Specialization by District

Paul Kihn, a former school district official, understands schoolchildren and the limitations of schools and school districts, but not the limitations of the political process.  He correctly argues that it is inappropriate and futile for public school districts to cling to their “monopoly” and the illusion that the district can best serve all children.  Sadly, Mr. Kihn does not define the correct basis of the monopoly label – that with rare exceptions, public schools get all of the public funding – or that a real end to the monopoly would level the playing field between public and private schools.  He does mention that magnet schools and chartered public schools should be independent of districts.

Mr. Kihn wants districts to specialize in certain types of schooling.  He says districts should stop trying to centrally manage all school types for all students, stating that “districts should stop spending resources equally in the interest of ‘fairness,’ trying to provide all things to all schools.”  I agree, but good luck with that.  Kihn is saying that districts should continue to collect taxes from everyone, but announce that the district will not be a good choice for many children, and that some schools and children will enjoy a higher level of per pupil funding than others.  Yes, it is true that the district cannot be everything to everyone, and that schools already receive unequal per pupil funding, but for district leaders and public school system supporters to admit that and accept it is utterly politically incorrect.  That’s a key reason for the persistence of the current system’s problems.  The political process forces more of the same harder.  Among other things, the appearance of fairness is a political imperative.  That’s why I believe that the same amount of public funding should support a child no matter which school he/she enrolls in; something that passes the appearance of fairness test better than the status quo.

Kihn – among others – seems to believe that public school choice will foster adequate specialization; that it can be achieved through central planning; that is, without the price system that guides specialization in most of the economy.  Naturally, as an economist – a purveyor of price theory – I disagree.  Central planning produces poor results because of severe information and incentive deficiencies.

That said, the emergence of Mr. Kihn’s epiphanies about the school system are encouraging.  It can’t hurt to push specialization as far as the political process will permit, and maybe that process will create determination to address the limitations that arise.

Encouragement from Personalization Initiatives

We should draw considerable encouragement from the increasing attention to personalization, especially when it involves alternatives to the often overwhelmingly difficult task of useful differentiation of instruction.  But failure to openly discuss how personalization might proceed much more successfully with school system reform is quite disconcerting.  For example, Jennifer Carolan lauds how some new technologies that avoid having to group children within classrooms; for example, multiple versions of the same book.  But there is no mention of why it is the norm for such dissimilar children to be assigned to the same classroom.  Those diverse children might be better off in separate schools.  If we had school system reform that allowed schools of choice to specialize in certain instructional approaches, or package academic content in themes that enhance engagement for some students, we’d address a lot more student differences than we can with technologies that create multiple versions of a book so that fast and slow, and otherwise uniquely challenged, readers can cover the same content.

Ms. Carolan says that nearly every proposal to her venture capital fund describes technology that aims to address our current school system’s failure to make one system fit all, which sadly hasn’t yet created sufficient recognition that we need a much different system than the one we have now.  But, it means if we ever create a school system that fully unleashes entrepreneurial initiative, we won’t suffer from a shortage of entrepreneurs or good ideas, including the student-directed learning advocated by Charles Silberman and Ronald Wolk.

Ms. Carolan says, “the shift from one-size-fits-all to a more personalized approach to learning began with teachers, not techies.”  That fact highlights many teachers’ desperation and dedication to their mission to reach all of the children assigned to them despite an absence of tangible incentives to make such efforts, and the system’s considerable barriers to professional initiative by educators denied professional status.

High Flyers Flunk Basic Economics

I will cite and critique a specific example of economic illiteracy, but sadly it is true that even senior reform activists and scholars are quite often clueless about fundamental economics.  That’s quite important, because it leads to bad advice on how to move forward.

The latest example comes from a former Assistant Secretary of Education, and former head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute think tank, plus a junior co-author with a law degree.  Fordham mostly supports school system changes that would be helpful, though many would argue that their support of Common Core was not helpful.

In the first paragraph of “Market Malfunctions in the Charter Sector,” the authors note the aim of “chartering, was to create a lightly regulated marketplace of diverse and generally autonomous schools . . . and empower families to determine what school best suits their singular needs.”  But even in the states with the charter laws most conducive to the formation of chartered public schools, “lightly regulated” is far from the truth.  The state specifies the tuition price buyers will pay (zero), and the per pupil payment to school operators.  That constraint, by itself, is huge.

Revolutionizing the Quality of K-12 Education

This post was authored by NCPA Research Associate Christian Yiu.

The progression to a new modern, technologically savvy education system has provided promising results for increasing quality within the K-12 classroom. The expanding use of digital technologies suggests that blended learning – which combines online learning with face‐to‐face instructional interactions – will become increasingly common in K‐12 education in the coming years.

While some would argue that purely online education is the solution, the movement to fully online schools has come under increasing scrutiny. In 2015, approximately 200,000 students enrolled in 200 publicly funded, independently managed online charter schools across 26 states. However, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, such schools were found to have an “overwhelming negative impact” on student learning. The lack of oversight policies and the inability of families to provide needed direction were obstacles to the advancement of learning and academic achievement.

With a goal of increasing quality and decreasing the cost, blended learning triggers changes away from “lecture-driven instruction and toward constructivist, inquiry-oriented classrooms.” It gives students greater flexibility over the pace, location and timing of learning, and lets teachers be even more flexible with resources. From a very basic, preliminary level, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation discovered, “students attending a majority of the schools in the study where [blended learning] could be applied outperformed students in the comparison schools not using blended learning.”

A major trend for blended learning schools involves ensuring that what happens online is connected with what happens during face-to-face interactions with teachers. In the same study as earlier, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation reported, teachers “stressed the importance of establishing the proper academic culture, norms, and behavior management practices for a blended learning model to be successful.” Technology can only advance education, in so far, as there is a purposeful atmosphere instilled within the school system.

Despite the rapid revolution of online resources and blended learning, the role of a teacher cannot be underestimated. With the inception of Common Core already diminishing the value of the teacher, technological advancement risks furthering such trend. New software should be used to ensure online programs provide teachers with data that is useful in making timely, constructive decisions. Only then, can the technological revolution effectively upgrade the educational system.

Rather than appealing purely to technology, Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, believes that we ought to combine high-quality teachers with the advancement of educational technology. He argues hiring hundreds of thousands of additional teachers will not improve student achievement. Instead, we should use better and cheaper technology so that we do not need as many expensive people.  By allowing computers to do the teaching and disseminate information, Greene believes “teachers can then become primarily tutors, problem-solvers, and behavior managers,” thereby reducing costs and increasing quality.

More students than ever before are taking online courses. Most recently, five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia­—now require students to have some online learning to graduate. This educational revolution is not happening 20 years from now, it is happening now. With the help of teachers, parents and students, blended learning can continue to lower costs and provide higher quality education.

Alarming Truths Revealed by Presidential Campaigns

I could comment on all of the dumb things that are political imperatives, like fidelity to wealth-destroying entitlements.  But this is an education blog, so I’ll focus on the public display of clear signs of devastating failure by our school system.  A trigger that led to this rant was a recent statement by talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, paraphrasing:  When young people cry because Bernie Sanders was defeated, I cry for public education.  Bernie Sanders is an avowed Socialist.  Mr. Hewitt went on to explain that the utterly devastating failures of socialism are very well-documented.  Starvation and tyranny in Venezuela is a current example.  Cuba and North Korea are proof that the early devastation in Venezuela won’t be temporary.  The tyranny and privation that are part of Socialism are long-lasting.

But much of the population, including college students, isn’t aware of that record, and don’t understand the obvious reasons that we should expect Socialism to have its terrible effects.  That’s content that should be in basic high school and college economics and politics courses.  But somehow such knowledge is politically incorrect, or taught so badly (out-of-field teaching; no tangible incentives, etc.) that it is not learned.  Politically-correct history books often do not even mention key historic figures like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln (yes!!), much less discuss them in proportion to their importance.

Higher education can be somewhat excused for having to start from the end product of the K-12 system; though, supposedly it’s the K-12 upper crust.  The painful ignorance of even the upper crust should lay to rest the widespread self-delusion that the K-12’s failings are a ‘zip code’ problem; that the system works fine alongside affluence.  Nonsense!  It’s a widespread self-delusion that is a key factor in blocking appropriate transformational school system change.  Still, higher education apparently widely fails to teach the lessons learned from experiments in Socialism, or fails to require publicly-subsidized graduates to have a basic understanding of the political and economic systems that drive commerce and collective choice through the political process.  A few years ago, my employer, UT-San Antonio, joined a lot of other universities that had already stopped requiring an economics course for graduation.

And then there are the promises made by the candidates.  How can the political process work as well as possible – still badly, which is why some of us revere ‘limited government’ – if the electorate does not even grasp basic concepts like scarcity, definitions of key terms, and key differences between not-always-fair, free trade and the managed [for the politically connected] trade that results from processing and reacting to every allegation of unfairness.  Again, history is quite clear on the differences between free trade and managed trade, and economics has uncomplicated summary explanations of why we should expect the differences we see.  But it is not effectively taught.

We are rapidly approaching a $20 Trillion Federal Debt (= ~100% of what we produce in a year), and we are projected to add ~half a trillion a year to that – based on current law – yet politicians think that promises of additional expensive programs, and no mention of cuts or new revenue, will be seen as credible and wise; that the promises will win them more votes than they lose.  Even if we had unlimited resources, the failures of Socialism should create much suspicion of promises to provide more things through the government.

Costly dissonance about public policy is consistent with other poor school system outcomes.  The other news that prompted this rant, was a July 27 Wall Street Journal discussion forum that started with a letter that pointed out the falling skill level of High School and University grads.  A personnel officer of a large business noted that half of the college grads they talked to struggled to write a coherent sentence.  If we don’t quickly improve the effectiveness of our 51 U.S. school systems, we’re going to get a lot of more of the bad policies our leaders promised to enact if elected, but keep not liking the results (demand ‘Hope and Change’), then double down on foolishness in subsequent elections because of inability to connect the disappointing results to the causes.

How to Reduce k-12 Education Costs

This post was authored by NCPA Research Associate Christian Yiu. 

The progression to a modern, technologically savvy educational system has provided promising results for decreasing costs within the K-12 classroom. Adoption of personal computers within the K-12 education sector has increased by more than 12%. The U.S. K-12 education market remained the largest globally in 2015 and saw more than 10.5 million devices sold throughout the year. Chromebooks account for more than half of all devices sold for U.S. classrooms.

The addition of technology has opened the doors for blended learning, which combines traditional, teacher-to-student lessons with technology-based instruction. This allows teachers to deliver more personalized content and lessons to students, while encouraging students to learn at their own pace and ability level. Many schools and districts use a “rotation” model, which provides students with more hands-on instruction and smaller group experiences. The basic premise involves students rotating between online and in-person stations for different parts of the day.

Education needs to be made readily available, affordable, and accessible to all spectrums of the socioeconomic ladder. With online learning becoming a fundamental part of the classroom of our nation’s K-12 students, there must be efficient ways of reducing the cost of schooling.

Poor Economic Education Sustains the System Responsible for It

One of the biggest reasons it is difficult to make the case for market-based, transformational school system change is because success requires receptiveness to – a willingness to consider – explanations of decentralized planning through markets.  It is not obvious that such ‘planning’ orchestrated by the price system better focuses key information and creates strong, appropriate incentives.  But even the college-bound fraction widely fears the academic prerequisites of economic literacy, which has created critical blind spots even among holders of advanced degrees.  The economic literacy of everyone else is below their reading-writing literacy and math abilities.  To those that enjoyed their economics classes, including especially those with an ECON degree, part of the aim of this blog is to persuade you to consider a Henry Hazlitt-like career, where you hone and practice the communication skills needed to bring basic economic insights to the educated lay public.  Please, at least allocate some leisure time to the economic education effort, especially as it impacts school system reform discussions.

“The Third Way: A Mixed Market Approach to Schooling” – an Education Week article full of instructive economics nonsense – prompted me to write this blog.  “Advocates of market-disrupting charters” [chartered public schools – CPS] is nonsense.  The stronger state charter laws generally introduce some school choice – though mostly “school chance” because long waitlists are very common – to school systems where there was none.  They may slightly disrupt some public school districts’ comfy monopolies of public funds.  But, because laws allowing CPS regulate school start-up, and control the tuition prices charged, no market is created, much less disrupted.  Profit-seeking potential is another key feature of genuine markets; something few charter laws allow.  Schooling with or without CPS presence has no price change, mostly no profits allowed, and regulated entry.

The article alleges that, “private-sector funders cheered because it [charter law] meant injecting competition into a broken monopoly.”  The current system is a “broken monopoly”, and many well-intentioned private sector funders did cheer the spread of charter laws, in part because they expected the spread of chartering to make school systems more competitive.  But revealing their own weak grasp of economic fundamentals, they should have realized that with the huge, widespread shortages sustained by government control of what school enrollees would pay, and what charter operators would be paid, would short circuit the competitive process.  It is not that complicated.  A school that is full and has a long waitlist is not a competitive threat.  It is incapable of recruiting away students enrolled or assigned elsewhere.

And, according to the Edweek article, we’d have a market – a “mixed market” – if the government determined not only what the choices would be, but which of your family’s school preferences, if any, would actually enroll your child?  “We created a one-stop enrollment system that every school—charter and district alike—was required to participate in, giving all families access to the same options.”  I hope that kind of ‘controlled’, ‘subject-to-veto-shopping’ does not define the school systems of the future, much less spread to other sectors of the economy.

A lot of people – the vast majority, with the best of intentions – are working overtime to kill the Golden Goose of ‘good capitalism’, that the under-educated and mis-educated can easily mistake for ‘bad capitalism’, either fascism or crony capitalism.  Our terrible school system fostered the ignorance that motivates those terrifying good intentions, and it is making it easier for the assault on the Golden Goose to succeed.  Our low-performing school system also causes a lot of non-economics scholars to misinform a mostly unsuspecting public.

Out to Lunch on Engagement

One of the unique things about the schooling industry is that the desired output of the industry is jointly produced by the educators and their schoolchildren clients.  Economists call it co-production.  Instruction or project-based learning can only produce intellectual development with the genuine engagement of the children in the process.

My description of the Roots of Problem describe the reasons for persistent poor performance; that is, they describe reasons for low engagement.  Now we see form Ross Brenneman’s article that the average degree of engagement drops as students grow older.  I almost said, ‘as students progress’, but that would contradict ‘declining engagement’.  That drop in engagement to about 1/3 in the last years of high school helps explain the terrifying result that the degree of age-appropriate subject proficiency is progressively lower for older children.

More terrifying than that are the low prospects for meaningful gains in achievement.  Little is being done to eliminate the Roots of the Problem.  The article cited these hopes for achieving increased engagement:

  • a.) more parental involvement;
  • b.) increased student mentorship by successful students; and
  • c.) improved problem-solving skills.  Those are just wishes.

Nothing was said to explain why the system would suddenly produce different outcomes.  Teachers should, . . . .  Schools should, . . . .  Why aren’t they already?

There was no mention of massive out-of-field teaching, or weak, tangible educator incentives; sometimes perverse incentives, like those that pertain to innovation.  What about expansion of parental choice to achieve or increase student engagement by matching children with schools that teach with instructional approaches that excite them, and that match how the target clientele learns?  There was no mention of additional choice in the Education Week article; the self-avowed mouthpiece of the education establishment.