in competitive cheer that it isn’t a sport – most would probably beg to differ. Much more important, when we have judges ruling what does or does not constitute a sport we have clearly given up way too much freedom in our supposedly free society. Finally, the very basis for Title IX – the notion that women will be systematically and unfairly barred from various activities by misogynistic colleges – just makes no sense, especially today. The fact is, women make up the very large majority of college students, and hence can dictate terms to schools. At least, they can dictate terms if schools want to keep competing in the sport we call “staying in business.”

Which brings us to what probably really scares Title IX fans: Women almost certainly don’t want to participate in intercollegiate athletics as much as men do, a likelihood evidenced by everything from hugely greater male participation in open-access intramural sports, to men choosing ESPN and women choosing Facebook while on the Web. The problem, of course, is that to admit that would be to lose the ability to push schools around with the big ol’ federal government.

Dealing with Police

Yesterday Cato hosted the premiere screening of the new film, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police, produced by our friends at Flex Your Rights. The Washington Post has a nice piece about the film and event here. And the Washington Examiner covered the event here.

10 Rules is a gold mine of useful information (both legal and practical) for handling police encounters.  Legal books are too often impenetrable and just too time-consuming for laypersons. 10 Rules is a media-savvy vehicle that can alleviate the problem of constitutional illiteracy in America.

In less than 45 minutes, you acquire the information you need to know.  Get the dvds and encourage others to show them at high schools, colleges, and other venues.

Catch the trailer below:

Big Teacher Is Watching

Researching government invasions of privacy all day, I come across my fair share of incredibly creepy stories, but this one may just take the cake.  A lawsuit alleges that the Lower Merion School District in suburban Pennsylvania used laptops issued to each student to spy on the kids at home by remotely and surreptitiously activating the webcam built into the bezel of each one. The horrified parents of one student apparently learned about this capability when their son was called in to the assistant principal’s office and accused of “inappropriate behavior while at home.” The evidence? A still photograph taken by the laptop camera in the student’s home.

I’ll admit, at first I was somewhat skeptical—if only because this kind of spying is in such flagrant violation of so many statutes that I thought surely one of the dozens of people involved in setting it up would have piped up and said: “You know, we could all go to jail for this.” But then one of the commenters over at Boing Boing reminded me that I’d seen something like this before, in a clip from Frontline documentary about the use of technology in one Bronx school.  Scroll ahead to 4:37 and you’ll see a school administrator explain how he can monitor what the kids are up to on their laptops in class. When he sees students using the built-in Photo Booth software to check their hair instead of paying attention, he remotely triggers it to snap a picture, then laughs as the kids realize they’re under observation and scurry back to approved activities.

I’ll admit, when I first saw that documentary—it aired this past summer—that scene didn’t especially jump out at me. The kids were, after all, in class, where we expect them to be under the teacher’s watchful eye most of the time anyway. The now obvious question, of course, is: What prevents someone from activating precisely the same monitoring software when the kids take the laptops home, provided they’re still connected to the Internet?  Still more chilling: What use is being made of these capabilities by administrators who know better than to disclose their extracurricular surveillance to the students?  Are we confident that none of these schools employ anyone who might succumb to the temptation to check in on teenagers getting out of the shower in the morning? How would we ever know?

I dwell on this because it’s a powerful illustration of a more general point that can’t be made often enough about surveillance: Architecture is everything. The monitoring software on these laptops was installed with an arguably legitimate educational purpose, but once the architecture of surveillance is in place, abuse becomes practically inevitable.  Imagine that, instead of being allowed to install a bug in someone’s home after obtaining a warrant, the government placed bugs in all homes—promising to activate them only pursuant to a judicial order.  Even if we assume the promise were always kept and the system were unhackable—both wildly implausible suppositions—the amount of surveillance would surely spike, because the ease of resorting to it would be much greater even if the formal legal prerequisites remained the same. And, of course, the existence of the mics would have a psychological effect of making surveillance seem like a default.

You can see this effect in law enforcement demands for data retention laws, which would require Internet Service Providers to keep at least customer transactional logs for a period of years. In face-to-face interactions, of course, our default assumption is that no record at all exists of the great majority of our conversations. Law enforcement accepts this as a fact of nature. But with digital communication, the default is that just about every activity creates a record of some sort, and so police come to see it as outrageous that a potentially useful piece of evidence might be deleted.

Unfortunately, we tend to discuss surveillance in myopically narrow terms.  Should the government be able to listen in on the phone conversations of known terrorists? To pose the question is to answer it. What kind of technological architecture is required to reliably sweep up all the communications an intelligence agency might want—for perfectly legitimate reasons—and what kind of institutional incentives and inertia does that architecture create? A far more complicated question—and one likely to seem too abstract to bother about for legislators focused on the threat of the week.