Parenting Advice from Sara Mead

Sara Mead takes issue with my recent post that puts misconduct by some McKay schools in perspective.  I noted that those reacting to reports of misconduct by calling for the elimination or heavy regulation of McKay do not similarly react to incidents of misconduct in traditional public schools.  She likens this to a misbehaving child saying “he did it first.”  Sara urges us to be tough parents who don’t accept such weak excuses:

I was a very naughty child. When I was inevitably caught misbehaving, I often tried to justify it by saying “So-and-so (usually my sister or a classmate) did it first!” Not surprisingly, that argument never won the day or kept me from being punished.

I was reminded of this by Jay Greene’s recent blog post about reports of malfeasance and fraud by operators participating in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities. Jay cites a series of examples of abuses in public school districts–basically a grown-up “he did it first!”–before stating that “existence of misconduct in traditional public schools in no way excuses the misconduct that has been uncovered in the McKay program.”

Glad we agree on that one!

Let’s ignore that I clearly said (in the comment she quoted!) that misconduct by McKay providers is inexcusable.  And let’s ignore that she mis-characterizes my call for perspective.  And let’s ignore my argument that the direct operation of schools by the government or heavy regulation of private providers unfortunately does not eliminate misconduct.

Instead, I would like to offer some parenting advice of my own.  When I was a child I sometimes tried to persist in making an argument, even when the evidence contradicted it.  My parents correctly taught me that when you are wrong, you should admit it.

I was reminded of this when thinking about Sara Mead’s repeated claim that the McKay Scholarship program provides incentives to increase the over-identification of students as disabled.  In 2003 she and Andy Rotherham released a report that made a series of speculative allegations against McKay, including:

special education vouchers may actually exacerbate the over-identification problem by creating  a new  incentive for parents to have children diagnosed with a disability in order to obtain a voucher. In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools.

And in 2007 Sara Mead repeated the claim:

Offering vouchers to children with disabilities—and only children with disabilities—creates an incentive for parents to seek out a special education diagnosis in order to get a voucher. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some parents seek out diagnoses of learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to get their children additional help and accommodations on tests. McKay’s offer of a voucher for students with disabilities creates an even stronger incentive for parents to “game the system.” And Florida psychologists who diagnose youngsters with ADHD and other disabilities have told reporters that they see some Florida parents who are seeking these diagnoses just so they can get a McKay voucher.

But in 2009 Marcus Winters and I released an empirical examination of the issue that actually found the opposite.  McKay actually provided incentives to reduce the excessively high rate at which students are identified as disabled.  And in June of this year, the leading quantitative AERA journal, Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, published our article with this finding.

Nowhere has Sara Mead said that she was mistaken.  And last week Education Sector responded to reports of misconduct in McKay by urging people to read the 2007 report with this (and other) false or unsubstantiated claims.  People shouldn’t persist in repeating false claims.

I hope we can agree on that one.

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2 Responses to Parenting Advice from Sara Mead

  1. Ryan says:

    I think the bigger problem with her post is that the analogy doesn’t hold. Specifically, when a child uses the “so-and-so did it first” defense, they are saying “I shouldn’t be punished because other people did the same bad act.” However, your argument isn’t that schools shouldn’t be punished with regulation, but rather that the regulations being proposed don’t work and so we shouldn’t implement them. There is a difference between preventive regulation and punishment, and this is important for your argument. You say that preventative measures that failed for one person or organization shouldn’t be used for a different one. The argument she uses as a straw man says that responsive measures (punishments) shouldn’t be used on me just because someone else did the same thing as me (and presumably escaped punishment, though this point fails as well in her analogy). The fact that she equates regulation with punishment reveals something about her.

  2. Patrick says:

    Sara needs to go back to econ 101 – the perfect competition concept and rational informed actors is a thought exercise and is not meant to be taken literally. No real economist assumes customers have perfect information about the products or that the businesses are in perfect competition. Most economists also don’t call for the end of capitalism because competition or information isn’t perfect either yet this is the excuse she gives for arguing why education can’t be subject to market forces. She’s speaking nonsense.

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