The Siren’s Call of Policy Influence

July 22, 2014

I’ve written several times before about education policy analysts who confuse the constant sound of their own voice for actual influence over policy.  There are many faux education experts who have never really done anything or studied anything that would support their self-proclaimed status as experts.  And the foundations that fund them are making a foolish mistake in thinking that the non-stop chattering of these faux experts actually influences anybody.  Education policymaking is a long game that requires investment in serious inquiry.  Solid evidence, not an insular circle of blabbering, moves the elite consensus and creates the conditions for enduring policy changes.

The problem is that not only are foundations remarkably under-funding serious inquiry, but the academics who should be engaging in that research are increasingly drawn to the siren’s call of policy influence.  Yes, it is a proper goal of policy research to have influence, but that influence is the end-product of serious work, not the thing for which the quality of one’s work and intellectual standards should be sacrificed.

The latest example of academics attempting to trade their integrity for influence can be found in Ray Fisman’s Slate article on vouchers in Sweden.  Fisman is a Harvard-trained economist who has rapidly risen to a named professorship at Columbia University’s business school.  He rose so rapidly because he has done some excellent work published in leading journals.

But even highly capable scholars have difficulty resisting the temptation to abandon their standards for their imagined ability to influence policy.  So, Fisman has also become a columnist for Slate.  His columns are nothing like his scholarship.  In particular, his recent piece on vouchers in Sweden was filled with glaring errors of fact as well as obvious flaws in causal reasoning.  Andrew Coulson has an excellent take-down of Fisman’s piece over at Education Next.  You should read Andrew’s entire piece, but some highlights of Fisman’s sloppiness include:

  • Fisman claims “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth.”  In fact, only about 14% of Sweden’s students attend private schools, significantly less than the 68% in Belgium as well as higher numbers in a host of other developed countries.
  • Fisman’s only “evidence” that vouchers have harmed achievement in Sweden is that PISA scores have dropped in that country over the last decade.  The Razorback football program has also gotten a lot worse over the last decade.  By Fisman’s causal reasoning, perhaps Swedish vouchers are responsible for my poorly performing Hogs.  This is the type of mis-NAEP-ery we expect of Marc Tucker or Diane Ravitch, not a Harvard-trained economist in a named professorship at Columbia.

Fisman would never make such sloppy mistakes in a journal submission or conference presentation.  His colleagues would laugh at him.  But nothing seems to deter Fisman or other would-be Paul Krugmans from making laughable claims in the popular press.  Maybe academics should not be given such a free pass for whatever they write outside of journals.  Maybe the credibility of their scholarly work and their status within the academic community should also be called into question if they are willing to be so reckless.

Look, I know from personal experience the lure of policy influence.  I’ve been in the think-tank world and taken part in the silly collection of “metrics” of influence to get foundation funding.  And I’ve felt the temptation to claim expertise in areas beyond my scholarship.  But we all have to resist these temptations if we are to maintain the standards of academic work.  We need to maintain those standards so that research can remain credible and be the source of true, long-run policy influence.


July 22, 2014

(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)

“Any other team wins the World Series, good for them. They’re drinking champagne, they get a ring. But if we win, on our budget, with this team… we’ll have changed the game. And that’s what I want. I want it to mean something.” – Billy Beane, Moneyball

The cost of baseball players once was largely ignored by the media and fans.  It was crude and destroyed the fun of the game, many thought, to inject hard-nosed considerations of efficiency into America’s pastime.  Then came Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” and the transformation of the Oakland A’s from perennial losers to a competitive and highly efficient professional baseball team, all due to careful consideration of how much bang players delivered for the buck.

Fast forward almost 25 years to the present day.  The cost of public education is largely ignored by both the media and education policymakers.  Many people think it is awkward, complicated or destroys the intrinsic and infinite worth of public education to inject hard-nosed considerations of efficiency into America’s schools.  Then came 2012, the first school year in history in which total U.S. government spending on public education went down.  Suddenly, money has to matter in public education, because apparently there isn’t an endless supply of it.

Today my colleagues and I at the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas released The Productivity of Public Charter SchoolsThe report is the first national study of the efficiency of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, and to tie funding to student achievement.  Across all 28 states in our study we found that public charter school sectors were more cost effective and/or generated a higher return on investment (ROI) than traditional public schools.  Public charter schools are like the Oakland A’s of public education — and last time I checked, the A’s had the best record in baseball.

Let’s start with cost effectiveness, or the amount of output generated per unit of input.   The charter school sectors in 21 states and D.C. all produce higher math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) per $1,000 of per-pupil revenue than do the traditional public schools sectors in their respective states.  On average across our national sample, charters put up 17 more NAEP points in math and 16 more points in reading for every Cleveland they receive, which amounts to charters being 40 percent more cost effective in math and 41 percent more cost effective in reading.

pat post 1

What really matters, though, is how learning translates into future economic rewards for the student and society, commonly measured as ROI.  The charter sectors in 20 states and D.C. all outperform traditional public schools.  The weighted average ROI advantage from charter schooling across the national sample is almost 3 percent for a single year in a charter school and 19 percent if students spend half of their K-12 education in a charter.

Skeptics might say, “Charters gain their efficiency advantage by disproportionately admitting advantaged students.”  The data show this is not so.  A majority of the states in our sample have charter sectors that enroll a higher percentage of low-income students than their traditional public schools peers.  Although most of the charter sectors trail traditional public schools regarding the notoriously unreliable measure of special education enrollments, that gap is so small (3 percentage points) that it can’t plausibly explain the greater productivity of charters.  We used carefully matched samples of charter and traditional public school students from Stanford’s CREDO National Charter School Study to ensure that differences in student characteristics were unbiased.

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Then what is behind the Money-Ed success of public charter schools?  Mathematically, the answer is simple.  Charters nationally are producing student achievement gains that are very similar to the levels in traditional public schools but receive about 30 percent less money per pupil.  Similar results at a lower cost explain the advantage for charters.  We can’t say for sure that charters would retain their productivity advantage over traditional public schools if they were funded on par with district-run schools, but it sure would be interesting to see what happens under something close to funding equity.  Instead of the Oakland A’s of the 2000s, playing competitively with 30 percent less payroll, equitably-funded charters might be the A’s of 2014, who look like world champions.

Common Core Political Naivete and the Enemies List

July 2, 2014

The entire Common Core enterprise has been characterized by shocking political naivete and over-reach.  Despite investing a fortune in political operatives and holding weekly conference calls “directed by Stefanie Sanford, who was in charge of policy and advocacy at the Gates Foundation,” the folks pushing Common Core did not anticipate that the Unions would betray them and oppose the implementation of Common Core as soon as it suited their purposes.  They did not anticipate that there was no authentic constituency for the proper implementation of the new standards and aligned high stakes tests.  They did not anticipate that the combined forces of the Unions and conservative opponents of centralized control would overwhelm the largely paid mercenaries they had on their side.  For people who imagine themselves politically sophisticated they look like a pack of amateurs.

And as the Common Core effort crumbles, its supporters are not just failing, but losing ground on previous accomplishments.   If you liked accountability testing, Common Core has done more to set back your efforts than Randi Weingarten ever could have done on her own.  As Rick Hanushek points out in the Wall Street Journal, the Unions are using Common Core not only to block new tests, but to eliminate high stakes testing altogether.  Several states will soon have no high stakes testing while they adopt a moratorium on stakes in their supposed transition to new tests.  The Gates Foundation has backed a two year delay in the hopes of rescuing their effort from collapse.  Like a retreating army suggesting a cease fire, they will find their opponents have little reason to keep the delay temporary.

In the hopes of achieving a total victory (changing standards and testing everywhere), the Common Core folks are going to end up with weaker testing and standards in many places.  As I suggested in my post on the Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics, seeking total victory often produces stunning defeat.

The other unintended side-effect of Common Core crumbling is that it is producing abusive efforts by its supporters to rescue it.  The whole enterprise depended on putting it into place quickly so that anyone who opposed the fait accompli could be dismissed as a kook or extremist.  The standards were adopted rapidly, but implementation of the high stakes tests has taken long enough for strong opposition to materialize.  Common Core may have captured Nijmegen, but the Arnhem of high stakes testing has proved a bridge too far.

This has not stopped the attempt to characterize opponents as kooks and extremists.  To be fair, some opponents are kooks and extremists, but many are not and Common Core supporters have had a bad habit of avoiding substantive debate by trying to dismiss their opponents as crazy.  There is something vaguely authoritarian about trying to centralize all education standards and testing, so not surprisingly Common Core supporters have also resorted to authoritarian tactics.  Taking a page from Tricky Dick, they have begun to use the power of the government to identify and punish opponents.

No, I’m not just talking about the threat that NCLB waivers and RTTP money would be more available to those who played ball with Common Core.  I’m talking about going after individuals who dissent.  Check out this story about  Brad McQueen, a teacher in Arizona, who published an op-ed against Common Core.

The state’s Associate Superintendent, Kathy Hrabluk, alerted her subordinates to this teacher’s dissent and asked them to “check your list of teacher teams (from which teachers are selected to work on tests at the Dept of Education)” so that he would not be involved in future teacher workgroups on state tests and other matters.  McQueen had been on those workgroups for the previous five years for which he received extra compensation.  No more.  As the Deputy Associate Superintendent for Assessments, Irene Hunting, replied to her boss, “We have made a note in his record.”  Another state official replied, “This was such a surprise for Arizona as Brad has been on many committees…  Let’s make sure he is not going to Denver later this month [to work on the new tests]. Please remove Brad McQueen from the list.”

Another Arizona education official, displaying all of the political sophistication of the Common Core movement, then replied on her government email, saying: “What a f*cktard.”

State education officials, doing their best to be the Common Core equivalent of the White House Plumbers, then proceeded to work on identifying one of McQueen’s fellow teachers to lend his or her name to a rebuttal op-ed that they would ghost write.  The bureaucrat in charge of PARCC for Arizona also called McQueen in his classroom to challenge him on why he opposed her test and quiz him about whether he was teaching the required standards.  McQueen feared they were fishing for grounds to terminate him and got off the call feeling like he has been threatened by a senior state official.

It’s an ugly story.  But this is what happens when you flirt with authoritarian reforms of education.  You start acting like an authoritarian.

(updated as described in comments)

It’s a Rookie Mistake

July 1, 2014

NCTQ has another report out ranking ed schools on whether they meet NCTQ’s ideas of what makes ed schools effective.  As I pointed out last year, NCTQ purports to have a strong research basis for claiming that ed schools should adhere to their standards, but that research is actually quite thin and often doesn’t support what NCTQ advocates.  I share NCTQ’s concern about improving the quality of teacher preparation, but I do not share their confidence that we know what works and certainly do not share their willingness to impose their preferences on everyone.  Unfortunately, we do not know the correct recipe for making better teachers even as NCTQ tries to make everyone cook the way they prefer.

Part of the advocacy campaign for NCTQ’s efforts is to lambaste ed schools for the fact that 1st year teachers tend to be less effective in the classroom as measured by valued-added on test scores.  According to the NCTQ narrative, if teachers do worse in their first year or two in the profession, it must be that ed schools are doing a lousy job of preparing them.  If ed schools were doing it correctly, there would be no negative effect for first year teaching.

In last year’s report NCTQ described how the shortcomings of novice teachers motivated their ranking system:

Should first-year teaching be the equivalent of fraternity hazing, an inevitable rite of passage? Is there no substitute for “on-the-job” training of novice teachers? The answers are obvious. We need more effective teacher preparation. Our profound belief that new teachers and our children deserve better from America’s preparation programs is the touchstone of this project.

And in pimping this year’s report, NCTQ’s tweeter feed repeats this same message: “If training & cert are mandatory, should be no reason to accept 1st yr as hazing ritual”  and “Novice struggle = struggle. Every year matters!”

This, of course, is a faulty argument.  Even when professionals are well-prepared, they may still improve with experience.  It is so widely recognized as a normal phenomenon that we even have a saying for people who are less good when they start — we say that they make “rookie mistakes.”  No one blames the minor leagues for the fact that big league rookies tend to be less effective.  No one denounces the Cavaliers for the fact that LeBron James got better with experience after moving to Miami.  It is normal for people to improve with experience, not necessarily evidence of their poor preparation.

But some see rookie mistakes as unacceptable in education because the stakes are too high.  Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the Dean of the Ed School at Michigan opines, with approving retweets from NCTQ, that: “Airline pilots don’t say, ‘My first few years of flying I was a wreck.’  That needs to be gone.”  We would never tolerate rookie mistakes among important professions, like airplane pilot or doctor.

In fact, we do tolerate rookie mistakes among doctors, pilots, and just about every profession.  A review of airline accidents reports that “inexperienced pilots have a 2-3 times increased incidence of mishaps due to pilot error.”  And this study of doctor errors in writing prescriptions found: “The overall detected error rate was 3.13 errors for each 1000 orders written…. First-year postgraduate residents were found to have a higher error rate (4.25 per 1000 orders) than other prescriber classes.”  In almost every profession there are returns on experience.  The striking thing about teaching is not that novice teachers are less effective, but that the improvement with experience is so small and basically flattens out by the third year.

All of us wish that doctors, pilots, teachers and other professionals would make no mistakes.  And we hope that improved training would reduce those errors.  But no matter how much NCTQ waves around the Flexner Report to justify its activities, teaching is not medicine and in teaching we do not have a scientific basis for saying how every teacher should be prepared.  NCTQ is not helped in its attempt to be the Flexner of education by mis-describing what research exists and by making sloppy errors of logic like claiming that the relative weakness of novice teachers is proof of poor teacher preparation.

These are the sorts of errors that people may be more likely to make without doctoral training and academic experience in the social sciences, which most of the staff at NCTQ and most other DC think tank/advocacy groups are lacking.  You might even call these rookie mistakes by novice researchers.

The Sweet Agony of Victory

June 30, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This has to be one of the most priceless photographs of all time- Faye Dunaway post Oscar victory, 1977. It will have to supplement


from now on.  Go score some victories so I can post Faye again soon.

Additional Thoughts on Vergara Decision

June 12, 2014

I don’t want to throw cold water on the excitement many folks have expressed abut the ruling in Vergara v. California ending teacher tenure protections, but I do think it is important to cool some of the heated enthusiasm.  Matt was appropriately cautious, noting that the decision will certainly be appealed and will take years to play out, but not everyone has been so measured.

I see the decision as more important as a symbol of the political challenges facing unions than as a change in policy that will significantly advance student achievement.  I’m skeptical of the educational impact of the ruling because:

1) It may well be reversed on appeal.  I’m also no lawyer, but I’m enough of a political analyst to see that the Courts are reluctant to make major policy changes without broad support from elites.  As Matt notes, the Courts tend to be lagging indicators of elite opinion, not cutting edge agents of change.  And this is as it should be.  We shouldn’t want unelected judges making too many big policy decisions without enough support from the democratically elected branches to ensure that the decisions can stand and be implemented.  It is an impressive sign of the fading political influence of teacher unions and the intellectual incoherence of some of their central policy positions that a judge was willing to strike down teacher tenure.  But I don’t think there is broad enough support for higher courts to stick with this policy stand.  They’ll find a way to walk back from the ledge.

2) Even if laws protecting tenure are struck down, it is unclear how broadly it will really be used to remove ineffective teachers.  There is a good amount of evidence that principals can distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that principals will exercise that judgment very often even when they are empowered to do so.  Brian Jacob examined a program in Chicago that made it very easy for principals to dismiss teachers.  The good news is that when they dismissed teachers those teachers tended to be much less effective (as measured by VAM).  The bad news is that they rarely used their power to get rid of teachers.  Jacob wrote:

this analysis reveals that many principals – including those in some of the worst performing schools in the district – did not dismiss any teachers despite how easy it was under the new policy. This result is consistent with the fact that existing teacher contracts in many large urban school districts actually provide considerably more flexibility than is commonly believed and yet administrators rarely take advantage of such flexibility (Ballou 2000, Hess and Loup 2008, Price 2009). The apparent reluctance of many Chicago principals to utilize the additional flexibility granted under the new contract may indicate that issues such as teacher supply and/or social norms governing employment relations are more important factors than policymakers have realized.

To change those norms we need to address the motivation of principals to dismiss ineffective teachers even when they are empowered to do that.  Of course, when schools have to attract students and revenue in competitive systems, principals are more active in replacing teachers they deem ineffective.  Choice really does matter for other reforms to work well.


My former student and soon to be a professor of education, James Shuls, sent me his thoughts on Vergara.  Here is what he sent:


Back in April, I posted a series of quotes from Marcellus McRae’s closing argument in Vergara v. California to Jay Blog. Yesterday, the court handed down its decision and it appears that McRae was right, “You can’t make sense out of nonsense.”

Today, I have a piece on the Daily Caller summarizing the ruling and highlighting my take-a-way from the case.

On its face, this was a legal case that considered whether teacher tenure and other job protections violated California’s state constitution. At a more fundamental level, however, this was an evaluation of policies lauded by teachers unions throughout the country – teacher tenure, due process, and last-in, first-out provisions. For these policies to be found unconstitutional they first had to be proven to have an adverse effect on disadvantaged students; and indeed, they were.

I go on to say:

Legally, there are still many questions to be resolved. In the court of public opinion, however, the ruling could not be clearer: Teacher tenure has been tried and it has been found wanting. You simply cannot make sense out of nonsense.

I invite you to check out the full piece here.


James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie

Checking Privilege is Bad Politics

May 27, 2014

Recently I described the political advantage of choice over top-down reforms.  Choice creates its own constituency to protect and expand it because people will fight to keep choice once they have it.  Top-down reforms, by contrast,  are the most popular on the day they are adopted and decline after that, leaving them vulnerable to being blocked, diluted, co-opted, or repealed.  Who will protect and expand a system that imposes consequences for test performance?  The people who are punished by it know who they are and are well organized.  The beneficiaries (if any) are dispersed and disinterested.  Where is the “test our kids more rally” being held?  Nowhere.

It’s a basic political science insight that many well-financed education reformers somehow lack — concentrated and organized interested tend to prevail over dispersed and unorganized interests.  Choice is consistent with this basic lesson while top-down reform runs contrary to it.

An important corollary of this basic lesson is that people with more money tend to be better organized and effective at protecting their interests than poor people.  So, designing a program to stick it to wealthy people is generally a bad idea.  If you are pushing for the expansion of choice, don’t exclude wealthy people.  A s the old saying goes, “Programs targeted for the poor tend to be poor programs.”  If wealthy people are included among those who can benefit from a choice program, they can organize to protect and expand that program.  If a choice program only offers benefits to the most disadvantaged, those beneficiaries are not well-positioned to fight for it politically.  You need to include more advantaged people as beneficiaries so they can fight for a program that also benefits the poor.

If you need an example of the political logic of how universal programs are actually more effective at helping the poor than targeted programs, just compare Social Security and WIC.  Social Security is generous, paying recipients much more on average than they paid in.  It pays cash which recipients can use in any way they want.  It comes automatically; you don’t have to wait in a long line in a dank office to apply to a surly bureaucrat to get it.  It is also indexed to inflation, so it never loses value over time. And — most importantly — it is extremely effective at alleviating poverty among seniors.

WIC, on the other hand, provides meager food assistance to low income families.  It can only be used for certain foods and not other things that poor families might want.  This jerk with a blog in the New York Times is actually outraged that WIC might change its rules to allow poor families to buy white potatoes:

I have nothing against potatoes, either. But there’s almost no one in America, WIC recipients included, who isn’t getting enough potatoes. And that’s what the Institute of Medicine (I.O.M.) was thinking when it excluded potatoes from the WIC program. Because everyone knows that in the United States, “potatoes” equals “fries.”

And if it isn’t degrading enough to be told what to eat by Mr. Bossy Pants in the New York Times, you have to wait in long  lines and engage in endless self-disclosure in forms before you can get WIC assistance at all.

Because Social Security is universal in its benefits — the checks go to the rich and poor alike — the program is politically very well protected, long enduring, and provides fantastic benefits.  Because it targets the poor, programs like WIC are always politically vulnerable, are constantly being replaced (remember AFDC?), and provide lousy benefits.  If you don’t want your education reform to look like WIC, don’t exclusively target the poor.

Even when choice programs target their benefits to the poor, they usually have the good sense not to take something away from the rich.  Rich suburbanites are no worse off if poor kids in Milwaukee have some extra choice.  Of course, the program would be less politically vulnerable, provide more generous benefits, and would be even larger if it also offered benefits to people with more money.

But top-down reforms often take something important away from wealthy families — control over their child’s education.  When a wealthy suburban mom wants her child taught standard algorithms for math in 2nd grade, she doesn’t want to be told that Common Core requires that those algorithms not be introduced until 4th grade.   Even if Common Core actually requires no such thing, the fact that the local district tells her that there is nothing that she or they can do about it, makes that mom feel like she has no control and no recourse.  At least if she were told something like this in the past, she would know which school board member to call or which state legislator to mobilize in her defense.  But to whom does she complain to change what is required by Common Core (or what is alleged to be required by Common Core — whether it really is or not makes no difference)?

Wealthy moms also tend not to like their children being given a bunch of dumb tests and told (again, perhaps wrongly) by their school that they can’t learn more interesting and diverse material because test-based reforms require it.  They especially get annoyed when they believe that their child could pass the test regardless of what is taught.  So they see virtually no benefit from test-based reforms and see significant impingement on control over their child’s education.

It does no good for defenders of top-down reforms to complain about “white suburban moms” as Education Secretary Arne Duncan did.  You can’t guilt wealthy folks out of wanting to protect what they believe is in the best interests of their children.  And it may feel good to self-absorbed reformers to declare that they are pushing top-down reforms to check white privilege, but it is lousy politics.  If your goal is to actually do something to help poor people rather than feeling righteous about sticking it to the wealthy, avoid top-down reforms and push universal choice instead.

School Choice Is The Answer

May 22, 2014

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

Lately, I have had a number of people say to me, “School choice is not the answer.” For those that make this claim, I’m really not sure what question they are asking.

Opponents of school choice like to claim that choice just puts a Band-Aid on a problem or that it simply misdirects resources from struggling public schools. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how school choice works and the implications it has for the education system. Below, I highlight several questions and I show that school choice is the only answer to the most vexing problems in education. At least it is the only answer that solves issues without government compulsion and unintended negative consequences as a result of government action.

How do we get schools to have high learning standards for students without relying heavily on standardized tests? School Choice.

Most people agree that schools should be held accountable. That is, we established public schools to educate students; therefore, schools should educate students. Our current method of ensuring that schools have rigorous standards and that students are learning is through test based accountability. We set learning standards, mandate standardized tests, and impose penalties or sanctions for schools that fail to achieve.

There are concerns that this model has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and an overreliance on standardized tests. The strongest complaints against this system come from educators themselves.

School choice changes the dynamic. Rather than being accountable to perform on standardized tests, schools in a choice system are expected to meet the needs of their students and parents. Enabling parents with the power to choose empowers them to be the direct enforcers of accountability. If a school is not educating students, parents can choose to send their children somewhere else. Choice is accountability.

How do we improve the quality/respect of teachers in the classroom? School Choice.

Currently, the education system treats teachers like widgets with no respect for performance. In most schools, great teachers have no ability to be rewarded for their efforts. They are paid almost exclusively based on years of experience and their credentials. More importantly, there is little competition for a teacher’s labor. It is rare for schools to actively recruit excellent teachers from other schools and offer financial incentives for them to move. This is the exact opposite of nearly every other sector, including the professions with which teachers aspire to be considered.

When schools are held accountable to parents through school choice, they have an incentive to seek and reward excellent teachers. The end effect is that choice breaks up the monopsony of the public school system and creates a market for talented teachers.

Demand for good teachers is how you improve the quality and respect for professional educators. We have tried and have been unsuccessful in achieving as much through stringent licensing requirements, pensions, and a host of other measures.

How do we overcome problems of poverty in urban school districts? School Choice.

Throughout the country schools in urban settings are struggling. Many are considered drop out factories, where half of the students fail to graduate. Stalwarts of the traditional public education system like to say, “Teachers and schools aren’t the problem, poverty is the problem.”  They are right.

Poverty and all that it entails is the single biggest obstacle to students achieving excellence in education. Poverty is a problem everywhere, even in rural schools, but it is particularly pronounced when schools have a high-concentration of poverty. In many urban schools, nearly 90% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches – a common metric of poverty status.

School choice does not lift people out of poverty, but it does help ameliorate the effects.

First, it is important to recognize that schools with high concentrations of poverty are the product of residential zoning of traditional public schools. When we create artificial barriers around school districts, we lock housing values to the quality of schools. Over time, this results in wealthier families sorting into better school districts and pricing out the poor families. In many ways, good public schools are a lot like my private neighborhood swimming pool – you can get in if you can afford a house in the neighborhood.

Choice also gives low-income families the ability to advocate for their children – something many parents lack – and it gives schools the incentive to improve. If poverty is the problem, the answer is more choice, not less.

I could go on.

School choice is not a magical fix. It will not result in miraculous improvements tomorrow, but Chubb and Moe were right when they wrote:

…choice is not like the other reforms and should not be combined with them as part of a reformist strategy for improving America’s public schools. Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in a myriad of other ways.

If you are asking the right question, school choice is most definitely the answer.


James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie

How People Hate Jews, The ADL Counts the Ways

May 13, 2014

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released today an amazing global survey measuring anti-Semitism.  Researchers interviewed 53,100 people in over 100 countries using an index that the ADL has been using for 50 years to track hatred of Jews.  A person is considered anti-Semitic if they said that at least 6 of the following 11 statements is “probably true”:


1) Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/the countries they live in].
2) Jews have too much power in the business world.
3) Jews have too much power in international financial markets.
4) Jews don’t care about what happens to anyone but their own kind.
5) Jews have too much control over global affairs.
6) People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.
7) Jews think they are better than other people.
8) Jews have too much control over the United States government.
9) Jews have too much control over the global media.
10) Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.
11) Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.

You really should read the Executive Summary to learn about what they found, but here are some of the highlights (or should I say lowlights):

  • 26% of respondents globally thought that at least 6 of these 11 anti-Semitic statements is probably true.
  • In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) 74% met this threshold of anti-Semitism.
  • Muslims reported the highest levels of anti-Semitism (49%), followed by Christians in Eastern Orthodox countries (36%), Catholics in majority Christian countries (25%), people with no religion (21%), Hindus (19%), Budhists (17%), and Protestants in majority Christian countries (15%).
  • Region seemed to trump religion.  Christians in MENA had rates of anti-Semitism (64%) that were closer to the average in their region and very different from Christians elsewhere.  Conversely, Muslims in W. Europe and the Americas had lower rates of anti-Semitism (29%) than Muslims in MENA (75%).
  • Only 54% globally were aware of the Holocaust.  Of those who were aware, 32% believed that the Holocaust was a “myth” or “exaggerated.”  These answers on the Holocaust are strongly related to rates of anti-Semitism

There were, however, some positive signs:

  • Younger people (under 25) are less anti-Semitic (18%) than older people (34% for those over 65).  Perhaps more positive views will gain traction as the older generation of Jew-haters dies out.
  • People living in countries with more Jews have lower rates (22%) than those in countries with few or no Jews (28%).  Of the 26% reported as anti-Semitic, 70% had never met a Jew.  Familiarity reduces hatred.
  • In the Americas, W. Europe, and Oceania, higher education levels are associated with lower rates of anti-Semitism.  But in MENA the opposite is true.  Education can reduce hatred, but it depends on what is taught.

You can see all of this and much more in the Executive Summary and on the cool web site.  I was particularly struck by some of the results for individual countries.  Residents of the West Bank and Gaza top the list of countries with a 93% anti-Semitism rate.  Greece tops the list among countries outside of MENA at 69%.  South Korea, which has a grand total of about 100 Jews, has the highest rate in Asia (53%).  The US has one of the lowest rates (9%), which is down from 29% in 1964.

The Political Virtue of Choice

May 13, 2014

We’ve been offering much strategic advice to ed reformers on this blog lately.  I’ve warned about the dangers of over-reach, recommending instead an incremental and decentralized approach.  Greg has warned that a national system of standards without control over implementation provides license to every quack, crackpot and anti-Semite to un-accountably pursue their own agendas while claiming that national standards made them do it.  Matt has nicely documented how heavy regulation of private choice programs, especially requiring private schools to administer the state test, defeats the very purpose of  expanding choice by driving 2/3 of private schools out of the program while forcing the remaining 1/3 to teach the state curriculum.  You can choose any McDonalds franchise you like and they will compete to make the best burger — too bad if you are a vegetarian.  And Matt has balanced my call for incrementalism with a warning that reforming too slowly fails to land a winning blow.

All of this is, I think, very sound advice.  But these may all be smaller pieces of what I believe is the big advice ed reformers need to hear — there is political virtue in pursuing choice as a reform strategy over top-down reforms, including standards, accountability, curriculum, and pedagogy.

Choice does not depend on policymakers being brilliant or benevolent.  With top-down reforms the people selecting the standards, designing the tests, setting the cut-scores, devising consequences for performance, writing the curriculum, and picking the instructional methods have to get it just right.  They also have to be right for many different kinds of kids who may need different approaches.  And they have to be right over and over again as circumstances and information change.  Oh — and they have to somehow ignore their own interests and pressure from other interested groups of adults that may pull them away from making the right decisions for kids.

People will also make mistakes in choice systems.  But when they do, those mistakes do not affect thousands or millions of kids.  They are also less likely to make those mistakes because the people choosing, usually parents, are closer to the children and more likely to know what those children need.  Parents have interests that are also more likely to be aligned with those of their own children and interested groups are incapable of capturing all of them to influence decisions.

More importantly, from a political perspective, choice has the virtue of creating its own constituency.  As families get the ability to choose, they develop an interest in keeping that ability.  So, they will fight efforts to roll-back or restrict choice.  As more people get to choose, the constituency for choice grows and the ability to protect and expand those programs gets stronger.

Top-down reforms, on the other hand, are the most popular on the day they are adopted and steadily lose their constituency over time.  To get adopted, top-down reforms usually have to maintain some level of ambiguity about what they will do to attract a winning coalition.  As they get implemented they have to make more clear what will and won’t be taught, who will and won’t experience consequences, etc….  The losers discover who they are and begin to organize against top-down reforms once they are implemented.

Elites outside of the education system may support accountability testing, merit pay, or mandated curriculum, when they are abstractions being considered for adoption.  But once they are put into place and opposition grows stronger, who remains as the champions of these top-down reforms?  This is why top-down reforms are so easily blocked, diluted, and co-opted.  They have no natural constituencies and gain none as they are implemented over time.

Choice does, however, have three major political vulnerabilities.  First, choice program may be easier to protect once they are adopted, but they are harder to adopt in the beginning.  Their opponents are fully mobilized against them when they are proposed and their potential beneficiaries do not yet know who they are.  This is why the expansion of choice has been relatively gradual.  But each new victory gets easier as the constituency of choosers grows.  And setbacks are very rare because only un-elected judges have repealed programs — politicians won’t cross the swelling ranks of empowered parents.

Second, even if choice tends to be a one-way ratchet where victories are permanent and defeats are temporary, the programs are vulnerable to slow-motion strangulation by regulation.  Rick Hess and Mike McShane had an excellent piece in USA Today recently warning about this.  But again, the natural and growing constituency of choice parents and schools can provide a useful check on excessive regulation.  This is not perfect — sometimes people are too willing to trade away their liberty for the promise of security — but freedom is very attractive and people tend to fight to keep it once they have it.

The third vulnerability is that when people get to choose, some of them will make mistakes and some providers will be bad actors.  Opponents will seize upon these bad outcomes, even if they are rare, and use them to argue for strangling regulation or even repeal.  Of course, top-down systems contain plenty of mistakes and bad actors — in fact they are more likely to have them for the reasons discussed above.  Because choice grows its own constituency, it can generally hold back calls for strangling regulation or repeal stemming from individual cases of bad decisions or bad actors.

The central political virtue of choice over top-down reforms is that choice gains more supporters as it grows while top-down reform lose supporters as they grow.


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