School Choice and Religious Freedom

October 30, 2014

Marcher with flag

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective has published my article on how school choice promotes religious freedom, pluralism, and peace:

It’s folly to be afraid of letting religious institutions participate in public programs on the same terms as everyone else. That kind of oppressive Kemalism has only exacerbated religious hatred when it’s been tried in places like Turkey or France. Americans have historically been more enlightened.

Believe it or not, school choice often helps children learn to respect the rights of those who don’t share their faith, and has never been found to have the opposite effect. A large body of empirical research (reviewed by Patrick Wolf in an article titled “Civics Exam” in the journal Education Next) finds that private school students are more likely to support civil rights for those whose beliefs they find highly unfavorable. Five of these studies have specifically looked at school choice programs; of those, three found the choice students were more tolerant of the rights of others while two found no difference. No empirical study has ever found that school choice makes students less tolerant of the rights of others.

The occasion for the article is an unwise legal decision as an Oklahoma school choice program winds its way through the painfully slow processes of the legal system:

If the church is burning down, don’t call the fire department! That’s using government funds to benefit a church. If someone scrawls swastikas on the synagogue, don’t call the police! And heaven forbid we allow the mosque to use our municipal water and sewer lines. Alas, Judge Jones doesn’t see things that way, and the case will continue its four-year journey through the courts.

Report Card on American Education Released Today

October 29, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 19th Edition of ALEC’s Report Card on American Education: Ranking State Performance, Progress and Reform coauthored by yours truly and Dave Myslinski hit the presses today. Lots of good stuff in this year’s model, including an update of state rankings, a review of the first decade of universal NAEP participation, and a chapter focused on comparing the results of large urban districts.

So going up to the 30,000 level and back down, international results show that the United States is world-class in spending per pupil, not so much in learning per pupil, and that our results for Black and Hispanic students are closer to those of Mexico than of South Korea, despite the fact that Mexico has a far larger poverty problem and spends a small fraction of American spending.

The United States is making progress, but only an average amount of progress so we aren’t going to be catching up  much at the current pace. When you break down American results by state, you find that some states are pushing the national average cart, while others are riding in the cart. Which ones? Glad you asked:

4 NAEP exams


So the states in blue have made statistically significant gains in all four regular NAEP tests (4th and 8th grade reading and math) between 2003 and 2013.  Of the 21 states pulling that feat off, 14 are located in either the West or the South. The Midwest excepting MN, Great Plains, Mid-Atlantic, New York and Texas didn’t carry their weight on improvement (to varying degrees in general math gains were easier to come by than reading, 4th grade improvement easier than 8th grade) during this period. Michigan was the only state to make no significant progress on any of the four regular NAEP exams, a trend I hope they will reverse soon. All other states made progress on one or more of the exams. Note also that this map only shows improvement, few if any of the darkened states have internationally competitive scores, and the few that do tend to hold the good end of the stick on various achievement gaps.

So on the one hand, American education outcomes have never been higher than the 2013 NAEP.  On the other hand, no one yet has any cause for celebration. When we have any states that approach a Asian/European level of bang for the buck in learning outcomes, we’ll let you know about it, but thus far, not so much.

In Chapter 4 of the Report Card we take a close look at the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) NAEP and apply the same “general education low-income” student comparison that we use in the states to improve comparability. Low-income general ed kids were seven times more likely to reach the Proficient level of 4th grade reading in Miami (the top performing district) as in Detroit (the lowest performing). Mind you have only a little better shot at 1 in 3 of scoring Proficient in Miami, so there are many miles to go. Looking at both 4th and 8th grade reading, Miami, New York City, Hillsborough County FL (Tampa) and Boston cluster near the top of the ratings. The District of Columbia does not (yet) rate near the top of the ratings, but their progress over time on NAEP is nothing short of remarkable since the mid 1990s. A large percentage of District students attend charter schools these days, and those charter schools show not only higher scores but also faster improvement than district schools, which are themselves improving.

In any case, slide on down to the following link if you want to see how your state is doing.

Indiana State page





Space-age kid caught in a cave-man system, until now

October 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Dayton Beach News Journal has a piece on the new ESA program- Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. We’ve already seen one Arizona ESA parent display a much deeper understanding of the term “accountability” than a number of think-tankers can seem to muster, and this story brings another gem of insight from a participating parent. The News Journal story relates the educational challenges facing a student named Brandon Bremen. Mr. Bremen is working to overcome autism, muscular dystrophy, seizures and an impaired immune system. Brandon had tried everything from public schools, a McKay scholarship voucher to education as a home-bound student with an occasional visit from a teacher. Brandon’s mother Donna sums it up:

Berman stresses she’s not opposed to public schools (she points out her daughter, Bailey, graduated from Atlantic High School in May). She praised the public school staff members’ efforts to help her son, saying she feels they did everything they could within the constraints of state mandates and limited resources. But she felt the schools couldn’t keep up with Brandon.

“It’s unfortunate when you have a space-age child with a caveman system,” Berman said. “His needs out-taxed what the public school is able to give him.”

My reaction to reading this:


Narrowing Education

October 22, 2014

Some people seem determined to narrow education.  I’ve been trying to make the case for a well-rounded, liberal education, but that idea has less support than I realized.  In their effort to maximize math and reading test scores, schools have sometimes narrowed their focus at the expense of the arts and humanities.  I’ve tried to document some of the benefits that students receive from art and theater.

And today Dan Bowen and I tried to defend the role of sports in schools in the New York TImes‘ Room for Debate forum on the issue.

One of the main critics of sports in school is Amanda Ripley, reprising an argument she earlier made in The Atlantic and in her book.  In today’s forum she writes:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to compete in games that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing sports and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Let’s leave aside that her argument ignores the systematic research demonstrating the benefits of sports in schools.  And let’s leave aside that her book and articles rely on deeply flawed “selection on dependent variable” approaches that try to infer what to do to be successful by looking only at successful places.

I think we can easily see the flaws in her argument if we consider how the same logic she employs can be used to argue against schools having orchestras, theaters, and a host of other activities.  I’ll change just a few words to illustrate how her argument can be used against music instruction in schools.  I’ve bolded the changes so you can see how her argument could be used against any effort in school other than focusing on math and reading instruction:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to play an instrument that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing music and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Or here is how her argument could be used against having school plays:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training students to act in theater that the majority of kids will never get paid to do… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing drama and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

See how easy this is!  The real problem here is the unwillingness to appreciate the breadth of experiences that should be part of a well-rounded education.  Yes, not every student will benefit from music, theater, or sports.  And very few of them will go on to careers in music, acting, or sports.  School is not entirely about vocational training focused on math and reading skills.  Those of us who support a broad education recognize that all of these activities have important benefits for many students and should be part of schools.  And Ripley, like most supporters of efforts that narrow education, would deny that she fails to support a broad education.  She just wants to get rid of the thing she doesn’t like.  But her logic would get rid of everything other than math and reading instruction.  And that would be a very poor education indeed.

(edited for typo and to elaborate argument)

Risky Business

October 21, 2014

Some of my current and former students, along with a colleague from the Economics department, have a new article in Education Economics called Risky business: an analysis of teacher risk preferences.  Daniel H. Bowen, Stuart Buck, Cary Deck, Jonathan N. Mills & James V. Shuls used techniques from experimental economics to measure the risk aversion of graduate students seeking degrees in education, business, and law.  They found that people training to become teachers are significantly more risk-averse than those seeking careers in business or law.

The greater risk-aversion among prospective teachers was a function of two forces.  First, women make up a much larger proportion of prospective teachers and women tend to be more risk-averse across all graduate students.  Second, the smaller group of men seeking to become teachers are significantly more risk-averse than men pursuing other professions.

This article captures the first part of Dan Bowen’s dissertation.  Dan followed-up this experiment by using the same technique to measure whether teachers drawn to schools after merit pay plans are adopted tend to be more risk-prone than the teachers previously working at those schools.  He found that they were — merit pay attracts more risk-prone teachers.  He then linked these measures of risk-aversion to test score growth achieved by the students of each teacher.  Somewhat unexpectedly, he found that the more risk-prone teachers attracted by merit pay tended to be less effective in producing student test score gains.

Dan’s dissertation raises important questions about the composition of the teaching workforce and what is likely to be effective in motivating them.  In general, his work casts doubt on the appeal of merit pay given that generally risk-averse teachers are not attracted by merit pay and risk-prone teachers who are attracted by potential bonuses may not do well in a workplace where non-monetary goals appear more prominent.  This work is consistent with an earlier article that Stuart Buck and I published on how merit pay is not a promising reform strategy.

Dan is currently a post-doc at Rice University and is on the job market.  In addition, to his work on teacher risk-aversion and merit pay, Dan and I have collaborated on research on the effects of field trips to art museums and the effects of sports programs on student achievement.  At Rice Dan is continuing to work on merit pay evaluations and is assembling a study of the effects of student field trips to a Holocaust Museum.  Dan has a variety of rigorous and innovative studies that are generating grant support. He would make for an excellent hire.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Markus Persson

October 20, 2014

(Guest Nomination by Jonathan Butcher)

I’ve never played Minecraft. My son and daughter play enough for the three of us, though, and I haven’t even bought the computer version of the game for them. I bought the iPad edition, which, I’m constantly reminded, is completely inferior to the computer version.

Despite most parents’ ignorance of how to play it, and in spite of graphics that look better suited to a first-generation Atari console, Markus Persson sold Minecraft and its parent company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion last month. And then he walked away.

Persson told the New York Times, “I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a C.E.O. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.”

Persson created a video game that doesn’t rely on eye-popping graphics or bloody combat scenarios. Yes, in survival mode you can fight zombies, and there are “mobs” to avoid (loosely defined as anything that can harm your character). However, the game revolves around the player’s imagination. In Minecraft, you create your own world, complete with buildings of any shape and size and then go on adventures, with or without players from other worlds.

What are most impressive are the add-ons that make the game interesting. Your creations can be as real or fictitious as you choose. In one YouTube how-to video, a player created a Home Depot, complete with supplies to build things. In another, a player created a replica of Disneyworld. You can change the weather, add minions from Despicable Me, drive a dirt bike, or swim in the ocean.

Schools are using the game to teach subjects like math, architecture and science. Minecraft is simple, versatile, fun (or so I’m told), and the creator shows no intention of making a sequel.

“Basically, Persson is tired,” says Wired magazine. Persson says that he wants to work on smaller web projects, and he says that if any of them become as popular as Minecraft, “I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”

Minecraft can be as unique and player-centric as a player can make it, and its creator is just fine to leave it at that and do something else. Yes, $2.5 billion is plenty to be content with, but the Copeland award doesn’t penalize for making a lot of money. Time will tell if Persson is true to his word about leaving well enough alone, but for now, he’s created something that allows others to use their imaginations the way they want to, made his money, and gone on his way.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Ira Goldman

October 20, 2014

(Guest Nomination by Lindsey Burke)

Americans prize personal space. And nowhere are infringements upon personal space more insufferable than 30,000 feet above Earth, in an airplane in which the confines of your chair – and heaven forbid if you’re in a middle seat – and your armrests, and the miniscule amount of “legroom” in front of you, are the only things that separate you from your neighbor and his delusions of airline Manifest Destiny.

Until recently. In 2003, Mr. Ira Goldman recognized this injustice, and invented the Knee Defender.

The concept is simple. You simply slide the Knee Defender, which fits in the palm of your hand, onto the arm of your lowered tray table, then slide it down the arm of the tray table until it fits flush against the seat in front of you. As one website selling the Knee Defender explains:

“Whether you are intent on protecting yourself from being crunched, want to maintain enough leg room to do some in-seat exercises because of health concerns – such as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), sometimes called “economy class syndrome” – or you just want some warning so you can move your notebook computer out of the way before the seat is reclined, Knee Defender™ works ‘like a charm’.”

The product even comes with a Knee Defender courtesy card, which the user can hand to the passenger in front of him to let him know he’s using the leg-saving tool. “If you would like to recline your seat at some point during the flight, please let me know and I will try to adjust myself and my Knee Defender so that it can be done safely,” the card reads.

Had Ben Franklin lived during the time of aviation and been able to fly to Paris, he would have surely invented the knee defender.

This humble piece of plastic has been the cause of derision from opponents and cheers from proponents. “The person who wants it most will end up owning the rights, but the person with the recliner button holds an advantage. The Knee Defender reallocates the rights. Now I can claim the four inches in front of my face,” wrote Damon Darlin recently in the New York Times.

Indeed. Is there nothing more callous than a passenger who chooses, without any regard to the poor soul behind him, to recline his seat, without the slightest regard as to what pain and inconvenience he might be bringing upon his fellow traveler? Is nothing – kneecaps, lap tops, small vodka tonics – sacred? For the person bent on reclining – because a modest change in the angle of his spine is more important than every aspect of the flying experience for the person behind him – nothing is.

And for us lowly folks who ride coach to spread the word about education reform – Mr. Goldman, we salute you. Indeed, it’s the little things in life that make the biggest differences.

Like Al Copeland, Ira Goldman surely invented the knee defender out of his own 6 foot 3 inch necessity. But in so doing, has made the flying experience that much more comfortable for thousands of long-legged travelers.


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