Topic: Education and Child Policy

Are Students Today “Relatively Poorer” Than in 1971?

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to let you know that you shouldn’t listen to people who tell you that “education reform” hasn’t worked well. At least, that is, reforms that he likes—he ignores the evidence that private school choice works because, as far as can be gathered from the op-ed, he thinks such choice lacks “accountability.” Apparently, parents able to take their kids, and money to educate them, from schools they don’t like to ones they do is not accountability.

Anyway, I don’t actually want to re-litigate whether reforms since the early 1970s have worked because as time has gone on I’ve increasingly concluded that we do not agree on what “success” means and the measures we have of what we think might be “success” often don’t tell us what we believe they do. These are, by the way, major concerns that I’ll be tackling with Dr. Patrick Wolf in a special Facebook live event on Wednesday. Join us!

Rather than assessing the impacts of specific reforms on what are often fuzzy and moving targets, I want to examine one crucial assertion that Duncan says needs to be “noted”: students today are “relatively poorer than in 1971.”

The Highly Positive Impacts of Vouchers

It looks like we have another terrible case of cherry-picking the evidence. But this time it’s shockingly misleading. Instead of simply pretending that the evidence on school choice is “mixed,” the Center for American Progress took it a step further by saying that the voucher evidence is “highly negative.” They are absolutely wrong. Here’s why.

The Four Evaluations

Their review of the research relies on only four voucher studies – Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and D.C. Two of these studies – Indiana and Ohio – are non-experimental, meaning that the researchers could not establish definitive causal relationships. But let’s go ahead and entertain them anyway.

The Ohio study used an econometric technique called regression-discontinuity-design, which can only replicate experimental results when a large number of students are used right around a treatment cutoff point. The intuition behind the method is that it is essentially random chance that students fall just around either side of the cut point, and therefore the students are randomly assigned to the voucher treatment or not.

The Ohio program used a cutoff variable - the performance of the child’s public school – to determine program eligibility. However, the researchers used student observations that were not right around the cut point and even removed the observations that were closest to the discontinuity. In other words, the authors could not establish causality, and it is more likely that the children assigned to receive the voucher program were less advantaged than those who were ineligible. After all, students in lower-performing public schools were the ones that were eligible for the choice program.

Even then, the model with the largest sample size actually found that being eligible for the program led to positive test score impacts. But the authors at CAP never mentioned that.

The Indiana study was also non-experimental, as it compared voucher students to those remaining in traditional public schools. But let’s look at it anyway. While the authors did find small negative effects of the program on test scores initially, voucher students caught up to public school students in math and performed better in reading after four years. How in the world can a positive result like this be “highly negative?” Weird.

The Louisiana experiment did find large negative effects on test scores in the first two years. However, voucher students caught up to their public school peers in both math and reading after three years. The CAP authors argue that the main model – although clearly preferred by the Louisiana research team – is less “accurate” because of the “restricted sample size.” That is odd, as using more control variables (and a consistent sample) usually makes econometric models more accurate – not less. Another thing that is odd: the CAP authors chose not to report the positive Ohio results – which came from their larger sample of students – and instead chose to report the negative results – which came from a sample that was less than a tenth of the size. Why the change in criteria?

The CAP review heavily relies on the most recent experimental evaluation of the D.C. voucher program. It just so happens to be one of the only two voucher experiments in the world to find negative effects on student test scores.

Public Schooling Battles: February Dispatch

February is a short month, so March caught me by surprise. Hence the late Dispatch. But if February had 31 days, it would be like this came out on March 11. Not that bad, right? Anyway, on with the February battles, which are heavy on books, slavery lessons, and…dances.

  • Books: February saw three new book challenges: Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were removed from required reading lists in Duluth, MN; Stick was removed from all classrooms and libraries below the high school level in Beaverton, OR; and The Hate U Give was pulled as an assignment in Springfield, MO. Three of these books are not newly contested territory in our public schools’ constant values and identity-based battles. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have been flashpoints for decades—and the latter, several times in the last few months—while we saw a battle over The Hate U Give in Texas in 2017.
  • Slavery illustrations: A teacher in Leander, TX, assigned students to draw pictures of themselves as slaves for homework and to “write one sentence that describes your surroundings using each of the 5 senses.” A New York City teacher made her African-American students lie down on the floor and then she stepped on their backs to try to give them a sense for how slavery felt. Needless to say these things disturbed many parents. But they aren’t the first concerning “immersion” assignments—which seem largely intended to help kids get a better feeling for historical events—we’ve tracked. In just the last few months we’ve also seen two in Georgia and one in Massachusetts.
  • Dances: Conflicts over dress codes at school dances are common—the Map has almost 10 such incidents—but in February we saw two dance-related battles that are much less familiar. Unprecedented, at least as far as the Map indicates, was a conflict in Weber, UT, over a policy prohibiting girls from saying “no” to boys who asked them to dance at a Valentine’s Day event. At issue was disempowering girls versus protecting the feelings of potentially rejected boys. The second battle was in Staten Island, New York, where the annual father-daughter dance was cancelled in an effort to end potentially discriminatory “gender-based” activities. There is only one similar dispute I could find on the Map, a 2012 conflict in Cranston, RI.

Of course there were more battles to check out, including over an offensive science project, the National Anthem, and Cool Runnings. Meanwhile, we have continued to post polls on the Battle Map Facebook page, and utterly dwarfed old voting records with a question, in the wake of the horrific Parkland, FL, school shooting, whether teachers should be able to bring guns to work. Around 5,500 people voted, with 85 percent saying “yes” in answer to “Should a teacher’s right to bear arms extend to the classroom?” 15 percent said “no.” Of course this is unscientific, but it certainly suggests that like so many things, non-negligible percentages of the population can have differing, mutually exclusive views on crucial issues. Which is, of course, why school choice is the only system of education consistent with diversity and liberty.

City of Baltimore Will Bus Students To Anti-Gun Protest

At a cost of $100,000, the city of Baltimore plans to provide 60 free buses to take students from its schools to planned anti-gun demonstrations in Washington, D.C. later this month.

Many things could be said against this decision. For instance, it openly breaks with the notional political neutrality of public schools so as to side with some parents’ beliefs against others’. It takes money away from a Baltimore City school system that, though lavishly funded, struggles with unmet basic needs “from malfunctioning furnaces to undrinkable water.” It siphons classroom time from students in desperately underperforming schools.

But there is one more thing to say against it as well: a protest outing that is ardently enabled or even meticulously organized by the authority figures in your life can be like the ninth-grade English course that ruins Macbeth or Moby Dick for you. Writes Lynda C. Lambert in the Baltimore Sun:

Marches are normally “bottom up.” They are formed by people who are not government, usually to protest something that government is doing [or not doing].

Governments do not sponsor marches, unless that government is, say, the government of China or Russia or North Korea, where governments sponsor marches all the time that show how much the people support their governments……

Part of protesting is finding your own way, for your own reasons.

Baltimore government sponsorship of this ride to D.C. demeans our kids and demeans the point of the march. And, even more than that, it demeans the concept that a march is an uprising, a beginning, a statement made by we the people to our government.

Also, on institutional encouragement of the protests, I had a piece in the WSJ last week on the Yale admissions office’s contribution.  

As for the separate question of whether compulsory attendance and truancy laws should be enforced against students for skipping school in a favored cause, I’ll see and raise: don’t enforce those laws against anyone period.

Um, You Missed Some Evidence: A “Thought Experiment” Fails Private Schooling

To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine there are no public schools, or private ones, too. That is what writer Julie Halpert ostensibly does in a new Atlantic article in which she purports to conduct a “thought experiment,” first imagining a world of all private schools, then one of all public. But rather than coming off as a true, objective experiment, the piece reads more like a dystopian novel depicting the horrors of an imagined all-private system, while comparatively glancing past the many real, actually experienced stains and injustices of public schooling.

It’s not auspicious that the article, before the “experiment” is even proposed, begins with a description of the posh Detroit Country Day School, which likely reinforces the impression that many people seem to have that private schools are snooty preserves of the uber-rich. Halpert notes that the price of Detroit Country Day for high school is about $30,000 per year, but doesn’t mention that the average tuition at a private high school, according to the most recent federal data, is only about $13,000. That average price is high when you’re comparing it to “free” public schools for which you’ve already paid taxes, but not Detroit Country Day high.

With commencement of the experiment we are given a little history…very little. Halpert completely bypasses American educational history prior to Horace Mann’s crusade for common schools starting in the 1830s, noting only that some of our oldest high schools, specifically tony West Nottingham Academy and Phillips Academy, date back to the 18th Century. Halpert also writes that Mann was largely responsible for “the perception of education as a public good.” She ignores the evidence the education was delivered in myriad ways and was very widespread prior to the common schooling crusade—about 90 percent of white adults were literate by 1840—or that it often had a heavily moral character geared at both the private and public good. This is a huge omission, leaving out evidence that largely private provision of education, though sometimes with a modicum of government funding, worked, at least for those who weren’t subjugated by law. Law which was, of course, promulgated by government, the entity that would supply public schools.

Anecdotes from Distant Countries Don’t Help the Argument against School Choice in the U.S.

Apparently, if you want to learn about school choice success in the United States, your first move should be to look to countries that are thousands of miles away. Sarah Butrymowicz from The Hechinger Report did just that. She traveled to Sweden, New Zealand, and France, talked to people about their education systems, decided that they were not perfect, and concluded that “real-life examples from around the world provide little evidence that allowing families more freedom of choice improves achievement.”

The worst part is that the conclusion – that school choice does not improve achievement – is not at all scientific.

For example, Butrymowicz pointed out that Sweden enacted a universal voucher program in 1992 and that their international test scores haven fallen since then. First, Sweden’s test scores most recently rose in math, reading, and science between 2012 and 2015. But more importantly, the simple pre-post observation does not in any way establish a causal relationship. Such a claim doesn’t even attempt to consider any control variables. For instance, immigration in Sweden also increased substantially from 1992 to 2012, which may have had a lot to do with their declining test scores. In fact, a study by Dr. Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren found that about 30 percent of the decline in Sweden’s overall PISA scores is explained by immigration patterns alone. Based on strong existing empirical evidence from Sweden, it is more likely that their PISA scores would have fallen even more without the academic benefits accrued from school choice.

We have a 2015 peer-reviewed study on what actually happened as a result of Sweden’s implementation of universal school choice. Böhlmark and Lindahl used strong econometric methods and found that school choice in Sweden improved “average short- and long-run outcomes.” Another rigorous study in a top academic journal, the Journal of Public Economics, found that Sweden’s voucher program improved academic outcomes due to competition.

Butrymowicz deserves credit for pointing out three studies that show positive effects of the Sweden program. But she points out that one of these studies finds “no positive long-term effects for students.” While that may be true, she failed to acknowledge that the same study found positive effects on student achievement.

U.S. Charter Schools Produce a Bigger Bang with Fewer Bucks

The evidence is in. And it’s great news for kids in charter schools. A just-released study by my colleagues at the University of Arkansas and me finds that, overall, public charter schools across eight major U.S. cities are 35 percent more cost-effective and produce a 53 percent higher return-on-investment (ROI) than residentially assigned government schools.

And every single one of the cities examined exhibited a charter school productivity advantage over their district school counterparts. As shown in Figure 1 below, charter schools outperformed district schools in each city on student achievement despite receiving significantly less resources per student. Charter schools in all eight cities studied are getting more bang for the buck. And in places like D.C. and Indianapolis, charter schools are doing more with a lot less.

Figure 1: Charter School Funding and Performance

Our ROI models consider the effect that each schooling sector has on children’s lifetime earnings relative to the total taxpayer investment for children’s K-12 education in each sector. As shown in Figure 2 below, charter schools provide a huge ROI for taxpayers. And D.C. charter schools are knocking it out of the park by producing an 85 percent higher ROI for their taxpayers than district schools.

Let’s make this a bit more concrete. The data show that every thousand dollars spent on education in D.C. district schools translates to around a $4,510 increase in students’ lifetime earnings. That is commendable. But that same thousand-dollar-expenditure produces an estimated $8,340 in students’ lifetime earnings if allocated to a public charter school in the city. And that 85 percent advantage is huge considering that taxpayers spend over $458,000 for each child’s K-12 education in D.C. district schools.

Figure 2: ROI for Charter Schools Relative to TPS (13 Years)

Notably, charter schools in Boston and Indianapolis both produced ROIs that were over 60 percent higher than their neighboring district schools. New York City, San Antonio, and Denver all produced ROIs that were 29 to 32 percent higher than district schools.

But these results shouldn’t surprise anyone. When educational institutions have the incentive to spend money wisely, they do just that. Because residentially assigned government schools do not have to attract their customers, they can spend tons of money on administration and fancy buildings. On the other hand, charter schools must spend money on kids – rather than administrators – if they want to keep their doors open.