Topic: Education and Child Policy

Obama Touts Failed Federal Program

Senator Obama launched a major education counter-offensive today, in a speech laying out his vision for the future of American schooling. Calling for a renewal of the public school system to “meet the challenges of a new time,” Obama held up the National Defense Education Act of 1958 as a model for what he has in mind. He told the Dayton, Ohio crowd that “Eisenhower doubled federal investment in education after the Soviets beat us to space. That’s the kind of leadership we must show today.”

The trouble is, the NDEA was an expensive failure. Congress’ goal was to improve achievement in math and science following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Satellite Sputnik. There are no nationally representative science results from the time, but high school mathematics performance actually fell in the eight years following passage of the law, according to national norm studies conducted by the College Board, which administers the SAT and PSAT (see figure below). By 1983, math scores had still not returned to the level they had been at before the NDEA was passed.

Math Scores, National Norm PSAT Studies
(11th graders), 1955 to 1983

 national norm studies '55 to '83

(Source: College Board data reported in Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, “What’s Really Behind the SAT-Score Decline,” Public Interest, no. 106 (Winter 1992): 32-56.)

Either the Senator’s advisors were unaware of the NDEA’s disappointing results, or they offered it as a model despite them. Neither scenario inspires confidence in the future of federal education policy under an Obama presidency.

More on the results of federal education interventions like NDEA below the fold….

Could the decline be the result of more kids taking the test? No. Each time the test was administered by the College Board, it was to a random, nationally representative sample of all 11th graders.

Could the NDEA and subsequent federal programs have just taken a long time to work, ultimately resulting in a sustained improvement in performance in math and science? No. The Long Term Trend tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress become available around 1970. Here’s what they show:

NAEP Long-Term Trends Results
(17-year-olds), 1969–70 to 2003–04

NAEP long term trends

[Sources: SOURCES: Rebecca Moran and Anthony D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), p. 17; Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), p. 9.]

Could the problem be that federal, state, and local governments have not spent enough on programs like NDEA and its successors? No. Here’s the inflation adjusted history of public school revenues, in 2008 dollars:

spending history

[Sources: Thomas Snyder, Sally Dillow, and Charlene Hoffman, Digest of Education Statistics 2007 (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2008), Table 162. Missing values linearly interpolated. Historical consumer price index inflation factors from]

There is simply no getting around the fact that Barack Obama has hitched his ed policy wagon to an expensive failure. Caveat voter.

SAT Scores — What the Media Are Missing

When the College Board released SAT scores for the nation in late August, media outlets and state departments of education around the country were quick to report overall statewide averages. Sometimes, this mislead the public. A press release from South Carolina superintendent of education Jim Rex noted, for example, that the state’s “high school seniors… raised their average SAT scores by two points” from the preceding year. Though they still placed 48th out of the 50 states.

Shortly thereafter, a few astute folks in the Palmetto state noticed that South Carolina’s average rose solely due to a substantial improvement in the performance of private school test-takers, and that the composite scores for public school students actually fell by 5 points.

That, however, is not the end of the story. Many in South Carolina have long assumed that the state performs below the national average on the SAT in part because of the socio-economic and racial composition of its test takers. In plain English, there’s a widespread belief that South Carolina is brought down by its large share of poor and African American students. Umm. No.

What the data show is quite different. Middle-income South Carolinians score 32 points below middle-income families nationally. Those from families earning less than $20,000 score 72 points below their income peers nationally. And those from families earning over $160,000 score 74 points below their income peers nationally. It is the richest South Carolinians who are the furthest behind their income peers around the nation.

As for the racial breakdown: Blacks in South Carolina are 30 points behind those elsewhere around the country, while whites in South Carolina are 42 points behind whites nationally.

The belief that South Carolina’s most privileged families are getting an excellent public school education and that their scores are being dragged down by those less fortunate is a fiction with little basis in reality.

Education Tax Credits: Most Popular Choice Policy

The Friedman Foundation has just published the latest state poll – Maryland – in their very helpful education survey series.

There are a lot of interesting things here, but I’ll highlight just a couple:

Maryland spends more than $12,000 per student. Only eight percent of Maryland residents guessed that spending was more than $10,000. Taxpayers have absolutely no concept of how badly they are getting fleeced by the teachers unions.

Education tax credits once again outperform vouchers in popularity. Credits pull in 52 percent support, with 48 percent opposed. Vouchers get just 42 percent support, with 58 percent opposed.

Following the recent EdNext and a mountain of other evidence, it’s clear that education tax credits are the best bet for school choice supporters.

Florida High Court Defeats Threat to its Sovereignty

With barely a moment’s reflection, the Florida Supreme Court has stricken two amendment questions from the state’s November ballot. The first would have allowed religious institutions to participate in state programs, subject to the limits imposed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The second would have overturned a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that essentially forbids the legislature from creating any alternative education programs alongside the required public school system.

The written decision has yet to be published, but whatever it says, it will be hard not to see this ruling as the latest turf battle between the Court and the voters – with the Court coming out on top yet again. This is bad news for Florida families, whose elected representatives will continue to have their hands tied on education policy.

When it comes to education in Florida, the state’s high court has asserted its sovereignty, and seems earnestly dedicated to preserving it. First it shackled the people of Florida to their troubled public school system, and now it has taped their mouths shut so that they cannot overturn its decision.

My Hope Was for Change

I really dislike political speeches, and the “bigger” the speech, the worse. More faux earnestness. More lofty rhetoric about “pulling together to realize the American dream.” More heartstring-pullers about “a man I met in [insert heartland state here] who has played by the rules, but who is on the brink of losing his house because this year’s crop was destroyed by a plague of locusts and his job at the vacuum-tube factory was off-shored to Bangladesh.” You know what I mean.

Despite this, last night I was torn. I really didn’t want to listen to Barack Obama’s speech — Logical Neal had read lots of Obama’s issue positions and didn’t see anything that struck him as the least bit new — but Optimist Neal said surely there must be something to all this talk of “change.” So I tuned in.

Stupid Optimist Neal!

There wasn’t a thing in last night’s spectacle that didn’t come right out of the shopworn (but, of course, not open-shop!) Democratic tool bag and Big Book of Clichéd Political Speeches. Demonizing corporations and “the rich”; assuming that “caring” is synonymous with “more government”; pronouncing that all of this is what it really means to be American — it was all there!

Now, I know that no one reads what I have to say to get my take on pure politics. I’m an education guy! Fortunately, I can make my point by sticking with what I know. Obama’s rhetorical exploitation of education and “the children” was his tired speech in microcosm:

  • Demonize opponent because he hasn’t proposed new programs — you know, because Washington spends nothing on student aid — to send kids to college?


“I don’t believe that Senator McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn’t know…How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people’s benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college…”

  • Talk like kids aren’t getting a decent education because government hasn’t done enough?


“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves, protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education…”


Oh, and promise to pay teachers—your most important foot soldiers and powerful lobby—more?

Check on that, too!

“I’ll invest in early childhood education. I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability. And we will keep our promise to every young American — if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.

I won’t go on. I’m sure you get the point. There’s nothing new — there’s no “change” — with Obama. There’s just the same old promise that whatever your problem, government will solve it, and there’s just another reminder that I should never, ever, listen to Optimist Neal.

Leftism in the Schools

Buried in his profile of Barack Obama’s background, David Maraniss discusses one of his mother’s favorite classes at Mercer Island High School near Seattle in the late 1950s:

Their curiosity was encouraged by the teachers at Mercer Island High, especially Jim Wichterman and Val Foubert, who taught advanced humanities courses open to the top 25 students. The assigned reading included not only Plato and Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Sartre, but also late-1950s critiques of societal conventions, such as “The Organization Man” by William H. Whyte, “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman and “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard, as well as the political theories of Hegel and Mill and Marx. “The Communist Manifesto” was also on the reading list, and it drew protests from some parents.

Seriously? This was the reading list? Hegel and Marx, but no Locke and Smith, the thinkers who actually revolutionized the world we live in? “Late-1950s critiques of societal conventions” like The Lonely Crowd and The Hidden Persuaders, but not Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Chambers’s Witness, or Buckley’s God and Man at Yale? Weren’t those critiques of societal convention? (True, Plato and Aristotle weren’t leftists, and Mill was a classical liberal. But there are no conservatives, free-market advocates, or contemporary libertarians.)

It’s hard to imagine that parents objected to such a reading list….

But Maraniss assures us that there was nothing leftist about it:

In tracking the Obama story this year, some conservative Web sites have seized on the high school curriculum of his mother as evidence of an early leftist indoctrination. [Her high school classmate Chip] Wall, who has spent his life challenging dogma from any ideology, and whose take on the world often veers from the politically correct, answered this interpretation with a two-word dismissal: “Oh, crap.”

Well, I wouldn’t hold Obama responsible for what his mother was taught in the Seattle suburbs before he was born. But it’s pretty clear that this high school course tilts far to the left. And of course such reading lists are even more common in college. Today the lists include more racial and gender diversity, though no more ideological diversity. And this list demonstrates that you can put together a plenty left-wing reading list composed entirely of Dead White European Men (some of whom weren’t even dead at the time).

“The [School Choice] Times, They Are a-Changin’ ”

Reporting from the Democratic National Convention two days ago, Salon’s Mickey Kaus was stunned to find a room packed with 500 people cheering as Newark mayor Cory Booker defended school choice. Booker complained of the viciousness of education politics, noting that “he’d been told his political career would be over if he kept pushing school choice.” And when Booker told the crowd that their party would “have to admit, as Democrats, we have been wrong on education,” he was greeted by “Loud applause!” [emphasis in Kaus’ original].

Liberal columnist and Newsweek editor and Jonathan Alter, who moderated the next panel, said it would have been hard to imagine such an event at previous Democratic conventions.  According to Kaus, Alter “called it a ‘landmark’ future historians should note.”

Universal, state-wide school choice programs may not be passed in the next year, or even in the year after that. But they are coming. A sea change in the politics of school choice has begun and it is hard to imagine how it might be stopped. As I noted on this blog few months ago, Democratic politicians are coming to see parental choice in education as an effective way of improving access to good schools for all families.

Of course there are still many holdouts. Sooner or later, though, even the holdouts will realize that the last politicians blocking the schoolhouse door, impeding children from leaving to attend schools of their families’ choosing, will be seen as the Oral Faubuses of the 21st century. Those holdouts might want to heed the words of Bob Dylan:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.