Topic: Education and Child Policy

Back-Alley Long Division?

Apparently, when your child is being taught “new math” and you want him to learn the old-fashioned way, helping him to carry the one can make you feel a bit criminal.

Of course, if we’d let all parents choose their kids’ schools instead of forcing them to support a single system of government institutions, this wouldn’t be a problem. Those who want their children to learn new math could pick schools that teach it, while those who prefer good ol’ formulas could do the same.

It’s a solution so obvious almost any reasoning approach will hit it. Unfortunately, politics isn’t almost any reasoning approach. It’s a process so convoluted that it makes putting two and two together as complicated as solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, and misses even the most sensible of answers.

Mad as Hell, And Not Taking Public-School Myths Anymore!

Over at Campaign K-12 they’re wondering, based on conflicting messages from McCain advisors, whether the Senator will “fully fund” the No Child Left Behind Act if elected president. It’s a question I’d like to see answered, but these sorts of mixed messages are a dime a dozen in political campaigns. What really captured my attention in the Meet the Press conversation containing the curious “fully-fund” nugget was this comment from Obama supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), explaining why the presumptive Democratic nominee opposes school choice:

It’s, it’s about making sure we don’t undermine public education. We are who we are as a nation because we figured out how to educate our kids with public money, public education. The rest of the world has admired us from the days that we became a country, and we cannot turn our back on public education. And sometimes the word choice is code for making sure that we can skim the cream off the top into private schools and leave public schools flailing and, and in desperate need of help. And so we’ve got to make sure that our commitment is to our public education system.

Nothing aggravates me more than the constant repetition of the myth that the United States was built on public schooling, and if parents could choose private schools without having to give up their tax dollars the country would disintegrate.

We aren’t “who we are as a nation” because we figured out how to educate kids using “public money.” (Though if public-schooling advocates want to say that public dollars are what is key they should have no problem with vouchers). American kids were being educated long before either public schools or funding was the norm, and while in the colonial and early national eras there was some public funding for education, there was nothing even approaching the centralized, bureaucratically moribund system we have today. Almost all education was voluntary and people chose from options including homeschooling, tutoring, “old field schools,” for-profit writing schools, church-run schools, and more. And it worked: Adult white literacy stood at roughly 90 percent in 1840, a very high level by world standards.

Fast-forward to the present, with sainted public schooling having functioned in its top-down, fully compulsory form for about a century, and the contrast is startling. According to the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 13 percent of American adults are “proficient” in three types of literacy. 13 percent! Of course, the absolute measures of literacy are very different today than in 1840, but the nation and the world are very different places. On a relative basis, it can reasonably be said that the “public education system”—for which we are supposed to show unflagging “commitment” even if it means keeping kids out of the best schools available—is a huge step down from the nation’s true educational foundation.

Ultimately, what has distinguished the United States from the rest of the world is not its current, essentially socialist, school system—or education at all—but its commitment to individual freedom. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t “hold these Truths to be self-evident: that all Children have a right to attend a government school.” It proclaims our rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The Constitution wasn’t enacted to secure “one-size-fits-all schooling,” but “the Blessings of Liberty.” Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty doesn’t invite the rest of the world to send over its “huddled masses yearning for spots at P.S. 109.” It calls for those who are “yearning to breathe free.”

It’s time for our policymakers, academics, wonks, and everyone else who works in education to stop dealing in myths and start honestly tackling some very basic questions: Was public schooling truly critical in establishing the United States? Is education driven by parental choice and autonomous schools antithetical to basic American values? Is educational freedom actually much more in keeping with our foundational ideals than public schooling? Has public schooling really been the key to social unity and upholding democracy, or has it curbed individual liberty and forced diverse peoples into conflict?

These are questions, if we want the best education for our nation and children, that we must answer not with treacly mythology but intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, precious few of our leaders or thinkers appear willing to deal with the truth.

“NCLB Should Be Abolished” — TX GOP & AFT!

[TNR readers, please see update below.]

What poetic justice is this? The Republican party platform for the state of Texas has this plank dedicated to the No Child Left Behind act (which I quote in its entirety):

The No Child Left Behind Act has been a massive failure and should be abolished.

This is the same state that inspired NCLB, and whose Republican party gave us the law’s two greatest champions in the current president and secretary of education.

Not to be outdone, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest public school employee union in the country, had this to say about NCLB today:

“NCLB has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had. Conceived by accountants, drafted by lawyers, and distorted by ideologues, it is too badly broken to be fixed,”

A pair of bedfellows that might make even the Marquis de Sade raise an eyebrow, n’est pas?

If this justice is more than just poetic, similar calls for the abolition of NCLB will spread all over the country. The law has indeed been an abject failure whether one looks at the international or the domestic evidence on U.S. student performance. And if that were not enough it also makes a mockery of the principle of limited government on which this nation was founded – since the Constitution affords Congress no mandate to meddle in the content, standards or testing of American schools.

(Hat Tip: Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, for the TX GOP platform).


TNR’s Josh Patashnik argues that if both the AFT and the Texas GOP are agin’ it, NCLB must be doing something right. He links to a page on the Center for American Progress website to support his view that the law has been beneficial to student achievement. There are two things wrong with CAP’s view. The first is that there are nationally representative trend data from two separate international test suites (see the “international” link above) that they are apparently unaware of, and the second is that they failed to take recent upticks on the NAEP tests in the context of their pre-existing patterns (see the “domestic” link above).

Scores for U.S. students are down across grades, across subjects, and across tests based on the PIRLS and PISA international results since NCLB was passed. The drops in math and science are large enough to be statistically significant. These results were released last November and December, so CAP should have known about them when they were writing in February on the page to which you linked (I’m not saying they did know, only that they should have known). Also, in the two to four years immediately prior to the passage of NCLB, the upticks at 4th and 8th grade on the NAEP test were larger than the gains in the five or so years that followed before the most recent tests. So if NCLB had any effect at all, it was to slow a pre-existing growth rate. And there’s no reason to think it did even that. NAEP scores have had such minor fluctuations for a long time. (We don’t have pre-NCLB trends on PISA or PIRLS).

Finally, it is worth noting that historical improvements in 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores have never translated into higher scores at the end of high school. The NAEP Long Term Trends scores for 17-year-olds are flat for the past four decades.

Policy affecting the lives of millions of children and costing billions of dollars should be solidly grounded in the broadest base of evidence. Taken in that context, NCLB has been a tragic misdirection of resources that could have been spent far more productively in other ways.

We’re #1!

Jay Greene—a man known for producing some of the most interesting (and voluminous) education research in the country—today published the most important finding of his career: When it comes to readership, Cato [at] crushes all other education blogs!

OK, as Greene points out, Cato@Liberty is not strictly an education blog. (I have little doubt that readers come for the brilliant education coverage first and consider the rest of the content mainly an added — but outstanding! — bonus.) Even if that’s not the case, we thank all of you who take the time to read our education posts and want to tell lesser education bloggers that we think you’re very nice. And who knows, maybe some day In-Bev will buy us and someone else can be the king.

Pre-K Pushers Peddling Patent Prevarications

We left off in our last episode with a teaser on why the blessed Perry Preschool Project, Carolina Abecedarian Project, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers Program don’t prove what many people like to pretend they prove; the long-term effectiveness, let alone cost-effectiveness, of current large-scale preschool programs.

Let’s begin with the fact that these programs were all small-scale, intensive, and targeted at the most disadvantaged children.

Now let’s look at some highlights of the other problems with using these as evidence in support of government preschool programs:

The Perry Preschool Project was an early-education intervention “experiment” initiated by researchers at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in 1962 and concluded in 1965. Project researchers analyzed the effect of home visits and preschool on outcomes for an unusual sample of 58 low-income children with IQs between 70 and 85 compared to a “control” group of 65 other children who did not attend the preschool program or receive home visits.

Researchers concluded that the positive effects of the program on outcomes such as future earnings and crime rates far outweighed the costs, giving taxpayers a return of $7.16 for every dollar invested. However, there are a number of problems with the Perry Preschool Program and the associated analyses that render them unreliable and unsuitable for estimating the effects of the large-scale programs currently under consideration in state legislatures:

One analysis noted that “the Perry Project poses a number of methodological difficulties” that call into question any conclusions about the effects of the program, positive or negative. Assignment to the preschool treatment and “control” groups was not completely random — an absolute requirement for valid experiments. And the children in the preschool program had to have parents home during the day — a requirement “resulting in a significant difference between control and intervention groups on the variable of maternal employment” that also calls into question any results.

Other criticisms included:

  • Twisting the Data: Program researchers expanded the standard definition of “statistical significance” in order to find positive effects. Most effects disappeared when the scientific standard was used.
  • More than Preschool: The program included home visitations in addition to preschool, which made it difficult if not impossible to determine whether preschool alone had significant positive effects.

The Abecedarian Project was an intensive early-intervention program begun in 1972 that placed participating infants, who were on average at 4.4 months old, “in an eight-hour-a-day, five-day-per-week, year-round educational day care center” where they “received free medical care, dietary supplements, and social service support for their families.” Half of the children in this intensive infant intervention program received three more years of educational assistance, as did half of the children in the control group that did not participate in the intervention program as infants and toddlers.

Project researchers found that the infants who received the intensive early intervention scored higher than the control children on cognitive and academic tests at age 12 and 21. There are, however, a number of problems with the Abecedarian Project and the associated analyses that render them unreliable and unsuitable for estimating the effects of the large-scale programs currently under consideration in state legislatures:

  • Much More than Preschool: The most obvious and serious problem with this “preschool” program is that the intervention was nothing like the preschool programs currently being considered or in effect. The Abecedarian Project was an intensive, long-term intervention beginning in infancy, and it can therefore shed little if any light on the effects of preschool on 3 or 4 year-olds.
  • Methodological Problems: Studies reporting effects from the Abecedarian Project generally focus on the differences between the treatment and control groups at later ages. Herman H. Spitz, a well-respected academic psychologist specializing in measuring intelligence among those with developmental disability, notes that the advantage found later emerged when the children were just 6 months old. Spitzer rightly concludes, “We need to understand why an additional 4.5 years of intensive intervention had so little effect that, at six years of age (and older), the difference between the intervention and control groups was not appreciably different than it had been at six months of age.”

The Chicago Child Parent Center Program was an early-education and family intervention begun in 1985 involving 989 low-income children in Chicago. Researchers concluded that, compared to the 550 children who did not receive the intervention, children in the program had a “higher rate of high school completion; more years of completed education; and lower rates of juvenile arrest, violent arrests, and school dropout.” This study has been used in recent years by a RAND analysis that claims a universal preschool program would return $2.62 for every dollar invested.

Again, however, there are a number of problems with the Chicago Child Parent Center Program and the associated analyses that render them unreliable and unsuitable for estimating the effects of the large-scale programs currently under consideration in state legislatures:

  • More than Preschool—Parenting: As the name of the program implies, the Chicago Child Parent Center Program involved extensive interventions with parents that involved “a multifaceted parent program that includes participating in activities in the parent resource room with other parents (e.g., educational workshops, reading groups, and craft projects), volunteering in the classroom, attending school events and field trips, and completing high school; outreach activities including resource mobilization, home visitation, and enrollment of children.”
  • More than Preschool—Tutoring: The intervention continued through 3rd grade for some students, and involved tutoring, speech therapy, and medical services that are not a part of current preschool proposals and significantly raise the costs and difficulties of expanding to a state-wide program.
  • Wild Extrapolations: The RAND study does not consider these important concerns regarding the Chicago Child Parent Center Program. Instead they uncritically apply the findings from this intensive family intervention program to a state-wide, universal preschool-only program. The researchers also arbitrarily assign middle and upper-income children benefits from preschool that no study of the Chicago Child Parent Center Program suggests they receive.

The fourth and final post is coming soon, with a response to some other objections …

Barack Obama Walks the Walk

After telling a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes school voucher programs over the weekend, Senator Obama added that: “We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

Senator Obama sends his own two daughters to the private “Lab School” founded by John Dewey in 1896, which charged $20,000 in tuition at the middle school level last year. Though he says “we” should not be “throwing up our hands and walking away” from public schools, he has done precisely that.

That is his right, and, as a wealthy man, it is his prerogative under the current system of American education, which allows only the wealthy to easily choose between private and government schools. But instead of offering to extend that same choice to all families, Senator Obama wants the poor to wait for the public school system to be “fixed.”

I could editorialize about this, but I really don’t see the need. Readers of this blog are perfectly capable of drawing the obvious conclusions.

Teaching to the Test

A lot of people dislike No Child Left Behind–style test-driven reforms because they fear that schools will “teach to the tests.” That is, the schools will focus on content that will likely appear on tests, as well as teach strategies to game specific assessment tools, rather than effectively teach the broad content and understanding that tests, ideally, should merely sample in order to gauge student mastery. If this were the case, it would both severely constrict how much of educational value kids actually learn and call into serious question whether improved test scores really signify improved learning.

Whether or not this “teaching to the test” regularly happens is a highly debatable — and debated — matter. Reading today’s Washington Post article about considerable one-year improvements in D.C. test scores, however, certainly gives you pause to think that when test results are almost all that schools are judged on, mastery of the tests — not the subjects — could truly end up being all that really matters.