(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
In the Aviator, director Martin Scorsese tells the story of Howard Hughes, had perhaps the biography of Howard Hughes been written by Ayn Rand. Hughes is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio as obsessively pushing the envelope forward in aviation, breaking both technical and legal barriers to progress.
Hughes’ pursuit of progress runs him into conflict with Pan-American airlines and their minion in Congress, Senator Brewster, played by Alan Alda. Brewster seeks to protect the monopoly status of Pan American in providing trans-Atlantic flight, and uses the investigative powers of Congress in order to coerce Hughes. Consumers will be better served by a monopoly, Brewster explains, a position that Hughes finds “Un-American.”
Hughes asks Brewster “do you really want to go to war with me?” Brewster replies:
“It’s not me, Howard. It’s the United States government. We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?”
This being a movie, of course, our rugged individualist hero prevails, decisively crushing Senator Brewster and Pan-American in dramatic fashion in a Senate hearing showdown. Travelers enjoy the enormous benefits of aviation competition to this day.
Sadly, in the real word, other monopolies have rather more staying power than Pan-Am, including sadly our education laws. A fine line exists between stability and stagnation. In education policy, we have been content to sail well past that line. Our answer to all education problems was to put in more money. In 1960, the average spending per pupil was $375 (around $2300 in inflation adjusted dollars). Today, we spend close to $10,000 per pupil. Even after adjusting for inflation, spending per pupil in the public school system as more than tripled since the first baby-boomers attended schools.
Our education problems worsened despite the increased spending. Today, 38 percent of our 4th graders have failed to learn basic reading skills, and around a third of our high school students dropout of high school. As today’s dropouts are largely those students who failed to learn to read in elementary schools, tomorrow’s dropouts are already in the pipeline.
Andrew Coulson recently noted that the last great innovation to transform American classroom instruction came with the invention of the chalkboard in 1801. Consider this level of stasis in comparison to the computer industry. Today, you could literally throw a dart in the computer section of a department store and have it land on a personal computer which is more powerful and cheaper than what was available two years ago. By comparison, the school system continues to plod along, always spending more but often producing less.
The productivity of spending in our public education system has collapsed over the past half century. We spend beyond the dreams of avarice for a public school superintendent of the 1960s, but we don’t produce better results. For decades, we have been throwing money at our public schools and failing to notice that students were failing to benefit.
Fortunately, this status-quo will not endure forever. A growing consensus on both left and right recognizes that our most disadvantaged students suffer most from the shortcomings of our schools. Children relying most heavily on schools to prepare them for the future are tragically the most likely to be shortchanged.
Our nation’s poorest families cannot afford to buy into high-quality suburban school districts, or to pay private school tuition in addition to their school taxes. Policymakers from both parties have therefore increasingly embraced policies creating options for parents. Nationwide, nearly a fourth of K-12 students won’t be attending their neighborhood public schools this fall, opting instead for an array of public and private options- including magnet, charter, private and home schooling. Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, Rhode Island and Utah have all passed new school choice programs in the last two years. For many, especially for inner-city children, however, these options remain far too scarce and this momentum must accelerate.
Charter school operators such as KIPP, Yes Academies and Amistad have proven definitively that low-income inner city children can learn at an accelerated pace, and can even outperform our complacent suburban schools and attend elite universities. These innovators face huge political and practical obstacles in making these schools more widely available, but don’t bet against them. Already, they have settled the question of whether we must settle for today’s failed status quo: we don’t. Our students can learn. We adults simply have to learn how to follow the example of those who are getting the job done.
Our students need a market for K-12 schools. The market mechanism rewards success and either improves or eliminates failure. This has been sorely lacking in the past, and will be increasingly beneficial in the future. The biggest winners will be those suffering most under the status-quo.
New technologies and practices, self-paced instruction and data-based merit pay for instructors, may hold enormous promise. Before the current era of choice based reforms, they didn’t fit the 19th Century/unionized model of schooling, so they weren’t seriously attempted. Bypassing bureaucracy, a new generation has begun to offer their innovative schools directly to parents. Some have already succeeded brilliantly. Some states have been much keener than others to allow this process. Expect the laggards to fall in line eventually. We can hardly continue to cower in fear that someone somewhere might open a bad school when, in reality, we are surrounded by them now.
A market system will embrace and replicate reforms which work, and discard those that fail to produce. A top-down political system has failed to perform this task. Where bureaucrats and politicians have failed miserably, however, a market of parents pursuing the interests of their children will succeed in driving progress.
We cannot feel satisfied with a system that watches helplessly as a third of pupils drop out before graduation each year. We can do much better. The key lies in matching disadvantaged students with high quality teachers and school leaders. Parental choice programs help to achieve this by providing new education delivery methods.
While there will be enemies to fight this progress, but they won’t prevail. America is rousing itself from a century long slumber of stagnant schooling practices. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the coming education renaissance, so long as we have the wisdom to embrace it.
Outstanding stuff, Matt. As Milton Friedman used to say, the best thing we can do to improve education for low-income kids is expand school choice to include everyone – because the increased market demand for improvement will finally force the decrepit education sector to innovate in methods and technology.
Just one point from which I must demur: “The computer section of a department store”? Come on, man, that’s so 2003. People buy computers over the phone or in discount electronics specialty stores. Innovation, baby, innovation.
I agree with a lot of what Matthew writes about. I should also point out some of his omissions. A good part of the education funding increase between 1960 and today has to do with the increased opportunities for women and minorities in the work force. With most school system budgets being 85% salaries – just to stay the same has required major funding increases. Matt’s implication that funding is dramatically increased is a little off base.
I also question some of his performance indicators. I’ve seen several studies which suggest the performance between private and public, when broken down by economic indicators, is virtually the same.
Nevertheless, I agree we have a problem with graduation/drop out rates – and both camps need to come together to begin working on compromises to do something different. The inability to work out compromises – by both sides – is the bigger problem in education.
Greg- You are totally correct. I still use a VCR instead of DVR and prefer handouts to powerpoint too.
Jim-Public school spending has increased much faster than teacher salaries, so if you are referring to a need to pay teachers more to attract quality candidates in an era of increased opportunities for women, that need has mostly gone unfulfilled:
While I was still in Texas, researching public education there, I discovered that as real, per-student spending increased, the published student/teacher ratio decreased by about the same percentage. Teacher salaries, in real terms, had hardly changed. The increase in spending just went toward hiring more people, not increasing quality. This is to be expected in a political system. Teachers are, after all, voters, and highly motivated ones at that. Here are a couple of bullets from the link provided:
If Texas’ student/teacher ratio (currently 15:1) were that of 1969 (24:1), the average teacher salary, at today’s spending level, would exceed $70,000;
From 1995 to 2001, the number of school employees for a given number of students increased by 14 percent. At the same time, the inflationadjusted expenditures per student increased by roughly the same percentage. This implies that all additional funds applied to public education in Texas have basically been for the purpose of
paying additional personnel
Matt – I’m with you on the handouts.
Jim – On the issue of the “performance indicators” between public and private schools, there’s a large body of empirical research using random-assignment methods to examine that question. Random assignment is the gold standard of social science; it’s the method they use in medial trials. In this case, what happened was too many kids applied for slots in a voucher program, and the kids who got vouchers were selected at random. Then they followed both the kids who were offered vouchers and the kids who applied for them but didn’t get them.
These studies consistently find that the kids who are offered vouchers do better. There are important limitations on these studies, but the evidence is strongly in favor of a private school advantage. For an overview of the studies on this question, see here:
[…] Goldwater Institute’s Matt Ladner has a great post over at Jay Greene’s new blog explaining how we should be delivering education — both in […]
Back in the 50s & 60s, when we considered education to be at its peak performance, several things stand out that bring some of the comments here in to question. It was not market driven. It was primarily public schools. There was a stronger sense of authority both for the teacher and for the parent.
On the negative side, there was segregaton, low teacher pay; and back to the plus side, there was a completely different work place waiting for the students who graduated, one more accessible to the graduating senior back then.
I would advise readers to look into studies from Texas and Kentucky regarding schools that have been successful in teaching/reaching at-risk students. It would be interesting to compare successful private & public schools. I suspect that they will all have followed plans similar to those published in those Texas & Kentucky studies.
I do not note any data given here regarding this or backing up the assertion that a “market” approach has proven to be significantly better. If so, have these private/charter schools adopted those keys to success that likewise work in succesful public schools dealing with at-risk children?
In speaking with a colleague, she consistently pointed out one flaw that affects the low-income, at-risk student in Central Arkansas under the magnet school system. The key is opportunity and the ones taking that key are the parents who know the system and take advantage of getting their child into the advanced/magnet programs as early as possible, in addition to providing a good home study environment. Children from disadvantaged and broken homes often fail to get this opportunity because there is no parental influence on their behalf.
Much of my dismay with some of these suggestions proffered here is that they come across more as a way to escape the public school rather than a way to fix the public school. It still remains the largest educational service to the community and improving it is a must if this nation wishes to have a more secure future.
Since it is the weekend, perhaps a little humor might help.
A teacher was asked what made her school so successful. She thought a moment and then praised the school administrator for her leadership skills. Someone asked if higher salaries also helped and she replied:
“It’s not the money, it’s the principal.”
We don’t know whether education was at “peak” performance in the 1950s and 60s, or indeed whether it was better than the current system at all; there are no reliable data to allow for a comparison. But even if the 1950s were a peak, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better in the future than we have in the past by adopting a better system.
You ask for data showing that markets improve education; I would refer you to the link I posted above, which goes over the body of empirical studies consistently showing that kids using vouchers have better educational outcomes than kids who applied for vouchers but lost a random lottery and didn’t get them; it also goes over the body of empirical studies consistently showing that vouchers improve public schools.
I agree that improving public schools should be a top priority. That’s why I support school choice; it’s the most promising way to accomplish that.
You have merely evaded answering the question of how to fix a school. You are advocating abandoning a school by your method. You can’t hide this fact because it is inherent in all that you subscribe to. Your motto is not “If it’s broke, fix it.” No, your motto is “If it’s broke, leave it.”
I refer readers to the ECS Education Policy Issue Site for a lengthy look at this issue from a broader perspective:
Also, the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (University of Colunbia) has a very comprehensive amount of material for readers to see both sides of this issue:
In reading your article Greg, you even stated that the vouchers were being used for private schools. You stress the difference between public and private schools. Even your language says it: It’s “choice” not “improvement.”
Your entire argument is to get people to abandon public schools and go to private schools. Your own words give you away and reveal your callous attitude toward public schools.
And don’t try to mince terms. Public education is not a replacement term for public schools. Your agenda is private schools. Your recommendation is private schools. Your focus is private schools. Your choices are private schools. Your research is private schools.
The real issue is not private schools. The real issue is how to fix public schools so that all of them provide successful educational experiences for all students. That’s opportunity for all. It is hard not to be skeptical when someone says they’re promoting public education and their primary answer is private schools.
It is hard not to be skeptical when someone says they’re supporting public education by promoting private schools. Your research is not about improving public schools. In fact, it promotes leaving public schools for private schools.
The website I’ve posted provides a broader range of research to draw upon on this issue. Likewise, one might consider the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education that’s located at Teachers College, University of Columbia.
I found the long term study in Chile interesting. Vouchers there have been legal since 1980s. It’s surprising what is the predominant reason listed by parents in choosing their schools (it’s not ranking!!).
Anyway, that’s merely a minor point of interest. There is much more to be found on the topic at these sites. Unfortunately, your paper Greg has an agenda and that is private schools. You offer private schools as the solution to educational problems. It is specifically listed throughout your paper.
You make a case for attending private schools. You don’t make a case for improving public schools.
Sorry about the double posts but your website was beset by a gremlin that made my first entry disappear when I clicked Submit. Before finally falling asleep, I spent some time going through various papers that you authored. You certainly have a large body of work about vouchers.
If I may quote you from one of those recent ones about how vouchers appear to impact public schools, one notes that you are very cautious about such a claim and state that the evidence for such needs extensive research yet to be done:
“The effect of school choice programs on public schools has not been studied as well as its effect on participating students, so less is known about this question. Of the few studies that have been done of U.S. public schools exposed to school choice, none have ever found a decrease in the academic performance of public school students, and a few have found academic gains. Studies of school choice outside the U.S. have reached less encouraging conclusions about its benefits for public education, but there are questions regarding whether these conclusions are applicable to U.S. schools.”
Again, I repeat my point which is even more reinforced after looking at several of your voucher studies: you continually separate private from public school and promote the former.
The argument I make is not against vouchers or private schools. As a retired public school teacher, I am concerned about my sector and wish to see it revitalized. For me, teaching in a public school was more than a job, it was a vocation or a calling. My wife can tell you of many mornings when I was up at 4 a.m. to start getting ready for work and colleagues can bear witness to the competition my students gave to them and others throughout the district (and the state) when testing time came. I certainly believe in your goal of high standards.
I just don’t hold with abandoning public schools as a policy to improving them.
First of all let me say that I am deeply skeptical concerning there having been a “golden age” of public education back in the 50s and 60s. Public schools were much more efficient at producing the results they got back then, even adjusting for inflation, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the results were much better than those produced today. The long term NAEP trends have been flat for decades despite higher spending. They don’t stretch back that far, but the problem of public ed is a stagnation of performance despite higher spending, not a lost golden age of high performance.
Nor is this all about vouchers. What I am describing in the piece is a flurry of activity in building a better mousetrap in schooling. We have only limited market like mechanisms in place for schooling now, but under them we’ve seen the development of KIPP and other school models. Some sharp MBAs have updated the Catholic school model with Christo Rey schools. I mention that the chalkboard was the last great innovation introduced into an American classroom- this will change soon. Companies are competing to bring in some very impressive web based testing data management systems that facilitate a rich use of diagnostic data in the classroom, putting ongoing value added analysis at the fingertips of teachers and administrators.
The proper use of this technology can revolutionize education. Expect to see the nimbler sections of the education scene become the early adopters. To make full use of the technology, you have to be willing to do things that the traditional public schools do not excel at: reward excellence, fix and punish failure. This is precisely what market mechanisms do extremely well, and what a political system has a very hard time with.
I gues you have completely forgotten the magnet schools, which are similar in many ways to the voucher approach. You also leave out the proviso that private schools have a much different selection criteria nor do you address special education concerns.
From Public School Parernts Network –
“Who attends magnet schools?
While magnet schools are more racially balanced than their traditional counterparts, students who attend magnet schools are less likely to be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs and are more likely to live in two-parent households, with parents who are employed and have earned college or graduate degrees, as compared with students who don’t attend magnet schools. These findings apply to the white, African-American and Latino students who attend magnet schools.
What are the achievement levels of students who attend magnet schools as compared to students at nonmagnet schools?
For the most part, research shows that the achievement levels of students who attend magnet schools are greater than the achievement of students who attend traditional schools. For example, a nationwide study found that students in magnet schools significantly outperformed their peers attending nonmagnets in social studies, science and reading. Also, a study of the magnet school program in the St. Louis School District found that students at magnet schools achieve higher scores on state assessments in math, reading, science and social studies than a comparable sample of students in neighborhood schools.”
Some things stand out here that relate to our discussion. I suggest that there is a strong correlation to the parental and home demographics between private and magnet schools. One notes that the achievement difference between magnet and regular public schools is similar to some of your comparisons. Following such logic, may I suggest that the cons of magnet schools likewise apply to your market scenario:
•Low-income, English-as-a-second language and special education students are underrepresented in magnets.
•The selective admissions criteria of magnets create firewalls for students with failing grades or records of bad behavior or truancy who want to attend these schools.
•Many magnet schools may be drawing scarce energy and resources away from improving neighborhood schools.
Having been to several public schools throughout Arkansas, I question your assertion that public schools lag behid private schools in the use of technology. The companies have bent over backwards in providing technology to the public schools and the school districts themselves have been pushing the integration and training for such systems for several years now.
You seem out of touch with what is happening on the ground in public schools and have made some assertions that do not hold up to closer examination. So, please understand if I also am disbelieving of your claims to this magic wand you call the market mechanism.
At the heart of the matter, we have a philosophical difference over this issue. I recognize that you must paint public shools and their educators in a more negative light in order to highlight your cause. You certainly went overboard and sunk to the bottom with your technology accusation. When I looked into the topic and checked out various reports, one thing was evident: both public and private schools are going through growing pains with technology in the classroom.
As pointed out by Forster in one of his studies, the international results from vouchers do not support your claims and some of those have been in place for over 20 years. How are we to deal with such? Forster’s solution is simple: just ignore those facts.
Let us set the record straight: by its very definition and use, vouchers are to be used to take students away from public schools and put them into private schools. Private schools have selection criteria and are exclusionary. You are not offering real opportunity or educational equality under such conditions.
Here is a list of sites which I think contribute to the discussion. I strongly recommend the last two. “A Nation at Risk” was considered the seminal report when it came out during the Reagan administration. One of my colleagues mentioned that there is now a followup on this report so I thought it might add fuel to the fire, so to speak.
(1) Give Kids Good Schools – offers many positive suggestions about public schools.
(2) National Center for Education Statistics – a gold mine of data.
(3) Christian Science Monitor did an excellent piece on the progress or lack of such during the 20 years since the report “A Nation at Risk.”
(4) Edutopia, The George Lucas Foundation, takes a more critical look at “A Nation at Risk” and offers a warning that the “landmark document that still shapes our national debate on education was misquoted, misinterpreted, and often dead wrong.”
I’m afraid that you have misunderstood my point. I never claimed that the market is a magic wand. What is demonstrably obvious however is that the lack of a market mechanism has been the path to stagnation, which is the crisis we find our public school students in today. This comes despite levels of spending beyond the dreams of avarice for a school administrator in previous decades.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. These are facts: real spending per pupil substantially increased over the previous few decades, NAEP scores have been relatively flat. In my opinion, this is a record that will be substantially improved upon in future decades, but only in so much as we depart from the failed practices which led us here.
Au contraire on your “obvious” conclusion that the lack of a marketing mechanism is the cause of stagnation. That is putting the cart before the horse and does not follow your logic that you are in fact proposing we try the market mechanism and see if it works as a solution. Your basis for such claims is not strong empirically.
Also, you do not address the many issues I brought up that face a voucher/private school solution. Nor do you take into account other facts: the so-called “golden age” of education I referred to had a roughly 50% graduation rate for HS seniors – nowadays it is close to 85%; the actual number of public school students to private school students is closer to a 9:1 ratio than 3:1 according to government statistics; and, since 1990 there has been a staggering increase in students due to immigration which you do not put that into your calculations or considerations. You must be reminded again that your statement regarding technology in the public school was misleading; and, there is no comment on the selection criteria and exclusionary problems.
I appreciate your acknowledging your solution is not a magic wand even if you contradict yourself in the following statements regarding the market mechanism. What we strongly have in common is your last statement: we should depart from failed practices. That is how we fix public schools (or private schools, for that matter). It is one thng to support changes within a public school and to lobby for better practices there; it is another to advocate a position that has at its heart the abandonment of public schools as its chief tool.
It is my belief that real change occurs because of intrinsic shifts in attitudes and not solely from extrinsic pressure. The real success stories are based on committed teachers and parents coming together to form a plan and work together to make change happen. This has happened numerous times, usually without competition as a spur. Even you and Forster both noted that there were times in which competition did not work as you suggested.
So, in keeping with Moynihan’s view, I just needed to submit some facts that you overlooked. I think we both are looking for the same end but are at cross purposes regarding the means. I appreciate your honesty and time and certainly have enjoyed looking into your research and that of others who’ve written on this opic. I’ve been enlightened and wish to thank you for broadening my understanding of vouchers, private schools, public schools, and the educational needs of our country.
One of my wife’s pet peeves is that when I get together with fellow educators, we seem to go off into a pitched discussion of practices, policies, and philosophies. Today, while she is at work, she’d much rather I clean up my room. So, if you’ll pardon me….I must take my imaginary backhoe into the “hovel” (as she lovingly calls my chamber) and continue to bring a sense of order to the chaos there.
Once again, thanks to you Mr Ladner and also to Mr Forster.
I enjoy a good debate as well too. It is true I haven’t directly addressed the points you raise about vouchers, but I don’t honestly believe it is very relevant to the point I’m making. Remember, vouchers essentially allow parents to leave public schools and go to private schools. I believe that this is a very good thing, and that various studies demonstrate that in various ways, but that isn’t the main point that I am trying to make here. Let’s beat that dead horse when it is more on point.
Some people argue that education is “too important to leave to the market.” I’m arguing the opposite: by divorcing public schooling from the driving force for improvement, we endured a great stagnation. I think there is a widespread consensus that the American public school model is unjust to the poor and tragically ineffective for many students.
The limited embrace of some quasi-market mechanisms have produced some extremely positive results. KIPP never ever happens without charter school laws, for example. I for one love a school remediates inner city kids many grade levels behind and gets them to college on scholarship.
We are still in the early stages of a great debate on how to incorporate market mechanisms into schooling for the benefit of students, and our steps in this direction have to date been very limited.
While reading another link I found on this blog, I came across a reader’s comment that summed up my feelings. It cited E.D. Hirsch who said “The real way is to improve all the schools, and then you have real choice.”
Regarding dead horses, the stream is usually full of them in the education business.
As an veteran educator, I have spent the last 13 years as a school administrator trying (unsuccessfully to date) to bring change to the public school system; a system that works so hard to improve student achievment, but makes so little progress.
Two years ago I had the opportunity to leave the “system” to open a new K-3 inner city charter school, serving mostly second language students. We adopted and implemented Direct Instruction (Reading Mastery and Language for Learning). We maintained detailed records throughout the year regarding our students’ academic progress. The results were amazing! All of our kindergarteners were reading 5 months into the school year, and by the end of the year the kinders were reading to parents, visiting college professors and local public school administrators. Due to our documented first year success, we were invited to move our program to a failing public school in the same community. We thought this would be something wonderful. To our surprise, we were not welcomed at the public school, even though we relinquished our charter status to allow us to make the move. It became a them against us. In fact, the district superintendent who facilitated our move to the school was verbally attacked by the teachers’ union and my administrative job was eliminated three months into the school year. The program has survived on a wing and a prayer, along with the effort, determination and dedication of our teachers.
I am happy to report that the kinders who transferred with us to the public school, are all reading on or above grade level as we near the end of their first grade year. This achievement is even more important since approximately 80% of 3rd students at the school do not meet grade level reading standards! Unfortunately, even with pleas from our parents, the program most likely will not be continued. We have been told that our prevention model is too expensive to continue ( we requested a one hour aide for each classroom for the reading and language instructional time).
My question to the district administration is, how can we not afford this prevention program? The cost of placing students in special education and remedial classes is far more expensive.
As much as I want to see needed change come to the public school system, my experience has lead me to believe that the current system is too large and inflexible. I believe that charter schools will continue to grow and gain strength because they are better able to meet the needs of the students and parents they serve. I am so sad for all of our “little diamonds in the rough” who are relagated to failing inner city schools; they deserve better!
Thank you for posting your story. And you’re definitely right that your students deserve better than to have a promising program cancelled.
But it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between improving the existing system and creating alternatives to the existing system. In fact, creating alternatives is the most promising strategy for improving the existing system! As has already been noted above, the empirical evidence shows that where students are offered a choice, the public schools respond by improving. Having seen so many other policies fail to produce sustained improvements, I’m convinced that if your goal is to improve public schools, creating school choice is by far your best bet.
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