Topic: Education and Child Policy

Setting the Record Straight on the Coulson Education Productivity Study

A recent op-ed in the Times Herald took aim at a study by our dearly departed colleague, Andrew J. Coulson. In short, the author claimed that the study’s “flaw” was supposedly failing to take into account something that Andrew actually did take into account, as he explained in his study. Since Andrew is no longer available to address specious attacks on his research, it falls to his colleagues to do so. What follows is the letter that Rachel Reese, a research associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and I submitted to the Times Herald:

In an op-ed urging support for a bond proposal for the Port Huron school district, Professor James Clatworthy took issue with a Cato Institute study by the late Andrew J. Coulson that found no correlation between spending and achievement. We take no position on the bond, but stand by our colleague’s research.

Despite a near tripling of the inflation-adjusted cost per pupil in public schools nationwide between 1972 and 2012, the performance of high school students on the SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress has been flat. Coulson’s study compared state-level SAT scores, controlling for changing participation rates and student demographics, to the total, inflation-adjusted cost of a K-12 education, finding no discernable link between spending and performance.

Clatworthy erroneously claimed that Coulson’s findings did not account for SAT scores being periodically “mean centered,” meaning that the average scores were reset. In fact, contrary to Clatworth’s assertion that the test was recentered “multiple times” over the period of the study, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) only recentered the SAT once between 1972 and 2012 and Coulson used ETS’s own formula to compare the pre- and post-recentering data.

Ironically, Clatworthy also criticized Coulson for supporting policies empowering parents to choose schools, claiming that choice would “return us to the status of the 1700s.” But choice is clearly the right model for the 21st century, in which a quickly changing world will need a nimbly adapting education system. That requires choice and decentralized control, not a bureaucratic system that demands evermore money without measurably improving results.

What Do We Know about Education?

It’s the 50th anniversary of the legendary Coleman Report, as George Will discusses today in the Washington Post. Will summarizes what experts in 1966 believed about education, and what additional experience revealed:

The consensus then was that the best predictor of a school’s performance was the amount of money spent on it: Increase financial inputs, and cognitive outputs would increase proportionately. As the postwar baby boom moved through public schools like a pig through a python, almost everything improved — school buildings, teachers’ salaries, class sizes, per-pupil expenditures — except outcomes measured by standardized tests.

Andrew Coulson put that key fact in a handy chart:

Education spending and results

Politicians, experts, and the education establishment still aren’t willing to accept the lesson demonstrated by this chart.

But if money doesn’t work, what does? Coleman emphasized cultural factors, notably strong families. Coulson believed that schools could improve, and that competition could help us discover best educational practices. This fall, public television stations will broadcast his documentary asking why educational innovations are so rarely tested and replicated.

We’ve Been over the Huge Price of “Free” College before

Hillary Clinton will be introducing a plan today that would enable students from families eventually making up to $125,000 not to have to pay tuition at in-state colleges or universities. This is a jump in college subsidization from her previously announced plan, which focused on debt-free tuition, and more in line with what Bernie Sanders has proposed. Presumably, it is going to be paid for by the federal government offering states more money for higher education in exchange for states saying they’ll increase their own spending, to a point of making tuition largely free.

We’ve been over how costly “free” college really is–massive overconsumption, credential inflation, big opportunity costs for taxpayers, etc.–which you can read about here and here. I won’t rehash it all now. But the political calculus hasn’t changed: People like getting things for free, especially when the ultimate costs are hidden. And the more people who think they’ll benefit–the estimate is 8 out of 10 for Ms. Clinton’s new proposal–the better.

Should Teachers Have to Pay for Gushing over Clinton? (Or Trump? Or Gary Johnson? Or…)?

At just about the same time FBI Director James Comey was discussing how “extremely careless” Hillary Clinton was with classified information during her time as Secretary of State, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, was tweeting this:

And this:

And doing this:

All of this, by the way, took place at the NEA’s national convention.

Now, is there anything wrong with a union endorsing and campaigning for a presidential candidate? Heck no! But there is a huge problem when teachers, as a condition of working at government schools, are required to furnish funds for those unions.

I know the response: The “agency fees” teachers in many states are compelled to supply only cover collective bargaining, which is not political. Of course, such bargaining is absolutely political—negotiating with government entities is inherently political—and somtimes coming in at 65 percent or more of full dues, a lot of agency fee money is almost certainly going to more than just collective bargaining and administrative stuff. And money is fungible. Dollars that free payers supply for collective bargaining ultimately frees up other bucks for, I don’t know, maybe straight-out politicking!

Sadly, as you probably know, the U.S. Supreme Court tied up on this 4-4 earlier this year, maintaining a lower court ruling that agency fees are not a violation of constitutional speech and association rights. But just because the Supreme Court stumbled doesn’t mean the political branches of government can’t act to end forced union funding. And from I saw on Twitter yesterday, justice requires that compelled support of unions end.

Good Schools Coming — in 10 or 20 Years (Maybe)

Kaya Henderson has gotten great reviews for her work as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Test scores are up during her tenure, though not as much as the hype. But take a look at this vision in an article on her departure:

Henderson cautions that improving schools that had long struggled does not happen quickly. And even with the school reform efforts over the the past decade, it may still be another decade — or more — before anyone can declare something approaching victory.

“There will be a day when every school in the city is doing amazing work and you won’t have to enter a lottery, you literally could drop your kid off at any school and have them an amazing experience. I believe we’re within reach of that, probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” she says.

Good schools “sometime in the next 10 or 20 years” – “probably”? Can you imagine a private-company CEO promising that his company would be good at its core business “probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” after his retirement?

No wonder Albert Shanker, the first head of the American Federation of Teachers, said back in 1989:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

Indeed, we have in each city in the United States an essentially centralized, monopoly, uncompetitive, one-size-fits-all school system that has been stagnating for more than a century. As I wrote in the book Liberating Schools,

The problem of the government schools is the problem inherent in all government institutions. In the private sector, firms must attract voluntary customers or they fail; and if they fail, investors lose their money, and managers and employees lose their jobs. The possibility of failure, therefore, is a powerful incentive to find out what customers want and to deliver it efficiently. But in the government sector, failures are not punished, they are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff — because, after all, its task is now bigger.  An agency that fails year after year, that does not simply fail to solve the problem but actually makes it worse, will be rewarded with an ever-increasing budget.  What kind of incentive system is this?  

This is ridiculous. Every form of communication and information technology is changing before our eyes, except the schools and the post office. It’s time to give families a choice. Free them from the monopoly school system. Give families education tax credits or education savings accounts. Make homeschooling easier. Let them opt out of the big-box school – and get their money back – and watch Khan Academy videos. 

Children spend 12 years in government monopoly schools. If they don’t get started right in the first couple of years, they’re running behind for life. It’s just not right to tell parents to wait 10 to 20 years for the tax-supported monopoly schools to start educating decently.

The New York Times Misrepresents Charter School Research

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a front-page story purporting to show that “betting big” on charters has produced “chaos” and a “glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students.” (One wonders how many of those low-income families are upset that they have “too many” options.). However, the article’s central claim about charter school performance rests on a distorted reading of the data.

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

For-Profit Colleges: Terrible or Target?

The Center for American Progress has a new paper out calling for the demise of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), one of the primary accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges. The paper accuses ACICS of being negligent in its accrediting practices, and as a result enabling loads of students and federal aid dollars to flow to bad schools. And ACICS may well be lax, though there is a big debate about exactly what the role of an accreditor is: college watchdog, or friendly advisor? But ACICS itself is not what I mainly want to discuss here. No, it is the evidence that for-profit schools are perhaps being unfairly targeted rather than being particularly bad actors.

The first bit of evidence is something I’ve hinted at before: lots of suits have been brought against for-profit schools, typically by state attorneys general, but few have ended in findings of guilt. As CAP’s paper helpfully itemizes, most accusations, at least for ACICS accredited schools, have been settled with “no finding or admission of fault by the college.” And in the most notable case of a court finding a for-profit guilty—the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges—the judgement was issued without a trial because Corinthian no longer existed and could not defend itself.

Many of the state AGs who have brought suits—including in California, Kentucky, and Massachusetts—have pursued higher political office. California’s Kamala Harris is running for the U.S. Senate. Kentucky’s Jack Conway unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2015. Former Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley ran for governor in 2014.

Were the suits motivated by a desire to raise the AGs’ profiles? No one but the AGs themselves knows their motivations, and they may well have concluded that the schools had intentionally done illegal things. But it is hard not to also see for-profit schools as relatively easy, unsympathetic targets. Moreover, it is possible that many schools settled not because they thought they were guilty, especially of systematic illegality, but because they did not want their names dragged through the mud anymore. In addition, unlike the AGs, they had to use their own money to defend themselves.

The CAP report also largely brushes off a contention that is crucial—but oft neglected—to understanding the seemingly poor outcomes of the proprietary sector: they work with students facing big obstacles in hugely disproportionate amounts. Writes author Ben Miller, “That argument is not necessarily accurate according to detailed reviews of literature around student default, which found that race and ethnicity do matter for default but that degree completion status is typically the strongest predictor of default.”

Of course, the abilities and personal situations of students have a ton to do with degree completion. And this is not primarily about race. Students at for-profit schools are much more likely to be African-American, but also older, low-income, and dealing with children and full-time jobs than students in other sectors, including community colleges. Indeed, a report on accreditors released by the U.S. Department of Education just yesterday reveals that among major accreditors ACICS member institutions have the highest percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, a rough proxy for income. 74 percent of students at ACICS accredited schools receive Pell, versus, for instance, 38 percent among schools accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and 32 percent at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Now, maybe the schools should choose not to work with a lot of students who face too many obstacles. But it is the federal government that gives the students much of the funding with which they pay for these schools, on the general principle that everyone should have access to college. And the feds do this without trying to meaningfully evaluate if the students are ready. So, essentially, the for-profit schools, but also the community colleges and nonselective public and nonprofit private schools, which are all seeing poor outcomes, are just doing what the feds want them to do.

Again, the evidence—all of it—needs to be considered before singling out for-profit schools for censure. Too often, it doesn’t seem to be.