Yuval Levin on Combating Cronyism

November 3, 2016

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The most recent issue of National Review contains an excellent essay by Yuval Levin on why conservatives should get serious about tackling cronyism. Noting that 2016 has exposed the failure of conservatives to “take seriously some key public concerns” and to “articulate some key conservative priorities,” Levin urges conservatives to do more to address voters’ concerns that “the economy is somehow rigged against them… to the benefit of some wealthy and powerful interests.” (This is sage advice not only for conservatives, but also for education reformers of various political stripes.) As it happens, the Left has proven much more adept that tapping into this concern, although as Levin points out, they exploit it to “empower greater government intervention — ironically creating new opportunities for the wealthy and powerful to lobby and to curry favor.”

To a great extent, the failure to address cronyism stems from the fact that too many conservatives–particularly Republican elected officials–have long confused being pro-market with being pro-business. As Levin explains:

Everybody knows that conservatives in America are champions of the market economy as an engine of prosperity. But too many Americans, including too many conservatives, seem to believe that defending the market economy means serving the interests of business. That is certainly how our government has too often approached its role as steward of the economy — advancing the priorities of established, well-connected interests, sometimes at the expense of the needs of individuals, families, communities, and the nation as a whole, and claiming to do so in the name of economic growth and freedom.

But a commitment to the goals and principles of the market economy is by no means the same thing as a commitment to the interests of the businesses that compete in that economy. On the contrary, markets require a government dedicated to open competition for the benefit of consumers and citizens — which very often means subjecting powerful incumbents to competitive pressures they would rather avoid.

Such fair and open competition is precisely what makes markets engines of prosperity and innovation, and what makes the free-enterprise system well suited to helping a free society address some of its biggest problems. Providing business interests (or labor interests, or any other established, well-connected group) with special benefits or shielding established market actors from competition is therefore anathema to the ethic of capitalism and of democracy. That our government now frequently engages in precisely such preferential treatment for the well connected is a grave danger to democratic capitalism in America. And that the public identifies such cronyism with capitalism itself is a failure of the friends of the market system. It is as such a failure of conservatism, and it threatens all that conservatives hope to achieve.

Levin goes on to enumerate many examples of cronyism, highlighting its existence in areas that conservatives should be doing more to expose and correct, including the realm of education:

Self-dealing is, for instance, at the heart of our primary- and secondary-education crisis, as schools and districts are run in the interests of administrators and tenured teachers rather than students. It is a driving force behind our higher-education dilemmas, as the already accredited run the accreditation system and keep out new competitors and new models of schooling and financing. It undermines upward mobility, as established players in one industry after another use licensing and certification requirements to keep out competitors.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for Levin’s insightful diagnosis of the origins of the problem and suggested solutions, but JayBlog readers will be particularly interested in Levin’s treatment of education policy.

Noting that “parental choice is restricted by systems that protect incumbent teachers and their unions at the expense of students,” Levin argues that the state must “become a neutral arbiter of competitive marketplaces rather than a manager of inefficient monopolies.

In many large school districts, teachers’ unions use their financial and political muscle to control the election of school-board members and so effectively choose their own negotiating partners, leaving parents and the rest of their communities powerless to change things. Breaking up such monopolies, by allowing some of the public funds that now flow to school systems to be put instead in the hands of parents and by giving those parents a real choice among educational options, can help these public dollars serve the public rather than a particularly powerful pressure group.

As Jay has counseled, education reformers can’t afford to ignore politics. Reformers can’t expect to be effective unless they are speaking to the concerns that voters have. They shouldn’t expect those voters to get excited about policies that are intended to answer questions that voters aren’t asking. Education reformers must seek to understand what voters are concerned about and clearly articulate how our policy proposals would address those concerns. Sizable portions of the electorate, both right and left, are troubled by a system that appears to be rigged against them. Reformers must show them how the government-run education system is rife with cronyism and explain how choice policies will empower them to provide their children with a better education.  As Levin concludes:

The failure to advance this argument is an instance of a larger pattern in which conservatives have become disconnected from public concerns because we have forgotten the foundations of our own view of the world. A complacent repetition of vague slogans about freedom too often turns the Right into a caricature of itself. A concerted reengagement with the actual conservative case for freedom would instead let the Right offer serious answers to today’s most pressing public concerns.

Likewise, education reformers must resist the siren call of technocracy and seriously reengage with the foundational ideas of the ed reform movement in a manner that connects with today’s concerns.


John Katzman Has It Totally Right on Ed Reform

November 2, 2016

Every donor, every foundation or advocacy staffer, every academic, or anyone else who cares about having an intelligent strategy for improving education should watch this video.  It’s as if he’s been reading this blog and stealing our thoughts, but Katzman puts it all together in an incredibly compelling way.

The bottom line is improving schools is going to require more markets and choice and less testing and accountability.  And you don’t have to worry too much about testing and accountability because it is so politically unpopular that it will mostly destroy itself.


Win-Win Update at Perspective

November 1, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on the research showing school choice improves academic outcomes at public schools – including an update since the publication of my latest Win-Win report, with a new study from Fordham finding Ohio’s voucher program improves reading and math scores in affected public schools:

This study improves on the two previous studies of the Ohio program (one of which I conducted), both of which also found it improved public schools. Figlio and Karbownik had access to individual student data, rather than having to use aggregate school-level scores, which is more accurate. They also use a “regression discontinuity” method, comparing schools that landed just barely above and just barely below the threshold for voucher eligibility. This is a better apples-to-apples comparison of schools.

But why be surprised? These days even NEPC and Christopher Lubienski have finally admited that school choice improves outcomes, although only participant outcomes. Lubienski mysteriously refused to look at my report’s review of effects on public schools, fiscal effects, segregation effects and civic effects. I can’t imagine why!

The win-win solution continues to rack up wins. Stay tuned.


Losing My Religion?

November 1, 2016

My former students, Dan Bowen and Albert Cheng, have a new study that was just published in the Journal of Catholic Education on how religious priming may affect student character or non-cognitive skills.  They find that priming students to think about religion increases students’ willingness to delay gratification as well as their political tolerance.  No effects are observed if students are instead primed to think of secular success.  This work suggests that there may be particular benefits from religiously-based education that are more difficult to produce in a secular context.  Abandoning private religious education for secular charter schools may come at a cost to these character skills.

These results come from an experiment we conducted at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts (ASMSA), a public boarding school in Hot Springs.  In the experiment we randomly assigned 180 students to one of three conditions.  All students were asked to work on a sentence scramble exercise in which there are ten sets of five words.  Students were asked to look at each set of five words, drop one word, and then make a sentence out of the remaining four words.

In 5 of the sentences one word was altered, changing only five of the 50 words across the three conditions.  One group was primed to think about religion by having the words “worship, preacher, heaven, devotion, and commandments” included in the sentence scramble.  A second group was primed to think about secular equivalents: “honor, leader, success, commitment, and expectations.”  And a third group saw neutral words: “eat, path, man, cabbage, and numerous.”

Prior research had found that students primed in this way to think about religion demonstrated higher levels of self-regulation.  The idea of this experiment was to attempt to replicate those previous findings while exploring whether secular equivalents could produce similar effects.  Several observers have noted that KIPP and other high-achieving charter schools appear to simulate the religious rituals of Catholic schools but replace religious rhetoric with talk of secular success and achievement.  The question this study explores is whether talk of secular achievement appears to be as motivational for students as religious rhetoric.

Dan and Albert find that something is lost when we substitute secular aspirations for religious ones.  Students exposed to the religious priming expressed a stronger feeling of religiosity.  So, the priming worked in getting students to think about religion, even though changing only 5 words out of 50 is very subtle and the students were not consciously aware of the nature of the manipulation.

Students exposed to this religious priming experienced an increase in delayed gratification in that they were more willing to receive $6 the following week as compensation for participating in the study rather than $5 right then.  Students in the religious priming condition were also more likely to express political tolerance on the Sullivan scale, which measures people’s willingness to allow disliked groups to engage in political activities, like holding rallies, having books in the library, or running for office.  But students exposed to the secular success priming were no different from the neutral priming control group in that both were less likely to delay gratification or express political tolerance.

This was a small scale experiment and the effects were observed at p<.1, so there are limits to how confident we should be about the results.  But given that the results are consistent with prior research, we should have some concerns about dropping religious school choice in favor of secular charter schools.  This is especially so given that the No Excuses charter model that has become the darling of ed reformers often comes up short at improving later life outcomes, while private school choice programs seem to fare better at improving high school graduation, college enrollment, and even earnings.


And the Winner of the 2016 “Al” is… Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds

October 31, 2016

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This year’s set of Al Copeland Humanitarian Award nominees was particularly strong, making selection of a winner exceptionally difficult.  As Greg noted in a comment, “this is clearly a ‘political’ year for The Al, in the sense that we’re all nominating witnesses against injustice rather than the creative entrepreneurs who usually dominate.”

Well, almost all.  Matt, as is his habit, nominated the entrepreneurs, Tim and Karrie League, who developed the Alamo Draft House chain of movie theaters.  The Alamo Draft House is one of the greatest places on earth.  The theaters carefully select movies, audience activities, food, and drink to create a completely engaging and entertaining experience.  Some people give hundreds of millions of dollars to art museums that fail to package their offerings nearly as well as Tim and Karrie League do.  And the Alamo does it without any donations while making a profit.  Improving the human condition while also making profit is a quintessential characteristic of winners of The Al.  And I almost slected Tim and Karrie League for this honor.

But as Greg said this seems like a political year in which selecting a traditional entrepreneur-type as the winner just didn’t seem right.  All of the other nominees fell in the “witnesses against injustice” category and with so much injustice all around us, I felt like I should choose one of them.  I could have chosen Jason’s excellent nominee, Remy Munasifi, whose musical parodies expose and help rebut oppression, hypocrisy, and other types of foolishness.  I could also have chosen my own nominee, Yair Rosenberg, whose trolling of neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites on Twitter deprives these bullies of the sense of power that drives much of their behavior.

Instead, I have chosen Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds over Remy Munasifi and Yair Rosenberg because Edmonds was more than a witness to injustice.  He actively took steps, at enormous danger to himself, to promote justice in the world.  By refusing to comply with Nazi orders to separate Jewish POWs and insisting that he and all of the soldiers under his command were Jewish, Edmonds risked being shot to defy the Nazi’s hateful and murderous plans against Jews.

I hesitated for a moment in selecting Edmonds only because The Al does not typically go to people who have been widely recognized elsewhere, like Steve Jobs or John Lasseter, and Edmonds was recently honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.  Unfortunately, being honored by Yad Vashem does not constitute being widely recognized, so drawing more attention to Edmonds seems important and fitting.

As much as I love Remy Munasifi and Yair Rosenberg, mocking injustice on the internet just isn’t enough.  As Ken M, last year’s winner of The Al, taught us, social media is a pretty useless forum for trying to improve the world. So, that silly video you shared on Facebook or that sly remark you made on Twitter doesn’t really do much other than amuse you.

There’s nothing wrong with some amusement. After all, that is the Prime Directive of this blog — to amuse ourselves rather than to change the world.  And being amusing is a lot better than those insufferable political rants or self-righteous internet petitions, which are all talk and no action.

If you want to fight injustice you can’t really do much with a blog, Twitter, or Facebook.  You need to find real injustices, not trumped-up (pardon the pun) minor slights like:

Image result for I am a cat not a costume

And then you need to follow the example of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds and take action that might even put yourself at risk.  Evil will always remain in the world, but we will suffer less from it if we have more people like Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds.


Don’t Know or Don’t Care?

October 28, 2016

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When we examine the results of standardized test scores we typically think we are seeing evidence of what students know.  As it turns out, that is only partially right.  Test scores capture both what students know as well as their willingness to exert effort to show us what they know.

A new paper by my colleagues, Gema Zamarro, Collin Hitt, and Ildefonso Mendez uses multiple, novel techniques to demonstrate that between 32% and 38% of the variation in PISA test performance across countries can be explained by how much effort students are willing to exert rather than what they know.  The implications of this finding for ed reform are huge.  When we see low test score performance we are often misdiagnosing the problem as poor content instruction when it may in fact be insufficient development of student character skills.  If we focus all of our energy on the former without addressing the later, we’ll fail to make as much progress.

So, how do Gema, Collin and Ildefonso know that between 32% and 38% of variation in PISA test performance across countries is explained by effort?  They used three different methods to measure the influence of effort.  First, they took advantage of the fact that the order of questions without the PISA was randomly ordered.  They then compared how well students performed on the first set of items relative to the last.  Because the order of items was randomized the first and last questions were, on average, of equal difficulty.  The decline in getting items correct from the start to the end of the exam is therefore a function of the decline in effort students are willing to exert, not the difficulty of the items.

If you compare performance in the US and Greece (as can be seen in the figure above), students in the two countries do about as well at the beginning of the test.  That means that students in Greece and the US know about the same amount of stuff.  But students in Greece decline much more rapidly across the test, which means that those students are less willing to exert consistent effort.  When we compare PISA results from the US and Greece we wrongly conclude that content instruction in Greece must be much worse.  In reality, Greek students know as much as students in the US but simply exert a lot less effort.

A second way the paper measures effort is by examining responses students gave to a survey that was administered at the same time as the PISA.  Using novel techniques that have been validated in previous research, they measure the extent to which students skip answers (or say “don’t know”) as well as the extent to which students give careless answers as proxies for their effort.  Both skipped answers and careless answers yield very similar results to what they find from the decline across the test.

Some people have expressed skepticism about the focus on “non-cog” or character in education research because they believe that these capture personality traits that are largely inherited and immutable.  This research contradicts that claim.  Unless we think there are big and important genetic differences across countries, the variation in effort across countries has to be explained by factors that are social constructed and, at least in theory, could be changed.  In addition, great work by Gema and Albert Cheng has found that student effort can actually be changed when students are randomly assigned to different teachers who themselves possess different character skills.

The evidence is becoming clear that character matters and is subject to influence by the education system.


Arizona Leads the Nation in 4th Grade Science NAEP gains, Utah in 8th grade

October 27, 2016

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the CeleNAEP continues…Arizona topped the nation by a wide margin in 4th grade science NAEP gains, while Utah came out on top on the statewide gains for 8th grade:

naep-8th-grade-science-gains-by-state