April 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Quick response from Andrew Coulson. I suspected that the Cato Institute might, like Cato the Manservant, prove unwilling to call off their attack. I can hear Peter Sellers’ French accent in my head “Cateaux!!?!? Cateaux?!!??! I know zat I ordeured you alvays to attack, but I rescind zee ordeur! CATEAUX?!?!?”

Andrew has primarily refered back to his litany of why he likes tax credits better than vouchers. I have already conceded that tax credits enjoy some benefits over vouchers in the last post, so I don’t see this as on point. The question isn’t “tax credits good vouchers bad?” but rather whether tax credits are up to every school choice task we might assign to them. My request to examine the case of children in large families, children in poor families and/or children with disabilities in large poor families has gone unanswered as of yet.

Andrew offers the fact that the Step Up for Students tax credit serves a greater number of students than the McKay Program in Florida as evidence that tax credits could be up to the job of providing education for children with disabilities. Children with disabilities however require more costly services than general education students. The most recent figures show that Step Up for Students raised $106m while McKay spent $138m. Spend the entire tax credit amount on children with disabilities, and about a quarter fewer of them would be served and 29,000 low-income kids currently served by the SUFS program would be SOL.

When one considers the still small fraction of Florida special needs children served by the richer and easier to scale McKay Program, I hold it as self-evident that even the mighty Step Up for Students program, the nation’s largest of its kind, would fall completely short of the task assigned to McKay. I am happy that both programs exist, and I have never heard a peep of complaint from private schools in Florida about burdensome regulation associated with the McKay program.

I also think that Andrew should broaden his view of the word “savings.” An advantage of the ESA approach lies in exposing the opportunity cost involved in possible private school cost inflation: an allowable use of the ESA funds in Arizona include putting money in a College Savings 529 account. Higher education provides a cautionary tale of mixing subsidies and education: hyperinflation. The evidence of this from K-12 choice programs is limited, but no one has really studied the matter, and the potential obviously exists.

Coulson in the WSJ

April 2, 2010

Cato’s Andrew Coulson has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal today eulogizing Jaime Escalante.  Andrew correctly identifies the lesson from Escalante’s experience.  The dysfunction of our educational system is caused by perverse incentives, not ignorance of effective techniques or the complete absence of effective people.

Here’s the meat of the argument:

In any other field, his methods would have been widely copied. Instead, Escalante’s success was resented. And while the teachers union contract limited class sizes to 35, Escalante could not bring himself to turn students away, packing 50 or more into a room and still helping them to excel. This weakened the union’s bargaining position, so it complained.

By 1990, Escalante was stripped of his chairmanship of the math department he’d painstakingly built up over a decade. Exasperated, he left in 1991, eventually returning to his native Bolivia. Garfield’s math program went into a decline from which it has never recovered. The best tribute America can offer Jaime Escalante is to understand why our education system destroyed rather than amplified his success—and then fix it.

A succinct diagnosis of the problem was offered by President Clinton in 1993 at the launch of philanthropist Walter Annenberg’s $500 million education reform challenge. “People in this room who have devoted their lives to education,” he said, “are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.” Our greatest challenge is to create “a system to somehow take what is working and make it work everywhere.”

The most naïve approach has been to create a critical mass of exemplary “model” schools, imagining that the system would spontaneously reconstitute itself around their example. This was the implicit assumption underlying the Annenberg Challenge and, with donor matching, more than $1 billion was spent on it. As a mechanism for widely disseminating excellence, it failed utterly.

President Obama wants a government program for identifying and disseminating what works. In his blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act released in March, he proposed the creation of “‘communities of practice’ to share best practices and replicate successful strategies.”

He’s not the first to advocate this approach. The secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education pursued the same idea—in 1837. Horace Mann, father of American public schooling, thought that a centrally planned state education apparatus would reliably identify and bring to scale the best methods and materials in use throughout the system. Despite a century-and-a-half of expansion and centralization, this approach, too, has failed. Without systematic incentives rewarding officials for wise decisions and penalizing them for bad ones, public schooling became a ferris wheel of faddism rather than a propagator of excellence.

Keeping Them Honest, Part LXXXVII

March 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Andrew Coulson’s got the skinny on a shocking story of education officials in the UK arbitrarily revising students’ test scores to shape the political narrative they would create.

It’s the latest in a long line of cautionary tales about the kind of thing that happens when anyone other than parents is ultimately in charge of the system. Fans of Common Core, take note.

I am shocked – shocked! – to discover that political manipulation of education is going on in here!

Your federal grant for participating in Common Core Standards, monsieur.

Coulson on Brookings Report

February 14, 2010

Over on the Cato blog, Andrew Coulson has a thoughtful post on the recent Brookings report on school choice which I  helped craft.  For the most part I agree with what Andrew has to say.  I agree that there is considerable international and historical evidence that could have been included in the Brookings report but was not.  I also agree that certain compromises on school choice can be counter-productive, particularly over the long run.

The disagreement I have with Andrew is that he is treating the Brookings report as if it were a piece of scholarship rather than the political document that it really is.  I do not say this to disparage the report, which I helped craft and endorse.  We self-consciously viewed our task in writing the report as trying to present policy options on school choice that would be viable in the current political climate and potentially attractive to the Obama administration.

Once you understand that, it is easier to understand why we would leave out most international evidence — it is generally considered irrelevant or unpersuasive by most current policy elites.  They may well be mistaken in dismissing this set of evidence, as Andrew argues, but that is their view so we didn’t waste their time or ours by reviewing that evidence.

It is also easier to understand why we didn’t advocate unregulated education markets.  That simply isn’t going to happen in the current political climate, so we didn’t bother with it.  Instead we advocated for a variety of compromises on expanding choice and competition within a regulated framework.

Of course, then we are left vulnerable to Andrew’s point that these compromises may be counterproductive, particularly in the long run.  My only response to that is that incrementalism is our only feasible strategy for getting the kind of choice and competition we really need.  While we must always be vigilent about the dangers of certain compromises, I think we have no choice but to try to build on incremental reforms.

Coulson Schools LA Times on Charters

December 2, 2009

Andrew Coulson teaches the LA Times a thing or two about charter schools in his post on the Cato blog.  Here’s the meat of it:

Yesterday’s LA Times editorial on charter schools combined errors of fact and omission with a misrepresentation of the economic research on public school spending. First, the Times claims that KIPP charter public schools spend “significantly more per student than the public school system.” Not so, says the KIPP website. But why rely on KIPP’s testimony, when we can look at the raw data? LA’s KIPP Academy of Opportunity, for instance, spent just over $3 million in 2007-08, for 345 students, for a total per pupil expenditure of $8,917. The most recent Dept. of Ed. data for LAUSD (2006-07) put that district’s comparable figure at $13,481 (which, as Cato’s Adam Schaeffer will show in a forthcoming paper, is far below what it currently spends). Nationwide, the median school district spends 24 percent more than the median charter school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Next, in summarizing the charter research, the Times’ editors omitted the most recent and sophisticated study, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. It finds a significant academic advantage to charters using a randomized assignment experimental model that blows the methodological doors off most of the earlier charter research. The Times also neglects to mention Hoxby’s damning critique of the CREDO study it does cite….

There are certainly reasons to lament the performance of the charter sector, and the Times’ editors even came close to citing one of them: its inability to scale up excellence as rapidly and routinely as is the case in virtually every field outside of education. Before getting into such policy issues, however, the Times should make a greater effort to marshal the basic facts.

Great Minds Think Alike

December 10, 2008

I’m not the only one to compare the auto bailout to K-12 educationAndrew Coulson has a great piece with that theme over at Cato.

Also, I’m not the only one to see Rorschach (or is it Horshack) inkblots in the TIMSS results spin-festRob Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge also references Horshack — er, I mean, Rorschach.  And in the forthcoming Gadfly a little birdie named Mike Petrilli told me that he also has a Rorschack/Horshack piece forthcoming.

If this continues I’m going to have to re-position my lead helmet that keeps others from reading my thoughts with their Alpha rays.

Would You Pay $43,479 for a 1971 Impala?

July 19, 2008

Andrew Coulson at Cato does a great job of illustrating how disastrous it is to have had stagnant achievement outcomes for 17 year-old public school students since 1970, while per pupil spending has increased by a factor of 2.3 (adjusted for inflation).  He likens it to paying $43,479 for a 1971 Chevy Impala, which is 2.3 times the $19,011 inflation-adjusted price back then ($3,460 before adjusting for inflation).  Meanwhile, a brand new 2008 Impala sells for $21,975 and comes with features like On-Star, side air bags, and anti-lock brakes that weren’t even imagined in 1971. 

In the automotive industry cars keep getting better with little increase in cost (after inflation), while education has not improved significantly and costs us 2.3 times as much (after inflation).  It isn’t every day that people wish that an industry would be as efficient as car-makers.