Policy Context Can be Everything: But Intellectual Prisoners of the Status Quo Often Forget That

We have to carefully use “evidence” to assess policy options, which sometimes means rejecting alleged evidence. And in this “Mad, Mad World” of school system reform controversies we often have it backwards. Facts that constitute relevant evidence are widely ignored for policies that seem like they should produce noteworthy results even though they haven’t. For example, we have tried to improve the performance of the current K-12 system with increased per pupil spending, higher standards, smaller classes, recruitment of higher ability teachers and increased teacher training. And even though those policies haven’t produced noteworthy gains, because they seem like they should produce gains, there are repeated failed efforts to apply them in the circumstance in which they have already repeatedly failed to produce the improvements we need. Higher standards and the promise/threat of “increased accountability” seem like they should yield academic gains, but in the current system they have not yielded noteworthy gains. In a different system, the common sense that they should matter might be matched by findings that they do.  Because the “roots of the low performance problem” persist, my study of studies demonstrated that the symbolically sensible policy changes, like those listed above, have not mattered much, or at all.

Many facts generated by the current system are not relevant to decisions to apply policies in circumstances radically different from those present right now. For example, many opponents of school choice expansion cite (Ravitch, 2010; Chapter 7) the lackluster, though positive outcomes, of restriction-laden school choice programs, as evidence that they believe should discredit school choice policy options, generally. But the kinds of policies that could provide a large expansion of the menu of schooling options, and leverage entrepreneurial initiative to do it, have not been tried.

Studies of alleged merit pay (not all such programs even attempt to reward measured individual merit) for traditional public school teachers indicate that “merit pay” policies have not produced noteworthy gains. Those results have been cited to challenge reform advocates’ complaints that the current system does not punish failure or reward extraordinarily effective educator performance (“we tried that; it didn’t matter”). But with merit measured by market outcomes, differential teacher pay could be one of the reasons for better academic outcomes when parent/customers assess and reward merit, or punish its absence by enrolling their children elsewhere.

Because the private schools of the current system are generally not measurably much superior to traditional public schools, some analysts believe they have evidence that private school choice expansion of any kind, even market accountability-based transformation of school systems, will not yield noteworthy improvements. But the private schools of a system in which public schools don’t have a public finance monopoly could be, and likely would be, radically different from the private schools that are typical now, and perhaps much more effective than current private schools. However, because transformational change might also improve traditional public schools, the private schools of a new system might still be comparable in measured effectiveness to the public schools of a new system. In addition to possible benefits of competitive pressures, school choice is almost certain to improve public schools by fostering the exit of children for whom the assigned public school was not a good fit.  The exit of the bad fits leaves behind a more teachable homogenous set of children (classrooms with few or zero distracting outliers) for whom the public school instructional approach was already at least acceptable, and in some cases quite a good fit.

So, do think about the relevance of alleged evidence. Assert the relevant facts, and challenge unfounded generalizations of facts to circumstances to which they are not relevant.

For-Profits Risk Losing Federal Aid

New rules by the Obama administration forces for-profit colleges to limit their debt or face losing federal aid. The rules take effect July 2015 and require programs to show that their graduates’ loans do not reach a level of their pay. Programs that fail to meet the requirements will begin to risk losing the federal aid to those programs. Critics of these new regulations say that for-profits are unfairly targeted and missing the students who drop out.

According to the Obama administration:

  • 1,400 programs will not pass the accountability standards.
  • Programs are considered failing if average graduate loan payments surpass 30 percent of discretionary earnings or 12 percent of annual earnings.
  • Programs that fail in two out of three consecutive years will be ineligible for federal aid.
  • Programs that land in the danger zone for four consecutive years will be ineligible for federal aid.
  • Two-year for-profit institutions cost a student on average four times as much as a community college.
  • More than 80 percent of students at for-profits have debt.
  • Students at for-profits have 44 percent of all federal student loan defaults.

The Obama administration has been leading this effort against for-profits for much of the two terms. While the for-profits have a share of the blame for the student loan crisis and the rise in tuition bubble, there is a much bigger picture to consider. The problem is the sheer amount of money flowing in the form of student loans and federal aid that is far too easy for students to access. This is creating a burden on all students who are trying to get a higher education. Graduates are unable to pay for the education they just received and in many cases, do not make an income that even comes close to justifying the previous educational experience. On top of all of that, more federal aid to students in order to balance the growing student loan crisis and skyrocketing tuitions, is just an added burden to all taxpayers.

Regulations that target one group in higher education vs. another is not the answer. Student loans and federal aid should only go to those that really need it and less money should be available, while giving the appropriate amount to the few that qualify.

Don’t Defend the Chicago Charter Experiment

An October 13 article in Chicago Business cites a report alleging that the Chicago “experiment” with increased utilization of chartered public schools is a flop. Fearing generalized guilt by association, school choice advocates are pondering a defense/refutation, including questioning the author’s methods and objectivity.

But what school choice advocates need to do is assertively make the case for low expectations. First of all, because of huge waitlists for most chartered public schools, nationwide, charter laws mostly create school chance, not school choice. And even at its current best, chartering suffers serious debilitating limitations, including, especially the accountability-to-customer-destroying waitlists that result from “pricelessness”; that is the government specifies a ceiling on what charter instruction can cost, and specifies that the cost to customers is zero. The Illinois charter law is “in-name-only”. The Center for Education Reform gives the Illinois charter law a score of “19” out of 55; a given grade of “D”. So, the Illinois charter law is not very charter friendly. Illinois outcomes are no basis for a generalization about the usefulness of chartering as it currently exists in most other states. We do not want to argue for more widespread adoption of Illinois-style charter laws; quite the contrary.

Differences between “A” states and Illinois amount to an argument for charter law improvement, AND/OR an argument that charter laws, despite significant differences, have serious shortcomings in common. Charter law also has serious potential to become a transformation catalyst. That needs to be the objective; reform of charter law to make it transformational. Price decontrol through the potential for shared financing (not free ONLY; still likely mostly free) would massively enlarge and diversify the menu of schooling options. And it is CRITICAL to remember that chartered schools that can get people to pay fees would not be readily available, or in existence at all, without the possibility of public-private shared financing. “Not readily available” means that it (an instructional approach) is present in an existing school, but waitlists for schools using it are so long that the probability of gaining access to it is quite low. Allowing fees can’t create inequitable access to instructional approaches that would not be readily available without the additional funding made possible by the fees.

PA Union Puts Kibosh On Teachers’ Charitable Giving

Pennsylvania wants their teachers to be kind, charitable souls — but only if they’re kind and charitable in a union-approved manner. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) is coming under fire for preventing teachers for making charitable donations the union deems “too political.”

The state requires that teachers pay yearly dues to the union. Not paying those dues is equivalent to “severing ties with the union,” which could cause teachers to lose their jobs. However, religious objectors can cut ties to the unions as long as they donate an equivalent amount to charity.

Two teachers are now suing PSEA for interfering with their charitable giving. PSEA prevented one teacher, Jane Ladley, from donating to a scholarship fund designed to teach high school seniors about the Constitution because it was “too political.”

The other teacher was attempting to donate money to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. PSEA rejected that donation because the non-profit had previously sued the union.

Pennsylvania requires that objector’s feels be escrowed “during the pendency of the feepayer and union’s discussion on a mutually-acceptable, nonreligious charity to receive the fees,” according to a legal brief put out by the union.

In practice, this requirement means that unions “can give their members’ money to the politics and the agenda that they think are correct, yet I cannot,” said Ladley.

This problem isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. A Long Island teacher reached a settlement with her union in January after the union pocketed hundreds of dollars she directed to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation.

Spokesman of the National Right to Work Foundation, which represented the Long Island teacher, says that “while sending money to a charity instead of to union coffers is better than being forced to choose between your religious conscience and your job (since they will be fired for not paying), disputes over which charity the money will go to and if they send it show why Right to Work is still the best solution to protecting workers from having their money used to fund union activities they find contrary to their beliefs.”

If we want kind, charitable, quality teachers, we need to structure legislation to protect both their right to work and their right to speak. The first step should be closing loopholes that allow unions to impose their political agendas on opposing teachers.


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.