Topic: Education and Child Policy

Taking a Poll…and Some Salt

It’s hard to care much about polls; they’re easily gamed, the questions are usually too narrow to give any real insight, and just because a majority thinks something doesn’t make it right. That said, a new poll from Education Next deserves a bit of comment.

First, I have to repeat a beef I had with last year’s Education Next survey: Why load the No Child Left Behind questions? While the pollsters attempted “survey experiments”—tinkering with question wording to see how it affected results—they just replaced “No Child Left Behind Act” with “federal legislation” in the experimental version of this question:

As you may know, the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act. What do you think Congress should do?

The results are pretty damning for NCLB. When it’s identified by name, 50 percent of respondents think the law should either undergo “major changes” or not be renewed at all, versus 42 percent thinking the same way about semi-anonymous “federal legislation.” Worse, last year’s results were significantly more positive about the law; the percent of respondents with favorable views of NCLB has dropped by seven percentage points.

Of course, none of this gets to the public’s true opinion about the law because neither version of the question gets rid of the description of NCLB as, essentially, Clarence the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, intervening to make all schools do well!

So how would the law have fared were people asked what they thought just of NCLB, not “NCLB: The Standardsmaker”? Since I registered this same complaint last year I haven’t seen any polls that have asked about NCLB straight-up. But suppose the same changes in NCLB support found by Education Next were applied to the Educational Testing Service poll I mentioned last year, a poll that asked about NCLB unadorned (slide 11 in the link). In 2007, ETS found that only 41 percent of respondents had a “very” or “somewhat favorable” attitude about the law. Drop 7 percentage points from that, and you’re down to a measly 34 percent.

And to think, some people think it’s “foolish” to even consider that NCLB should be scrapped!

Unfortunately, assuming the order of questions in their write-up is the same as was presented to respondents, the Education Next folks chose to ask about national standards right after greasing the skids with their encouraging description of NCLB. Not surprisingly, they found that large majorities favored having the feds establish standards and tests for the whole country.

Here we encounter almost all of polling’s shortcomings. For one thing, it’s hard to pin down the effect of the question order, but it certainly seems reasonable to conclude that describing the federal roll as demanding high standards would lead people to conclude that the feds ought to set the standards. But what if the pollsters had described NCLB as a law “that requires states to set standards while safeguarding local control”—which President Bush would tell you it does—or something like that? And what if the national-standards issue were explored in some depth, with questions about how the standards would actually be set and what they would be? Suddenly, different thinking would probably kick in. Of course, even with all that it’s possible that a majority of Americans would still support federal standards. Which brings us to the polling problem that majority support doesn’t necessarily mean good policy….

On school choice, the poll offers mixed news: Vouchers keep on struggling, but tax credits seem to have a very bright future. Nationally, only about 40 percent of people support vouchers, versus 54 percent who support tax credits. This is not to say that vouchers are dead—there’s only 40 percent opposition to them as well, meaning you’ve got two evenly-matched armies and 20 percent unclaimed territory—but compared to tax credits, vouchers have a long slog ahead. And tax credits fare even better when opposition as well as support is considered; only 28 percent of respondents opposed tax credits.

Of course, wording could have a lot to do with these results as well (for instance, the term “voucher” never actually appears in a question, but the almost as emotionally freighted “government funds” does), and all the other caveats about polls still apply. Even with that, though, the tax credit news, if nothing else in this poll, has to be a little encouraging.

How Can They Deny Freedom?

Maybe those people who constantly spew the mantra against school choice that it would “destroy public education” have never considered what putting some faceless, bureaucratic system above actual human beings really does. Well, there’s a great piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today by Lydia Glaize, a parent who’s struggled mightily to keep her children out of atrocious public schools, that directly attacks this sorry, but all-too convenient, excuse for denying parents freedom. There’s only one critique I’ve got for Ms. Glaize: She doesn’t make the distinction between public schooling, which is the real problem, and public education, into which a school choice system would fit very nicely. But that’s a distinction we’re just starting to get people to recognize.

So how will the public-schooling-at-all-costs crowd respond to Ms. Glaize? I suspect, sadly, with more of the same.

What “Open Discussion?”

Over at New Talk, a public policy discussion project that purports to bring in “experts…who have different points of view…and a commitment to the kind of open discussion that might take place around a dinner table,” anything but an open discussion is going on about the No Child Left Behind Act. Yes, the e-talkers range from neoconservative Chester E. “Checker” Finn to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, but in one way or another all of the discussants believe in significant federal involvement in education. That’s left out one very important perspective: the Constitution’s.

Here’s moderator John Merrow’s reason for keeping away those who think that the federal government has neither the Constitutional authority, nor the ability, to run American education:

Any talk of abandoning No Child Left Behind is foolish because NCLB is the continuation of a long trail of federal education legislation that traces back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Congress and the next Administration must do something, but what? That’s the question posed to a remarkable roster of deep thinkers and activists.

Merrow’s question framing has, predictably, produced not the “open discussion” promised by New Talk, but a very narrow exchange dominated by “national standards” chat. Indeed, former Columbia Teachers College president Arthur Levine remarked in his first contribution to the forum that he “was surprised at the commonality of views the group shares.” He shouldn’t have been: For the most part, the group is a collection of education policy insiders with a big bias toward government “doing something,” and the moderator made certain that asking whether the feds actually can do something — at least of value — was off limits.

Of course, it isn’t rational to just assume that NCLB — or any federal interference in education—will remain forever just because it is the continuation of legislation dating back to 1965. Consider that as recently as 1996 the Republican Party had eliminating the U.S. Department of Education in its platform. Or that two major pieces of legislation that would essentially dismantle NCLB — the LEARN and A-PLUS acts — are working their ways through Congress. Or that several states have seen considerable efforts to leave NCLB behind, despite the sizable financial blow doing so could entail. Or that in polling Americans often express great distaste for NCLB.

So what about the question of whether the federal government is actually capable of producing good education? The evidence, whether we bury our heads in the sand or not, is that it can’t. Since 1965, real federal funding for elementary and secondary education has grown nearly six times larger, while achievement has been essentially flat or declining. Under NCLB, what scores were increasing have seen improvements slow while others have seen losses. And why is this? Politics. Washington, like all government, is more responsive to special interests that make their living off of government programs than the people those programs are supposed to help. So the feds keep lavishing cash on the public schools, while the states keep setting almost subterranean “proficiency” bars, using statistical gimmicks to exclude the groups the law is supposed to make visible, and the administration cheers NCLB’s “success.”

The one highlight of the New Talk discussion so far (it runs through tomorrow) has been education historian Diane Ravitch, whose past calls for national standards I’ve taken to task. She’s still calling for national standards, but she has nonetheless been the most realistic of the discussants. After asserting that “there is little to commend NCLB,” she made clear that any national standards would have to be disconnected from federal sanctions because “states and localities” — not Washington — “are closer to the schools and likelier to come up with workable reforms.” She also deflated the soaring rhetoric of those who talk about NCLB as an historic shift because it has finally shone light on the kids left behind (though she also leads one to conclude that she might actually want stronger national tests than she outlined earlier):

OK, so NCLB is historic. No doubt about it. Never before has the federal government reached so deeply into each and every public school in the nation. There was a fundamental error, however, in allowing states to define their own standards and write their own tests. As a result of this error, the public does not have the information that Checker speaks about; instead, in most states, the public gets a wildly inflated picture of student performance.

Unfortunately, as Ravitch being the highlight portends, another perspective is almost wholly absent from the discussion: that accountability exercised by parents through universal school choice, not continued top-down accountability from states or Washington, is the key to truly effective education reform. Consumer choice is the primary driver of accountability for almost everything in America that we take for granted — consumer electronics, package delivery, automobiles, greeting cards, sneakers, home construction, and on and on — but not so for schooling. Maybe that’s why over the decades education hasn’t progressed at all, while almost every other good or service has gotten much better. Maybe that’s also why school choice should be a part of any “open discussion” about how best to deliver education.

New Talk could have put together a truly valuable forum on federal education policy if it had included all perspectives. Sadly, it chose not to.

Stop Blaming the States!

Yesterday, both the House and Senate passed the atrocious new Higher Education Act, a 1,158-page monstrosity packing 62 new programs, oodles of new spending, and a bureaucrats’ dream of new rules and regulations. I won’t go into all the gory details — I’d need hundreds of blogs just to do the file-sharing provisions justice — but one piece in particular really gets my goat.

One of the services the new HEA supposedly provides is that it will encourage states to keep up their share of higher education funding so that public colleges don’t have to make money — here comes every student group’s favorite phrase — “on the backs of students.” Thankfully, it’s a weak measure, threatening only to withhold a state’s allocation of a small, new grant program, but it’s the entire premise on which it’s built that’s infuriating. Today’s Wall Street Journal article on the bill provides a great example of the problem:

It is this very reduction of funding that state schools cite as an important factor pushing them to raise tuition. Total state appropriations for higher education have dropped to 11% for fiscal 2008, down from 15% 20 years ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of attendance at a four-year public college, including tuition, fees and room and board, was $13,589 in 2007-08, 78% higher than it was two decades before, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the New York nonprofit College Board.

The argument here is that because the percentage of funding that schools get from their states has declined, the states aren’t keeping up their end of the funding bargain. But the real question should be whether states are staying consistent with their total per-pupil funding, which shows whether their commitment to higher ed has been steady. It has been: While state spending has fluctuated largely in accordance with the ups-and-downs of the economy, the 20-plus-year trend is one of overall consistent funding. This graph from the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ report State Higher Education Finance: FY 2007 makes this abundantly clear:

In real dollars, the 2007 public appropriation per full-time-equivalent student was $6,773, $34 higher than in 1980. Indeed, the highest public expenditure on the chart, $7,581, was very recent — 2001 — and while there have been lots of fluctuations, the trend is clear: states have been keeping up with their expenditures.

Something else, then, must be responsible for rampant tuition inflation — maybe, ever-increasing student aid, colleges and universities having more and more sources of income, or both — and state taxpayers shouldn’t be scapegoated by federal politicians. But then, what would be the excuse for passing garbage like the new Higher Education Act?

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

A few days ago, I wrote a blog entry taking umbrage at, among other things, Kevin Carey’s failure to acknowledge the distinction between public schooling and public education. Yesterday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an op-ed by Allene Magill, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, complaining that some Georgia lawmakers are abandoning public education by supporting vouchers and other public-school alternatives. Like Carey’s, her assumption that “public education” means government providing schools, not just enabling people to pursue education, is both dangerously imprecise and pervasive. It’s time we clearly make the distinction between public education and public schooling.

If one looks at the term “public education,” nothing about it implies that government must provide schools. What it implies is that government will make education accessible to the public while saying nothing about how that will be done. (It could also just refer to educating the public without any government involvement, but let’s assume it doesn’t.) In other words, vouchers, tax-based choice mechanisms, and other forms of government-funded school choice are totally compatible with “public education.” Suggesting that they aren’t simply cannot be supported by the term being used.

Fortunately, there is a term that does strongly imply a system in which government provides the public not just with the means to obtain an education, but schools themselves. It’s called “public schooling,” a term I use repeatedly—and intentionally—in my piece attacked by Carey, and a system that, as I wrote, is very much at odds with basic American values.

I hope that this clarifies the difference between “public education” and “public schooling” and will help to end the mistaken assumption that the terms are synonymous. They aren’t, and school choice is fully compatible with public education. Of course, that might be exactly why some people try so hard to blot out distinctions between the terms.

Depth Takes a Holiday

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks lamented the yawning chasm in educational attainment that divides America: the children of wealthy and highly-educated parents graduate from high school and go on to college vastly more often than those of lower-income, less educated parents. Here, he is on solid ground. But, columnists being columnists, Brooks goes on to give us his unsubstatiated opinion that: “Barack Obama’s education proposals… flow naturally and persuasively from this research,” while “McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings,” as exemplified by the Republican’s “vague talk about school choice.”

A look at the evidence reveals Brooks’ intuition to be exactly backwards.

Senator Obama’s education platform can verily be described as more of what the federal government has already been doing: more spending on government pre-school programs aimed at ever-younger children, especially the fifty-year-old Head Start program; tweaking of the No Child Left Behind act to make it look a little more like it did in its first four decades, when it went under the name Elementary and Secondary Education Act., etc.

But these programs were in full blown operation during the entire period, from the seventies to the nineties, during which Brooks notes that ”America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl.” So Brooks is arguing that doing more of the same is a “natural” and “persuasive” solution to our longstanding educational problems. His hope in this regard is indeed audacious.

And what of McCain’s “vague talk” about private school choice programs? Is it really irrelevant to the educational attainment gap that Brooks is so concerned with? If Brooks had spend just a few minutes Googling the issue he would have come across the nationwide study by University of Chicago economist Derek Neal showing that urban African Americans are vastly more likely to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and graduate from college if they attend Catholic rather than public schools. He would have found the similar findings by Evans and Schwab. He might even have come across the two separate studies of the Milwaukee voucher program showing significantly higher graduation rates for the poor students attending private schools under that program than for students in the Milwaukee public school system. 

People who actually care about the socio-economic divide in our nation should familiarize themselves with the evidence before trying to influence public opinion on presidential candidates or policies.