A Promising Sign?

In the Wall Street Journal, “Why Are Teachers Unions So Opposed to Change,” long-time teacher union activist, coming off two terms as Mayor (D) of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa said, “As a former union leader and a lifelong Democrat who supports collective bargaining, I am deeply troubled by the rhetoric and strategy we heard at both [teacher union, National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)] national conventions.” Let’s hope Mayor Villaraigosa will follow in the foot-steps of long-time, high teacher union officials, turned pro-choice/reform scholars Myron Lieberman and David Kirkpatrick. Myron Lieberman became a prolific writer. He inspired my entry into School System Reform Studies with his 1993 Public Education: An Autopsy. His other must-reads include, at least, The Teacher Unions (1997), and The Educational Morass (2007). David Kirkpatrick mostly wrote shorter pieces, but his 1997 short book School Choice: The Idea That Will Not Die is another must-read.

Mayor Villaraigosa implored that, “We should be working together to fix the problem rather than defending a broken system.” Indeed!! It will be challenging to agree on what that means; hopefully an immense opportunity still somewhat disguised as an insurmountable obstacle.

Education Technology Shake-up

There is a lot of discussion about how technology has the capacity to “disrupt” many practices that are inefficient or expensive in many ways. It is true; we have seen disruptions in many fields due to technology ranging from how we shop to how government services are provided. Now, we may be able to see how technology can disrupt the current models in education.

Advocates of reform have long sought how to incorporate technological breakthroughs to make education more effective. Some developments that have come from this include the growing popularity of massively open online courses (MOOCS). MOOCS are beginning to revolutionize higher education because they allow students to attend courses that are taught by professors with live video stream or recorded for later use. For many students and universities, this has helped lower the cost for of pursuing a degree.

But the trick has been how to incorporate technology into primary education to better teach important concepts like math and science in a more effective and tailored manner. It is well documented that the United States is trailing behind in many areas of achievement, especially math and science. Many educators are hoping that the use of technology can bridge that gap and put the U.S. back in the lead again.

Education technology, or Edtech, is a catch-all term that is generating a lot of buzz. These technologies range from anything like language learning software to apps that track progress on homework assignments and quizzes so that a teacher knows where to put more focus on. There is a lot of confidence by educators and industry leaders that Edtech has the capacity to tailor the educational experience to fit the needs of individual students. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, existing evidence on the impact of technology on student achievement is positive.

There are some signs that new tech products will soon enter primary school classrooms. First, there is a very high interest by many companies to develop tech products and services to be used by students and teachers. In 2012, about $600 million was invested into Edtech startups. Just in the second quarter of 2014, the Edtech industry raised just under $327 million in venture capital investments.

Part of the reason for increased interest and investment in Edtech is that the Common Core standards have created a single market that products can be sold to, rather than having to tailor a product to the educational standards of 50 different states. Moreover, baby boomers are retiring and are being replaced by millennials that prefer to utilize technology to teach their students.

This is a large and growing field, and it is only a matter of time before innovators find a way to truly transform the classroom experience in a positive way.

Price-Less Means that Government Policies Specify the Most Schooling Can Cost

Part of assuring we are all on the same page on key concepts — after first discussing the core meaning of “school choice” — is a focused discussion of the term “priceless” (=price-less) that I have used repeatedly to condemn the implicit hope/expectation that schooling can be the first industry to thrive without dynamic price change that accurately reflects scarcity (demand relative to supply). Such dynamic price change is normally delivered by markets, but central authority orchestration of dynamic price change is a conceivable, absolutely under-researched possibility; maybe good, and more politically feasible than market-driven price change. Applied to schooling, “price” is a broad term that applies to everything from school tuition to teacher salaries. Next week, we will discuss the meaning of genuine competition vs. mere potential rivalry, and the widespread misuse and loose use of the term, competition.

The bottom-line for priceless provision of schooling is the assumption — actually implicit delusional hope triumphing over experience — that schooling can thrive as an industry with the government virtually limiting what it can cost (price control). Specifically, the hope has been that a politically-correct central planning process can [finally] produce comprehensive neighborhood public schools that at least adequately serve diverse student learning needs with one comprehensive (many elective courses) campus in each neighborhood, and alongside that persistent delusion, increasingly, hope that such a process can orchestrate a dynamic menu of schooling choices that matches diverse learning needs. I say “delusional” because the comprehensive, “free” (=100% subsidized tuition) neighborhood school strategy has been attempted since the advent of public schooling in the 19th century, with reform frenzy-resistant, gold-plated disaster, “Nation at Risk” academic performance outcomes. Politically correct central planning dominates the proposals to reduce reliance on the attendance-zoned traditional public schools. Significant improvement through a central planning alternative to the price change and profit-loss process that drives most economic outcomes — to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that liberty cannot survive widespread ignorance — has never yielded tolerable outcomes in any industry, including schooling, much less the relentlessly improving efficient schooling outcomes we need, and never will.

Hour of Code

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 1.4 million computer-related jobs will need to be filled by 2020. However, if education trends continue, only 400,000 computer science students will be available to fill those positions.

Additionally, the Department of Labor estimates an 18 percent growth in computer-related occupations from 2012-2022 and an 8 percent growth in the employment of computer programmers. The estimated growth of all occupations in the same time frame is 11 percent. It seems fairly certain that the ability to work with computers is going to be a valuable skillset in the coming decade:

change in employment

Coding is quickly becoming seen as a necessary skill that should be included in the K-12 curriculum, a way to close the tech unemployment gap for minorities, and a way to tackle the tech gender gap. Current STEM education efforts are doing their best to increase student interest in science and math based fields. However, many schools systems cannot afford or lack the knowledge to implement the exciting new programs available to get kids into coding.

So if knowing how to code is vital and schools systems can’t implement the programs themselves, how can kids get the coding experience they need? Luckily, the private sector has the answer. From Google’s recent $50 million coding initiative aimed at getting girls into coding to Code.org’s “Hour of Code” campaign, which is looking to introduce 10 million students to coding, the private sector is stepping in to fill the gap in computer science education.

Taking into account the projected growth of computer science jobs, how do you think schools can best integrate computer skills into their lesson plans? What kind of initiatives have you seen in your state?

School Choice Means No Discriminating Against Users of Alternatives to Traditional Public Schools

In the name of clarity and honesty, terms as widely used as “school choice” need periodic back-to-basics explanations. You can opt out of your assigned public school — choose an alternative — but not many families do despite traditional public schools’ (TPS) low performance and one-size-doesn’t-fit-all problems. Opting out is very expensive because our government policies strongly favor TPS users. The taxes everyone must pay subsidize the tuition of traditional public school users, only.

There are only minor exceptions; so-called school choice programs. The largest exception, chartered public schools’ full subsidy is a still minor exception. Charter schools, as they are most often referred to, still enroll a small fraction of schoolchildren, and charter users typically still suffer official discrimination, though not nearly at the level imposed on families that believe a non-public setting will work best for their children. Charter users get significantly less per pupil taxpayer support than TPS users. With the rare exceptions facilitated by our tiny, typically restriction-laden “private school choice” programs, discrimination against private school users is total and devastating. Because private school users must support public schools with their taxes and pay private school tuition, they are rare, and so are private schools. The number and types of private school choices is profoundly and detrimentally influenced by private schools’ need to sell schooling with a very well-funded ($13,000 per pupil), free (no additional cost beyond taxes everyone must pay) alternative; i.e. the assigned traditional public school.

So, the bottom-line on the term “school choice” is that it means reducing financial discrimination against users of TPS alternatives. One might ask why there should be any formal preferential treatment of TPS users. A philosophy that school taxes exist to benefit children can only justify temporary discrimination to ease the transition to governance and funding policies that provide the schooling alternatives that are as diverse as what engages children in constantly improving, high value instruction. But apart from the separation of school and state proposals that would end taxpayer subsidy of schooling, I know of no serious proposal in any state that does not retain significant financial discrimination against users of TPS alternatives. Not one proposal even phases in non-discrimination, which would require something like education savings accounts financed with taxes, tuition tax credits, or tuition vouchers to be the sole means of conveying public money to all families with school-age children.

What the Common Core Debate is Hiding

Bill Gates said that education reform is more difficult than eradicating polio, malaria, or tuberculosis. He is supporting efforts for all of these causes, and the Common Core State Standards Initiative that he has helped spearhead is under increasing flack, especially within the Republican Party, as several states have called to repeal it, the latest being Louisiana.

Some critics have argued that the Initiative is another instance of federal overreach attempting to expand into the national curriculum. This reasoning is understandable given the exhaustive examples of this administration’s expansion of federal (largely executive) powers. While there is no denying the federal government’s appetite for new power, the Common Core is not in fact a government mandate. The confusion about Common Core’s relationship with the federal government is a result of President Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative. He awarded $4 billion in grants to 11 states that demonstrated dedication to education reform. Some of those states received a slightly bolstered Common Core score because of an overlap of goals between the two initiatives. Vice President of education policy at the Chamber of Commerce, Cheryl Oldham explained that the Common Core is not a national takeover of education, if it was the Chamber of Commerce would not be supporting it.

The problem with Common Core is more subtle than a matter of federal power-grabbing, but perhaps just as nefarious. Teachers unions across the U.S. are using this period of reform to try and interrupt or remove teacher evaluations and accountability methods, in order to prepare for the Common Core changes. These unions are advocating the lifting of the most critical component of improving student achievement. Teacher accountability is proven to have a resounding impact on student performance.

A program called IMPACT, which was implemented in Washington, D.C. schools rated individual teachers based on detailed observation and student achievement. It rewarded teachers who had been rated as highly effective, with base salary increases and bonuses, while it removed teachers who had been rated as minimally effective two years in a row.


Between 2011 and 2013 “The Nation’s Report Card” found that the District of Columbia improved student achievement more than any of the other 21 participating urban school districts. Furthermore, a study completed by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the program had a significant impact on teacher improvement in three years. The incentive of increased pay and the disincentive of being removed can be seen below in which more teachers scored higher in their evaluation by the end of the program.

The most important issue with education reform is linking student performance to teacher accountability. If implementing Common Core includes reconciliation with teachers unions to suspend teacher accountability, then it is not an effective measure of reform. Bill Gates may have an easier time eradicating polio or malaria than teachers unions have coping with more rigorous accountability standards.

Mac Dobbins is a research associate at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Price-less Economists

Since “economist” means purveyor of price theory, the title of this blog post should be an oxymoron, but it is quite common for holders of economics credentials to fail to even think about how price change does, or should, convey critical information and provide the incentive to heed that information, especially in school system reform discussions. The two latest examples are the Hamilton Project’s (part of the Brookings Institution) Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney.

Their report, “A Dozen Facts About K-12 Education,” does not contain the word “price” or close synonyms anywhere in it. They cannot imagine any possible “big change” in the school system worth considering, and because they are implicit defenders of the status quo’s key elements, but sharply criticize its outcomes, their report could qualify as a sixth “Nation at Risk” report.

Their Chapter 3 on the “Promise for Raising Educational Achievement” makes no mention of possible uses of economic incentives or market accountability. It notes the importance of increased transparency and good teaching, but makes no mention of the current system’s obstacles to teacher effectiveness. And the chapter notes that some chartered public schools (price controlled in every state that allows them) have shown ways to significantly improve outcomes for the children that choose them. That’s it!!!!

On page 15 they implicitly rule out big changes in funding and governance (Page heading: “Small-scale interventions also present opportunities for raising student achievement”). To be fair their failure to identify transformational interventions may have happened because they view big changes as politically unattainable, but that would make them part of the reason for the huge political obstacles to the transformational changes we need.

World Cup Education Edition: Part Two

School Funding: What does it cost?

In order to get the best most accurate comparisons for cost, we will be utilizing the World Bank’s 2010 education data, which can be found here. We’ll look at how money is spent, as well as how much is spent.

  Brazil VS Germany Advantage Winner
Percent of GDP Spent on Education: 5.8   5.1 Germany   
Spending per primary pupil,% of GDP per capita: 21.1   18.3 Germany Germany
Spending per secondary pupil,% of GDP per capita: 21.6   24.7 Brazil  
  Argentina VS Netherlands Winner
Percent of GDP Spent on Education: 5.8   6.0 Argentina   
Spending per primary pupil,% of GDP per capita: 16.4   18.7 Argentina Argentina
Spending per secondary pupil,% of GDP per capita: 25.1   27.4 Argentina  


School Choice: What are the options?

Teacher Effectiveness: President Obama is Among the Intellectual Prisoners of the Status Quo

Today’s Wall Street Journal article describing a Presidential effort to improve teacher effectiveness is proof that misinformed thinking persists at the highest levels. Teacher effectiveness is still very widely seen as one-dimensional, apparently by the President and his advisors. Teachers are mostly seen, mistakenly, as good, bad, or average. In fact, like the vast majority of humans, the vast majority of teachers have strengths and weaknesses. They are capable of being good at some kinds of instruction for some types of students, and mediocre or poor in other circumstances. President Obama seems unaware that unnecessarily challenging circumstances are a large part of the ineffectiveness problem. He sees effectiveness as a training problem. Taking for granted the permanence of the very problematic public school teaching circumstances is what intellectual prisoner of the status quo means.

Because the current system aims for uniformly comprehensive schools — the same menu for everyone on a giant campus — teachers that could specialize in an instructional approach that exploits one of their strengths seem utterly ineffective; something likely exacerbated by the current system’s typical failure to reward excellence or tangibly punish failure, and a related high rate of teacher burnout. By trying to be everything to everyone, the current system makes the vast majority appear to be average. Incredibly and fortunately, even though one size cannot fit all, there appear to be a relatively few individuals that are sufficiently gifted as communicators and lesson designers that they can be reasonably effective even in the unnecessarily, incredibly challenging circumstances of the typical public school classroom. Sadly, there has been no evidence that we can train ungifted people to succeed in the typical trying public school classroom circumstances that maximize learning issue diversity by sorting children only by age and neighborhood, not by ability, by subject.

The Crisis in Higher Education

Recently, President Obama announced his plan for reducing the burden on students that have taken out loans. The initiative expands the eligibility of those with loans to cap their loan payments at ten percent of their monthly incomes. However, the plan doesn’t remedy the source of the student loan problem: the top-down approach to financial aid. For decades, students have been able to borrow whatever to pay for their education, often through loans backed by the government, culminating in the problem that we have today.

College debt plagues most millennial now, creating a situation in which the one trillion dollar debt bubble could burst. The average debt owed is about $30,000, with students of graduate or professional programs owing upwards of $100,000. How did we get to this point and why is it so difficult to pay it off?

Since the government began providing generous financial assistance for higher education, most people opted to go to college. The result was that the job market became saturated with qualified applicants with degrees. The degrees that students receive don’t amount to much, prompting many to question whether a degree is even worth the cost. The effect was that a bachelor’s degree no longer stood out, prompting students to attain graduate degrees. This, in turn, led to more borrowing at higher amounts, creating the problem that we have before us today.