Frenzy Without a Cause

What have we achieved with all the work towards the common core?  In another article in the Summer 2016 edition of Education Next, we see that the state applauded for having the most rigorous application of the common core standards, Rhode Island, is #39 in academic outcomes.  It is already well-established that standards don’t yield the demanded outcomes. Can we please focus our energies on something that will matter at least in proportion to political effort; for example, a strong charter law, plus price de-control, or large universal education savings accounts.

Let’s look at some telling correlations that will hopefully further compel reallocation of political effort.  In this article, we see that the top (“at the top of the cellar stairs” – former Asst Secretary of Education, Chester Finn) six states are: 1) Minnesota (12, 39); 2) North Dakota (9, 8); 3) Massachusetts (6, 28); 4) Montana (44, 12); 5) Vermont (34, 14); and 6) New Hampshire (23, 17). The first number in the parenthesis next to each state is the state’s per capita GDP rank. Remember all of the blather from the education establishment that schooling outcome is just a matter of wealth/poverty? NOT!! And the minimal correlation between wealth and performance rank is biased by the higher cost of living in the NE states.  The second number in the parenthesis next to each state extends the Rhode Island story.  So, for example, Minnesota is ranked #39 in standards rigor.  Increased standards rigor does not seem to boost academic outcomes, at least not all by itself, which is widely acknowledged except by state politicians that make a big deal about raising standards.  Message to them: skip that step, or declare victory and move on.

When I went to to find the article links above, I discovered yet another entirely predictable story about obsessing over the wrong things: “Detroit is the school district with the smallest achievement gap but its poor overall performance is notable” [awful!!].  How about first creating a system that maximizes every student’s rate of improvement, which will maximize their earning potential and functionality as a citizen, and then see what can be done to fine-tune the system to make the rate of progress of the least advantaged a bit faster than the progress of the most advantaged?

Amazing that Teachers Tolerate Teacher Union Opposition to Transformational School Choice

Two recent Education Week articles reminded me how I got to meet Milton Friedman, and along with another great, Myron Lieberman, what led to my critically acclaimed 2001 book, The School Choice Wars.  About twenty years ago, I sent Professor Friedman a short op-ed draft that asserted that teachers, though not their unions’ leadership, should be pro-universal school choice.  He found it worthy of his time waiting for a doctor’s appointment.  He returned the draft with extensive comments on both substance and style.  Comments on the latter informed me, for the first time, that I was guilty of excessive use of the passive voice.  I have been in writing style recovery ever since.  He did agree with my basic point.

I may dust off and update the final draft of that op-ed, because teacher tolerance of their unions’ opposition to any meaningful change in our school system, except increased funding, is still a source a jaw-dropping amazement.  The first Edweek article talks about teacher warehousing and that the norm in the U.S. is district “forced placement” of teachers.  The latter means that districts, not schools, employ public school teachers, and that with some small but growing exceptions, the districts choose the school each teacher work at; whether or not the school principal or teacher agree.  Indeed, the noted downside of “force placed” is that, “we [Boston’s district leadership] do not think that it creates a strong school culture.”  I suppose the teacher unions accept “forced placement” because districts are willing to pay salaries and benefits to unassigned (warehoused) teachers; hundreds in some districts; “by far its [Boston district] largest cost.”  But what about the unassigned teachers?  Did they go into teaching for the money; hoping to get that fat paycheck for just for mostly sitting around!?!?  Maybe yes, once burned out by the conflict created by the system, but sitting around was definitely not the aim of college students working for a teaching credential.

Ending “forced placed” increased Boston’s unassigned pool.  School leaders would not accept some of the mismatches between the skills of the available in the pool, and the job openings at their schools.  The regular readers of this blog know why districts have many unassigned hires and applicants, yet cannot find a good match between the teachers available and the job opening requirements; the single salary schedule that creates excess supply for some types of teachers, and shortages of others, including at certain locations.  Difficulty placing credentialed people in ‘tough’ schools is probably a major reason why “forced placed” is still widely practiced.  New hires and teachers dumped into the unassigned pool are the ones sent to the least desirable teaching positions, which induces many to quit, or find a way back into the pay-for-no-pay unassigned pool.  Is it smart to assign the toughest jobs to the newest employees?  Is it good for educators or schoolchildren?  No!  Is it a reason for teachers to support preservation of the current system?  Absolutely not.  Quite the contrary.

The second article arises from the same basic cause; failure to recognize different market values for different teaching placements, by subject and by location.  The article noted that Oklahoma had just issued “840 emergency certifications to teachers not certified in the subject they teach.”  That’s awful for teachers; worse for students.

Oh, one other thing rarely noted, that Professor Friedman and I agree on.  Many economists, especially among those active in school and school system analysis, have forgotten that ‘Economist’ is synonymous with price theorist, or should be.  They have abandoned the much-needed analysis based on Price Theory in favor of econometrics, which is multiple variable regression analysis by someone with a PhD in economics.

Equity Math for a Transformed System

Suppose we provide a high minimum level of per-pupil public funding to anyone wanting to exit their assigned public school, and independent schools – charter or private – can charge whatever the market would bear. Markets would then set tuition rates; often at the per-pupil public funding (‘free’), but sometimes above. Market entry would drive tuition rates down to the level needed to finance efficient operations, including a normal rate of return on investment. Purveyors of poorly conceived instructional approaches would not be able to recruit enough schoolchildren to cover their expenses. But purveyors of some well-conceived instructional approaches would be able to charge more than the per pupil public funding; a 3rd party co-payment. Suppose the per-pupil public funding is $8,000/year, and school X’s instructional approaches cannot be offered for less than $9,000/pupil/year. To avoid the current donor dependence of such schools (which is current norm; for example, KIPP Chartered Public Schools are highly donor dependent, thus massively under-supplied), X will need to charge a $1,000/pupil/year co-payment. Ending donor dependence frees the donor money currently paid directly to schools for means-tested co-payment financing. So, the $1,000 can come from parents’ private funds or accounts created from means-tested public or philanthropic financing. School X will get enough parents and donors to pay the $1,000 if X’s instructional approach is significantly better than the alternatives.

The aim of this post is to provide a rough approximation of the likely per pupil level of philanthropic funding available for means-tested co-payment financing. So, suppose a family wants to enroll a child in school X, but their below-poverty income precludes the family from having the means to make the annual $1,000 co-payment. In 2014, approximately 20 percent of children were from officially impoverished families.

How many needy families would seek co-payment assistance? Universal school choice existed in the Edgewood District of San Antonio, Texas for about six years. The Edgewood voucher amount was large enough so that most of that area’s private schools took the voucher amount as full payment. That yielded a peak participation rate of 16 percent. 16 percent of U.S. public school enrollment (50 million) is eight million. If official poverty (20 percent) has proportional representation in the likely eight million seeking an alternative to the assigned public school, the potential demand for 3rd party-financed, means-tested co-payment is 20 percent of eight million; 1.6 million students.

What would be the average co-payment funding available to potential low income leavers of assigned public schools? The most recent firm number for K-12 philanthropy is $1.5 billion in 2002. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the total amount has risen significantly since then, so I’ll assume that $1.5 billion is annual charity funding for means-tested co-payment. Even if every one of the 1.6 million eligible for means-tested co-payment funding applied for it (every preferred private school levies a non-trivial co-payment), $1.5 billion yields nearly $1,000 per low income pupil for co-payment; that is, to top off the public per-pupil funding. The per pupil amount funded by charity for low income households will be higher to the extent that low income families choose private schools with little or no co-payment required, OR to the extent that giving for means-tested co-payment (scholarships) funding rises with increased interest in private schools, and increased diversity in the menu of private school offerings.

Chile’s somewhat useful experience with what Chile calls ‘shared financing’ of private school tuition is that competition causes the average private (family or charity) share of private school tuition to be quite small. So, the bottom line from the very rough estimates above is that the poor will not be disadvantaged by school system reform that opens the system to much-increased free enterprise delivery of schooling orchestrated by price change and price (tuition) variability within the menu of taxpayer supported (subsidized) schooling options. Actually, quite the contrary. Low income families will have more options, but with donor financing of co-payment levies, without significant loss of accessibility due to out-of-pocket cost.

A Lesson in Propaganda: Reporting of Nation’s Report Card Results

Despite important, but rarely noted criticisms like test-takers’ classroom-3weak incentives to give maximum effort, the periodic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is widely referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. The recently reported 2015 results are an interesting lesson in boosterism, obfuscation, and handwringing. Handwringing resulted from the decline in score overall, and the still terribly low proficiency levels. Those are not NAEP numbers an outgoing administration will want to cite as a legacy of frenzied effort and unprecedented federal spending on K-12 education.

Only Massachusetts (MA) has more than 50% (51%) of its 8th-graders proficient in math. I’ll focus on the math scores because, overall, those 8th grade NAEP scores are better than the reading scores. The national average 8th grade reading score is 264/500 (52.8%); 274/500 (54.8%) for MA. The national average 8th grade math score is 281/500 (56.2%); 297/500 (59.4%) for MA. Notice the small difference between the USA and MA scores, and the low level of both. The same thing is true internationally: #1 scores are at a low absolute level, and aren’t much above the average. Internationally, and within the USA, the best are still pretty bad.

When I assign grades to my students, between 50% and 60% is a ‘D’ or an ‘F’. Perhaps wishing not to fail everyone, Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts gives Massachusetts a ‘B’ for an average score of 59.4% and proficiency at 51%. By the way, if you’re wondering why I’m discussing 8th grade results rather than the scores of the school system’s (NAEP scores include private schools) final product – which I would prefer to do – the answer is that the even more terrifying NAEP scores for children older than 8th grade are not broken down by state. For older children, only national numbers are available, giving states room to deny that things are that bad in their states.

Since Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts reports all of the numbers that are the basis for their assessments (you can decide what a 297/500 score or 51% proficiency means), I will not accuse Education Week of boosterism. To check for that, I decided to look at some Massachusetts sources. Sure enough, the Boston Globe chose feel-good boosterism over the appropriate journalistic integrity. In an article entitled “Massachusetts Again Tops National Test Student Achievement,” the Globe made no mention of actual scores or proficiency rates. The article only reported the differences between the 2015 NAEP scores for Boston and Massachusetts and past scores, scores in neighboring states, and the national average. I’m sure the Boston Globe and other sources obfuscated reality with the best of intentions, and we know that the path to you-know-where is paved with good intentions.

“There is Nothing More Unequal than Equal Treatment of Unequal People”

Brevity being the sole of wit [and wisdom], I should not be surprised that I was scooped 200 years ago by the smartest person ever, Thomas Jefferson. That’s why my title is in quotes. They are his words. I’ve quoted him before, so I’m not very surprised. Somehow, I missed this gem about unequal treatment resulting from attempts at equal treatment. The most important reason we need school choice is because of the significant differences in how children learn, and differences in engagement factors like the subject theme packaging of basic academic content.

My version of why the U.S. school system suffers persistent low performance is a couple of pages; The Roots of the Problem. Jefferson managed to distill a key underlying cause of low performance into a single sentence. No doubt a closer examination of his writings will reveal an understanding that the government very frequently practices equal treatment of unequal people and other things such as business firms. It happens often, perhaps nearly always, because the APPEARANCE of fairness is a political imperative. It’s not that holders of public office are generally foolish or crooked. Quite the contrary. The bigger reason for wacky, often counter-productive policies is the nature of the process that makes laws and spends public funds. Every elected officeholder knows that an opponent will definitely jump on even the hint of favoritism. So, when intelligent and well-meaning people with disagreements forge policy, they often produce an outcome that yields a lot of unintended consequences. And enough of the time to foster cynicism, the outcome is exactly the opposite of what was intended at the front-end of the process.

In, “Why I’m Tired of Grit“, James Delisle lists a number of importance differences in children that our school system deliberately overlooks in the name of fairness. We mainstream nearly everyone, and then promise to address differences with “differentiated instruction” rather than with the personalization of schooling through technology or school choice. But as Delisle points out in another article, differentiated instruction is so difficult within diverse-by-design, public school classrooms that it is widely ineffective, or not even attempted.


Central Plan Optimization is Worthwhile, But Not Enough

In “What PISA Can’t Teach Us,” Carnoy, Garcia and Khavenson directly deliver three key findings, and implicitly deliver a fourth.

  1. “There is no causal evidence that students in some Asian countries, for example, score higher on international tests mainly because of better schooling.” As I’ve pointed out previously, similar school systems around the world are producing similar, disappointing scores. Echoing a recurrent theme, the #1 South Koreans are not happy with the performance of their school system. Relentless performance pressure, not better formal schooling, seems to be a much better explanation for the ~11% difference between U.S. and South Korean PISA scores.
  2. In the U.S., because K-12 governance and funding policy is made at the state level, it is inappropriate to compare a U.S. average test score to the world’s other school systems. The U.S. actually has 51 school systems. The same thing is true for some other countries; for example, Canada, where provinces make primary and secondary education governance and funding policy.
  3. There are significant differences between the 51 U.S. systems. Not only do the scores differ, but score trends differ. For example, two states were similar a few years ago, but one shot ahead. For central plan improvement, it would helpful to compare those two states’ recent policy changes. And the differences between the scores can be used to explore which policy differences between the states account for the score differences. But, state comparison can ONLY reveal the importance of ways in which the fifty states and DC actually differ.
  4. So, implicit in the Carnoy et all findings is that U.S. state comparisons can only inform central plan improvement. All fifty states and DC rely on the political process to decide which instructional approaches will be produced, how, where, and for whom. As the international comparisons and within-country state comparisons reveal, central plan improvement has a low upside. The best in the U.S., and the best in the world, are not that far above the “Nation at Risk” — level average U.S. performance. Internationally, we can find some price system presence to facilitate the with/without prices comparisons — for example, the Sweden-Chile comparison I suggested — to provide some empirically-grounded insight into the nature of differences between centrally planned and price system-orchestrated schooling. We’ll also need the will and wisdom to rely, when necessary, on theory-based evidence, and experience from outside modern formal schooling, to move us forward towards productive, transformational school system change.

Standardized Test Discontent Spreads Across the Nation

As the nation moves into the peak weeks of the 2016 standardized exam season, the backlash against standardized tests is escalating sharply with opt-outs and protests being staged in many states. Parents are angry that governors, legislatures and educators are ignoring their requests to reduce testing and return classrooms to learning instead of teaching to the test.

In theory, standardized tests are supposed to identify gaps and hold districts accountable for student success. However, parents claim the tests are setting up their children to fail. Reading passages are reported to be several grade levels above the current grade level of the student. Teachers have reported that students cry because they do not have time to complete the tests, so randomly bubble in answers.

Brain-Dead Discussion of Teacher Supply Issues

In a February 10, 2016 Education Week article, Daarel Burnette II described several strategies to increase the number of applicants for teaching positions, including to replace “droves of teachers quitting midyear.” Despite the latter occurrence, it didn’t occur to Mr. Burnette that a key issue might be the daunting — unnecessarily challenging — classroom conditions of public school teachers, or that the single salary schedule might be a key cause of particular shortages (“hard-to-staff fields like special education, science, and math”). The lengthy article mostly described the struggle to find money for across-the-board teacher raises, and one-time teacher bonuses (“sidestep bargaining agreements”) to lure teachers for the “hard-to-staff fields,” which might reduce out-of-field teaching. Recall that out-of-field teaching is a key root of the public school persistent low performance problem.

Common Core-Aligned SAT Faces Free Market Competition

The College Board is a non-profit association with a mission of promoting excellence and equity in education. The Board was founded in 1900 by twelve prestigious universities to create a standardized test to admit students based on merit — including the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program.

Now it has changed its mission to one that dictates the use of Common Core curriculum for success on the test. This has been effected by the College Board aligning the SAT to Common Core Curriculum Standards.

In 1999 the non-profit organization was facing a cash-flow crisis. Under the leadership of former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, the association was turned into a profitable business — a cash cow — raking in hundreds of millions in increased student fees.

With the testing frenzy that permeates American public education, the College Board is riding on a gravy train.

Now market forces may create another cash-flow problem for the College Board. There is a huge backlash against the Board’s change in the SAT to reflect an ideology. Students who want to apply at an institution requiring the SAT or ACT will be forced to take a test that is now Common Core aligned. Those students who have not used Common Core materials will be at a distinct disadvantage.

Fortunately, students may soon have an alternative. Vector A.R.C. (Assessment of Readiness for College) has produced a college entrance exam for students who have used curriculum products that are not based on Common Core.

Vector A.R.C. is seeking at least 1,000 volunteers to participate in Beta testing its new test. With the rapidly growing resistance to Common Core, Vector A.R.C. will likely have no difficulty in attracting students who are opposed to all things Common Core.

With the increasing number of four-year colleges and universities — now 850 — no longer using the SAT or ACT to admit students, there is going to be market pressure for the remaining institutions to use a proven alternative to the tainted Common Core-aligned SAT.