The Importance of Being < Earnest

May 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT to Jon Gabriel for alerting us to an interview on Morning Joe in which Josh Earnest addressed President Obama’s hand-wringing over the non-existent crisis of kids going to private schools. See the video here. Joe basically asks Earnest why the President would be critical of people for sending their kids to private schools when, er, he is a private school graduate and sends his daughters to private schools.

EARNEST: His point is that even if you send your kids to private school, we all have an interest in making sure we have good high quality public schools available to everybody. It’s not that far from the White House that we do have some of the best public schools in the country over in Fairfax County, Virginia.

That is an example. That is also a more wealthy than average county in the country. That is an example of a society of a community that has invested in a common good for the benefit of their community and that’s the kind of thing that we need to see all across the country. Whether that is something as simple as investing in our national parks or local parks or public schools or making sure that every single American has access to quality health insurance.

Ok, so if I am following Earnest here, the President supports public funding for K-12 along with 99% of the rest of us. I have not noticed any movement out to exempt people who send their kids to private schools from paying state and local taxes for the rest of their lives. Did Guam pass a law like that while I wasn’t looking, with it poised to spread across the country like wildfire? Did I miss that somehow?

Schools can’t run without money. It however strikes me as incredible to suggest, as the President did, that the magic high-impact dollars would be on the way to save poor children if only we could overcome our “cynicism” inspired by decades of increased spending with precious little to show for it nefarious right-wingers.

People have honest and deeply felt disagreements about how much we should be spending on public education. If you want to champion the interest of poor children in the K-12 system, you must be willing to ruthlessly pursue efforts to extract the maximum possible amount of value from each dollar invested. Bill Clinton was fond of a certain Einstein quote about the definition of insanity, and it certainly applies here.

Don’t worry my skeptical friend, the dollars in your pocket are magic fireproof dollars- test it out!

 

 


President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

May 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It is a shame that the only thing that seemed to draw headlines from a recent panel discussion on poverty including President Obama was a silly throw away line about Fox News. The entire discussion, which included Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks deeply deserves your time. The event transcript can be found here.

Go read it. Like now. All four participants had very interesting things to say, far more than can be reflected upon in a blog post.

So this quote from President Obama got my attention:

Now, part of what’s happened is that — and this is where Arthur and I would probably have some disagreements.  We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history — it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better — more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages
— are withdrawing from sort of the commons — kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.

Now, that’s not inevitable.  A free market is perfectly compatible with also us making investment in good public schools, public universities; investments in public parks; investments in a whole bunch — public infrastructure that grows our economy and spreads it around.  But that’s, in part, what’s been under attack for the last 30 years.  And so, in some ways, rather than soften the edges of the market, we’ve turbocharged it.  And we have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity.

This is an interesting quote on multiple levels- the first of which being that it has factual assertions that are demonstrably false. Let’s start with the strongly implied notion that we have disinvested from public schools. Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a delightfully on point chart addressing what actually happened:

 

Now I could just as easily show a chart of inflation adjusted public school spending per pupil rising ever higher, but this chart qualifies as more interesting in my book as it shows what was done with the money. In short, we bombed districts with additional money and they used it to hire vast numbers of school employees especially non-teachers. These numbers come right out of the National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, and they demonstrate conclusively that President Obama was wildly off base when discussing the commitment of the American taxpayers to public education.

What about this idea of “kids start going to private schools” assertion? Let’s just for the sake of jovial discussion overlook the fact that President Obama himself attended private schools, and sends his daughters to one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Again this notion is demonstrably false: private school attendance rates have been falling over time. Ironically the sort of class based segregation that all three participants acknowledge is indeed going on, but it is largely going on within the public school system itself through a system of highly economically segregated district schools- aka the leafy suburbs.

Later the President says “I think it is important for us at the outset to acknowledge if, in fact, we are going to find common ground, then we also have to acknowledge that there are certain investments we are willing to make as a society, as a whole, in public schools and public universities.” With regards to K-12 however the President has constructed an argument on a demonstrably false premise: while the ability of the country to go on making the same level of investment in public education in the future may be in doubt, there can be no doubt regarding the massive increase in resources devoted to public education in recent decades.

Bob Putnam joins with the President on the trends in public school spending:

For most of the 20th century, all Americans of all walks of life thought that part of getting a good education was getting soft skills — not just reading, writing, arithmetic, but cooperation and teamwork, and so on.  And part of that was that everybody in the country got free access to extracurricular activities — band and football, and music and so on.  But beginning about 20 years ago, the view developed — which is really, really deeply evil — that that’s just a frill. 

And so we disinvested, and we said if you want to take part in football here, or you want to take part in music, you’ve got to pay for it.  And of course, what that means is that poor people can’t pay for it.  It’s a big deal — $1,600 on average for two kids in a family.  Well, $1,600 to play football, or play in the band, or French club or whatever — it’s not a big deal if your income is $200,000; but if you income is $16,000, who in their right mind is going to be paying 10 percent of their family income?

I’ll interject here to say that the public school system has more than enough money to pay for football helmets for poor children but that in some cases they may have placed a much higher priority on other spending. Like for instance, bloating out their non-teaching employment (see Figure 1 above).  When staffing growth increased at a rate more than 10 times greater than enrollment growth, it is hard to think anything else. Are there kids priced out of extracurricular activities in American public schools? I’m confident there have been. Is it because the public has disinvested in public education? Hardly.

Later the President returns to his theme:

If, in fact, the most important thing is character and parents, then it’s okay if we don’t have band and music at school — that’s the argument that you will hear.  It’s okay.  Look, there are immigrant kids who are learning in schools that are much worse, and we’re spending huge amounts in the district and we still get poor outcomes, and so obviously money is not the issue.  And so what you hear is a logic that is used as an excuse to under-invest in those public goods.

And that’s why I think a lot of people are resistant to it and are skeptical of that conversation.  And I guess what I’m saying is that, guarding against cynicism, what we should say is we are going to argue hard for those public investments.  We’re going to argue hard for early childhood education because, by the way, if a young kid — three, four years old — is hearing a lot of words, the science tells us that they’re going to be more likely to succeed at school.  And if they’ve got trained and decently paid teachers in that preschool, then they’re actually going to get — by the time they’re in third grade, they’ll be reading at grade level. 

And those all very concrete policies.  But it requires some money.  We’re going to argue hard for that stuff.  And lo and behold, if we do those things, the values and the character that those kids are learning in a loving environment where they can succeed in school, and they’re being praised, and they can read at grade level, and they’re less likely to drop out, and it turns out that when they’re succeeding at school and they’ve got resources, they’re less likely to get pregnant as teens, and less likely to engage in drugs, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system — that is a reinforcement of the values and character that we want. 

And that’s where we, as a society, have the capacity to make a real difference.  But it will cost us some money.  It will cost us some money.  It’s not free.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact with the blinding ubiquity of incredibly well-funded schools that are also catastrophically dysfunctional. President Obama attempts to waive this problem away while confidently assuming that the next round of public school spending will produce fantastic gains for disadvantaged students. President Obama for instance seems either blissfully or willfully unaware that random assignment studies of Head Start released by his own administration demonstrate (yet again) academic fade out before 3rd grade. The bigger point in my mind is that given the massive investment in public education the greatest opportunity for improvement by far lies in increasing the ROI for the funds we already invest in the system. Any blithe would-be technocrat that effectively wants to write off the current investment as stuck in place while making snake oil salesman style promises regarding the profound efficacy of new spending deserves our profound skepticism.

The unacknowledged elephant in the room- the inescapable fact that the poor have been the primary victims of the failure of the public school system to produce a decent return on investment for the massive increase in public K-12 spending. Several generations of Americans have attended public schools increasingly generously funded and staffed over the decades, and always at globally enviable levels. I’m at a loss to imagine how anyone can blame inter-generational poverty on under investment in public education when such investment can only be described as both substantial and increasing for many decades

If someone would like to explain why I should view this viewpoint as something other than demonstrably shallow and willfully ignorant of the real issues in public education and their equally real consequences, feel free to leave a comment. The problem in my view is not that we have put too little in to public education, but rather that our 19th Century Prussian factory model gave us far too little back in return.

Public education, in short, badly needs an update.


Enrichment Spending and Inequality

August 15, 2013

NYT(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times published the above chart last December here’s a link if you would like a better look. It basically shows that both college attendance and completion and private enrichment spending have been increasing at a much faster rate among wealthier students.

I find the enrichment spending trend particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, like Collin’s grit measure, it seems like an example of something that has been lurking in the error term of our limited understanding of K-12 trends.  I’m not sure how the authors define “enrichment spending” but $8,900 per year for well-to-do kids is striking.  How much does this matter? I’m not sure but I think it ought to be rigorously researched. It could matter quite a bit.

Four states have average family incomes for a family of four above six figures and one cannot help but wonder how much more this trend influences academic trends than in other states. Washington DC has been gentrifying strongly and has also had a large increase in the economic achievement gap despite large gains for low-income kids.  Could this trend be partially explained by this phenomenon?

What, if anything, is to be done about this? A vast increase in K-12 spending aimed at the cultural enrichment of poor children is not in the cards given the rotten state of state and federal finances, and it is just as well given the fact that the relationship between spending and outcomes is already hazy to say the least in the public school system. Just as a reminder, in the insightful words of Paul Hill:

Money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results.

The country is broke and even if we did raise taxes to punishing levels to fund this stuff no one should feel the least bit confident that enrichment spending would actually work if funnelled through the existing system. Jay’s idea about supplementing private summer camp attendance might be a better idea but again public finances are a total mess. This is currently in the private realm and it is necessary to keep it that way.

This would seem to leave us with at least few possibilities. Better use of technology may enhance the efforts of both public and private enrichment efforts. Khan Academy is doubtlessly one of the most powerful remedial education tools ever developed. It is free of charge and has branched out into the fine arts, and it is hardly alone. Sandra Day O’Connor has an online civics project for instance but I suspect that these efforts will require some concerted effort to realise their full potential. Putting them up online is a first crucial step, but one cannot help but to fear that their impact might be reminiscent of public libraries absent a sustained effort to get children to use them.

Fareed Zakaria summarizes the current debate on inequality, social mobility and schooling, but misses the crucial point.  The problem isn’t that we spend so little on the schooling of poor children but rather that we get so little for the massive amounts spent. American Black and Hispanic students score closer to the average score in Mexico (a nation that spends a fraction of what we do per pupil and which suffers from a much greater poverty problem) than to top performing scores. Using various policy mechanisms to increase ROI for K-12 spending runs you straight into reactionary resistance but it easily represents the most promising avenue for improving the prospects for disadvantaged children.

Oh, and by the way, as the New York Daily News kindly points out it does work.


So We Meet Again Baumol…

October 12, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Part 3 of the Baumol series at the Ed Fly blog is posted, and James Shuls weighs in with an illustration of Baumol from Missouri.


Mahatma Kozol Takes Cash Only

September 26, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the email transom from George Mitchell comes a publicity item for Jonathan Kozol’s latest weeper. Here’s the part that really stood out to me:

We should let folks know there are signing restrictions for this event. Mr. Kozol will only personalize copies of Fire in the Ashes, and will only sign the most recent editions of four of his backlist titles that are purchased at the event.

What a selfless and noble tribune of generosity! What a titanic warrior against the greed of capitalism!

For my money (if Kozol will pardon the expression) nobody’s ever managed to top Tucker Carlson’s 1995 classic “Jonathan Kozol’s Crying Game.” One of the best things WS published even back in its glory days.

PS “Mahatma Kozol” courtesy of the Fordham Institute, during Kozol’s ridiculous “partial fast” in 2007. The image seems to have disappeared from Fordham’s site but it lives on at Alexander Russo’s blog.


Charting the K-12 Productivity Implosion

March 8, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Previously on JPGB, I wrote about how the world is getting better all the time, with the notable exception of K-12 education. That post included the following chart from Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute:

So just how did we manage to pull this off? The Digest of Education Statistics illustrates how we managed it on the spending side. First, the number of teachers per pupil expanded substantially. Now I am writing this in my pajamas before having my morning caffeine, so feel free to double-check my numbers from the source.

The vast expansion of the teaching workforce is entirely overshadowed however by the truly mind-boggling expansion of the non-teacher workforce. Take special note of the ratios of teachers to non-teachers:

So the trend in the overall pupil per public school employee ratio:

So while the public school system has been busy vastly increasing employment, what has been going on with student achievement? The long-term NAEP reading trend looks like this:

 While the long-term NAEP math trend looks like this:

To sum up, we had a vast increase in the number of public school employees per student in the American public school system. In terms of outputs, we managed a two point gain in the average 17 year olds math achievement, and another point in reading. Mind you, that’s one point on a 500 point scale exam.

I’m ready to try something different.


Incomplete Report Is Incomplete

September 12, 2011

Education reform, like highway. Man walk left side of street, okay. Man walk right side of street, okay. Man walk middle of street . . . chhhhhheeerrrrrriiiik! Just like grape.

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

A think tank called Third Way has a new report out, titled “Incomplete,” on the mediocrity of middle class schools. And with a name like Third Way, you know it has to be good!

On the surface, the point of the report is to emphasize that we don’t just have an education crisis in “the inner city” (i.e. in somebody eles’s neighborhood); we have an education crisis in “middle class” schools.

And that’s true! Part of me wants to be positive about this report and say, “okay, people are starting to get that this isn’t just about the 10% of kids in the worst schools.” After all, we’ve always said around here that we won’t get the education reforms we need until white suburbanites see how inadequate their own schools are.

But this report frames everything all wrong. Here are the three “key findings” they list:

  1. Most students are taught in middle class schools (duh)
  2. Middle class schools spend the least per pupil, pay teachers the least, and have the highest enrollment to teacher ratios.
  3. Middle class students are underachieving in test scores and college graduation rates.

The report offers no action items and no conclusions of substance beyond “a second phase of education reform focused on middle-class schools can’t begin soon enough.”

Right! Because the assumption that we don’t need to think about the policy specifics since everything is about mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money worked so well in the first phase of education reform!

Normally I wouln’t bother highlighting yet another blob mouthpiece hawking the mo-money line, but I wonder if this is going to be a new trend. A focus on the black/white, urban/suburban achievement gap doesn’t translate to mo-money for them any more, because they’ve gotten mo-money for that for decades and have squat to show for it. Is the mo-money line going to start migrating to other issues now?

Perhpas they’ve discovered a perpetual motion machine. You spend decades complaining that we need to increase spending in the inner city because we spend less there than in the suburbs, then once you can’t say we spend less in the inner city any more, you start saying we need to increase spending in the suburbs – because, of course, we spend less there than in the inner city! Rinse and repeat in perpetuity.