Contesting the Central Planning Assumption

Last week, I described a 2012 book on Education Governance; a must-read despite its significant failure to seriously consider central planning-lite approaches to school system reform. A knee-jerk central planning assumption driven by inertia is a major reason why nearly every analyst and policymaker that would support transformative changes, including many that I’ve advocated; for example, an end to pricelessness and the public finance monopoly of the public school system. But because they assume that every syllable of the new way of doing things would have to be legislated and implemented through existing bureaucracies, they have given up on transformation and set their sights lower; much lower at something they believe to be realistic (more on that later). After elder statesman, reform advocate, Ted Kolderie correctly points out that that we currently have an “inert system,” his new book puts the alleged impossibility of transformational change very succinctly:

The effort to transform the system radically through political action . . . is not practical. A political majority for radical change is almost a contradiction in terms.

Though I agree that elimination of government-run schools, or radical re-design of the nature of public schooling, is not going to happen, I disagree with the premise that “radical change” — school system transformation — is politically infeasible. Though we should pursue productive tinkering with the central plan in whatever useful ways the political process allows, we can achieve productive, transformational change without that. We can move forward with a catalyst for transformational change without any tinkering with the traditional public school (TPS) “business plan”. That means not having to change how we collectively decide what the curriculum and textbooks for public school students will be, or teacher training or pay or recruiting. What we don’t need to spell out in new laws or regulations also includes deciding which TPS teachers teach which students, which we now do randomly, except that we sort the children by age and by attendance zone. We don’t need to re-write the central plan for government-run schooling. We only need to make it easier to opt out of the government-run schools. That “only” requires doing something that is hard to contest directly — ending discrimination against private school users — and allow parents to top-off public funding like a tuition voucher, tuition tax credit, or education savings account. That means allowing families to spend more on the schooling of their children than taxpayers want to spend on each child. The actual transformations of the school system will then follow through market forces. I’m not arguing it would be easy — far from it — but winning the argument to subsidize children the same regardless of whether the government, a non-profit entity or a profit-seeking entrepreneur runs the school that a parent believes will work best for their child, and allowing them to spend their own money on schooling, is not the impossible dream.

Is STEAM Gaining Steam?

STEM is a familiar concept — it’s the growing movement to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics in a fun, engaging way. It’s been called the answer to poverty, gender discrimination and unemployment.

STEM education is held in such high regard for good reason. According to the Department of Commerce, over the past ten years, the growth in STEM jobs outpaced growth in non-STEM jobs 3:1. STEM workers make higher wages. Employers are clamoring for STEM workers, and American needs more STEM students if it hopes to keep up with global innovation.

I have heard noise about putting the arts back in STEM for a while. The movement, referred to as STEAM, now seems to be gaining…well, steam.

STEAM supporters argue that it isn’t just a basic knowledge of the sciences that we need to spur innovation. We need the creativity, curiosity and multitude of perspectives that come with the arts to truly foster success.

Yet the focus on STEM vs. STEAM only obscures the bigger problem — that our education system is broken. Arguing the STEM vs. STEAM debate wastes time and energy we could be using to help our students in school right now — rather than arguing over programs that wouldn’t be implemented for another ten years or so.

Public School Cost Savings with School Choice Exits: The “Marginal Cost” Concept

Last week, I discussed the computation and uses of estimated rates of increased private school usage as portability of schooling subsidies through tuition vouchers, tuition tax credits, or education savings accounts reduces the out-of-pocket cost of private schooling. This week, I want to take my best shot at a jargon-lite discussion of estimates of the total per pupil fiscal savings when children leave their assigned public school. The net change in public school usage times the average savings per public school departure is a good first approximation of the total fiscal savings that policymakers may consider as a major factor in deciding whether the reduced total spending on public schools to defray private school tuition is good policy. Student marginal cost/savings is the technical term for the per pupil fiscal savings with reduced enrollment in public schools. Literally, student marginal cost is the change in total cost to the school owner per additional student. That can be a very different number from “average cost”, which is total spending divided by the number of enrolled children.

A New Start Should Mean a Fresh Start

A new school year has begun, and students as well as teachers are looking for a fresh start. From primary education to higher education, the NCPA has highlighted several issues that need to be fixed, yet it doesn’t appear like the new school year will bring about any changes to correct our failed education system. As we have mentioned previously before, the traditional method of public schooling is perpetually under-performing. Tertiary education in this country is plagued with out of control tuition costs and failure to adequately prepare students.

Yet, we continue to pursue the same measures and expect different outcomes. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? The United States lags internationally on many subjects including math and science. And yet, we continue imposing more top-down approaches and standardized tests. Common core, perhaps the most well-known of the top-down approaches, is beginning to draw criticism from the left and right about its effectiveness.

In fact, a researcher and professor at Michigan State University has recently come up with some problems with Common Core that will unlikely be fixed even if the standards are changed. For example:

  • Instructional time is not well-allocated by teachers.
  • Teacher knowledge is not where it needs to be.
  • Teacher preparation to teach the subjects is below par internationally.
  • Textbooks simply do not cover subjects required by the new standards.

These top-down measures provide no flexibility for teachers or school districts to teach effectively. Instead, schools and school districts should be able to come up with their own measures for increasing student performance. If parents don’t like their school district’s approach to learning, they should have the ability to choose a different school. This concept of school choice is something we have been advocating for a long time and the only way to truly level the playing field.

Universal private school choice would give power back to schools and teachers to compose their methods of teaching. School choice allows students to go to a school that is a good fit for them, remain engaged and achieve higher test scores.

Review of: Education Governance for the 21st Century

I am posting this abbreviated review of a 2012 book because it is at the frontier of the key, school system governance issue. Like children and educators, this representation of mainstream thinking has its major strengths and weaknesses. The volume, written by an all-star cast of political science and education policy scholars, is a must read because changes in the rules that impact what instructional approaches will be available, where they will be available, how they will be produced, and who will be connected to each (what, where, how, and for whom), is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the greatly improved schooling outcomes virtually everyone agrees are urgently needed. It describes the current system’s bizarre and intolerable outcomes, including the persistence of those outcomes in the face of ostensible reform frenzy. The nearly continuous flurry of policy changes has mostly left intact the root causes of the utter disappointment described throughout the book, which sadly, the book does not describe.

The exploration of possible changes in governance lacked the economic dimension of how various degrees of political centralization are likely to differ in their key outcomes, and the book lacked discussion of likely critical differences between actual markets and “quasi-markets.” An economist might have noted that there are only two basic ways to orchestrate “what, where, how, and for whom.” They are: 1.) free enterprise, informed and motivated by price change, and profit-loss, which, with varying degrees of competition and regulation, describes most of the U.S. economy; and 2.) central control through experts and the political process. Use of #1 does not preclude a substantial role for government production, funding, or regulation of content, but the barriers to private production must be low, and price signals need to continuously reflect scarcity. For example, increased demand for a particular instructional approach would at least temporarily raise its price. The rise in price and profit would motivate increased provision of that instructional approach which would lower its price, perhaps to or below its level before the demand increase.

Ed Week’s School Choice Chat

Teachers, educators, parents and principals all tuned in to Education Week’s School Choice Chat on Twitter last night, offering insights into the success and concerns that underlie the school choice discussion. Charters and Choice (@ChartersNChoice), the Twitter handle that moderated the discussion, came prepared with seven questions designed to look at school choice, charters and what prompts parents to stay or go when it comes to public schools.

The first question asked what influenced (or would influence) the decision to choose a charter school or stay with a public school. The answers were varied, but fairly familiar to those who follow the school choice debate. Parents favored charters when they:

  • Had a solid vision.
  • Offered programs that couldn’t be found in public schools.
  • Were flexible enough to work around the needs of both the students and parents.
  • Focused on college readiness.

The school choice options available to the respondents varied; several respondents were from states with no choice options, while others had a wide range of options available to choose from. Opinion was split fairly evenly when they were asked about school responsiveness and teachers unions, but when asked if charters helped or hurt the district, the majority of respondents said they thought charters were helpful. They thought charter schools:

  • Increased competition, encouraging charters and public schools alike to step up their game and focus on the students.
  • Provided diverse, well-funded solutions to crowded schools.

However, not everyone was in agreement. A couple of respondents were distressed that charters:

  • Take too much funding from public schools.
  • Wanted more cooperation between teachers unions and charters, as well as charters and the district.

The biggest — and possibly best — piece of advice that came out of the discussion was to get to know the school you enroll your child in. Respondents suggested talking to parents, teachers and community members about the school, visiting the school and looking into all of the options before making the final decision on what school to send your child to.

What questions would you like answered about school choice? What do you think about the questions posed by Education Week?

Reasoning Mind

A state-of-the-art online curriculum and teacher/classroom structuring program, Reasoning Mind is rapidly expanding into many public school districts around the United States. A broad range of groups including ExxonMobil Foundation, TechCorps Texas and more,  give the program strong financial support which has been met with a great deal of positive results and high levels of student, teacher and administrative staff satisfaction. Reasoning Mind:

  • Teaches conceptual understanding that students can apply to many situations.
  • Teaches concepts in a logical order.
  • Builds upon previously mastered material.
  • Provides a focused learning experience that emphasizes mastery.
  • Covers grades 2-6 (grades 7 and 8 are in the pilot stage).
  • Aligns with Common Core State Standards and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.
  • Is flexible enough to use as a core curriculum or an ancillary program.
  • Delivers effective instruction for advanced students and remediation for struggling students.
  • Performs successfully in traditional school, after-school and home environments.

Misuse of “Price Elasticities” to Estimate School Choice Program Impact on Private School Usage

The Fall Semester is underway, so I hope you’ll forgive me for using some of the next few blog posts to “profess” on a few key technical issues. I need to do this, and I need your forgiveness, because key technical issues can involve some economic jargon.  I’ll try to be as jargon-free as possible, but I will probably need your help via comments to recognize clarification needs.

Forecasting school choice program effects is part of optimizing program design and selling the programs, politically. One often poorly predicted key effect of private school choice programs is the net impact on traditional public school (TPS) enrollment. Tuition vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts lower families’ private school tuition costs. After taking account of the fact that the resulting increased demand for private school slots will prompt some private schools to increase tuition levels, determining the program’s net effect on TPS enrollment requires knowledge of the rate at which the net reduction in tuition costs to families will increase enrollment in private schools. Typically, the analysts that have attempted to predict that increase in private school enrollment have chosen from among the available “price elasticity of demand” estimates (reviewed by Gottlob), which is an estimate of the percentage change in private school enrollment per one percent change in the net out-of-pocket cost to families of private school usage. So, for example, an elasticity value of, say, -3 indicates that a one percent drop in the annual cost of a private school slot will increase private school use by 3 percent.

Administration vs. Teacher Reforms

Teach reforms range from the structural to the financial and in many cases, they are minor changes. Real structural reform not only focuses on teachers, but also on other school employees as well. In today’s Slate article about principal reforms, Dana Goldstein wants us to focus away from teachers and onto the role of the principal:

If the job of being a principal in a high-poverty school were less about feeding paperwork into accountability systems and more about teaching teachers how children learn, better educators would become principals, and would, in turn, help attract our best teachers to the kids who need them most. The United States must launch a principal-quality movement as robust as our teacher-quality movement has been. Only then will we begin to realize the potential of great instruction to fight inequality.

Structural reforms look at the whole picture and realize how much bigger the reform is when adjusting for all administrative staff.

According to the Friedman Foundation’s “The School Staffing Surge” (2012):

  • Between fiscal year (FY) 1950 and FY 2009, the number of K-12 public school students in the United States increased by 96 percent while the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) school employees grew 386 percent.
  • Of those personnel, teachers’ numbers increased 252 percent while administrators and other staff experienced growth of 702 percent, more than seven times the increase in students.
  • If non-teaching personnel had grown at the same rate as the growth in students and if the teaching force had grown “only” 1.5 times as fast as the growth in students, American public schools would have an additional $37.2 billion to spend per year.

A Standing Ovation for More of the Same Harder in OKC

On August 19, Oklahoma City’s new superintendent, Robert Neu, got a standing ovation for promising to spend a lot of money to buy gadgets and hire better teachers to squeeze improved performance from virtually insurmountably challenging teaching circumstances. His “bold plans” are bold only in the sense that he expects success with policies that have already repeatedly failed (Rick Hess’ “same things over and over“) to deliver noteworthy academic improvement. While I want to applaud Superintendent Neu’s determination and good attitude, my core reaction is serious consternation and dis-belief. I’m not sure whether to be more concerned with Superintendent Neu’s plan to spend big bucks on “More-of-the-Same” harder, or the standing ovation from his audience. I’m not sure which is worse, Mr. Neu seeking the expectation of improvement from a gullible audience without expecting it himself, or expecting it to work despite the extensive evidence that it does not. By the way, I regard Mr. Neu’s plan to hire better teachers as different from the much-needed dismissal of dysfunctional teachers. It is one thing to fail to secure much improvement from putting more skilled, more determined teachers in difficult circumstances. It is quite another to hold back everyone assigned to classrooms staffed by burned out or unqualified teachers. The latter case is a frequent result of epidemic out-of-field teaching (“69 percent of 5th to 8th graders are being taught math by teachers without a mathematics degree or certificate, and 93 percent of those same students are being taught physical sciences by teachers with no physical science degree or certificate”); a key root of the problem that arises from the single salary schedule (price control that ignores market differences for different teaching skills). A teacher may be unqualified (or uninterested — not passionate) to teach the subject of a classroom they are assigned to, but qualified and passionate for other subjects and pedagogies.

In closing, let me explain the rational basis of general audience and even educator gullibility. In a school system based on sound assumptions and facts about student learning and the multi-dimensional nature of student and educator abilities and engaging interests, hiring better teachers should produce improved schooling. But we have a school system that federal, state, and local political processes have grounded on implicit heroic assumptions. Because the key elements of the current school system are notoriously resistant to substantive change, sincere efforts to improve outcomes are repeatedly channeled into things that sound good (improved inputs like teacher skill and better tools, higher standards, and improved accountability), and there is denial or failure to discover or confess the dismal track record of “sounds good” policies. So, the Roots of the Problem mostly survive Superintendents, Governors, and Secretaries of Education determined to wring improved performance from the current system. They secure applause by proposing things that seem like they should produce a lot of improvement, but produce little, if any, improvement. Superintendent turnover is high, in part, because reality quickly sets in, and they must move on. Moving on mostly means another school board hires them in the hopes that the new person has the magic to do what his/her predecessor could not; improve the school system without changing it; satisfy a diverse parent/student clientele with a one-size-fits-all comprehensively uniform product.