Topic: Education and Child Policy

On Dropouts, Listen to Obama’s Favorite Economist

Libby Quaid of the AP reports today on a new Education Trust study of American high school dropout rates. According to that report, today’s kids complete high school at a lower rate than did their parents, NCLB hasn’t helped, and the solution is more federal money and sage oversight. Both the study and the AP story would have benefitted from a look at the work of two University of Chicago economists: James Heckman and Derek Neal.

Heckman, often cited as one of the biggest influences on Barack Obama’s education policy platform, co-authored in 2007 what is still the definitive study of U.S. graduation rates. He found that the graduation rate peaked around 80 percent in the late 1960s and has drifted down by four or five points since then. He also found a sudden up-tick immediately after the passage of NCLB. So did NCLB really help American kids? Not so fast. Heckman writes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority [student] retention [i.e., flunking] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups (Figure VI and VII)…. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., cheating].

The tons of money and federal oversight added by NCLB appear to be sweeping public schooling’s failures under the rug, not fixing them. The recommendation of the new Education Trust study, that even more money and better federal intervention will do the trick, does not inspire confidence. Unless one believes that a prospective Obama presidency will usher in a gilded age of wise bureaucrats and politicians immune to self-interest, there is no reason to expect that more of the same “solutions” will produce anything other than more of the same results.

If any politicians and voters in this country actually care about raising the graduation rate in a meaningful way, they might want to have a look at the work of Heckman’s colleague Derek Neal, and the subsequent work of Greene (2004) and Warren (2008) — all of whom find that private schools significantly increase the graduation rates of urban (especially minority) children over the rates of similar students attending public schools. And they do this, of course, for about two-thirds of the cost.

Alas, don’t expect Obama to listen to Neal, Greene, or Warren on this evidence any time soon, as Obama has publicly expressed his opposition to parental choice programs that include private schools.

Top U.S. School Districts Mediocre on World Stage

A new study by the American Institutes for research compares the performance of 11 large U.S. districts to that of countries participating in the international mathematics test known as ”TIMSS 2003.” As with earlier international comparisons, American kids do better the less time they have spent in school.

At the 4th grade, the earliest one tested, three of the 11 U.S. districts (Charlotte, Austin, and San Diego) score above the average of OECD countries participating in the test. (The OECD is a group of 30 or so nations, most of which are wealthy and industrialized, but a few of which are less wealthy transitional economies). By the 8th grade, the top two large U.S. districts (Charlotte and Austin) included in the report scored at the overall average of the participating OECD countries.

But the above results overstate the U.S. districts’ achievement. That’s because many industrialized countries that typically outscore us (France, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Finland, Switzerland, Iceland and Poland) did not participate in the TIMSS 2003 test. When the U.S. is compared specifically to other wealthy nations, it peforms worse than the AIR report will lead readers to believe. Finally, U.S. performance continues to deteriorate as students progress through high school, and so the absence of high-school test results also gives an inflated impression of relative U.S. performance.

In a nutshell, even two of the top large school districts in America can barely tread water internationally, when compared to students in other industrialized nations.

All Our Problems, in One, Easy Op-ed!

If you could endorse everything that’s killing our economy and inflating college costs in one op-ed, Michael Dannenberg of the New America Foundation has done it in this morning’s USA Today. Call for government-backed student loans to all comers, regardless of horrible credit history? Check! Trot out the old canard that penurious state higher ed spending drives tuition increases? Check! Demand deficit spending? Check! Declare that FDR ended the longest depression in American history with massive government outlays? Check!

Unfortunately, I am at a conference right now and can’t give this the full treatment it deserves, but just read the op-ed. Frankly, as we are now paying the stabbing price for years of too much easy, government-driven credit—not to mention massive deficit spending—the piece practically refutes itself.

Ohio Schools Take a Page from Stalin’s Playbook

The commissar vanishes from Stalin photo

School districts in Ohio systematically exclude the test scores of certain students, with the effect of raising the districts’ overall averages. According to the Columbus Dispatch, districts drop from their test results students who move to other districts before the end of the year (but after they’ve taken the test). Since kids who move around tend to perform worse academically, this practice bumps up district averages and presumably helps them to avoid penalties imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law. As in a retouched Stalin-era photograph, the offending low-scoring students are simply erased – appearing in no district’s test score average.

One of the key reasons that the free enterprise system works is that producers have incentives to find out what their customers want and to give it to them. Since the customers are spending their own money, they tend to be deeply interested in whether or not they’re getting what they’re paying for. All of this breaks down when the “customer” is a government agency spending other people’s money.

In the public school monopoly, state governments and the NCLB hold districts “accountable” for (manipulable) statistics. In competitive education markets, parents hold schools accountable for the success of their individual children. It’s pretty clear which approach better serves the interests of families.

Tomorrow’s Presidential Surrogate Education Debate

The Teachers’ College at Columbia University is hosting an education debate tomorrow between surrogates of the Obama and McCain campaigns. Here are three questions that I would love to see moderator David Hoff put to the participants:

  1. Why do both candidates support NCLB given that 1) The already modest NAEP test score growth rate has been slower since the law passed, and 2) U.S. scores on the international PISA and PIRLS tests have stagnated or declined across grades and subjects since NCLB?
  2. Why does the Obama Campaign tout Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Act as a model of federal education policymaking, given that test scores went down in the eight years following passage of that law (and didn’t return to pre-NDEA levels for decades)?
  3. Does Senator McCain support national school choice programs, and if so, how does that gibe with a federal government of limited, enumerated powers (education not being among said powers)?

Something Smells Fishy

I don’t know if a sushi robot is really a necessity for the Los Angeles Unified School District. I strongly suspect it isn’t, but I don’t know enough about the state of modern chef-ing to say for sure that it isn’t a must for culinary arts instruction. Even if it is, though, this story stinks of bureaucratic incompetence. If truly necessary, you’d think some sushi teacher somewhere would be screaming “where in California is my CAL Roll 9000!?”

On the other hand, if no one noticed that the LAUSD Jawas failed to drop off their Roll2-D2, why the heck was it ordered in the first place?

Something just doesn’t smell right here.

News Flash for Ed Reporters: Yes, Vouchers Have Been Proven Effective

The Washington Post today reports on the presidential debate and the DC education reform connection, leading off with the biggest point of disagreement:

“I’ve got to tell you that vouchers, where they are requested and where they are agreed to, are a good and workable system. And it’s been proven,’ McCain said in an exchange with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who opposes the idea.”

The WaPo reporters then claim, “But a U.S. Department of Education study released in June showed that students in the program generally scored no higher on reading and math tests after two years than public school peers.”

This is incorrect. The study found that students in the program did generally score higher. The reporters were confused by the fact that the findings for the whole group of students were not statistically significant at the prescribed cut-off. The researchers were only 91 percent certain (statistically) that the better performance of voucher-program students was due to the program rather than chance, and they had to be 95 percent certain. They did find statistically significant positive findings for some subgroups of students.

Compounding this error, the reporters then quote an education researcher saying, “We have no evidence that vouchers work.” This too is incorrect.

There have been ten analyses of random-assignment voucher program experiments (random-assignment being the gold-standard of testing treatment effects). All ten demonstrate positive voucher effects, 9 out of 10 find statistically significant effects for at least some subgroups, and 8 out of 10 find statistically significant effects for the whole voucher group.

And the parents involved are extremely happy with it and think their kids are safer. And the vouchers cost a third or less than what is spent in public schools. Oh, and these programs are all small and some highly regulated, which limits their effectiveness.

There is an embarrassment of solid evidence that vouchers are an effective, popular, and extremely efficient education reform.