Topic: Education and Child Policy

A Few PIRLS of Wisdom on New Reading Results

The latest international academic assessment results are out—this time focused on 4th grade reading—and the news isn’t great for the United States. But how bad is it? I offer a few thoughts—maybe not that wise, but I needed a super-clever title—that might be worth contemplating.

The exam is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—which was administered to roughly representative samples of children in their fourth year of formal schooling in 58 education systems. The systems are mainly national, but also some sub-national levels such as Hong Kong and the Flemish-speaking areas of Belgium. PIRLS seeks to assess various aspects of reading ability, including understanding plots, themes, and other aspects of literary works, and analyzing informational texts. Results are reported both in scale scores, which can range from 0 to 1000, with 500 being the fixed centerpoint, and benchmark levels of “advanced,” “high,” “intermediate,” and “low.” The 2016 results also include a first-time assessment called ePIRLS, which looks at online reading, but it includes only 16 systems and has no trend data so we’ll stick to plain ol’ PIRLS.

Keeping in mind that no test tells you even close to all you need to know to determine how effective an education system is, the first bit of troubling news is that the United States was outperformed by students in 12 systems. Among countries, we were outscored by the Russian Federation, Singapore, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Norway, and Latvia. Some other countries had higher scores, but the differences were not statistically significant, meaning there is a non-negligible possibility the differences were a function of random chance. Also, between 2011 and 2016 we were overtaken by Ireland, Poland, Nothern Ireland, Norway, Chinese Taipei, and England.

Public Schooling Battles: November Dispatch

Last month we posted our first “dispatch” from the frontlines of public schooling’s values and identity-based wars, conflicts ultimately entered on the Public Schooling Battle Map, an interactive database of such contests. The monthly dispatch is intended to lay out some of the themes we’ve observed in battles during the month, and to give you a sense over which basic values the public schools—inherently zero-sum arenas—have people battling. Here are the themes of November:

  • Discriminatory Dress Codes: Allegations that school dress codes discriminate against girls, proscribing lots of attire options for them on the grounds that they are too revealing—and may be distracting for boys—while prohibiting far less for the guys were prevalent in November. Of course, dress code conflicts are not new—the Battle Map contains nearly 90 such fights—but it seems those fueled by accusations of gender discrimination, as opposed to, say, freedom of expression, may be growing. Conflicts in November flared up in Oxnard, CA; Loyalsock Township, PA; and Washington Township, IN.
  • Sex Ed: Putting at odds basic beliefs about moral behavior, health, and age appropriateness of instruction, sex education has been a war zone for decades. But it seemed to have faded at bit over the last few years, eclipsed by contests over bathroom access and other, even hotter-button issues. But it made a bit of return in November, with battles over proposed online, parent-selected sex education in Utah; the presence of Sex, Etc. magazine—with articles such as “Where do you stand on Friends With Benefits?” and “The clitoris and pleasure: What you should know”—in a New Jersey middle school; and a proposal in Niagara Falls, NY that could involve escorting Planned Parenthood reps through schools.
  • Curricula: What public schools teach is, of course, controversial, beyond the extremely contentious subject of sex education. In November we also saw Mexican American studies—and one proposed textbook in particular—create fireworks in Texas; disagreements over the definition of “civic readiness” in Nebraska; and a proposal in Florida not just to let parents challenge textbooks, but propose replacements.

There were lots of other conflicts—over The Hate U Give, Bible study, and more—but these seem to be the trends.

By the way, over on the Battle Map Facebook page we have started posting twice-weekly polls on the kinds of conflicts we see repeatedly. They are not scientific, and we are just starting to build traffic on the page, but they often suggest significant divides among, presumably, perfectly decent people. For instance, our question whether school officials or students should decide which bathrooms and locker rooms students can use saw an almost 50/50 split, with 48 percent choosing “public school officials” and 52 percent “students.” Asked whether the tenor of American history taught in public schools tends to be “too critical” or “too celebratory,” 65 percent chose the latter, but a still significant 35 percent picked the former.

Now, head over to the Facebook page and vote on the active questions: Should student journalists or school administrators ultimately decide what gets published in school newspapers, and who should decide what kids read in public schools? Also, please send any values or identity-based battles you find to nmccluskey [at] cato.org. And ask yourself: Why should we be forced to fight, or sacrifice what matters to us, in educating our children? Why shouldn’t we be free to choose?

Will We PROSPER with This Act?

This morning the House Committee on Education and the Workforce released its legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the source of most of what the federal government does in higher ed, especially provide hundreds-of-billions of dollars in student aid. The new legislation is called the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform—or PROSPER—Act. (Oh, these names!) It will take a while to comb through in detail—it’s 542 pages long—but here is a quick reaction to some core parts from a rapid skimming of the bill (and some reporting on a leaked draft):

  • What needs to happen, ultimately, is for federal student aid to be phased out. It fuels tuition inflation, credential inflation, and noncompletion, and students with a demonstrated ability to do legitimate college-level work in in-demand fields would almost certainly be able to find private loans; both borrower and lender would likely profit. This bill, not surprisingly, does not phase aid out. It does, though, consolidate aid programs, and takes some small steps forward, capping total amounts students and their families can borrow from Washington, and letting schools say they won’t let students borrow a lot if the program doesn’t seem to justify it. The federal loan limits aren’t low—from a cap for undergraduate dependent students of $39,000, to a grand possible limit for certain borrowers of $235,500—but just saying there should be caps below the “cost of attendance”—basically, whatever colleges charge plus other expenses—is a start.
  • Other efforts to curb prices and noncompletion include making schools responsible for paying back some of the debt of students who are struggling to repay, and conditioning some funds for minority-serving institutions on at least 25 percent of students completing their programs or successfully transferring to other institutions. Both of these changes appear to put blame on institutions while ignoring the root problem—the federal government gives people money to pay for college without any meaningful assessment of their ability to do college-level work—but it might have some positive effects on prices and completion.
  • The law would end “gainful employment” regulations targeting for-profit colleges, and would also end a requirement that for a school to be accessible online in a state, it must be approved by that state even if its physical home is somewhere else. These things would free the system up a bit, but how much is unclear.

There is a lot else in there—provisions on TRIO programs, accreditation, a data “dashboard” on school and program outcomes, and more—and I’ll really have to scrutinize the thing to make sure I have all the details right. But from a quick look, this bill would generally move in the right direction, though with many miles to go to reach good higher education policy.

A Tax Bill Provision Only Athletic Directors Could Hate

It’s obviously too early to spike the football, but there is a provision in both the Senate and House tax bills that everyone should be able to endorse, except maybe colleges and their athletics departments: eliminating the 80 percent federal tax deduction college sports season ticket holders get when they pay “seat license” fees—often called “charitable gifts”—charged by schools. It’s an absurd deduction that I’ve complained about periodically, and it’s nice to see it targeted for elimination. And in case we need a reminder that this deduction has zilch to do with the “public good” that higher ed so often gives as its excuse for every special treatment it demands, USA Today has reported that this season 12 big football schools alone are on the hook for at least $70 million to buy out fired head coaches. Sounds like a lot of private good there.

These days it seems like we on Team America can’t agree on anything, but we all ought to agree on this: the seat license deduction must go.

College: Ragnarok

For the second week in a row, Thor: Ragnarok was the big winner at the box office, pulling in $56.6 million in North America last weekend and bringing its worldwide take to more than $650 million. Ragnarok is the mythological destruction of Asgard and the Norse gods, but in real life it has been a huge, money-making win for Marvel Studios. Meanwhile, American higher education has been declaring that it is facing its own Ragnarok in the form of the House Republican tax plan. This end time, in stark contrast to Thor: Ragnarok, will come from a distinct lack of money. As a Washington Post headline asks, is this “The Last Stand for American Higher Education?”

What the Hela

I have qualms about some of the GOP proposals. For instance, the plan would tax “tuition discounts”—basically, prices not actually charged—for graduate students. That’s not technically income, so on normative grounds I’m not sure it should be taxed. The plan also calls for an “excise tax” on the earnings of endowments worth $250,000 or more per student at private institutions. It would impact but a nano-handful of institutions—around 50 out of thousands—and amounts to little more than a politicized, “Take That, Harvard!”

That said, the idea that higher ed is somehow teetering on the edge of financial destruction is ludicrous.

Consider revenues at public colleges since the onset of the Great Recession, during which we supposedly saw massive “disinvestment.” While it is true that total state and local appropriations dipped, total public college revenue rose markedly, from $273 billion in academic year 07-08, to $347 billion in 14-15, a 27 percent increase. Even on an inflation-adjusted, per-pupil basis revenue increased: From $31,561 per student in 07-08, to $32,887 in 14-15, a 4 percent rise. To put that in perspective, per-capita income in the United States is $28,930.

Federal data on private colleges is pretty volatile—it’s not clear why, for instance, between 07-08 and 08-09 total revenue dropped from $139 billion to $69 billion—but it, too, shows little sign of penury. Between 07-08 and 14-15 total revenue rose from $139 billion to $200 billion, a 44 percent increase, and inflation-adjusted per-pupil revenue went from $51,629 to $59,270, a 15 percent increase.

20% of College Students Say College Faculty Has Balanced Mix of Political Views

The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds only 20% of current college and graduate students believe their college or university faculty has a balanced mix of political views. A plurality (39%) say most college and university professors are liberal, 27% believe most are politically moderate, and 12% believe most are conservative.

College Democrats Less Likely Than Republicans to Think Faculty Is Liberal

Democratic and Republican students see their college campuses very differently. A majority (59%) of Republican college students believe that most faculty members are liberal. In contrast, only 35% of Democratic college students agree most professors are liberal. Democratic students are also about twice as likely as Republican students to think their professors are moderate (32% vs. 16%) or conservative (14% vs. 9%).

Full survey results and report found here.

College Students Agree Student Body is Liberal

Current students believe that most of their campus’ student body is liberal. Fifty-percent (50%) believe that most students at their college or university are liberal, 21% believe most are moderate, 8% believe most are conservative, and 19% believe there is a balanced mix of political views.

Democratic and Republican students largely agree on the ideological composition of their campus student body.

Consequences of Campus Political Climate

These perceptions of ideological homogeneity on college campuses may explain why 72% of Republican college students say the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. About a quarter (26%) of Republican college students feel they can share their political views.

Public Schooling Battles: October Dispatch

As you may or may not know (I hope it is the former) Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom maintains the Public Schooling Battle Map, an interactive database of values and identity-based battles—potentially the most wrenching of all conflicts—in public schools. To get a sense for specific topics that appear to be roiling people not just in particular districts, but perhaps across the country, we at CEF thought it might be worthwhile putting out a little summary of what we’ve observed each month.

Keep in mind that the Battle Map is primarily populated with events reported in major media, so there are likely lots of fights we never find out about. (If you know of one, email it!) Based on what we found reported, here were the big conflicts in October:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird: Tussles over the propriety of books on reading lists or in school libraries are constant, but a Biloxi, Mississippi school ending an 8th grade reading of Mockingbird over a family’s concerns over the frequent appearance of the N-word created a national sensation. The family found the use of the word—and some students’ reactions to it—inappropriate and disturbing, while the book’s defenders said it is precisely Mockingbird’s unsettling portrayal of injustice that makes it not just an important read, but maybe one that should be mandatory. It is not, however, just one family in Biloxi that has objected to Mockingbird in public schools—it is one of the most challenged classic books on record.
  • Anthem and Pledge: With National Football League players, Donald Trump, and lots of other people sniping back-and-forth over kneeling during the National Anthem, it is not surprising that fights over standing for the Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance have also been fought in the schools. Indeed, standing for the Pledge is a seemingly timeless battleground. Ultimately, the conflict is one of freedom of speech we’re all supposed to have against the unity and love of country that, historically, public schools were supposed to inculcate. In October we saw such conflicts in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas.
  • Halloween: This holiday tends to generate fights because of its connection to religion, and the potential dangers of costumes offending or even threatening others. We found conflicts over what costumes, if any, kids could wear in California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin.
  • “Immersion” Assignments: I made up the term “immersion” for this, but there was an unusual spate of conflicts over assignments that basically asked students to immerse themselves in something historical in order to get a deeper understanding of it, but that seemed to many people to either trivialize, glorify, or impose something evil or disturbing. These included an assignment to create a Nazi mascot in Georgia; a Civil War dress-up day, also in Georgia; and a Pilgrim dress-up day in Massachusetts.

There were other battles begun or continued in October, of course—conflicts over President Trump, dress codes, and offensive expression—but these are the ones that stuck out as either constituting trends or attracting significant national attention.

For daily updates on conflicts in the public schools for which all, diverse people must pay, but only those with the most political power control, follow the Battle Map Twitter feed, Facebook page, and, of course, dive into the Battle Map itself