Why Defend Sweden’s Program — Another Lousy Experiment/Example

We need to stop reflexively defending lousy experiments (restriction-laden school choice expansions), and the “we” in this case includes the gang here at NCPA. We don’t do groupthink here. When we have spirited disagreements, we let you decide.

But we’re in good company. The pro-transformation gang at Education Next and the supposedly economically literate staff of The Economist also felt obliged to explain that the Swedish version of “school choice” was not to blame for Sweden’s recent declining test scores. For reasons described in detail in the various defenses, other factors seem at fault for Sweden’s test score decline, but that’s not the key point to make. Sweden’s policy warrants low expectations. Sweden has only limited pedagogical choice. 95% of schooling content for all Swedish schools, public and private, is prescribed by the mandated national curriculum. And only the pedagogies that can be delivered for the government-provided per pupil funds can be choices. Yes, you guessed it, pricelessness; something you might think worthy of mention at least by The Economist, which means “price theorist”; someone that understands the role of price change, or lack thereof, in industry outcomes. All Swedish schools that receive government money must be “free”. They must accept government-funded vouchers as full payment. The government-prescribed per pupil funding level amounts to a price ceiling creates shortages of the best financially-feasible schooling options. Shortages create scandal risk because shortages eliminate accountability to customers.

Limited, price-controlled pedagogical choice is better than no choice, but it is not capable of yielding noteworthy performance improvements. Such limited change is not a transformation catalyst. I understand school choice advocates’ “guilt by association” concern when any school choice expansion policy seems to be ineffective at driving improvement. But the bigger risk to the school choice movement is disappointment with imagined market-based reforms, especially highly touted policies like the Milwaukee tuition voucher program. Click here for the latest example of condemnation of market-based school system reforms on the basis of priceless, profit-less policies; policies that are not market-based. Small effects from small restriction-laden school choice expansions present opportunities we cannot afford to miss; a chance to argue for the key policy elements we need to achieve productive school system transformation.

Coincidentally, as I was preparing this, I got an e-mail from another great group of pro-transformation, school system reform scholars and advocates. They wanted to know what we’d do to explain (damage control) a report claiming that the Chicago experiment with chartered public schools was a flop. Next time, I will explain that this is another lousy experiment; the outcome of a weak, getting weaker charter law.

Women and STEM Fields

Women are taking an interest in the STEM fields — just not in the United States. A new report from Great Britain shows a 27 percent rise in the number of girls opting into science classes. This year marks the first time the number of girls, attaining the “Applied Science level 3″, has surpassed the number of boys.

According to the report, girls still lag behind boys in other STEM fields like engineering, even those numbers are rising. Pearson UK, a parent company for the report, notes that the percentage of female students taking STEM subjects has drastically increased in some subjects. The number of girls taking engineering classes increased by 53 percent since last year.

Seeing Great Britain’s progress in increasing the engagement and performance of girls in STEM fields, you have to wonder: how’s the United States doing? The answer: not great.

The Unites States has one of the largest science gender gaps in the developed world. According to a 2013 report from the Executive Office, women make up 48 percent of the total workforce — but only 24 percent of the STEM workforce.

Engaging women in STEM fields is considered a “national security prerogative,” according to Ellen McCarthy, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s chief operating officer. That engagement has to start in the classroom.

In order to maintain and build upon the United States’ supremacy in the STEM fields, we have to do a better job of engaging children in STEM fields from a young age. Bringing hands-on projects into the classroom, integrating new technology into traditional lesson plans and finding ways to make science and math fun should be top priorities for our nation’s educators.


More on Current School System Defender/Apologist SOP

In her vague denunciation of Merrifield-Ortiz’s recommendations for school system improvement, Diane Ravitch said that National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, the Nation’s Report Card, are at an all-time high, but cited none and provided no context; again, there is that vague denunciation standard operating procedure (SOP). There are many NAEP score trends to choose from; 4th grade, 8th grade, 12th grade, math, reading, etc. Indeed, some of the NAEP scores are at all-time high, barely and still at dismally low levels, and some are not. Here is some of that context. The performance that matters the most is for high school seniors; the system’s end product. This Cato Institute graph speaks for itself:

Trends in public schools since 1970

No wonder Dr. Ravitch did not specifically mention the NAEP scores of 17-year-olds. Those scores are not at an all-time high despite a tripling of per-pupil spending (inflation adjusted).

The information in the graph below can be spun into rosy half-truths. The 8th grade math scores are rising (all-time high!!!), but look at the Y-axis. After twenty years, with rapidly increasing funding (see Cato graph, above), we have ONLY 40% at “Basic” competency or above; only 12% are proficient or better!!!! That’s all we could muster with teaching to tests and narrowing the curriculum to favor supposedly high-stakes tests of reading, math, and science.

Proficiency Levels 8th grade math NAEP

And smarter 8th graders has not meant smarter high school seniors (flat lines in Cato graph)!!! What does that say about our high schools? It means that large, comprehensively uniform shopping mall schools staffed by people not rewarded for superior performance or punished for inferior performance has proven to be a disastrously ineffective way to deliver instruction to diverse children. It means that the political process produces few, if any, acceptable schooling options.

STEM Technology Kills Mosquitoes

Dallas native David Cohen may quite possibly be my new hero. For those of you not from Texas, let me fill you in: it is hot! Generally, it is also humid. Hot, humid climates have a tendency to attract lots of pests, including mosquitos. Recognizing our plight, Cohen recently invented a robot that utilizes a pump-jet system to trap and drown everyone’s least favorite pest.

Beyond alleviating the daily annoyance posed by mosquitos, Cohen’s robot could also be used to fight malaria and West Nile, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The best part? Cohen’s only twelve years old.

Cohen is just one example of the great work being done by kids interested in the STEM fields. While we often hear about the work companies, politicians and celebrities are doing to advance STEM education, we don’t hear near enough about the great work already being done by kids in the STEM fields.

STEM is often discussed from a fairly wide point of view. We discuss it as a means to alleviate poverty, cut unemployment and put the United States back on top in technological advancement. When discussing educational reforms, our highest priority should always be what’s best for the children. In our quest to figure out exactly what that means in education, we can’t afford to forget to recognize the very students that benefit from these reforms.

Political Accountability Failure vs. Market Accountability Failure

A common objection to calls for greater market accountability is that schooling is an industry with many potential sources of market “failure”. I put it in quotes because the true meaning of this widely cited, apocalyptic sounding term is “failure” to achieve perfection (100 percent efficiency), which means the best possible mix of output (different instructional approaches) at the lowest possible cost. So, falling short of a very, very high standard, even a little bit amounts to “failure”. I will discuss the grounds for market accountability “failure” to achieve that high standard, but beforehand we need to recognize that massive political accountability failure to achieve that 100 percent efficiency high standard, or even just fall short of it just a little bit to achieve address objectives like equity and social cohesion, is NOT theoretical. We have decades of evidence for 50 U.S. school systems of what politically accountable collective decision-making by overwhelmingly well-educated, well-intentioned public officials yields; persistent “Nation at Risk” schooling outcomes in every state. The political process is unable to even formally specify the roots of the low performance problem, much less muster the political will and wisdom to address them. In a future blog post, I will describe the characteristics of the political process that make it a “sausage factory“.

The grounds for fearing some inefficiency from market accountability-driven schooling potentially include difficulty obtaining long-term financing, social spillovers, and inadequate information from which to make choices. I said, “potentially include” because the significance of some of the alleged grounds for market failure are controversial. For example, under-consumption of schooling from families’ and society’s perspective is likely, if funded privately as they arise, because it is difficult to borrow money against the future earning power, much less social capital, of your children. In other words, families may have several children in school at once, prior to their peak earning years, which can make it difficult to finance tuition out of pocket. When families can’t spread those schooling costs beyond the schooling years, they may be forced to settle for less schooling, or cheaper schooling than they could otherwise pay for, long-term. School choice with shared public-private financing of schooling costs spreads out those costs — you pay local property taxes and state taxes that finance schooling your entire adult life — without creating a public finance monopoly or price control. School choice with shared financing, with a high minimum public per-pupil funding level, addresses the equity concern as well as possible without futile, devastating attempts at forced equality, and the price control that arises from ill-conceived “free-only” subsidized schooling policies.

Nearly all markets suffer some inefficiency from ill-informed purchaser decision-making. Mis-information-driven market “failure” is likely to be especially small, especially nowadays with the internet as a central repository of easily accessible information. With schooling being a repeated, high cost purchase, parents have an incentive to access available information, and schools have strong incentives to build and maintain strong reputations.

Schooling is not a public good, but as a “merit good” there is another potential basis for under-consumption of schooling. According to some, the foregone courses would the ones that are especially important to the general public, but E.G. West’s Education and the State disputed that assumption. West, joined by James Tooley, Milton Friedman, and others, argued that the key citizenship skills are the basic literacy and numeracy skills that all families will purchase for their children. Under-consumption in the absence of subsidy, according to that analysis, will occur for the marginal earning-related courses.

So, market failure in a strictly private school system is unlikely to match the scope of the political failure we have been witnessing, and we can address the major concerns with shared public-private financing.

Obama Administration Crusades Against “Predatory” For-Profits

The United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been leading the crusade against the for-profit career colleges since 2010. The Department of Education proposed gainful employment rules that would require for-profit colleges to meet mandated loan repayment rates and debt to earnings levels for students to qualify for federal aid. The Obama Administration proposed new regulations against what they call “predatory” career colleges last year.

For students to qualify for federal aid at a for-profit:

  • The estimated annual loan payment of graduates must not exceed 20 percent of discretionary earnings or 8 percent of total earnings.
  • The default rate for former students does not exceed 30 percent.

Once these federal regulations are in place, 40 percent of students that are enrolled in for-profit colleges could lose their financial aid. In ten years, 7.5 million students could lose financial aid and an important choice in their education and career path. In addition,

  • For-profit colleges cost taxpayers $183 per student.
  • Public colleges cost taxpayers $13,000 per student.

If these federal regulations are enacted, the for-profit colleges, students and taxpayers could really hurt. Students transferring to public colleges would cost taxpayers $1.7 billion a year.

Taking Flak for Being on Target: Vague Denunciation SOP by Defenders of the School System Status Quo

Jesse Ortiz and I recently co-authored a chapter in, Improving Lives in Alabama: A Vision for Economic Freedom and Prosperity. On the basis of school system facts like persistent low performance in Alabama, and nationwide, non-controversial core principles like the diversity of children and educators, and the infeasibility of attendance zones for schools that address that diversity with specialized instructional approaches, we argued for a system that would have a dynamic menu of specialized schools of choice. We cited evidence of widespread dis-engagement in the current system’s implicit efforts to make comprehensive uniformity fit all.

Because we dared to rigorously, systematically question the public school system’s public finance monopoly, we drew fire from local and national defenders of our current governance and funding processes. And it was the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for such denunciations. 1.) They allege lack of due diligence by pointing to the most recent “more-of-the-same-Harder” (mots-H), sure-to-fail efforts to elicit acceptable outcomes from the structures already in place; and 2.) They make vague references to unspecified alleged evidence that almost always turns out to “wrong, misleading, and irrelevant”; a phrase that literally describes the central motivation of my critically acclaimed 2001 book, The School Choice Wars.

Teaching the A, B, C++

Teaching children how to read and write is incredibly important. We start by teaching them their letters, and slowly work our way up to full sentences, paragraphs, and proper grammar. We spend years teaching children the basics of the English language, and for good reason; a basic understanding of language is key to communication, learning and researching new information.

We spend years teaching kids English, but we don’t expect every child to become an English major. We teach English because we recognize it as a basic element to living and learning.

So why don’t we do the same with technology?

We want our kids to excel in the STEM fields. Yet we don’t take the time to teach them the basic language that underlies most of today’s technology — coding.

Some people are trying to change that. Phone apps like ScratchJr, designed to make coding accessible to children as young as five, brings the basics of the complex subject of computer coding into the classroom in a fun, educational way.

Rather than waiting until we think kids are “old enough” to grasp computer coding, we should be looking for ways to make the basics of the STEM fields accessible to younger and younger kids. If we want to produce the next generation of top-of-their-field programmers, engineers and scientists, we need to make coding as much a basic of children’s education as English.

Every child won’t grow up to be a computer scientist. Yet with the growth of technology in schools, the workplace and everyday life, it’s important that we give children the tools they need to understand the world around them.

Bi-Partisan and Non-Partisan Political Failure in New York [and elsewhere]

A October 2 NY Post article that describes the persistently terrible outcomes of the New York City system demonstrates the entrenched nature of key fallacies, and that both political parties are failing to do right by current and future school-children. And we can’t blame failure to achieve productive reform on competitive politics; that neither party could sustain and consolidate one-party dominance.

Failure of monolithic Republican control can be seen in Texas, which has not yet leveraged decade-long Republican legislative majorities in both houses and Republican control of all statewide elected offices into even a “strong” charter law, much less an expansion of school choice to include much-improved access to private schools. Failure of monolithic Democrat control is evident elsewhere, but I digress. Back to the latest evidence of dismal public school system outcomes despite Republicans and Democrats taking turns at reform frenzy. Influential Democrats include two Cuomo Governors, current NYC Mayor DeBlasio, and a succession of Democrat mayors before Republican Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg. George Pataki was a two-term Republican Governor.

There is no Such Thing as Free Higher Education

In 2006, Germany lifted a ban on tuition and fees, allowing universities in seven states in Germany to charge tuition. Early this week, they overturned that decision and Germany has recently declared that all tuition and fees are gone and higher education is virtually free.

The argument in favor of such an approach is that “tuition fees are socially unjust,” according to a senator for science in Hamburg. What’s more unfair is the quality of higher education you are about to bestow for generations of students.

State intervention in higher education is nothing new, but it has produced many consequences that will be exacerbated by Germany’s new policy. First, it is likely that tuition costs will skyrocket. This happens anytime the government provides funds for a good or service that the consumer is not directly paying into. This phenomenon happened in healthcare and also in our own higher education system, where tuition costs are soaring out of control.

Furthermore, we run into the problem of the “moral hazard” which arises when a person is not responsible for paying the services they use. Higher education is uniquely susceptible to the moral hazard because students can decide to simply stay in college longer. The rise of the “five-year degree,” is partly a result of this. In the United States, for instance, many students opt to stay in college longer and receive federal money to fund their education. Of the 60 percent that graduate from public schools in the U.S., more than half take longer than four years to get their degree. What is to stop a student in Germany from simply staying in school longer, on the government’s dime?

Furthermore, what is this going to cost the government? Providing higher education is going to certainly be an expensive proposition. But even more because college and universities can raise their prices higher and higher, knowing that the government will continue to pump federal dollars into the university’s coffers.

And let’s not fool ourselves, it may be free now, but students will have to deal with higher taxes to afford these type of government services. Already, the 2012 tax burden hovered near 50 percent in Germany, a figure that is sure to increase.

It seems that Germany’s new policy is short-sighted and will likely result in higher costs for the government, which, in turn, means higher cost to the taxpayers. It’ll be interesting to see how free higher education pans out considering there have been voices within the United States advocating the same thing.