The Foolishness of the Fair Comparisons Demand

The Wall Street Journal just published a sharply-worded exchange between Eva Moskowitz (former NYC City Council member; now charter school purveyor) and Michael Mulgrew (NYC’s Teacher Union President). It reminded me of the many silly, high stakes school comparisons being made. They are high stakes because many people imagine that they are important. Their spat was an especially silly type of comparison between the test scores of randomly chosen charter enrollees or voucher recipients, for example in Milwaukee, and unsuccessful charter or voucher applicants. Oh boy, the ʺGold Standard″ of comparison; random selection. But the comparison is fraught with wrong, misleading, and irrelevant aspects. First, the comparison assumes virtual irrelevance to the Nation at Risk problem. It assumes that choice expansion does not affect the traditional public schools (TPS)!?!? Though the effects of the restriction-laden programs available to study have been small, the no-effect-on-TPS assumption has been proven wrong repeatedly. So, by ignoring likely gains by TPS students, the measurement of voucher user and charter user benefits is biased downward. Second, random selection of charter enrollees requires charter waitlists; a shortage of space. Since shortages invariably erode the quality of the product, we have a second reason that the measurement of benefits is biased downward.

Third, is that the comparison addresses the wrong question; public vs. private or charter vs. public. The public vs. private or charter vs. public comparison assumes that the differences between two parts of a low-performing system are important.  That comparison is only important for programs that are too small to address the ″Nation at Risk″ problem. Addressing the right question requires school system comparisons. The right question: Does the expansion of choice to include private schools and/or chartered public schools improve the overall performance of the school system?

The fourth problem with public vs. private or charter vs. public comparisons is the bizarre complaint that it is unfair. It amounts to a claim that it is more important to be fair to traditional public schools (TPS) than to do right by children. Even with the handicaps the current system imposes on private schools, they often perform better, as group, than TPSs because private schools avoid some of the heroic assumptions of TPSs. So, rather than describe the reasons for that superiority, studies typically ʺcontrol for″ (adjust the raw numbers to eliminate) the advantages of private schools. For example, private schools can ability-group-by-subject, and specialize in certain instructional approaches like Montessori and themes, like sports or athletics, to engage children whose parents decide those settings are a good fit for their children. TPS aim for one size fits all. So, it helps all children to address special needs in specialized settings, as private schools do, but it is unfair to compare TPS that specialize much less — mainstreaming most special needs children, for example — to individual private schools when most private schools do not enroll many types of special needs children. It will only become fair if we very foolishly impose reasons for TPS low performance on private schools and chartered public schools.

Common Core Materials Don’t Pass the Test

The hasty adoption of the Common Core State Standards raised many concerns from parents, teachers, and administrators alike. According to a Gallup poll conducted last November, one of the key concerns for teachers was the lack of time, information, training and resources available headed into the implementation of the standards.

As it turns out, they were right to be concerned. According to a new ʺconsumer report″ conducted by non-profit organization EdReports.org, very few of the materials who earned the ″Common Core alignedʺ label actually meet the high standards imposed by CCSS.

The report, which looked at 20 sets of K-8 math materials already in use around the nation, found that only one series met the CCSS criteria for all grade levels. The sub-par materials weren’t put out by lesser-known publishing agencies, either. McGraw-Hill’s My Math, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Go Math, Expressions, and Math in Focus, as well as Pearson’s Digits all failed to meet the alignment material for two or more grade levels.

Publishing companies are failing students and teachers alike by mislabeling these teacher materials as ʺCommon Core aligned.″ Yet lawmakers cannot be held blameless for the failure; while the standards detail the skills and knowledge students are expected to have at the end of each grade level, there is no direction on how to get them there or what materials are actually up to par.

Before implementing brand-new standards, more should have been done to train teachers and provide them with the tools to succeed. As the system currently stands, we are setting our students up to fail.

EdReports.org, which is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is planning to analyze high school math and K-12 English materials next. Given the poor performance of K-8 math materials, it will be interesting to see what comes from the next round of evaluations.

A Public School Common Core Context: Universal School Choice

There is a simple answer to the Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI) controversy. Limit the CCSI rules to traditional public schools, and eliminate public schools’ public finance monopoly, which means make it easy for families to opt out of their assigned traditional public school (TPS). That, in turn, would mean TPS-Chartered Public School (CPS) funding equity and price decontrol (allow shared financing) to eliminate waitlists so that CPS can become schools of choice instead of schools of chance. It would also mean that public funding follows children to a private school of choice, again with shared financing allowed to avoid the devastating effects of price control. In that context, CCSI becomes a matter of defining a management prerogative of the public school system. The general public must decide the policies of the schools owned by the public and staffed by government employees through the political process. With a good political outcome, the public school system stakes out a viable niche, and sets a bar for all schools. If the “sausage factory” produces another bad result from the good intentions of the mostly outstanding people holding public office (a quite common outcome), the essential universal choice policy minimizes the damage by expanding the non-TPS share of the school system. That would simply reflect that a poorly conceived common core would make TPS a poor fit for more children.

The political result that must be avoided is a common core for all schools that accept government funding, public and private. Countries such as Sweden and Holland impose a curriculum mandate on public and private schools. That’s why they gain little from their school choice policies. There could be much larger useful differences in the school choices. The government-established national curriculum imposed on all schools severely limits the degree to which schools can differ. Since Sweden’s national curriculum requires nearly 100% of school hours, school choice in Sweden means choice in how the government-chosen curriculum is taught; pedagogical choice only. To engage a high percentage of diverse children in high value content, we need more than pedagogical choice.

School District Uses Classic Apprentice Approach to STEM Engagement

The Chicago area school district U46 had their STEM Expo last weekend at one of the district’s high schools. Over 1,100 students, from grades K-12, were able to showcase their individual projects that highlighted their skill and knowledge of the science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) subjects.

Legos has already been widely used as a way to engage children the STEM subject areas very early. Since 1992, the LEGO Group found that the younger they try to teach STEM related subjects to children by using LEGOs, the more of an impact they can have on their education. The First League and Junior First League have 10,000 students actively involved in LEGO competitions in 2013. The K-3rdgrade students are tasked with developing a theme-based model. The 4-8th grade students participate in a robotics competition with a specific theme challenge.

The First Leagues showed that they were having a huge impact by 2009:

  • 90 percent of the older students showed more interest in math and science
  • 80 percent of the older students showed more interest in science and technology

In U46’s STEM Expo, students are expected to do all of the work while parents or team leaders act as mentors to the projects. This models a “classic apprentice approach” that seems to be working to actively engage students in STEM. Participates are proud to have moved beyond the “Legos” stage of STEM projects to more advanced materials used in constructing their projects.

New ways to increase competition in public/private education are always a benefit to the entire education system. Projects that promote student engagement in STEM subjects are successfully entering both the private schools and the public schools. As more school choice options appear, even more completion within the educational system will happen in educational areas such as STEM.

Redistricting: Attendance Zone Change

By John Garen

The word “redistricting” (attendance zone change) is likely to strike fear into the hearts of parents whose kids go to “preferred” public schools. After all, many parents plan their home location on the perceived quality of the public school in the catchment area of the home. They spend a good deal of time researching the best public schools for their children and directing their home search accordingly. That these plans can be undone by the stroke of a school board’s pen is quite disconcerting. Moreover, competition in the real estate market pushes up the prices of homes in areas with the better schools and reduces them in areas with the lesser public schools. So with redistricting, the possibility of the kids being assigned to a worse school, combined with suffering loss in the value of their home, understandably creates a great deal of angst for parents.

It doesn’t have to be this way and indeed it is not for most goods and services. In fact it’s hard to imagine it for other goods. What if you paid a grocery tax based on the value of your property and then were assigned a grocery store by the local food board. The food would be paid for by the grocery tax, but you’d have to take what the food board decided to make available. You and your neighbors could complain if you didn’t like the food. Maybe it would help. Or you could move to a neighborhood with a better grocery store. Or you could go to a private grocery and pay for your food, but you’d still have to pay your grocery-property tax.

Of course, that sounds like a very bizarre food distribution system . . . and it would be. Yet that is essentially the system that is used by nearly every municipality in the U.S. for the provision of formal schooling services.

A much better system is one that fosters widespread school choice by parents, healthy competition among schools, and the entry and exit of schools into schooling markets. This is a robust voucher or voucher-like system where parents select the school they desire for their kids and have the freedom to move their kids (and the money) without moving their residence. Parents have the power of the purse to induce schools to compete to provide services and programs that are valued. Ineffective or poorly themed schools lose students and close. New schools can enter to replace them. New schools can also enter into markets where the population is growing to alleviate possible overcrowding; or existing schools with good reputations might do so by opening branches in new neighborhoods. It is straightforward to see how a vibrant, competitive market could emerge. At present, there is a measure of competition even in public school systems. Schools and school systems may desire to have a larger tax base and one way to do so is to attract residents by having better schools. There is a good deal of evidence that this works to some extent. But what a cumbersome and unwieldy way to compete; to get “customers” they have to change residence. Also, what if the reasons for moving into a particular school catchment area are undone? Parents cannot rely on the school quality they chose and changing it means moving again.

A robust system of school choice greatly reduces the burdensome nature of “choice” in the present system and brings the salubrious effects of competition to a place where it’s sorely needed.

-John Garen is a professor of economics at the University of Kentucky

Another Presidential Veto Looms in Education

Following his veto of the bipartisan effort to pass and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama is threatening to yet again exercise his veto power ― this time in the education sector.

The White House has plainly stated that the Student Success Act, the Republican answer to the No Child Left Behind Act, will be vetoed if it reaches the president’s desk.

No Child Left Behind expired in 2007, and Congress has been unable to agree on a good replacement since then. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has wielded an unusually powerful position in education during the ensuing lapse, claims the Student Success Act would be “devastating” for minority students in low-income areas.

The Student Success Act would allow money to follow the students if they transfer between public schools. Despite Duncan’s fears, supporters of the legislation say the bill would “return responsibility for student achievement to states, school districts, and parents, while maintaining high expectations” and engage parents in their child’s education.

Supporters of the bill say that much of the Democratic ire comes from the potential loss of federal power if the Student Success Act were to come to fruition. Chairman of the House Education Committee John Kline said:

Over the last six years, the Obama administration has dictated national education policy from the U.S. Department of Education. The White House is using scare tactics and budget gimmicks to kill K-12 education reform, because they know a new law will lead to less control in the hands of Washington bureaucrats and more control in the hands of parents and education leaders.

School Choice: Arguably a Fundamental Parental Right, but Mostly Seen as Just a Potential Problem-Solving Tool

With the ongoing School Choice Wars, and frenzied attempts to reform traditional public schools (TPS) without school system reform ― without ending TPS’s public finance monopoly ― it is easy to see school system reform as just a policy struggle. But as a speaker at the 4th Annual School and Reform International Academic Conference reminded me, it is more than a struggle to define a policy objective and demonstrate that universal school choice orchestrated by market-driven price change is a key part of any strategy to meet that objective. Access to a menu of schooling options as diverse as our schoolchildren is arguably a human right.

With United Nations recognition of such a right, we have another “freedom from” (no barriers ― government neutrality) vs. “freedom to” (capacity) issue. Capacity to choose is sometimes construed as necessitating zero tuition cost to families so that expense does not restrict choices. But the implied ban on shared financing ― not allowing topping off the taxpayer dollars with a private check ― severely constricts current and future schooling options much more than a policy allowing shared financing funded at a level so that many options will have a zero tuition cost. “Freedom from” is my preference. For K-12 schooling, government neutrality means non-discrimination; the government doesn’t favor any schooling providers. Whatever the taxpayers want to spend on a student should be available to support a child’s schooling wherever parents find the best fit for their children. If that best fit costs a bit more than what taxpayers are willing to spend, parents are free to top that off with their personal funds or 3rd party scholarship funding ― shared financing ― to gain access to the more costly instructional approaches.

Persistent Failure to Address the Roots of the Low Performance Problem

A recent journey through my archives produced a 2009 Ronald Wolk (founder of Education Week) article marking the 25th Anniversary of the first “Nation at Risk” report. Wolk discussed the five assumptions he thought caused us to fail to address the Roots of the Low Performance Problem.  I will summarize the five assumptions, comment, and add one to the list.

Assumption #1.) The best way to improve student performance is through higher standards. Like some of the other assumptions, it was a perhaps convenient and easy-to-sell idea that poorly performing people, rather than badly evolved governance and funding processes, were the main problem. That premise meant we just needed to get tough. Our schools would produce better results if we expected more and held educators accountable for the results the system produced. It meant putting more pressure on the poorly conceived governance and funding process. It was the wrong prescription, and we didn’t impose much accountability.

Assumption #2.) More standardized testing would be helpful, and we should use the scores to measure student progress and assess educator effectiveness. As an imperfect partial measure, more frequent standardized testing and increased reliance on such tests to inform decision-making predictably led to increased student alienation, teacher burnout, and narrowing of the curriculum to focus limited school time, increasingly, on test-taking skills, and the specific subject content actually tested. It also led to test-taking fraud, with the discovered incidences likely being just a fraction of what actually took place.

Assumption #3.) We need to increase the number of highly qualified teachers. Sure!  But is it feasible, at any cost, through training, to significantly improve the effectiveness of teachers in the typical circumstances of traditional public school (TPS) classrooms? Sorting children into TPS classrooms by age and neighborhood, only, (and mainstreaming all students but the most severely disabled) puts a premium on teacher ability to differentiate instruction to address the resulting within-classroom, student diversity. But such differentiation has always seemed insanely difficult, and now we see public pronouncements that, indeed, differentiation doesn’t work. Many refuse, and all that differentiation means to many teachers is dumb down instruction to reach more of the slower students.  In fact, the problem may not be “slower” per se, but just students un-engaged in the mainstream pedagogy or bored by the absence of an engaging subject theme; for example, sports is a theme, among many, that would improve engagement and progress for some children.

Assumption #4.) Improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills by forcing all children to take more rigorous classes. But the willingness to engage in difficult, abstract-reasoning-related pursuits, especially for support subjects like algebra must come from a passion for where the acquired capabilities will lead. Forced improvement in STEM-related subjects is a recipe for the opposite; indignation and disengagement.

Assumption #5.) “Get-tough” is also the answer to the drop-out problem; for example, ending social promotion and raising the mandatory attendance age. I am against deception, so I support ending social promotion as part of school system reform. I believe in truth in labeling. Also, we financed drop-out prevention, which sadly didn’t mean provide engaging alternatives. It meant, somehow keep the at-risk in an environment they want to escape; where they are not thriving; an environment that is not a good fit for them.

Assumption #6.) To Ronald Wolk’s five, I will add just a sixth, for now:  All of the prominent school reform plans and school system reform proposals I’ve seen, including those supported by Mr. Wolk, assume we can orchestrate a high-performing, relentlessly improving school system through a central planning process. We persist in the so-far heroic assumption that schooling will somehow, eventually do what no other private good industry (yes, schooling is a merit good ― a private good ― not a “public good”) has ever done; perform at a high level without the decentralized planning through market-driven price change and entrepreneurial initiative that is a common denominator of history’s high-performing industries.

Assumptions can be terrible masters and major barriers to progress, especially unrecognized assumptions. We desperately need to successfully identify and challenge them.

Innovative Ways to Engage Women Early in STEM

STEM jobs may be going up ― but women’s involvement in STEM fields is dropping, according to new research. Yet new efforts to reach younger children may hold the key to increasing involvement.

Engineer Sheila Boyington:

We need to reach 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds. We need to show how it fits in with the bigger picture, contextualize to show how it has impact. A one-day coding camp won’t cut it.

In the market, companies are getting on board. Toy companies like Roominate, Lego and Goldiblocks are reaching out and making STEM toys targeted at young girls. But with a 5 percent drop in the number of women in science and engineering over the past decade, more must be done to engage girls in scientific fields.

Women in these fields have repeatedly emphasized several key elements to engaging young girls in STEM careers, including parental support, teacher encouragement and emphasizing the value of engineering and technical fields for society.

Proper Perspective and Realistic Expectations Please: Too Much Expected from Non-Transformational School Choice

I hate to throw cold water on the widely trumpeted school choice gains around the country. Really, I do! But the short path from unrealistic expectations to policy advocacy abandonment forces a periodic reality check on just how far we have yet to go for a realistic transformational starting point. One thing we can say with quite a bit of confidence is that “incrementalism” does not yield universality and school system transformation. Politically feasible, escape hatch programs are useful for the children they help immediately, but they are not part of a systemic reform process. Small scale, targeted school choice expansions do not gradually shed their key restrictions and become transformational, universal choice policies.

The prompt for this latest reality check arose from a panel discussion at the 4th Annual School Choice and Reform International Academic Conference. A top staffer of Democrats for Education Reform noted that Arizona ranked first in the School Choice Index of the Center for Education Reform, but 41st on one of the National Assessment of Education Progress tests; something he asserted was proof that school choice expansion was a weak education improvement tool. Indeed, the small U.S. programs are producing small effects.

Sadly, after decades of frenzied efforts to achieve noteworthy improvement, and mega-hype of the small positive steps, no state has changed the choices very much. Ranking the differences between the 50 states’ school choice policies is like ranking the freedom levels of the countries behind the Iron Curtain (pre-1989, Eastern Europe). The freest was still not very free. #1, Arizona has very limited school choice options. Arizona’s tuition tax credits are small, and its path-breaking Education Savings Account program provides small sums just to Special Needs students. Hurray for the participants, but they are a small fraction of the population. Arizona’s programs are not nearly transformational. The other states’ efforts at school system reform have been equally non-transformational, or even less so. That includes at the metro level, where we have little to show in the way of systemic improvement for the Milwaukee poster child of the school choice movement.

Above, I highlighted “transformational starting point” because even a transformational policy will still take a long time to yield noteworthy school system improvement. Given the urgency of school system improvement, we have to avoid hype of small-scale, restriction-laden programs ― seeing them strictly as the escape hatches that they are ― and lower our expectations for rates of school system improvement, even for large scale programs. Noteworthy immediate effects will include economic growth as families move children struggling with traditional public schools that don’t work for them relocate to places with a menu of affordable schooling options. Hopefully, documentation of such immediate effects will spread transformational policies faster than the slow-to-be-realized, noteworthy improved schooling outcomes.