Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Wonderful Study on School Competition, but…

I like a clever two-stage least squares instrumental variable regression as much as the next wonk, and the very clever Martin West and Ludger Woessman have just given us one. In “School Choice International” (an econometric study and not a motivational tune) they show that increased competition from private schools improves overall student achievement – including public school achievement – in 29 OECD countries, while lowering overall per pupil spending.

The design of this study seems intended to address the concern that however wonderful private sector education might be, children remaining in public schools might suffer if the private sector were allowed to expand. Those ideologically or financially attached to the existing public school monopoly often like to raise this concern in arguing against greater parental choice and competition in education. The West & Woessman result suggests that the monopolists need not be concerned, because even students remaining in the monopoly schools benefit from an expansion of the private education sector.

This is all well and good. It is also somewhat beside the point, because the concern itself presupposes behavior on the part of parents that is largely fictional. The monopolists’ presupposition is that, no matter how much worse the public sector is, no matter how easily accessible the private sector becomes, some large number of families will decide to languish in atrocious state schools. This is nonsense.

In what field do significant numbers of people cling to earlier services or technologies that are universally recognized as inferior, when those services or technologies compete on a level playing field (i.e., when neither receives preferential treatment from the state)? Do vast throngs of people still cling to vinyl LPs? Do you often see kids today trucking around portable CD players, now that .mp3 players can hold hundreds or thousands of times more music at a similar cost? Do you see a lot of horse-drawn vehicles in your neighborhood?

The only thing that keeps large numbers of families in bad government schools is the positively fantastic level of government funding discrimination that exists in virtually all nations. Most governments fund their own schools but not private schools. Or, if they fund private schools, they do so at noticeably lower levels than they do government schools. In the rare cases where that funding discrimination is eliminated or even substantially reduced, the government sector shrinks dramatically. And, not surprisingly, the public schools that do survive after many years of such shrinkage tend to be the better performers within that sector.

The Netherlands, which funds public and private schools more or less equally, is a case in point. Today, three quarters of Dutch high school students are enrolled in private schools. And while research does show that private Catholic schools in the Netherlands continue to outperform the public schools in that country, even though the Catholic school students have a weaker average socio-economic background, the remaining public schools really aren’t doing that much worse. If they were greatly inferior to the private schools, they would have already lost their students to the private sector.

My point is that the effect on public schools of easing access to the private sector in education is virtually irrelevant. If the public schools improve, great, they’ll survive. If they don’t, it’ll be because families have left them for private schools that do a better job of serving them. In either case, the public is benefiting. The idea that great masses of humanity will choose to linger in low quality government schools when higher quality schools become available at a comparable or lower cost shows a bizarre lack of understanding of human nature, and a gross detachment from reality.