How Beneficial Is Pre-K?

June 16, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

That’s the question in my new policy brief from OCPA.

Today the Oklahoman ran an op-ed adapted from that policy brief:

Policymakers shouldn’t spend big money expanding pre-K when the benefits are so uncertain. They should also take pre-K off Oklahoma’s automatic-funding conveyor belt; it should have to make a case for itself like every other discretionary expense.

Moreover, Oklahoma should consider introducing school choice design in existing pre-K programs, to strengthen the freedom and power of parents. Oklahoma’s existing program permits schools to partner with community organizations; why not allow community organizations to serve parents directly?

Let me know what you think!


Genuinely Restorative Justice Must Be Strict, Not Soft

June 13, 2018

Max Eden

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Max Eden’s outstanding piece, which Jay extols here, shows not only how lax discipline leads to bullying, chaos and death, but also how the language of “restorative justice” has been corrupted in ways that are already having terrible consequences.

Justice ought to be restorative. The purpose of justice is not revenge. It is to restore offenders to society – debt paid and ready to try again.

But the debt must be paid. With some exceptions, in general an offender is not really “restored” on a moral, psychological or social level until they have suffered just punishment. That is the only reason punishments exist. And people are ruined if they are raised up learning the lesson that there will be no consequences for bad behavior.

In other words, retributive justice is a necessary element of genuinely restorative justice.

Unfortunately, people whose goal is not to do justice but to reduce the severity of punishments have hijacked the concept of restoration. We are now trapped in a terminological system in which “restorative justice” means the opposite of “retributive justice.” People think they are helping restore kids when they are actually destroying them.

The really terrifying result of this change is not that it gives unearned rhetorical credibility to advocates of lax discipline. It is the response from the other side.

The overwhelming majority of people can see the destructiveness of lax discipline. They are therefore concluding that “restorative justice” is dangerous and destructive. Therefore they are rejecting restoration as a goal of justice. And when you do that, all that’s left is the limitless cruelty of revenge.

The increasing tendency of some to dehumanize criminals and demand harsher and harsher treatment of them cannot be fought by advocacy of lax punishments in the name of “restorative justice.” It is directly caused by advocacy of lax punishments in the name of “restorative justice.”

Only retributive justice, which affirms that punishment is not an arbitrary tool of social control but a just and necessary consequence of the crime that the criminal is morally obligated to suffer, can be effective in restraining the abuse of criminals – and promoting their genuine restoration.

As C.S. Lewis once said, I plead for retributive justice not primarily for the sake of society, or for the sake of crime victims, but for the sake of the criminal.

Max Eden May Be One of the Only Education Reporters Left, and He Isn’t Even a Reporter

June 12, 2018


Max Eden may be one of the only education reporters left, and he isn’t even a reporter. His article in The 74 today describing how changes in discipline policy led to the severe deterioration of behavior in a New York City school may be one of the best pieces of education journalism I have read in many years.  It is thoroughly documented, clearly described, and conveys a compelling and alarming story about how discipline reform may go awry.

To be clear, Max does not prove in this piece that discipline reform necessarily or even typically leads to these problems.  But that is not what journalism does.  Reporting raises issues that social science can then examine using its approach to adjudicate whether these patterns are causal and systematic.  The problem is that too many people seem to confuse journalism and social science and think that only the later should exist.

I came to this realization as I was wondering why I so rarely come across the kind of quality journalism contained in Max’s piece.  What are education reporters doing instead?  First, we unfortunately have far fewer education journalists than we used to.  Education is mostly a local story and local newspapers and their ranks of education reporters have been decimated by the rise of internet news over the last two decades.  Second, the national and often foundation-subsidized outlets we have left are often focused on advancing various agendas, whether reform-oriented or partisan, and seem to have little interest in the type of in-depth reporting contained in Max’s piece.

Third, and perhaps most alarming, is that there is a new type of education journalist who imagines him or herself as a mini-social scientist who adjudicates for us what “the research says.”  Despite having no social science training or experience conducting research, this new breed of education journalist holds forth on what the correct interpretation of the social science evidence is.  Often they do this on Twitter, which has a short format that does not allow for in-depth discussion.  Anyone can sound like an expert in a few hundred characters.

But the truth is that there is usually no simple narrative about what social science has to say and reporters are very poorly positioned to adjudicate the truth about social science.  In the past, reporters understood this and used to leave claims about what the evidence says to researchers.  Reporters who covered research saw their role as quoting competing researchers so audiences could get some understanding of the issues in dispute.

Not any more. Now this new breed of faux social scientist/reporter regularly holds forth on what the evidence tells us.  And not surprisingly, the cool kid club of social scientists whose research is affirmed by this new breed of reporter has plenty of praise to heap upon the reporter for being so smart and wise as to say that the researcher is correct. These reporters and researchers have formed a mutual admiration society.  Any criticism of either reporters or researchers in this tight circle is met with considerable outrage and re-iteration of praise for each other, typically on Twitter.

If reporters are going to start masquerading as social scientists, I suppose it is only right that others should step in and start to play the role of journalists.  The world doesn’t need (and is little influenced) by reporters pretending to be social scientists and adjudicating what the evidence says.  But the world does need and our research agenda will be influenced by the type of in-depth reporting that Max Eden has done in his new article on discipline in a New York City school.

JS Mill to Lauren Ritchie…We Don’t Need No Thought Control

June 11, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week saw a number of Florida media folks getting over-wrought about Science education in private schools- private schools are filled with snake-handling hillbillies who don’t teach proper science goes the meme-classic two-minute hate material. There is a large problem with this however- there is zero evidence in NAEP that private schools fail to teach science.

If you want to shut down private choice programs based on inadequate science education, you will need to shut down the public schools as well, as the available data from the NAEP demonstrates consistently lower public school science scores. Even in private schools in the south among students whose parents did not finish college 8th grade science scores look like:

This is my apprentice, Darth Fable, he will rile up the masses for a two-minute hate….

The fact that multiple Florida media outlets can get themselves lathered up over such a phantom menace however speaks to a deeper problem. In On Liberty John Stuart Mill diversity of education as being of “unspeakable importance” warning that state education would result in a “despotism of the mind” that would enforce a uniformity suiting various elites but serve society poorly:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.

Mill continued: “An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments,” Mill wrote “…carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.”

As both John Stuart Mill and later Milton Friedman argued, civil society should play the leading role in providing education with government restricting its role to finance. Diversity, including the preference of many parents for religious schools should operate under a broad tolerance of the wide diversity of societal preferences.

Now contrast this vision of a vibrant and tolerant education system with:

Do fundamentalists want their kids to learn a bunch of hillbilly science? Handle venomous snakes? Learn that God looks down on Catholics, that America would still have slavery except “some power-hungry individuals stirred up the people”? Knock yourself out. Just don’t expect anyone else to pay for it, and stop calling it “education.” It’s not. It’s more like a 12-year sentence to some anamorphic Sunday school class from hell with no time off for good behavior.

I turned the Periodic Table into a catchy tune…care to hear it?

So…if there is even a poorly supported notion that some differ from what JS Mill called “the mould” your reward will be poorly reasoned and supported denunciation. Note however that Florida has been an enthusiastic adopter of education opportunity and mould-breaking education in the form of the nation’s largest tax-credit, ESA, voucher, and digital learning systems, and a liberal charter law to boot. Has this provided the sort of “example and stimulus” posited by Mill? Multiple empirical studies have found improved performance in district Florida schools based on higher levels of exposure to choice options, and it looks very difficult to argue for broad aggregate harm:

We have compelling reasons not to hand Lauren Ritchie or anyone else the education mould. This sort of bigotry was unworthy of American ideals when Protestants directed it at Catholics during the Know-Nothing Era, and it is equally vile when directed at Protestants or <fill in the blank here> today, the dark sarcasm in the paper notwithstanding. Hey, Ritchie, leave those kids alone.

Learning from a Study Abroad Course in Israel

June 1, 2018

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Much of my recent research has focused on what students learn from field trips.  I’m inclined to believe that direct exposure to enriching activities conveys a significant amount of learning that cannot easily be obtained from abstract instruction in classrooms.

I don’t just see this as something that only K-12 schools should consider.  Graduate training in education policy may also significantly benefit from exposing doctoral students to more and varied school experiences.  It’s fine to learn how to manage large data bases or how to do the latest adjustment to standard errors, but too few education policy programs are teaching their students to think more deeply about our field, including asking bigger and more interesting questions or considering how policy may need to vary across context.

The doctoral program in education policy at the University of Arkansas, however, is making a concerted effort to give our Ph.D. students more and varied direct experiences in schools.  In particular, we prioritize having students work on randomized field experiments in which they collect their own data in a variety of schools.  Seeing first-hand how programs are operating and understanding the messiness involved in data collection teaches our students things about education policy that they could never learn by staring at numbers in a spreadsheet all day long.  Field trips may be just as important for doctoral training as K-12 education.

To further our commitment to this graduate level version of field trips, Bob Costrell and I developed and just completed leading a study abroad course for our doctoral students in Israel.  Two cohorts of our Ph.D. students were offered the opportunity to tour Israel for 10 days, following the completion of assigned readings and a few days of preparation.  Our tour included discussions with experts at Hebrew University, Shalem College, and the Shoresh Institution, as well as visits to school programs in Jerusalem, the Galil, and Tel Aviv.  Because our Department is in a very strong position financially, we were able to offer this course at basically no cost and all of the eligible students chose to participate.

Why did we take our graduate students to Israel and what did they learn from going there?  We went to Israel because it has many of the same educational challenges we face in the U.S.  Their test scores are lagging in international comparisons.  They have stubborn education gaps that have resisted efforts to close them.  They have centralized standards, curriculum, and test-based accountability along with decentralized school choice that struggle to balance individual freedom and national unity.

But if we just wanted to see educational challenges like our own, we could have visited schools in the U.S.  The real benefit of going to Israel was seeing similar challenges being addressed in very different contexts.  It became abundantly clear that many of the reforms we pursue in the U.S. do not work the same way in Israel and vice versa.

For example, the “tight-loose” approach favored by supporters of Common Core combines centralized standards with school autonomy over how best to teach those standards.  In the U.S. tight-loose tends to devolve quickly into tight-tight as schools are so eager to comply with central mandates that they focus narrowly on centrally determined objectives and exercise relatively little autonomy in selecting different paths for achieving those objectives.  In Israel, their “start-up” culture facilitates less slavish obedience to central-mandates and more school and teacher autonomy in how they achieve centrally determined objectives.  Of course, these are broad observations and there is considerable variability within both the U.S. and Israel.

But the point is that context matters.  The same policy with the same incentive system will work very differently in different places, across as well as within countries.  The dominant economic approach to education policy tends to think of schools and educators as inter-changeable widgets.  The same policy with the same incentives should produce the same results.  Then we are shocked each time we try at scale something that worked as a pilot program only to discover that we get very different results.  Rick Hess has been warning us about how much the context of policy implementation matters, but perhaps we can only really learn this lesson when we see those very different contexts for ourselves.

There are also problems associated with educational tourism.  There is a risk that people will select on the dependent variable and draw lessons about what “works” without relying on a reasonably rigorous research design.  While there are limits to what can be learned with confidence from direct experience, there are also limits to what can be learned from large data sets abstracted from context.  Education policy needs to do a better job of balancing rigorous methods with contextual understanding.  In the Department of Education Reform’s doctoral program we are striving to achieve that balance and are committing our resources to provide that balanced training to our students.

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Image may contain: 5 people, including Jon Mills, people sitting, table and indoor

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Image may contain: 11 people, including Ian Kingsbury, Heidi Holmes Erickson, Albert Cheng, Elise Swanson, Angela Robinson Watson, Bob Costrell, Jay P. Greene and Jon Mills, people smiling, people standing, sky and outdoor

Eugenics: A Case Study of the Dangers of Technocracy

May 7, 2018


Technocracy is the belief that government should be run by experts, with policies shaped by scientific evidence.  Advocates of technocracy have little enthusiasm for people making decisions about their own lives or those of their children because people too often choose the wrong thing.  Experts, guided by evidence, are much better situated to shape people’s decisions so that they work best for themselves and others.

Technocracy rose to prominence during the Progressive Era, but it has hardly lost its appeal to elites since then.  It is clearly the dominant mode of thought among education policy experts.  In fact, at the most recent annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, attendees wore buttons declaring their creed, “Evidence-Based.”  Let’s leave aside that appending “Based” to “Evidence” seems to negate what it is modifying, like “natural flavoring” or “based on a true story.” And let’s acknowledge that evidence is, of course, extremely useful for making good decisions.  But the motivation behind this button and the thinking that pervades education experts is that policy should be “based” on evidence, not merely informed by it.  Evidence is the foundation.  Technocracy should rule.

To repeat, evidence is a good thing.  But claims about what the evidence really says are often in dispute and science is a very limited and imperfect enterprise.  So to be ruled by evidence rather than informed by it is extremely dangerous.  Consider the example of eugenics, which is “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.”  Eugenics is now considered thoroughly disreputable, but for several decades it was the consensus approach of our scientific elite.  Its science was widely respected and its practices and policy recommendations were “evidence-based.”

It’s a little too easy to dismiss eugenics as a horrible error of our pre-scientific past.  For several decades, it was the scientific present of the most respected elites.  As Sol Gittleman put it: “The presidents of MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard all supported eugenics research, and as early as 1914, academic courses on the subject were taught at Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Clark, and MIT. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, spoke openly and wrote freely about ‘racial suicide’—their term for what would happen if the nation permitted the mixing of races.”

While laws against the “mixing of races” had been introduced during slavery, a flurry of new laws were adopted as a result of this scientific inquiry into eugenics such that 41 of the then 48 states eventually had such laws in place.  You could say that these laws were “evidence-based.”  In addition, laws calling for the forced sterilization of people deemed to be “feeble-minded” were adopted and ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared in his decision, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  This ruling by the Supreme Court was also considered “evidence-based.”

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt organized a secret committee to consider what to do with the large number of war refugees, especially Jews, who he expected to flee Europe after the war.  Roosevelt asked Aleš Hrdlička, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, to head this secret planning group.  It’s worth quoting Steve Usdin’s account of this episode at length:

The two men had carried on a lively correspondence for over a decade and the President had absorbed the scientist’s theories about racial mixtures and eugenics. Roosevelt, the scion of two families that considered themselves American aristocrats, was especially attracted to Hrdlička’s notions of human racial “stock.”

A prominent public intellectual who had dominated American physical anthropology for decades, Hrdlička was convinced of the superiority of the white race and obsessed with racial identity. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack he’d written to Roosevelt expressing the view that the “less developed skulls” of Japanese were proof that they were innately warlike and had a lower level of evolutionary development than other races. The president wrote back asking whether the “Japanese problem” could be solved through mass interbreeding.

Roosevelt had long resisted opening the doors to large numbers of immigrants, not as a result of political expediency, but based on his understanding of what science had to say on the matter.  In 1925 Roosevelt had written a series of columns for the Macon Telegraph in which he praised Canada’s immigration policies, which were designed “to prevent large groups of foreign born from congregating in any one locality…. If, twenty-five years ago, the United States had adopted a policy of this kind we would not have the huge foreign sections which exist in so many of our cities.”

This evidence-based resistance to increasing immigration condemned countless European Jews to their death.  It also informed the findings of the secret committee he organized as to what to do with Jewish refugees following the war: “The solution, which the President endorsed, ‘essentially is to spread the Jews thin all over the world,’ rather than allow them to congregate anywhere in large numbers.”  Apparently, he hoped to improve their stock through inter-breeding, as he speculated might be done to reduce war-like tendencies among the Japanese.

Keep in mind, eugenics was not championed by a fringe group.  It was championed by the presidents of  leading universities, researchers at the Smithsonian, and several presidents of the United States.  I’m proud to note that my alma mater, Tufts University, never offered a course in eugenics, and a Tufts medical professor, Abraham Myerson, was a leading critic of the idea, including in his testimony against forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” But Tufts was the exception, while more elite universities like Harvard and MIT actively pursued eugenics.  Only the close association between eugenics and the Nazis eventually brought the idea into disrepute.

Before we turn over policymaking to the current scholars at Harvard and MIT, we might want to reflect on how wrong evidence-based policies can be.  And rather than smugly asserting that past scholars were quacks while current ones are true scientists, we might want to learn the lessons of humility that the eugenics episode teaches.  Let’s be informed by evidence, but not be evidence-based.

Lessons from Failure

April 30, 2018

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Mike McShane and I have an article in the Phi Delta Kappan Magazine summarizing the lessons we learned from our edited book on Failure.

We took the contributions by Larry Cuban (from Stanford University), Matthew DiCarlo (the Shanker Institute), Anna Egalite (North Carolina State University), Rick Hess and Paige Wiley (the American Enterprise Institute), Ashley Jochim (the Center for Reinventing Public Education), Matthew Ladner (the Charles Koch Institute), Megan Tompkins-Stange (the University of Michigan), Martin West (Harvard University), and Daniel Willingham (the University of Virginia) and boiled it down to three trade-offs and three lessons.

But if like Hillel I had to state what we learned while standing on one foot, I’d say, “Education is an inherently political enterprise, so if you try too hard to substitute normal political processes with the authority of technical expertise, you will fail.”