Topic: Education and Child Policy

Riddle Us This

I’m currently attending Cato University – extraordinary academics, so-so athletics – so I’ve neither been able to get to the edublogs in too timely a fashion, nor ruminate extensively on their content. I have, though, managed to get to a few blogs, and couldn’t help but notice a question-and-answer in need of facilitation.

Over at Flypaper – the blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – Mike Petrilli has returned from vacation and not missed a beat in his national-education-standards march. Picking up on a recent Jonathan Alter column dealing largely with crippling teacher-union obstructionism, Petrilli declares that:

if we harnessed the resources we currently spend on our fifty-state system of tests for one common system, we could afford to measure subjects beyond reading and math, online, in a way that encouraged intellectually-challenging schoolwork rather than test prep.

My concern here is not with the money-saving proposition. It’s with the “intellectually-challenging schoolwork” assumption. It goes back to an argument I’ve made many times before, but this time another blogger has brought it up, and one quite different than libertarian ol’ me. Asks Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk, contemplating the gaming of state tests under No Child Left Behind:

Can someone explain exactly how a national, federal, or “American” in the new parlance, test will be any different?  If indeed there is a political pathology out there to make schools look better, regardless of whether they are better, a proposition that seems pretty spot on to me, then how are the politics somehow so radically different at the national level?  National test proponents have never really answered this question except to point to the NAEP.  But, the NAEP is a no-stakes test right now so it really doesn’t make the point.

Terrific questions, Andy, to which I’d just add: How especially would you expect high-stakes national tests to escape gaming pressures when the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, and just about every other major education interest group has its headquarters right in the DC area?

I – and I assume Andy – would love to hear the answers to these questions.  

Pre-K Pushers Pathologically Panglossian?

The preschool evangelists will not shrivel before arguments or facts, for they believe. Their faith in preschool is strong and pure.

Just because the short-term gains for low-income students don’t last doesn’t mean they can’t last. If we can just make all preschools high-quality, and then make all elementary schools high-quality, and then make all high-schools high-quality, and then make all parents high-quality … then preschool might sustain something other than negligible improvements.

Perhaps, but almost certainly not.

More likely, if we had all high-quality schools and parents we’d once again find that whether a child learns her letters at 4 instead of 5 doesn’t make one flea-hair’s bit of difference by the time she (hopefully) graduates high-school.

Finland should give the preschool activists pause. It doesn’t, but it should.

Children don’t begin formal schooling until around 7. At first, no surprise, they don’t score as well as many countries who park their kids in classrooms at age 3 or 4. By high school, however, Finland’s students are at the top of the pack internationally, and far outperform the laggard US.

So why this national obsession with preschool? Is it to take the blame off of our ossified government k-12 system? More money for the teachers unions?

I don’t think Sara Mead and many of her fellow travelers are henchmen for the union bosses.

Perhaps it provides hope to progressives who place their faith in the power of government but have witnessed only an unyielding failure to sustain effective and meaningful reform in the government k-12 school system.

Perhaps preschool offers a distraction from the despair and fatalism fostered by so obvious a failure of the public sector. A crusade to invigorate the faithful.

Preschool is not our educational salvation, and “reform” of a moribund government k-12 system is a fool’s errand.

The most certain way to improve academic performance and life outcomes for all students in this country, rich and poor, is to expand educational freedom. Oh, and it would save each state billions of dollars too.

Look for more soon in what will soon be the inaccurately-named Preschool Tetralogy

Public Schooling as a 1971 Chevy Impala

U.S. student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated (reading and math) or declined (science) since nationally-representative NAEP tests were first administered around 1970. Meanwhile, education spending has risen by a factor of 2.3 over that same period, from $5,247 per student to about $12,000, in inflation-adjusted (2008) dollars. [To get the most up-to-date figures you have to use multiple sources and adjust to 2008 dollars yourself, but an older data series can be found in this table.]

1970 Chevy Impala

What would the U.S. automobile industry look like if it were run the same way, and had suffered the same productivity collapse, as public schooling? To the left is a 1971 Chevrolet Impala. According to the New York Times of September 25th, 1970, it originally sold for $3,460. That’s $19,011 in today’s dollars. If cars were like public schools, you would be compelled to buy one of these today, and to pay $43,479 for that privilege (2.3 times the original price).

But, thank heavens, the automobile industry is part of the free enterprise system that thrives everywhere in our economy outside the classroom. A brand new 2008 Impala, pictured to the right, costs only slightly more in real terms than the 1970 model did: $21,975. But it is a very different beast.2008 Impala

Apart from its far superior fit and finish, it comes standard with technologies that could barely be imagined 40 years ago: OnStar satellite communications, side-curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes, to name a few. And if you don’t like the looks of it, or if it doesn’t fit the needs of your family, you can buy something else  — something bigger or smaller, faster or more fuel efficient.

So, do you wish the automobile industry were run like public schooling, or do you wish that public education was part of our free enterprise system, with financial assistance to ensure universal access to the marketplace?

Federalism and School Choice

Down on The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru has written that I seemed a “bit over-hasty” in my recent blog entry stating that federal efforts to promote school choice (outside of Washington, D.C., I should make clear) would be “beyond the feds’ constitutional purview.” Ponnuru suggests that Washington could constitutionally “equalize the tax treatment of payments to private and public schools. That is, stop making state and local taxes (or at least the portion of them that go to public schools) deductible, or start making private-school tuitions deductible.”

I’m afraid I don’t see how either of these fits the dual requirements of being both constitutional and promoting school choice, but I can be pretty dense at times and might need some elaboration.

Concerning the first proposal, I don’t understand how eliminating deductions for state and local taxes would advance choice. The problem is having to pay taxes to support “free” public schools in the first place, not that you can deduct those taxes from your federal taxable income. As far as I can figure, eliminating the deductions would increase the tax burden on public- and private-schooling parents (and all other citizens), but would do little to end the private-schooling penalty of having to pay once for public schools and a second time for private.

With regard to the second proposal, I don’t understand how allowing deductions for private-school tuitions is constitutional. The deductions would be explicitly for schooling, and the enumerated powers for which the Constitution permits Washington “To lay and collect Taxes” include nothing about education.

What have I missed?

Temper, Temper

After reading John McCain’s education-centric speech to the NAACP yesterday, I had a pretty enthusiastic reaction. However, having just taken in McCain’s newly posted “Plan for Strengthening America’s Schools,” my exuberance has been significantly tempered.

Don’t get me wrong: I still think McCain’s emphasis on choice yesterday, even if it turns out to be only rhetorical, is great. We need national leaders (and state, and local) to stop parroting clap-trap about fighting to the last kid for the bureaucratic, special-interest-dominated, public-schooling system, and focus instead on helping children get the education they need. But while McCain’s straight (ugh!) talk about choice was refreshing, his plan hardly is.

All that McCain’s plan offers in terms of specifics is that he’d reapportion federal money slated for attracting, rewarding, and training teachers; somehow give principals more control over their budgets; and expand the use of online education. Oh, and importantly(though most voters, concerned primarily about their own kids, probably won’t care), McCain would increase funding for D.C.’s school-choice program.

All of this adds up to little more than tinkering and really doesn’t give voters much to hang their hats on. There’s nothing sweeping and bold like yesterday’s commitment to seek “school choice for all who want it,” and the largely programmatic changes McCain does offer are far too wimpy if he plans to take on Barack Obama, huge promise for huge promise.

Of course, it would be outstanding if McCain has kept his plan small because he doesn’t believe that Washington should be meddling in education. But if that’s his true motivation, he should put it front and center, offering something really principled that could appeal to both disaffected small-government Republicans and liberals who have had it with No Child Left Behind. But what McCain proposes would all come from the feds, and his plan includes nothing about cutting Washington’s education presence down to size. Oh, and there’s the matter of his apparent promise to “fully fund” NCLB

Choice for all is a great theme. But from the looks of his plan, tweaking federal programs will be McCain’s true, disppointing, education focus.

Update: Here’s my chat with Caleb Brown about McCain’s push for choice in a Cato Daily Podcast (iTunes).

Now We’re Getting Somewhere!

Just yesterday, I was bewailing politicians’ (and others’) unwillingness to take on fundamental questions about what kind of education system has been—and is now—most compatible with American goals and values. It’s much easier to wax poetic about American public schooling as some time-immemorial backbone of the nation than face the educational truth.

Well, though he didn’t debunk all the mythology propping up public schooling, yesterday John McCain offered one of the boldest challenges to the bunk-based status quo I’ve heard from a politician in a while. In a speech to the NAACP, McCain declared that if elected president he would fight for “school choice for all who want it.”

Unfortunately, one of the implications of McCain’s promise is that the federal government would secure choice under his presidency. But outside of Washington D.C., providing anything in education—choice or otherwise—is beyond the feds’ constitutional purview, as Andrew Coulson explains here. This must be made abundantly clear to McCain and Senator Obama, who promises to throw everything into education including the science-lab sink. It’s also disturbing that in the question and answer period following his speech, McCain promised to “fully fund” the No Child Left Behind Act, a change from previous McCain-camp statements.

Despite these major federalism problems, McCain’s speech is a welcome step forward, at least in spirit. At last, though he might not know who should provide it, a major candidate for national office is declaring that school choice for all is the key to success.