The Price of Bigotry

May 19, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Three cheers for George Will’s column today calling upon the Supreme Court to strike down Blaine Amendments:

Blaine came within 1,047 votes of becoming president when, in 1884, hoping his anti-Catholicism would propel him to victory, he lost New York by that margin to Grover Cleveland. A large multiple of that number of New York’s Irish and other Catholic immigrants had become incensed when a prominent Protestant minister, speaking at a rally in New York City with Blaine present, said the Democratic party’s antecedents were “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”

Blaine paid a steep price for his bigotry. More than 13 decades later, schoolchildren in Montana and elsewhere should not have to pay for it.

I reach the conclusion by different legal reasoning (I think the key point is that Blaine Amendments inevitably create unconstitutional government discrimination against religious organizations, not that they would have been understood to do so in the 19th century). But it rounds up to three cheers!


Serious Scholarly Research on B.S.

May 13, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Institute of Labor Economics brings you a highly scholarly study entitled: “Bullshitters. Who Are They and What Do We Know about Their Lives?”

You see, PISA 2012 included a very interesting test item designed to discover which students would claim to know more than they did. The item listed 16 mathematical concepts (e.g. “exponential function”) and asked test-takers to indicate how familiar they were with those concepts. The catch? Three of the concepts – proper number, subjunctive scaling and declarative fraction – were fictional. (“Subjunctive scaling” is my favorite.)

The ILE researchers coded test-takers who claimed to be highly familiar with these concepts as “bullshitters” and proceeded to analyze their characteristics. The analysis was limited to the nine English-speaking countries in PISA, but that still left them with 40,000 test subjects.

The U.S. and Canada rule the roost as the nations with the most dishonest teenagers. Meanwhile, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland were clustered at the bottom. Apparently the Celts are trustworthy after all – who knew?

Other findings:

  • Teenage boys, you will not be shocked to learn, were more likely to puff themselves up than teenage girls in all nine countries. However, the gender gap was substantially smaller in North America than in Europe.
  • Socioeconomic advantage is also associated with self-fabrication in all nine countries, but with variations in size that follow no obvious pattern (larger differences in Scotland and New Zealand, smaller in England, Canada and the U.S.).
  • There was greater variation in the results for immigrants v. native residents. In Europe, immigrants were more likely to feign expertise; they were less so elsewhere, and there was no visible difference in the U.S.
  • No summary could do this one justice, so I will simply quote: “Finally, in additional analysis, we have also estimated the within versus between school variation of the bullshit scale within each country. Our motivation was to establish whether bullshitters tend to cluster together within the same school, or if bullshitters are fairly equally distributed across schools. We find that the ICCs tend to be very low; in most countries less than three percent of the variance in the bullshit scale occurs between schools. This perhaps helps to explain why everyone knows a bullshitter; these individuals seem to be relatively evenly spread across schools (and thus peer groups).”

Also of interest in ILE’s study is the extensive literature review on the subject, undoubtedly a helpful service in this emerging field of study. The authors point to Harry B. Frankfurt’s pathbreaking inquiry On Bullshit as the reigning theoretical account of the phenomenon.

Hopefully we can expect to see more research on this important topic soon!


Summarizing the Research on School Choice

May 1, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA has published a new policy brief by yours truly, summarizing the research on school choice. For example, on academic effects:

Academic effects may be the most important empirical question we ask about school choice. At one time, it was by far the most hotly debated, whereas today it is much less frequently mentioned by opponents of choice. Having been in the school choice movement since 2002, I can remember when we constantly heard claims that “there’s no evidence school choice actually helps kids learn” or “the research on outcomes is mixed.” Such claims were a primary focus in the 2005 book Education Myths, which I co-wrote. We almost never hear that kind of thing now, because the research on academic outcomes is so consistently positive.

Readers of JPGB will recognize the concern in this paragraph:

Most of these studies examine test scores, although a handful look at other metrics such as high-school graduation rates and college attendance rates. Recent research has called into question the value of test scores as a measurement of academic outcomes. This research finds little or no connection between improvements in K-12 test scores and improvements in long-term life outcomes, in contrast to high-school graduation and college enrollment (which do seem to be more strongly associated with long-term life outcomes). This limitation is worth keeping in mind.

The brief also looks at the research on fiscal effects and civic concerns (segregation and good citizenship).

You may recall there was some, er, confusion recently in Oklahoma when some local academics published a summary of the research on choice that was, er, less than fully accurate.

Let me know what you think!


The Higgy Gets Results!

April 30, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

April 15: Kosoko Jackson awarded The Higgy for joining a bogus outrage mob demanding the publisher cancel blockbuster novel Blood Heir by Amélie Zhao, and then having his own book canceled the same way.

April 30: Zhao announces that Blood Heir will be published after all. No word on publication of Jackson’s novel.

Sometimes the good guys win one.

Fear The Higgy! It does not bear the sword of mockery in vain.


Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

April 23, 2019

(Guest post by Patrick J. Wolf)

I’ve led or assisted with seven rigorous longitudinal evaluations of privately- or publicly-funded private school choice programs. Each one has yielded a big surprise.

The three-city evaluation Paul Peterson led discovered that partial-tuition K-12 scholarships had no clear effect on student test scores overall, but clearly benefited African American students.  The original evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found only suggestive evidence of achievement effects of the federal school voucher program, and only in reading, but identified big positive effects of the program on high school graduation rates. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program evaluation I co-led with John Witte confirmed that the original urban school voucher program had clear effects on multiple measures of student educational attainment but also produced reading test score gains when the tests were high-stakes for the private schools in the program. An experimental study of a partial-tuition scholarship program in India, for which I provided assistance, found clear achievement effects only for girls.

Then there is our four-year longitudinal evaluation of the Louisiana Scholarship Program. In our first set of reports we found that the LSP had positive effects on public school racial integration, as reported here, here, and here. We also discovered that competitive pressure from the statewide expansion of the school voucher program in 2012 had neutral or positive effects on the test scores of students in affected public schools. Our big surprise, however, was that participants in the voucher program scored significantly lower on the state accountability test than their control group peers, especially in the first year of the program and particularly in math. Those negative test score effects of the voucher program were somewhat smaller after two years and even statistically insignificant in Year 3, when the state switched to a different test and held schools harmless for the results.  What would happen in Year 4?  More surprises, it turns out.

Today we released the results of our final set of four technical research reports on the LSP.  The experimental impacts of winning a lottery to your first-choice private school and enrolling in that school for any period of time were negative and back to statistically significant for all of our statistical models in math and some of them in reading. African American students experienced smaller negative achievement effects than did students of other races. Students whose first-choice private schools had higher tuitions, larger enrollments, and longer school days experienced relatively “better” test score effects than students whose first-choice schools didn’t have those features.

Winning an LSP school lottery had no impact on the rates at which students in our study subsequently enrolled in either a two-year or four-year college. The rate was 60.0% for students in the LSP experimental treatment group and 59.5% in the experimental control group. Those college enrollment rates are relatively high for the population of low-income students eligible to apply for the LSP, in part because Louisiana has enacted a series of programs to encourage college access.

Finally, the LSP succeeded in attracting students from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The students who remained in the LSP three years after applying to it were more likely to be eligible for the federal lunch program, African American, and female than the average K-12 student in Louisiana. Students with lower initial test scores than the state average more likely to apply to the LSP than were students with higher test scores.  Among the students who won LSP school lotteries, those with lower initial test scores were more likely to use an LSP voucher for at least three years.

Debates will rage about what has been learned from this one, latest, rigorous evaluation of a private school choice program. Commentators should keep in mind that the LSP has design features that make it unlike most school choice programs. It is the only statewide school voucher program that requires participating schools to adopt an open admissions policy and administer the state accountability test to their voucher-using students. Survey experiments here, and here, have found that those two regulatory provisions tend to decrease the interest of private school leaders in participating in school choice programs. Only about one-third of Louisiana private schools choose to participate in the LSP.

Serious, rigorous studies of private school choice programs should continue. So far, results keep surprising because it appears that the effects of these programs are highly dependent on their design and context. I wouldn’t be surprised if more surprises await.


And the Higgy Goes to… Kosoko Jackson

April 15, 2019

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It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  We have a smaller but still (un)excellent set of nominees to consider.  I failed to submit my own nominee as I was paralyzed by such a target-rich environment and then came down with a fever just when I needed to make a decision and write it.  Oh well. Higgy nominees are evergreen, so I’ll keep those possibilities in mind for next year.

So we had three nominees to consider: Richard Henry Pratt, nominated by Matt, Kosoko Jackson,  nominated by Greg, and William N. Sheats, nominated by Patrick Gibbons.  While they are all very (un)worthy nominees, I think Kosoko Jackson is clearly most deserving.  Pratt and Sheats were much more like BSDDers than the kind of PLDDers we are seeking for the Higgy.

Sheats mustered the coercive power of the state to amend Florida’s constitution to forbid integrated instruction in Florida public schools.  Pratt embarked on a systematic government program to remove Native American children from their families to be educated in boarding schools that would raise them as “real Americans,” which was tantamount to obliterating an entire people, their language, their religion, and their customs.  Whenever people start arguing that we need public schools to create a common sense of identity and shared understanding of democratic citizenship, remember that line of thinking ultimately leads to Pratt. Both Sheats and Pratt are horrifying, but too horrifying for the Higgy.

Jackson is the winning nominee because his dictatorial behavior was really about self-advancement, not truly oppressing large numbers of people.  Jackson joined in social media witch hunts that falsely called out competing authors (falsely) for alleged infractions of the Young Adult Fiction politically correct code.  That was working well to clear the path for his own career until the mobs came after Jackson.

Posturing on social media as woker-than-thou to advance one’s stupid career and at the expense of a commitment to truth, good sense, and professional courtesy… .  Hmmm, does this sound like something familiar?

Anyhoo, Jackson joins past winners, John Wiley BryantPlato, Chris Christie, Jonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.


The System Is Beyond Reform

April 10, 2019

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

“I get adequate food, and adequate clothing, and medical care when I require it,” said U.S. Naval Commander Jeremiah Denton to the camera. But his eyes told a different story.

Denton was a prisoner of war. He had been captured in 1965 after being shot down near Thanh Hoa. After severely torturing Denton, his captors forced him to make a propaganda video intended, in part, to show how humane his Communist “hosts” were. Though his mouth repeated (some of) what his captors demanded, his eyes blinked a different message, unmistakable to those who knew Morse Code: T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

I couldn’t help but think of Denton when reading Checker Finn’s recent valedictory essay summing up the lessons he had learned during his self-described “tour of duty” on the Maryland State Board of Education. His keyboard sounded notes of hope and encouragement about reforming the district school system (“[D]on’t give up. It’s not totally hopeless. Moments of opportunity arise. Stars have been known to align. Gains, however incremental, can be made.“), but reading the piece, one got the sense that Checker was blinking out a different message: “THE SYSTEM IS BEYOND REFORM.”

Why? Well, let Checker explain.

Opponents of reform are powerful and entrenched.

Even though the political stars aligned enough that all twelve school board members had been appointed by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, the bureaucracy was able to slow-walk and even stifle reforms:

When our board took significant initiatives of its own, we ran into problems. Our new school-accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which began with the merest hint during board conversations that perhaps the state should actually intervene in chronically failing schools, led to legislation designed to thwart any such move, claiming that our very words were a dire threat to local control. All major stakeholder groups—not just the powerful teachers unions, but also the school boards and superintendents’ groups—joined forces to block any assertive version of building-level accountability. This legislative blockade had happened before in Maryland, including back when long-serving state superintendent (Saint) Nancy Grasmick proposed outsourcing a few dire inner-city schools.

Would-be reformers are dependent on entrenched interests to provide them with needed information and to implement reforms.

State education departments are as set in their ways and as attuned to traditional stakeholders and their interests as are schools and districts. The first response to any reform suggestion is sure to be some combination of “here’s why that would be really hard to do” and “let’s consult the stakeholders and get their reactions and ideas.” The state superintendent is somewhere in between, formally (in Maryland and many states) accountable to the board that hired him/her but also enmeshed in the state’s longstanding assumptions, obligations, bureaucratic procedures (and capacities), and intertwined educator-career paths.

As a board member, however, you are dependent on that very same bureaucracy—and superintendent—to supply you with information, prepare your briefing materials, develop the policy options, draft the regulations, meet with stakeholders, and much more. How, exactly, do you serve as an independent check on—much less a future-oriented change agent for—a sclerotic agency that supplies you with the very stuff you need to play that role? […]

And as a board member, know that if your reform idea is not on the chief’s agenda, or he or she thinks it may undermine something that is, he or she has a thousand ways to subvert, slow-walk, or otherwise sideline it. So does the board’s attorney who is typically a career state employee and battle-weary veteran of many boards that came before yours and who expects to counsel many that will come after. That individual can (and is apt to) cite a hundred precedents, regulatory fine points, court rulings, and legislative histories that allegedly show why what you and your colleagues want to change simply cannot be done.

Political control favors those who are organized and powerful.

On one occasion, their reform effort was actually blocked by the governor who had appointed them:

In another realm, we had some support from legislators and local controllers but actually found ourselves battling the governor who named us. In that instance, business interests in Ocean City persuaded Hogan, whose enthusiasm for crowd-pleasing gestures has long been manifest, to vouchsafe the integrity of summer vacation by blocking any moves to lengthen the school year. Never mind that a huge number of less-than-proficient youngsters, many of them poor and minority, would benefit from more instructional time. Instead, he issued an executive order that essentially barred districts from opening school before Labor Day or remaining open after June 15. The initial order allowed waivers, however, and our board signaled that it would generously grant them. Hogan hastily revised his order to close that loophole. Here again, as with school accountability, we were doing our best to look after the interests of children but, here again, grownup priorities prevailed. (As I write—two years after that dust-up—legislators and Hogan are battling over whether to loosen the calendar restrictions.)

It’s not hard to figure out what happened here. Low-income families stand to gain the most from extending the school year, but that would interfere with the summer plans of wealthier families with a great deal more political capital. In a system where such decisions are made centrally via a political process, those with less political power lose.

Checker’s last lesson is “don’t despair” but he seems to be saying that ironically as the few reforms his board successfully managed to adopt fall woefully short of meaningfully reforming the system:

Constrained as we were by legislators, we still managed to create a wholly new school-accountability system that was—and is—better than anything that preceded it. (Schools now get “star” ratings, for example. Gifted kids qualify as a “subgroup” whose progress must be disclosed. There’s more.) Our efforts to overhaul high-school-graduation requirements and teacher-certification practices, though resisted by stakeholders’ addiction to the status quo, coincided with the work of an influential statewide education-reform commission and produced a unified array of worthwhile, if imperfect, recommendations for change. And on those occasions when the state superintendent’s own priorities turned out to align with the board’s—well, even the bureaucracy could end up helping more than hindering!

It is telling that the only two “successes” he touts include:

  • a new top-down accountability system (the effectiveness of which is yet unknown and likely to be undermined); and
  • a mere list of recommendations (“worthwhile, if imperfect”).

It doesn’t take a Straussian to get the real message: build new, don’t reform old.

If so, ed reformers should abandon the technocratic top-down reforms that have little to no hope of significantly improving the unreformable system and put all their efforts into building alternatives to it.