Topic: Education and Child Policy

Misconceptions in Raj Chetty’s “Fading American Dream”

Raj Chetty, the head of Stanford’s “Equality of Opportunity” project, recently released a paper called “The Fading American Dream” co-authored with another economist, a sociologist, and three grad students. It claims that “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s.” [Though the study ends with 2014, when most of those “born in the 1980s” were not yet 30.]

The title alone was sure to attract media excitement, particularly because the new study thanks New York Times columnist David Leonhardt “for posing the question that led to this research.” 

Leonhardt, in turn, gushed that Chetty’s research “is among the most eye-opening economics work in recent years.”  He explained that he asked Chetty to “create an index of the American dream” which “shows the percentage of children who earn more money… than their parent earned at the same age.”  The result, he concludes, is “very alarming. It’s a portrait of an economy that disappoints a huge number of people who have heard that they live in a country where life gets better, only to experience something quite different.”

“Another Chetty-bomb just exploded in the mobility debate,” declared a Brookings Institution memo: “Only half of Americans born in 1980 are economically better off than their parents. This compares to 90 percent of those born in 1940.”

At Vox.com,  Jim Tankersley proclaimed “The  American Dream [is] collapsing for young adults.”

“Sons born in 1984 are only 41 percent likely to earn more than their fathers, compared to 95 percent of sons born in 1940,” wrote USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey.  “If the American dream is defined as earning more money than your parents,” said Bomey, “today’s young adults are just as likely to have a nightmare as they are to achieve the dream.”

The Chetty study proved to be a politically irresistible story, since it appears to confirm a popular nostalgia for the good old days and belief that it has become more and more difficult to get ahead. But that is not what the study really shows.  What it really shows is:

First: Incomes were extremely low in 1940, so it was quite easy to do better 30 years later.

Second: Doing better than your parents is not defined by your income at age 30, but by income and wealth accumulated over a lifetime (including retirement).

Third: A rising percentage of young people remain in grad school at age 30, so their current income is lower than that of their parents at that age but their future income is likely to be much higher.

School Choice War Goes Hot

With a presidential administration that is disliked for myriad reasons openly pushing school choice, what had been kind of a cold war over choice for years has exploded into a hot one. And the tip of the anti-choice spear seems to be the New York Times. Last week it ran a piece by New America education director Kevin Carey suggesting that choice has been “dismal,” and doubled down on that yesterday with an attack on choice as an academic “failure.”

Is it a failure? First, the vast majority of random-assignment studies of private school voucher programs—the “gold-standard” research method that even controls for unobserved factors like parental motivation—have found choice producing equivalent or superior academic results, usually for a fraction of what is spent on public schools. Pointing at three, as we shall see, very limited studies, does not substantially change that track record.

Let’s look at the studies Carey highlighted: one on Louisiana’s voucher program, one on Ohio, and one on Indiana. Make that two studies: Carey cited Indiana findings without providing a link to, or title of, the research, and he did not identify the researchers. The Times did the same in their editorial. Why? Because the Indiana research has not been published. What Carey perhaps drew on was a piece by Mark Dynarski at the Brookings Institution. And what was that based on? Apparently, a 2015 academic conference presentation by R. Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends, who at the time were in the midst of analyzing Indiana’s program and who have not yet published their findings.

Next there is Ohio’s voucher program. The good news is that the research has been published, indeed by the choice-favoring Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And it does indicate that what the researchers were able to study revealed a negative effect on standardized tests. But Carey omitted two important aspects of the study. One, it found that choice had a modestly positive effect on public schools, spurring them to improve. Perhaps more important, because the research design was something called “regression discontinuity” it was limited in what it was able to reliably determine. Basically, that design looks at performance clustered around some eligibility cut-off—in this case, public schools that just made or missed the performance level below which students became eligible for vouchers—so the analysis could not tell us about a whole lot of kids. Wrote the researchers: “We can only identify with relative confidence the estimated effects…for those students who had been attending the highest-performing EdChoice-eligible public schools and not those who would have been attending lower-performing public schools.”

That is a big limit.

Finally, we come to the Louisiana study, which was random-assignment. Frankly, its negative findings are not new information. The report came out over a year ago, and we at Cato have written and talked about it extensively. And there are huge caveats to the findings, including that the program’s heavy regulations—e.g., participating schools must give state tests to voucher recipients and become part of a state accountability system—likely encouraged many of the better private schools to stay out. There are also competing private choice programs in the Pelican State. In addition, the rules requiring participating private schools to administer state tests are new, and there is a good chance that participating institutions were still transitioning. Indeed, as Carey noted, the study showed private school outcomes improving from the first year to the second. That could well indicate that the schools are adjusting to the change. And as in Ohio, there was evidence that the program spurred some improvements in public schools.

Choice advocates should not cheer about the latest research, but in totality, the evidence does not come close to showing choice a “failure.” Indeed, the evidence is still very favorable to choice. And the primary value of choice is not necessarily reflected in test scores: it is freeing families and educators to choose for themselves what education is best.

No Side Is ‘Shameful’ in Trump’s Change to Transgender Bathroom Policy

President Trump’s administration has rescinded the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter requiring that public schools let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. It was probably the right thing do, and there was nothing “shameful” about the decision: equally decent people can, and do, have competing views of what is good.

There is no reason, of course, to believe anything other than that the Obama administration’s initial guidance was well-intended, driven by a desire to see transgender students empowered to make decisions for themselves about who they are. It is also absolutely a legitimate worry that school districts might discriminate against transgender students.

But equally decent people could feel very uncomfortable sharing a bathroom or changing room with someone of the opposite biological sex — sex-based privacy has been a time-honored norm — and could also have religious objections to such mixing. What about their rights? There were also legitimate worries about the legality of the order, delivered as a sudden reinterpretation of long-standing regulations.

Finally, societal evolution takes time. It may well be better to let smaller units (states, communities, families) grapple with and adjust to social change than suddenly impose one vision of the good on everyone.

Of course, there may be no solution in a diverse school or district that equally respects the values and desires of all. This is a major reason that school choice is so crucial: it enables families and educators to freely choose the values they want taught and respected, rather than government choosing one side to win and the other to lose.

Don’t Block the Education Secretary, End the Department of Education

Newly sworn-in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tried, and eventually succeeded, to visit a Washington, D.C., public school Friday morning. As warned by her opponents after she was confirmed by a razor-thin margin on Tuesday, she was met by protesters who intended to make good on the threat to block her at every turn. In this case, literally: according to videos like this, they physically tried to prevent her from entering the building.

The opposition to DeVos, as I’ve suggested over the last several weeks, has been over the top and, frankly, unfair. It also hasn’t done much to improve the sick state of the national political dialogue.

That said, there may be no one more sympathetic to objections to federal education meddling than me. Indeed, if the school refused to let DeVos visit because it did not want the disruption or political theater, I’d have been all for it.

But there is a way more constructive way to solve the problem of dangerous or unwanted federal intervention than blocking schoolhouse doors: work to end the federal Department of Education.

This does not, by the way, mean ending the federal role in keeping states and districts from discriminating in their provision of education, but that is much more properly a Justice Department responsibility.

The vast majority of what the Education Department does is collect taxpayer money, burn a bunch off in bureaucracy, then bundle the remainder into programs that tell states, districts and schools how to run education, all with little evidence of meaningful academic effects. This situation will likely improve a bit with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which does return some control to states, but a little better is still awfully bad.

The good news is that a window has opened for the protestors and anyone else worried about federal power — or maybe just interested in seeing the Constitution obeyed — to end the education department.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., has just introduced legislation to end the Education Department. The text of the bill is simple: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.” That’s it. I’d like to see what would happen to all the programs the department runs — they’re the meat of the problem — but the simple bill is a major step in the right direction.

I hope DeVos’ opponents would agree that ending most federal education intervention would be a good thing. But if not, don’t worry: I won’t try to visit your school.

Statement on Confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education

It is gratifying to see Betsy DeVos confirmed as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. This is not because the federal government should attempt to push school choice—it should not, except in the District of Columbia and for families connected to the military—but because the opposition to now-Secretary DeVos was so unfair to her, and to the research on educational freedom. The reality is that research indicates charter schooling works in Michigan, DeVos’s home state, and specifically in Detroit. It shows that families of students with disabilities, rather than somehow being victimized by school choice, are empowered and immensely satisfied with it. And logic and evidence show that private school choice, rather than imposing ideas on people, frees them to get what they want for their children without forcing it on others.

It is also gratifying to see DeVos approved because she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing that education decisions should be left to state and local governments. Constitutionally, that has things absolutely right: the Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern or “oversee” American education, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) put it, which means such rights remain with the states, or with the people. And 50-plus years of increasingly intrusive federal meddling in education, with ultimately no visible academic improvement to show for it, brilliantly illustrates the wisdom of that decision.

Now let us hope that the Trump administration sticks to the constitutionally-constrained federal role—even on school choice—that Secretary DeVos has repeatedly endorsed. 

A Year Gone by Since Andrew Passed, a Big Year to Come for His Ideas

Today marks one year since the death of former Cato Center for Educational Freedom director, and later senior fellow, Andrew Coulson. Many friends and colleagues had wonderful things to say about Andrew upon his passing, and we invite you to read all the testimonials that we were able to assemble.

Today, however, is not only a day for looking to the past, but to the future. Because Andrew’s ideas are about to enter their biggest stage yet. The project to which Andrew devoted most of his final years, and that encompasses the heart of his thought on education, has been accepted by PBS. School Inc., Andrew’s three-part documentary series on how free markets bring transformative innovation to countless parts of our lives, and how to achieve such dynamism to the world of education, will air on WNET in New York in June, and may begin airing on PBS stations around the country as early as April. We’ll keep you posted on all stations and times as soon as they are available.

As a supplement to the documentary—and for anyone who wants to explore the ongoing debates about Andrew’s ideas on education—Cato will soon be publishing Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, a free ebook that will be available on the Cato website, featuring essays by many education thinkers who knew Andrew and his ideas well.

As we said last year, “Andrew Coulson is no longer with us. Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.” Indeed, they will.

Democrats Should Be Heartened by Betsy DeVos

Unless something unexpected happens, tomorrow the United States Senate will vote on Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. And if you are a Democrat sweating through nightmares over what a Trump administration will do to education, you should be pretty comfy with what DeVos has said she’d like to see happen under her watch. As she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing, she would not use federal power—and certainly not secretarial power—to impose anything, including school choice, on unwilling states and districts.

But isn’t the vote expected to be as close as last night’s Super Bowl at the end of regulation, with all Dems voting against DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence delivering the final, overtime vote for her? Yup.

You see, over the decades, Democrats, with copious help from Republicans, have tried to make the U.S. Department of Education what it was not originally intended to be, and what with absolute certainty it cannot constitutionally be: a national school board. This vision was exposed in a comment by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, when she warned all who were suffering through the festival of misinformation and grandstanding that was DeVos’s confirmation hearing, that if approved DeVos would “oversee the education of all of our kids.”

This did not elicit the manufactured giddiness that met DeVos’s suggestion that a school with a grizzly fence might have a gun, and that such decisions should be left to states and communities who know their needs better than Washington. But Murray really ought to know that the Constitution and several laws give the feds no authority to “oversee” American education. Moreover, she had only about a year earlier voted for a law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—intended to cage the education secretary after the Obama administration had employed the position to illegally micromanage American education.

Sen. Murray was, though, soon outdone in her hyperbole. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took his rightful position in the front of the overstatement pack, declaring that DeVos “would single-handedly decimate our public education system if she were confirmed.”

How, exactly, would she do that?

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