Topic: Education and Child Policy

National Standards = Terrible; Ed Tax Credits = Effective, Popular, and Passing

Over on Flypaper, Mike Petrilli takes a swipe at NEAL McCluskey for pointing out why national standards are doomed to failure.

And then he compares the infeasibility of national standards, as a method of improving education, to the political difficulty of passing something like our proposal for broad-based education tax credits that would open universal access to school choice.

You see, national standards that improve education are literally an impossible dream because the method is doomed to fail, regardless of its chances of becoming legislation. Broad-based school choice is merely a difficult endeavor like any major reform. But if enacted, it will improve education significantly.

Petrilli implies that a “universal” education tax credit system is impossible.

Really? You mean something akin to the universal voucher program that became law in Utah but was repealed by voters?

Or maybe the donation tax credit programs in Arizona and Georgia, which have no income limits? Those are universal in principle, Mike. A continuing expansion of funding will make them universal in fact.

Our Public Education Tax Credit model legislation combines personal-use credits like those that exist in 3 states with the kind of donation tax credits that exist in 6 states.

Polling consistently shows that universal programs are much more popular than targeted ones. And education tax credits are extremely popular … even a majority of current and former public school employees support education tax credits!

Wake up, Mike. We’re talking about the expansion and combination of widely used, popular, and increasingly bipartisan policies that work.

We Want Better Answers

I want to thank Mike Petrilli for trying to answer the big national standards question: Why would national academic standards be any less vulnerable to political forces dumbing them down than currently rock-bottom state and local standards? Unfortunately, Mike’s answer is far from satisfying, but since he wrote it while playing Jim McKay, he can probably be excused…for the moment.

Mike kicks off his response by pointing out that Fordham actually addressed this question two years ago in To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools. He even takes a snarky dig at Eduwonk—who recently asked the big politics question—for acting like he didn’t know the answer even though he was an expert voice in Impossible Dream

Mike will be glad to know that I read the report when it came out (despite my outrage at its exploiting a favorite inspirational song). I did not, however, really get an answer to my question from it, either the first time I read it or in my dutiful re-reading. The report was more a heavily excerpted roundtable discussion on national standards and tests than a rigorous analysis of specific proposals, and it offered thin treatments of the special-interest-power problem.

While we’re on the report, by the way, I need to stand up for the currently vacationing Eduwonk (he’s had guest bloggers for the last couple of weeks) because it seems that not only he, but Mike himself, may not have read Impossible Dream.

In the report, the Fordham authors, including Mike, endorsed the second model discussed, dubbed “If You Build It, They Will Come.” (Sappy movies and musicals really take a beating in this thing.) That model would have the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)—a quasi-independent entity that currently runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—create national standards, exams, and accountability metrics in reading, mathematics, and science, and would encourage state adoption either by offering states more money or regulatory relief.

Despite the endorsement of model #2 in the report, Mike points to the third proposal—“Let’s All Hold Hands”—in his blog post as the model to embrace. This Kumbaya little number would have Washington possibly provide financial or other incentives to get states to adopt common standards and tests, but the standards and tests would be created by consortia of states or other non-federal entities. This, Mike says, would evade teacher unions and other standards-sinking interests by furnishing “political cover for governors and state chiefs who want higher standards but can’t easily sell it to their local constituents.”

Since Mike seems to be presenting us with two favored national-standards scenarios, we’ll explore why neither offers anything akin to hope. Let’s start, though, with an assessment of the likely effects of all possible standards-and-adoption combos in a system in which those to be held accountable have outsized influence over the policies that would do the holding:

1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
2. Challenging standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
4. Challenging standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will face constant political pressure to make them easier. The outcomes will ultimately be poor.

The conclusion here is clear: When schools are controlled by government, the incentive structure always leads to poor outcomes because the people who would be held to the standards — and who have the greatest incentive and ability to affect policy — have every natural incentive to keep standards low while maximizing their freedom and income. So, make the standards tough and they’ll either be ignored or pushed down. Make ‘em easy, and they won’t matter. Roughly a century of public schooling has shown this, and Mike seems to agree that, at least so far, neither the states nor Washington have disproven it.

So would “If They Build It, They Will Come” curb the scenarios above? Nope. If the feds—which includes the NAGB—were to set truly demanding standards and strong incentives to adopt them, serious pressure would be put toward easing the standards.

What could counter it? Fordham rests its hopes on two things: NAGB’s independence, and voluntary participation.

The former, frankly, seems worthless, predicated largely on the fact that the NAGB is currently insulated from politics. But currently there isn’t a dime connected to how well states or schools do on NAEP — it carries no tangible consequences. Attach real regulatory relief or money to adopting the standards and doing well on them, however, and it’ll be sayonara to political insulation. Indeed, Fordham concedes in Impossible Dream that the NAGB “could be compromised by the changes and added burdens here.”

Voluntary adoption is an even flimsier defense. Make the standards too high relative to the rewards of volunteering and states won’t sign-on. In contrast, couple high standards with big rewards and, well, re-read what I just wrote about the NAGB. 

How about “Let’s All Hold Hands”? Mike asserts that this lateral, state-consortia approach is seeing the most traction, with groups like Achieve getting states to sign onto common standards and assessments. But experience with these consortia so far gives little indication that if the groups were to create challenging standards that students struggle to meet, the standards wouldn’t soon be hollowed out. Most states in Achieve’s American Diploma Project, for instance, have only just started aligning their standards and graduation requirements with common benchmarks, and there’s been no time to see what happens if lots of kids or schools can’t hit the standards and are punished as a result.

As for “political cover” for state policymakers who would impose tough but unpopular standards and accountability, I see no reason why a consortium couldn’t just as easily furnish cover to weaken standards or accountability as raise them.

I can just hear it now:

“Mom! Washington State and Maryland are making things easier on themselves! Why can’t we?”

“Be quiet and finish your homework! What? You don’t have any…”

Make no mistake: I’m grateful to Mike for trying to answer my burning national-standards question. Really, I am. But harsh reality just seems to eclipse impossible dreams.

Pre-K Pushers Don’t Know and Don’t Care About the Evidence

Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell have a great article in the Wall Street Journal that argues we should be very concerned about the current mania for preschool.

In response, USA Today editorial page editor and president of the Education Writers Association Richard Whitmire pens this gem on Eduwonk:

I don’t see the need to defend the research behind the benefits of preschool, but here’s the latest I wrote on this.

You’d think his link would take you to a definitive statement revealing the indisputable benefits of preschool. That is, something substantive containing actual analysis.

Unfortunately, his “analysis” consists of a breezy and factually incorrect USA Today editorial swooning over Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program:

Oklahoma educators credit their decade-old preschool program with pushing up reading and math scores in the lower grades, and with raising achievement by low-income children.

In reality, Oklahoma lost substantial ground compared to the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, AKA “the nation’s report card”) during the 1990’s at the very same time the state was aggressively expanding preschool access, increasing attendance, and building a system that the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) rates 9 out of 10 on quality.

  • Oklahoma slipped from one point above the national average in 4th grade math in 1992 to two points behind in 2007.
  • Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading scores plummeted. In 1992, 4th grade reading scores were 5 points above the national average and in 2007 they were 3 points behind.

The one finding Witmire cites — from the High/Scope Perry Preschool project — included home visitations in addition to preschool and had serious methodological problems.

Phi Delta Kappa Scared to Ask About Education Tax Credits

The new 2008 PDK/Gallup poll on education is anti-school-choice advocacy masquerading as responsible research.

In 1999, the last year PDK/Gallup asked about education tax credits, 57 percent of the public supported credits to cover the full cost of private school tuition and 65 percent of the public supported tax credits for part of the cost.

Instead of asking clear and informative questions about vouchers and education tax credits in 2008, however, the survey recycles a generic, biased, and discredited question they introduced after support for vouchers began to climb in their own surveys.

The PDK/Gallup poll now asks about a respondent’s support for “allowing students and parents to choose a private school at public expense.”

This loaded and abstract language is meant to lower what other more balanced polls have shown is deep and widespread support for school choice and for education tax credits in particular.

That’s one reason Georgia passed a new tax credit program this year and why Arizona, Rhode Island, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Florida all recently passed or expanded education tax credit programs with crucial bipartisan support from Democrats.

Dear Leo

Leo Casey, an award-winning teacher and a rep for the United Federation of Teachers, wrote a blog post today lamenting what he sees as cherry picking of studies by school choice advocates. Entirely apart from the validity of that claim, it bespeaks a desire on Mr. Casey’s part to look at the broadest possible array of relevant evidence. Good for him. I agree so strongly with his sentiment that I spent the last several months putting together the most comprehensive worldwide review of the evidence on public vs. private school outcomes to date, to be released in a few weeks (“Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence”). It collects and tabulates 115 statistical findings drawn from 55 separate studies conducted in over 20 nations.

Most of these findings favor private provision of education over government provision. But, of course, private schools differ quite a bit in levels of regulation and sources of funding from one nation to another. To address that complication, I included a tabulation that specifically compares the most market-like private school systems (minimal regulation and at least some parent funding) with typical monopoly government school systems. The results of this more meaningful breakdown of the evidence differ noticeably from the vague public vs. private comparison. I’ll wait to mention just how they differ until the study’s official release in early September.

When the study is released, I hope that Mr. Casey will have a look at it, and share his thoughts on its findings. While it is possible that I have missed a few studies here and there, it will be difficult to make the argument that I have cherry picked the studies to favor private schooling, since I include all the studies mentioned by Mr. Casey in his post.

Would Someone Puh-leaze Answer This Question?

About a month ago, I piggybacked on an Eduwonk post asking the critical question that lovers of national academic standards refuse to answer: Why would federal standards — especially with stakes attached — be any less politicized than those established by states or districts? To clarify this a bit, let me rephrase the question: Why would the teachers unions, public-school administrators associations, and education bureaucrats – with their huge presences in and around DC, their outsized political power compared to parents, and their overwhelming interest in low standards and high funding – have any less sway over the feds than they have over other levels of government?

Sadly, no national standards standard bearers have answered these questions, and the leaders of the charge keep on making undefended proclamations. Look no further than today’s Flypaper post by Michael Petrilli. At the same time he rightly calls out the Washington Post for failing to understand that “what’s sorely lacking in Washington isn’t ambition, but hubris,” he asserts that the feds “could… provide greater transparency about how schools are performing—yes, through…national standards and tests.”

To quote Charlie Brown as Lucy pulls the football away: “AAUGH!!!”

Could someone PLEASE answer the question: Why would the feds be any less susceptible to standards-dumbing/avoiding/destroying than any other level of government? Indeed, given Washington’s abysmal track record on education, why should any rational person conclude that the feds wouldn’t be more susceptible to special-interest domination? And while we’re at it, could someone explain why standards from any level of government wouldn’t be more influenced by teachers unions and the like than standards delivered by parent-controlled education dollars for which schools would have to compete?

For national-standards stalwarts it’s easier to just not address political reality. But please, humor me (and Eduwonk): Explain how Washington suddenly got so high above pernicious political powers that federal standards wouldn’t be dragged into the same-old, smothering, education mud.

Even Public School Teachers Support Education Tax Credits!

Neal McCluskey has some serious and valid complaints about the way the recent Education Next/Harvard PEPG survey asks about support for No Child Left Behind. But the survey also has some good questions about school choice and some great news about education tax credits.

I noted last year that their 2007 survey found 53 percent of current and former public school employees support education tax credits and only 25 percent oppose them.

This year, they report that a plurality, 46 percent of public school teachers, support education tax credits and just 41 percent oppose them. As for the general public, 54 percent support tax credits and only 28 percent oppose them.

More public school teachers support education tax credits than oppose them. That’s an amazing little fun-fact.

Pick a category – rich, poor, old, young, white, black, Hispanic, Democrat, Republican, or even public school employees – they all support education tax credits. And credits stand to save states billions of dollars.

Now that’s a winning issue for any politician.