Topic: Education and Child Policy

Are Shootings More Likely to Occur in Public Schools?

The Parkland shooting, even almost two months later, remains a very painful topic, and there seem to have been many very important factors at play. One that hasn’t been discussed very much, but probably needs to be examined, is whether the kind of schools students attend makes a difference. At least one author, Stella Morabito at The Federalist, has discussed this, and has identified many problems that she thinks are associated with public schools ranging from their large sizes to their seeming hostility to Christianity.

All of the problems she discusses may be factors—school size has been suspect for a long time—but as a starting point we ought to look at the numbers.

Hyewon Kim—a Cato Center for Educational Freedom Intern—compiled information on school shootings in the United States from 2000 to 2018 using the Tribune-Review database. The database is limited to legitimate school shootings; that is, shootings that occurred on or near a K-12 school campus while classes were in session or when students were present. The list also excluded suicide-only incidents.

Hyewon found 134 school shootings from 2000 to 2018. Only eight of these occurred in private schools while 122 occurred in public schools. The type of school could not be definitively classified for 4 of the shootings. As shown in the figure below, about 94 percent of the shootings that could be classified occurred in public schools while only about 6 percent occurred in private schools.

 

Since there are many more public schools than private schools, we must consider that difference. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that around 25 percent of U.S. K-12 schools are private, while about 10 percent of schooled children attend private schools. In other words, the data suggest that children that go to private schools are disproportionately less likely to experience a school shooting than children in public schools.

Of course, considering the difference in the number of students across the two sectors does not account for differences in the types of students. After all, at least some of the divergence in school shootings found are likely due to other factors such as household income and parent education levels.

However, a recent study by Danish Shakeel and me, presented at the International School Choice and Reform Conference, finds that private schools experience better school culture than public schools even after controlling for several characteristics such as school size, location, racial composition of students and teachers, and the percent of students from low-income families. We find that private schools are significantly less likely than public schools to experience problems such as student fighting, bullying, and, perhaps most importantly, weapon possession.

Anytime you write about a tragedy and point to your favorite policy reform as the solution, it can seem opportunistic and, frankly, a little callous. But it is not groundless to think that school type could matter, and nothing should be off-limits for discussion to end these sorts of tragedies.

Public Schooling Battles: March Dispatch

The country saw other kinds of identity and values-based battles in March, but the month was dominated by one thing: guns, especially how you protest against them, for them, or try your best to stay neutral.

Of the 24 conflicts recorded on the Battle Map in March, 15 involved guns in some way. The large majority were directly about the March 14 National School Walkout, primarily whether schools should allow walkouts without ramifications in support of free speech; whether concerns about order and safety required that those who walked out be punished; if allowing a walkout to protest gun violence but not other causes amounted to viewpoint discrimination; and what to say, if anything, in events held in lieu of walkouts. Gun-related conflicts were recorded in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, and South Carolina, and there were likely many we did not find.

Among the incidents that got the most press attention was the case of Rocklin, CA teacher Julianne Benzel, who was apparently suspended by the district for holding an in-class discussion in which she mused that if an anti-gun walkout were allowed, so should a protest opposing abortion, lest the district treat some views unequally. So intrigued by the idea was student Brandon Gillespie that he planned a national pro-life walkout on April 11, which may well be a prominent battle in the April Dispatch. In a reversal of the expected walkout fear—kids getting in trouble for walking out in protest—a student in Hilliard City, Ohio, was punished for staying in his classroom during outdoor activities sanctioned by the school on Walkout Day. District officials said the student was punished for failing to go to the right place for students choosing not to participate, but the boy’s father said, “He was uncomfortable…as he thought that going outside would most likely be politicizing a horrific event which he wanted no part of.” Finally, a girl in New Jersey was punished for walking out, but what grabbed headlines was that the school would not accept roughly $1000 worth of flowers sent to her by people who admired her standing up for what she believed in. Said the student, “They’re always like, ‘You can always speak your mind and stuff, you have the freedom of speech here,’ and then when we do it, we’re always getting in trouble.”

Public schools absolutely upholding freedom of expression is impossible unless schools have no rules about what you can wear or say, when, about what, and to whom. But having no rules would render effective teaching very difficult, if not impossible. Not surprisingly, this tends to come to a head with highly charged issues like the war in Vietnam, or gun violence, especially when schools and students are so immediately affected by them. It is no coincidence that of all the polls we’ve put on the Battle Map Facebook page the one that has gotten by far the most attention—as the Dispatch reported last month—was about guns in schools. And it is not surprising to see quotes like this from coverage of a battle in Lacey Township, New Jersey, where two students were suspended for a Facebook post showing pictures of a family trip to a gun range: “People like us are under attack,” said resident John Pinto.

No one should feel besieged by the schools for which they must pay. But we know that they often do, because when opposing views collide in public schools, one must lose. School choice would go a long way to ending that.

Why All the Hype About NAEP?

Here we go again. The 2017 round of the Nation’s Report Card was released today. The results shouldn’t surprise anyone – they are almost entirely flat at the national level. However, that doesn’t stop educators and education reformers from spinning the results to fit whatever agendas they might have. Those who defend previous reforms claim that computer-based testing must be to blame for stagnant performance – and that students today are “relatively poorer” than they were in the past. On the other hand, groups calling for additional reform claim that the NAEP results should startle Americans.

We should all settle down. Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. Test scores tell us very little about success.

Education scholars such as University of Arkansas’s Jay P. Greene have been talking about the weaknesses of standardized test scores for a long time. Specifically, Greene frequently points out that at least 10 rigorous school choice studies indicate disconnects between effects on test scores and effects on long-term outcomes such as attainment and earnings. In fact, Diane Ravitch recently praised Greene for shining a light on this issue. And it’s not every day that Ravitch and Greene agree on something.

Research reviews indicate that Greene is on to something. For example, a recent review of the academic evidence on the subject finds that “there is a weak relationship between impacts on test scores and later attainment outcomes.”

Similarly, I have started to review the causal private school choice literature that indicates divergences between effects on test scores and other long-run outcomes such as student criminality, effort, and happiness. As shown in the table below, I’ve found 11 disconnects in the literature since 2001. For example, the sample of students from the state-mandated evaluation of the Milwaukee voucher program saw no statistically significant improvements in reading test scores after the fourth year. However, those same students were more likely to enroll in a four-year college and less likely to engage in criminal activity later on in life. In other words, putting too much weight on standardized tests – like NAEP – could compromise the character development necessary for real lifelong success.

Studies with Disconnects Between Effects on Test Scores and Long-Run Outcomes

 

2. Even if test scores were strong measures of long-run success, changes in NAEP score averages alone do not tell us much about changes in nationwide performance.

Let’s assume test scores mattered. Even then, an uptick in NAEP scores wouldn’t necessarily tell us that overall performance improved. People like former U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan claim that the student population “is relatively poorer and considerably more diverse” than in the past. He may have a point. For example, single-parent households have nearly tripled since 1960. However, many scholars also point out that inflation-adjusted per capita income has nearly doubled since the 70’s, while the share of citizens with college degrees surged over the same period.

Since the magnitude – and the direction – of the student population’s relative advantage changes over time, we cannot confidently determine whether NAEP performance has actually gotten better or worse.

No Major Lessons from New National Test Scores

Another set of national exam results—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—is upon us, and much will likely be made of them. But in the aggregate, what the new scores show is just that things haven’t changed much over the last couple of years, and only as captured by this particular test. Burrowing down and comparing states, subgroups of kids, and smaller jurisdictions that have implemented different policies, spent more or less, and experienced numerous other things, might suggest some avenues for further exploration, but the only conclusion we can state with any confidence is that nothing happened—not Common Core, not school choice, not the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—that appears to have seismically altered NAEP outcomes.

That may be just fine: Americans have increasingly and broadly rejected standardized tests scores as the end-all-and-be-all of education, culminating in the ESSA, which in late 2015 replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and its obsession with testing. And as we are increasingly learning, tests scores may have little connection to other outcomes like high school completion, and neither really addresses whether kids are learning desirable moral values, or creative thinking, or the myriad other big things parents want for their children.

That important preface offered, what are the highlights, such as they are, in the latest NAEP?

First, that overall scores for 4th and 8th graders—no high school kids this time around—were statistically flat between 2015 and 2017 for all but 8th grade reading, which went up two scale points, from 265 to 267. (Note, they were at 268 in 2013, so stagnation persisted over four years). Within those numbers, top scorers tended to see scores rise, and lower scorers scores decrease, while lower-income students tended to see stagnation or slight dips.  Private schools—actually, only Catholic schools are reported—also saw general stagnation.

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.