Topic: Education and Child Policy

Want Accountability in Education? Empower Parents

The selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has exposed longstanding tensions among education reformers who are united in their support for expanding educational choice but divided over the government’s role in regulating such programs.

The schism is often portrayed as being between those who support or reject “accountability,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The real disagreement is not whether there should be accountability, but to whom schools should be held accountable: parents or bureaucrats. As Lindsey Burke and I argue in a new report published by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, educational choice programs like education savings accounts should place the accountability for academic outcomes with parents.

For decades, the term “accountability” primarily referred, in education policy circles, to government regulations intended to ensure quality. That’s because most children attend their assigned district schools, which are not directly answerable to parents and function as de facto monopolies. As Lindsey and I explain:

A distinctive feature of monopolies is lack of accountability. Because district schools are not held directly accountable to parents, some policymakers have attempted to impose accountability through top-down government regulations. Yet decades of attempts to regulate district schools into quality have had little effect. Unfortunately, too many policymakers have still come to see centralized government regulations as synonymous with “accountability” rather than an inferior alternative to direct accountability to parents, and have therefore sought to impose similar regulations on choice programs. However, regulations designed for a monopoly system are inappropriate for a market-based system.

In a market-based system, producers are held directly accountable to consumers for results. The government sets certain rules against fraud or health and safety standards, but the consumers ultimately decide whether a product or service meets their needs. Likewise, the government could ensure that ESA funds are spent on qualifying educational products and services, but the accountability for results should lie with parents, who are in the best position to evaluate those results. Holding education providers directly accountable to parents creates a feedback loop that does not exist in more centralized, top-down systems like the district schools. As social scientist Yuval Levin has argued, this enables the system to “channel social knowledge from the bottom up rather than…impose technical knowledge from the top down.” This channeling is accomplished “through a process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.”

If we want an education system that makes significant improvements in quality over time, education providers must be free to innovate and parents must be free to choose the providers that work best for their own children. This system evolves over time because higher-quality providers will attract more parents and lower-quality providers will face pressure to either improve or shut down.

However, technocratic attempts to guarantee quality through imposing uniform standards can interrupt this evolutionary process.

The Price of Technocratic Accountability

The technocratic approach to accountability requires that all schools are judged according to uniform metrics, therefore the technocrats rely heavily (indeed, almost exclusively) on standardized test scores, particularly in math and language arts. The technocratic reformers want to use these scores to set a minimum standard, meaning “underperforming” schools would be excluded from receiving voucher funds–or, in the case of charter schools, be shut down entirely–even against the will of parents who still want to enroll their children there.

Let us be clear about what is at stake. The technocratic approach would eliminate a family’s least-bad educational alternative, leaving children worse off “for their own good.” For example, parents may have chosen a private or charter school that did not perform well on the state’s standardized test overall, but the school may have provided a safer environment than the local district school. Or perhaps the school was succeeding at its mission to aid the most at-risk students, but the state’s uniform “accountability” system failed to take its mission into account. The damage done to children who lose the opportunity to attend schools that their parents believe are better than the alternative is incalculable.

We should also be realistic about the unintended consequences of over-reliance on test scores. Although standardized tests can provide parents with useful information about their child’s academic performance, using them to impose uniform standards that so narrowly define “quality” creates perverse incentives that narrow the curriculum, stifle innovation, and can drive away quality schools from participating in the choice program. As Lindsey and I explain:

When schools are rewarded or punished based on their students’ performance on math and reading tests, they have a strong incentive to divert their time and resources to tested subjects and away from others. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that the time district schools spent on subjects besides math and reading declined considerably after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB), which mandated that states require district schools to administer the state standardized math and reading tests in grades three through eight and report the results. In the five years after NCLB was implemented, approximately 62 percent of elementary district schools reported increasing the amount of time spent on English language arts and/or math, and 44 percent reported decreasing time spent on social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess.

The narrowing curriculum is particularly alarming because, as Jay P. Greene has noted, recent research has found that “later success in math, reading, and science depends on early acquisition of the kind of ‘general knowledge’ and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.” In other words, a narrower curriculum not only deprives students of having a broader and more enriching education, but also negatively impacts their performance in the tested subjects. “If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing,” Greene concludes, “we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.”

Mandating a single test exacerbates this phenomenon. Within the tested subjects, schools have a strong incentive to teach the concepts that will be on the mandated test. This incentive to “teach to the test” can result in a de facto curriculum. For example, if a school had been teaching math concepts A, B, and C in grade 7, but the new state test was going to cover concepts B, D, and E, the school would almost certainly drop concepts A and C in favor of D and E, even if the math teachers believe that the original curriculum was superior. Keeping the original curriculum would put their students at a disadvantage on the state test vis-à-vis students at other schools that had aligned their curriculum to the test. This standardization might make sense in a world in which there was one right way to teach math, or at least one right order to teach concepts, but that is not the case.

Again, this isn’t to say that we should do away with testing entirely. As Robert Pondiscio recently wrote, standardized tests should be “used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.” Tests can provide valuable information, but using the tests as the sole or primary metric of performance does more harm than good. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students, not just the “typical” student, and that’s something that parents are in a much better position to determine than technocrats.

More Errors from The New York Times on Michigan’s Charter Schools

Over the summer, The New York Times published an error-ridden piece on Michigan’s charter schools that it has yet to retract. Now, the NYT is doubling down with another piece adding new errors to old ones. The errors begin in the opening sentence:

Few disagreed that schools in Detroit were a mess: a chaotic mix of charters and traditional public schools, the worst-performing in the nation.

This is editorializing thinly veiled as “news.” In fact, lots of experts disagreed with that statement. The original NYT piece received a wave of criticism from national and local education policy experts, charter school organizations, and other journalists. As I explained at the time, the central premise of the NYT’s takedown on Detroit’s charter schools was an utter distortion of the research:

The piece claims that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research – noting that it is “considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country” – it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the “gold standard” is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study

New International Exam Results: U.S. = Meh

Last week and this morning the results of two major international exams came out: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), respectively. Together, they offer a mixed bag of overall mediocre news for the United States.

On TIMSS—an exam that tends to use “traditional” questions such as directly multiplying two numbers—American students saw 4th grade math scores dip a bit between 2011 and 2015, 8th grade math scores rise a statistically significant amount, and 4th and 8th grade science scores rise slightly. We also placed pretty high compared to other countries, though we finished behind Kazakhstan on all tests. On the whole, that’s decent news (Kazakhstan notwithstanding).

PISA would probably be best characterized the opposite way: bad news. Scores on the exam—which is more focused on solving “real world” problems, akin to multi-step word problems, and is only for 15-year-olds—were all down.  Science, math, and reading, as you can see below, all dropped. And our placement among other participating countries? Well below average for advanced countries in math, slightly above in science and reading.

Taking PISA and TIMSS together, the news isn’t great, especially considering that we spend more on K-12 education than almost any other country in the world.

Does Higher Ed Prove We Need Bigger, Stronger Gates?

With school choice advocate Betsy DeVos slated to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education, the battle between regulation and freedom has suddenly become more intense, with people on both sides exchanging fire. Yesterday, Jason Bedrick weighed in against regulation, while today Jeffrey Selingo warns that a major reason “choice hasn’t necessarily led to better outcomes in higher education is the absence of a strong gatekeeper for quality control.”

This sort of assertion strikes me as more an article of intuitive faith than a conclusion based on evidence. If only some well-informed, smart group of experts decided what people could choose, choices would be much better. The problem is that no one has the omniscience to do the job, especially so effectively that the costs of bureaucracy, barriers to entry, and kneecapping of innovation don’t severely outweigh the hoped-for benefits.

Markets in Education Work, But Keep the Feds Out of It

President-Elect Trump’s selection of philanthropist and long-time school choice advocate Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has the public education establishment and its allies in panic mode. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted “Trump has chosen the most ideological, anti-public ed nominee since the creation of the Dept of Education.” Over at Slate, Dana Goldstein frets that “Trump could gut public education“—even though federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of district school funding nationwide. The New York Times has also run series of hand-wringing pieces about what the Trump administration has in store for our nation’s education system.

At the center of the panic over Trump’s nomination of DeVos is their support for school choice. Although light on details, Trump has pledged to devote $20 billion to a federal voucher program. As is so often the case, the most vocal opponents of federal school choice are right for the wrong reasons. Not only does the federal government lack constitutional jurisdiction (outside of Washington, D.C., military installations, and tribal lands), but a federal voucher program poses a danger to school choice efforts nationwide because a less-friendly future administration could attach regulations that undermine choice policies. Such regulations are always a threat to the effectiveness of school choice policies, but when a particular state adopts harmful regulations, the negative effects are localized. Louisiana’s folly does not affect Florida. Not so with a national voucher program. Moreover, harmful regulations are easier to fight at the state level than at the federal level, where the exercise of “pen and phone” executive authority is increasingly (and unfortunately) the norm.

Many of Trump’s critics have not addressed very real federalism concerns, but have instead used the DeVos appointment to attack school choice generally, particularly its more free-market forms.

It’s DeVos for Boss! Hopefully, Just of the Education Department

Betsy DeVos, who has long championed private and charter school choice, has been named the next U.S. Secretary of Education. On the spectrum of education policy people, her support for choice puts her well on the correct side. But I have concerns: especially that President-elect Trump will see Ms. DeVos—or that she will see herself—not just as the education department head, but rather as the national education boss.

As I wrote yesterday, even though choice is great, it is not something people should want Washington providing. Nor—outside of the DC voucher program, military families, and maybe Native American reservations—is it something that the feds can constitutionally provide. My fear is that DeVos and Trump might not recognize the myriad problems with taking private school choice national. More concerning, the American Federation for Children, which DeVos chairs, has tended to favor more rules and regulations on choice than I would prefer. That could become a much bigger concern were rules and regs attached to national-level vouchers.

Then there’s the Common Core. DeVos has written that she does not support it, but some organizations she has backed have. She says she wants high standards, but indicates that she thinks they should be local, or at least “driven by local voices.” Assuming that means she will brook no federal influence over state standards—and I’m not sure her statement is entirely clear on that—that’s good news. The Common Core should thrive or die based on proving its worth, and people freely choosing it. You couldn’t get much further from that than the federal coercion used to get states to adopt it in the first place.

Another worry is that I have no idea where DeVos stands on early childhood or higher education issues, and the latter, especially, is gigantic, with Washington furnishing tens-of-billions of dollars in student loans, among other higher ed matters. DeVos will essentially be taking over a hugely bureaucratic lending company—with lots of regulatory power—that on a day-to-day basis could prove to be a far greater burden than she expected.

Finally, where DeVos could do immediate good is in rescinding—or something akin to that—“Dear Colleague” letters that have, for instance, pushed colleges to curb legal protections for students accused of sexual assault or harassment, or tried to force national decisions on controversial issues that involve competing rights and concerns, most notably bathroom and lockerroom access. Washington has a role in combatting discrimination by state and local governments, but should tread much more lightly.

It is good news that there will be a proven school choice champion holding the highest-profile education job in the land. But it needs to be absolutely clear that that does not make Betsy DeVos the national education boss.

What, Me Worry…about the Secretary of Education?

As it is for all areas in which the federal government trods—which seems to be, essentially, all areas of everything—in education the big worry right now is who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. I worry about that, too, but much more for what the selection will signal about the incoming administration than what the eventual secretary might choose to do.

The secretary—whoever he or she is—will almost certainly take their orders from people above them. Sure, the secretary will likely provide a lot of education guidance and advice to the president, but they will not—or at least should not—be the ultimate decision maker. Former Obama education secretary Arne Duncan, for instance, presided over deplorable baskets full of stuff I didn’t like, but I’ve never seen any indication he’d gone rogue, driving policies his boss did not support.

Whether President-elect Trump chooses hard-charging—but Common Core supporting and school-choice doubting—Michelle Rhee, or Core-despising transition team member Williamson Evers, the primary concern should be what the selection indicates about the administration’s priorities, not what the ed sec might personally like. Were a Secretary Rhee inclined to incentivize states to keep Common Core, but her boss opposed that, Rhee might not energetically do what Trump wants, but it’s hard to imagine her driving an opposing policy.