Peer Review, DC Style

September 16, 2009


Elwood Dowd admires a painting of himself with the DOE peer reviewer

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Eduwonk reports that Arne Duncan and his Race to the Top team are discovering just one of the many fun flaws of “peer review”:

A lot of behind the scenes chatter and concern and I’d say even worry that it’s going to be hard to get “Race to the Top” proposal peer reviewers who know a lot about school reform – and proposals like this are complicated.  There are a lot of conflicts among the usual suspects.  After all, teachers’ unions have to sign on off the applications and can benefit from them so they’re self-interested, most wonks outside of government are helping various states get together ideas and applications, and states themselves are pretty self-interested, obviously.  Add on to that the generally meager rewards of peer reviewing in the first place and this issue has a lot of folks chattering about exactly who can do this work in a high-quality way…

So it sounds like the standard they’ve set for themselves is to find reviewers who know a lot about school reform but have no vested interest in school reform. How many people did they think were going to fall into that category?

Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller (wide)

Anyone? . . . Anyone?

Maybe “peer review” wasn’t really an appropriate rubric for evaluating government grant proposals. Has anyone ever suggested, say, peer review for Pentagon contracts?

But then, if they don’t put some kind of academic-sounding veneer on it, the thoroughly politicized nature of the process will be too embarrassingly transparent.

Of course, when they do “peer review” in academia they have the best of both worlds. The process is just as corrupted by the self-interest of the participants – mostly not in terms of politics but in terms of their desire to promote research that agrees with their own findings and suppress research that might call their own findings into doubt – and yet because the reviewers are professional academics everything is assumed to be done in the interests of scholarship.

The Special Ed DC Bubble

August 23, 2009

One of the (many) problems with education policy analysts is that a large number of them live in or around Washington, D.C. 

D.C. is a remarkably abnormal place.  Because of the giant distortions of the presence and subsidies from the federal government as well as the atypical set of people who live in that area, policy experiences in DC are very often quite different from the experiences in the rest of the country. 

The problem is that people tend to generalize from their immediate experiences.  If something happens to you, you hear about it from people you know, or you read about it in your local paper, you tend to think that’s the way it is for everyone.  So, DC education analysts are always at-risk of drawing policy conclusions based on incredibly atypical experiences.

For a prime example see Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead’s thoughts on special education vouchers:

In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools. For example, Washington, D.C., and New York City currently contend with substantial abuse of special education by affluent parents. In addition, there are reports of parents seeking to have their students diagnosed with learning disabilities in order to gain accommodations on the SAT or for other reasons. [fn 27] 

For another example, listen to Amber Winkler, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess discuss our most recent study on special education vouchers (it starts around minute 11:00).  They generally do a good job of describing the study but they express doubts about our findings because they believe that parents, especially affluent parents, have considerable influence over special education placements.

On what basis do these D.C. education analysts believe that a significant number of parents, especially affluent parents, are gaming the special education diagnostic system to get access to advantageous accommodations or expensive private placements?  The evidence Andy and Sara provide in footnote 27 consists largely of newspaper accounts from Washington, D.C..  Mike and Rick provide no source and we can only assume that they are drawing upon their immediate experiences.

Of course, the antidote to mistaken generalizations from our limited and potentially distorted set of immediate experiences is the reliance on systematic data.  If we step back and look at the broad evidence, we can avoid some of the easy mistakes that result from assuming that everyone’s experience is like ours.  As it turns out, DC is a gigantic outlier.

School officials, not parents, make the determination of whether a student has a particular disability and what accommodations are necessary.  Parents are entitled to challenge the decisions of school officials, but they rarely do and even more rarely win those challenges. 

In the fall of 2007 there were 6,718,203 students receiving special education services between the ages of 3 and 21.  And that year there was a grand total of 14,834 disputes from parents resolved by a hearing or agreement prior to completion of a hearing (see Table 7-3).  That’s about .2% of special education cases that are disputed by parents or 1 in 500.

And as Marcus Winters and I described in our new study, schools prevail in most of these disputes:

According to Mayes and Zirkel’s (2001) review of the literature, “schools prevailed in 63% of the due process hearings in which placement was the predominant issue.” In cases where the matter went beyond an administrative hearing and was actually brought to court, one study cited in Mayes and Zirkel’s review found that “schools prevailed in 54.3% of special education court cases,” which the authors say is in line with the findings of other studies. In suits seeking reimbursement for private school expenses (because a special-education voucher program is unavailable), Mayes and Zirkel found that “school districts won the clear majority (62.5%) of the decisions.

In addition, as Marcus Winters and I documented in a 2007 Education Next article, private placement is amazingly rare.  Using updated national numbers from the federal government, as of fall 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students ages 6 through 21 who were being educated in private schools at parental request and public expense.  That’s only 1.13% of the 6,007,832 disabled students ages 6 through 21 and barely one tenth of one percent of all public school students.  If private placement supports Andy and Sara’s claim of “substantial abuse of special education” we’d have to redefine “substantial” to include minuscule proportions of students.

The systematic evidence clearly shows that school officials dominate special education, parents rarely challenge school officials’ decisions, schools win most of those challenges from parents, and parents very rarely get their children placed in private schools at public expense. 

So, why do Andy, Sara, Rick, and Mike ( as well as all of those DC reporters who Andy and Sara cite) believe that parents, especially affluent parents, control special education decisions?  Well, perhaps it is because in D.C. parents do have much more control than in the rest of the country. 

Remember how there were 14,384 students nationwide who resolved a dispute with their school over special education in a hearing or by agreement prior to the completion of a hearing?  DC contained 2,689 of those 14,384, or about 18% (see Table 7-3).  But DC represents only .15% of total student enrollment nationwide.  That means parents in DC are about 120 times more likely to lodge these challenges than the typical parent nationwide.

And while private placement is very rare, it is somewhat less rare in DC.  Out of 67,729 students privately placed at parental request, 1,864 of them were in DC, or about 2.75% of the total.  Again, given that DC student enrollment represents only .15% of national enrollment, DC students are about 18 times more likely to receive a private placement than students nationwide.

It’s clear that DC is just different — very different.  Making generalizations from DC experiences or newspaper articles is like saying that Seattle is a sunny place if you happen to arrive there on a day when the sun was shining.

D.C. isn’t the only outlier.  New York is also pretty atypical when it comes to special education.  Dispute resolution hearings in New York state are about 7 times more common than in the rest of the country.  And private placements are almost 3 times more common in the state of New York than they are nationwide.

It’s too bad that so many of our media and policy elites live in these two atypical places because they are giving us a very distorted picture of special education.  They need to get outside of their bubbles and rely on systematic data rather than immediate experiences.

Special Ed Vouchers Restrain Growth in Disabilities

August 18, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have a super-awesome study released today by the Manhattan Institute.  It shows that offering disabled students special education vouchers reduces the likelihood that public schools will identify students as disabled.

This isn’t what Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead expected.  They claimed in a 2003 report for the Progress Policy Institute that: “special education vouchers may actually exacerbate the over-identification problem by creating a new incentive for parents to have children diagnosed with a disability in order to obtain a voucher.”

It didn’t. The reason special education vouchers restrained growth in disabilities, rather than exacerbate it, is that the vouchers check public schools’ financial incentives to identify more students as disabled.  Public schools may get additional subsidies when they shift more students into special education, but if they then make students eligible for special education vouchers, they risk having those students walk out the door with all of their funding.  It makes the public schools think twice before over-identifying disabilities for financial reasons.

And outside of the DC bubble, schools control the process of whether students are identified as disabled — not parents.  So, if we can check the positive financial incentives that public schools have for over-identifying disabilities, we can significantly slow growth in special education.

Nearly 1 in 7 students nationwide is now classified as having a disability.  That’s 63% more than three decades ago.  It’s clear that this huge increase in disabilities was not caused by a true increase in the incidence of disabilities in the population.  No plague has afflicted our children over the last three decades to disable two-thirds more of them.

Instead, non-medical factors have been driving special education enrollments higher.  Chief among these is the financial incentives we offer schools in most states to shift more students into special education by providing additional subsidies for each student classified as disabled.

Some states have reformed their special education funding formulas to end these financial rewards for higher special education rolls.  Greg and I reported in a 2002 study that states that continued to pay schools per student identified as disabled had much higher rates of growth in special education than states that had reformed their funding formulas.  Elizabeth Dhuey of the University of Toronto and Stephen Lipscomb of the Public Policy Institute of California have confirmed these findings.

Julie Cullen of UC San Diego has found that “fiscal incentives can explain over 35 percent of the recent growth in student disability rates in Texas.”  And Sally Kwak, a student of David Card at UC Berkeley and now a professor at U of Hawaii, finds a significant slow-down in special education enrollments when California reformed its funding system.

The new study Marcus and I released today builds upon this growing research by showing yet again that public schools strongly consider non-medical factors when deciding whether to classify students as disabled.  I don’t mean to suggest that all school officials are conscious of these incentives or acting with evil intention.  But it is clear that the system in which they operate and their actions are shaped by these financial incentives.

If we discovered that hospitals were filling their beds with healthy people who just felt a little tired in order to obtain additional government subsidies, we would be outraged and demand dramatic reforms.  Public schools are doing the same and it is time we get outraged and demand reforms.

Do You Know What Else Rises to the Top?

June 10, 2009

If Arne Duncan did half of what he talks about, we’d be making huge progress toward education reform.  It would be great if  he actually followed the evidence regardless of ideology, only funded what works, made strides to end the lifetime-guaranteed employment of ineffective teachers, provided financial rewards to the most effective teachers, etc… 

We’d be lucky if Duncan manages to do one-tenth of what he talks about.  But I’m amazed at how many people confuse words with action.  Mike Petrilli is right that we should praise this new rhetoric and Greg has persuasively argued that rhetoric is politically important, but people really get carried away in their praise of a bunch of mostly empty words

Perhaps it is natural for people to suck up to whoever is in power.  Perhaps it is the triumph of hope over experience.  But I have to say that I am deeply skeptical of what Duncan will accomplish.

Let’s take as an example the Race to the Top money.  How does anyone really believe that a one-time expenditure of less than $5 billion is going to have any significant influence on the nature of $550 billion in annual expenditures?  This isn’t the tail wagging the dog.  This is the tail of the flea on the dog wagging the dog. 

What’s more, everyone except the most politically naive understands that there is enormous political pressure on Duncan to distribute the $5 billion roughly equally so that it provides absolutely no incentive to race to the top.  Andy Rotherham has dubbed this the peanut butter meme because people are guessing “how many states the Department of Education will have to include in the ‘Race to the Top’ funds to make the initiative politically palatable without spreading the money like ‘peanut butter’ across the states”

For those who still somehow believe that the Race to the Top money is going to have a big effect (and may also believe in the tooth fairy), I’d like to make a little wager.  I’m willing to bet that every state will receive at least some money from the Race to the Top fund and that the distribution of money will be roughly proportionate. If you think I’m wrong, would you be willing to bet that fewer than 30 states get the money? 

Like with much else that Duncan says, the Race to the Top fund is just a bunch of empty words.  You can’t have 30 and certainly not 50 states at the top.  Unfortunately, cream isn’t the only thing that rises to the top.

Edited to fix the link to Greg’s post; see also Matt’s post and to clarify Andy’s quotation.

Rotherham Seems to Take a Dim View of the Intellectual Honesty and Courage of Democrats

April 6, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at Eduwonk, Andy describes the gains among D.C. Opportunity Scholarships as “modest” and says he doesn’t think this evaluation will change many minds.

Oi vey

On this blog, I’ve previously complained about what I viewed as an inappropriately high bar as the focus on the evaluation in an Intention to Treat model. Some of you disagree, but my view is that the question that most people want to know is whether the kids who used a voucher have improved performance, or not. The second year evaluation found that the answer to this question was yes.

Because some kids won the voucher lottery but then didn’t find a spot in a private school, under the high bar evaluation they went into the experimental group. Other kids who lost a lottery but wound up going to private school anyway went into the control group.

So basically, the kids who actually did receive a voucher and used it had to make gains large enough to drag these other kids as a group over the level of statistical significance.

I’ll be damned if they didn’t do it in the third year of the program. Modest? You can’t possibly be serious.

Andy doesn’t think that evidence is going to sway anyone. Really? Why did the President say:

Secretary Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”

Why did Senator Durbin say “Allowing the program to continue through end of next school year (2009–2010) will give Congress a chance to examine all the evidence to determine whether or not this program works.”

Why did Senator Feinstein say “Why should the poor child not have the same access as the wealthy child does? That is all he is asking for. He is saying let’s try it for 5 years, and then let’s compare progress and let’s see if this model can work for these District youngsters.”

Senator Feinstein went on “I have gotten a lot of flak because I am supporting it. And guess what. I do not care. I have finally reached the stage in my career, I do not care. I am going to do what I sincerely believe is right. I have spent the time. I have gone to the schools, I have seen what works, I have seen what does not work. Believe it or not, I have always been sort of a political figure for the streets as opposed to the policy wonks. I know different things work on the streets that often do not work on the bookshelves. So we will see.”

Indeed we will, and now we have seen. Senator Feinstein should be applauded for her courage. It’s too bad she didn’t get to see this report before Congress voted to require reauthorization.

Perhaps Andy thinks that evidence won’t change minds because of this letter sent by the NEA demanding that Congress kill the DC program. Perhaps Feinstein’s courage really is in short supply.

There are 1,700 kids that just surmounted a very high bar that really hope that this is not the case.

The Charter/Voucher Extended Dance Remix

March 16, 2009

My post last week on why supporters of charter schools don’t also support vouchers generated a large amount of discussion.  Here are some tidbits on the same topic:

First, Doug Tuthill, the former teacher union leader and now head of Florida’s choice advocacy group, Step Up For Students, emailed me to say:

In Florida we have adopted the same approach to charters and vouchers you advocated in your recent exchange with Andy Rotherham.  Given the idealized status of “public education” in our culture, getting into a public versus private school debate is a losing proposition.  Therefore we argue that  publicly-funded private schools are part of our public education system and the real issue is how best to regulate all publicly-funded education.   Our approach is aided by the reality that public education in Florida is expanding to incorporate a variety of publicly-funded private providers.  Many of the state’s best secondary magnet programs are run by private providers (my favorites are two aeronautic magnet programs run by Embry-Riddle University in Okaloosa County), the K-5 portion of our state online school, the Florida Virtual School, is run by a private provider, the overwhelming majority of our charter schools are run by private providers, and of course all the schools providing services through the McKay and Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships are private providers.  To arbitrarily label some of these public-private partnerships as “voucher” programs and therefore suggest they are bad is nonsensical.  The goodness or badness of any publicly-funded education program should be determined by its effectiveness and efficiency, not by how it is labeled.


Andy and President Obama, among others, are caught in the old “public-versus-private-school” paradigm, which is why they support “charters” but not “vouchers.”    But as you pointed out in your exchange with Andy, this is an illogical distinction unless one is stuck in the “public is good, private is bad” mindset and possesses a myopic view of what constitutes public and private. 


And here is an interesting item about how Orthodox Jewish groups have come out against secular charter schools as a substitute for a Jewish education.  The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School in Florida focuses on Hebrew language and Jewish history but has no religious instruction.  And it is drawing students away from Jewish private schools in part because the charter is free to students while the private schools have to charge tuition.  The huge expansion in charter schools may be posing an even greater competitive threat to established private schools than to traditional public schools.


Leaders of the Orthodox movement recognize this threat to their efforts to focus on religious instruction.  A spokesman for the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, commented: “We are not pro-charter schools. They are not replacements for a yeshiva education, and anyone who can imagine they could be are fooling themselves… There is no end around the fact that Jewish education is a Jewish education and that can only happen in a Jewish institution with a Jewish curriculum. And because our nation does not permit religious instruction in public schools, there is no way to avoid the need that Jewish parents have for yeshivas.” 

Andy’s Just Plain Wrong

March 5, 2009

Andy Rotherham is a great guy.  And he’s often right.  But I’m afraid that on vouchers he’s just plain wrong.

Andy responded to my post, which was a response to an earlier post he wrote on vouchers.  Let me just run through his arguments:

First, Andy wants to argue that vouchers have stalled politically.  I pointed out that there are now 24 voucher or tax-credit programs in 15 states serving more than 100,000 students.  And two new programs were adopted last year and a third significantly expanded. 

No fair, Andy cries, including tax-credit programs “creates a false sense of scale for intentional choice plans.”  What’s false about counting tax credit programs, like the one in Florida which functions as the largest voucher program in the country?  The program gives vouchers — excuse me — “scholarships” to students from organizations that are funded with dollar for dollar tax credit donations from corporations.  This is virtually identical in financing and effect as the state simply giving vouchers to students.  The only difference is that the tax credit is treated better by the courts (don’t ask why) because the money never enters the state treasury before going right back out the door as a voucher.

But let’s say we grant Andy his odd position that tax-credit programs don’t count.  We still have 13 voucher programs in 10 states serving about 50,000 students.  And the two new programs adopted last year were both voucher programs.  Wish as he might, Andy still can’t show that vouchers have stalled politically.

Second, Andy rightly says, “Reasonable people can review the cumulative literature about choice plans and disagree on how substantively significant or transformative these effects are (or could be at scale) and what that means for vouchers as a policy. ”  While reasonable folks could disagree about the magnitude of the effect of expanded school choice on public school performance, no reasonable person could disagree with the observation that the research literature supports at least some positive impact.  Given how hard it is to find any policy intervention that raises student achievement, consistently finding a positive impact from the systemic effect of vouchers should be treated as a big deal.  It isn’t to Andy. 

Third, Andy concedes that the more frightening prospect of vouchers helped spread charters, at least in the early stages of the charter movement.  But now that charters have reached critical mass, they may well do just fine without the viable threat of new and expanded voucher programs.  Folks who are really sincere about charters shouldn’t get so comfortable.  Just look at the unionization of the KIPP charter in NY or the constant effort to regulate charters to death in many states.  Dropping vouchers from your arsenal would be like confronting a resurgent Russia after dismantling all of your nuclear weapons.  You may think your conventional forces are up to the task, but ask the Poles how they would feel about it.

I’ve never understood why people would support charters but oppose vouchers.  The theory that expanded choice is good for the participating student and helps spur improvement in traditional public schools is required for both reforms.  Yes, charters are more easily subject to regulation than private schools receiving vouchers, but healthy charter programs require light regulation and states have not been shy about applying similar light regulation to voucher programs. 

The only reason I can imagine that folks would support charters but oppose vouchers is for political gain since the theory and evidence for both are essentially the same.  And I understand why politicians invent these false distinctions to prove their moderation and good sense by opposing the one they artificially dub as radical.  But we aren’t politicians.  We don’t have to lie or invent false distinctions to please constituencies.  Universities, think tanks, and the blogosphere should be refuges for reasoned inquiry and dispute, not rhetoric for political advantage.  As it says on the great seal — Veritas.

UPDATE — Andy’s a nice guy.  I tried to make my post as hyperbolic as possible and he responds kindly and reasonably.  Damn, he’s good.

UPDATE TO UPDATE — Just to be clear, I still think Andy is just plain wrong.  The fig leaf that Andy uses to be pro-charter while anti-voucher is the concern that vouchers sever “the connection between avenues of democratic input into schooling decisions and those decisions.   In other words, for some people the issue isn’t choice, rather it’s accountability in a broad sense.”  The reality is that there is as much opportunity for democrat input in the  design and operation of voucher programs as charter schools or traditional public schools for that matter.  The public can place whatever regulations it deems necessary on voucher schools as a condition of receiving those funds, just as it does with charter and traditional public schools.  Of course, all of these systems would operate best with minimal regulation.  If regulation were the answer to school effectiveness our public schools would already be fantastic.

Randi Weingarten Can’t Get No Respect

January 5, 2009

In what the AFT web site described as “her first major speech since being elected AFT president in July,” Randi Weingarten “decried the widespread scapegoating of teachers and teachers unions for public education’s shortcomings.”  Her comments have generated numerous reactions, including from NYT columnist Bob Herbert, Andy Rotherham, Joanne Jacobs, and our own Greg Forster.  They all raised interesting points, but none addressed one of the most curious aspects of Weingarten’s speech:  Why do teachers, perhaps more than other professionals, seek praise for their work (or are particularly sensitive to blame)? 

I don’t think other occupations have produced bumper-stickers that are the equivalent of “If you can read this thank a teacher.”  I can’t imagine plumbers distributing bumper-stickers that said: “If you flushed your toilet thank a plumber.”  Nor can I imagine: “If you still have your teeth thank a dentist.” 

Teachers particularly demand respect — and of course they deserve respect.  But why do they give speeches, print bumper-stickers, write letters, hold rallies, etc… decrying their social status when I am hard pressed to think of other occupations that do the same?

Of course, one important factor is that almost all teachers are public employees.  The demand for respect can be understood as part of the demand for resources.  My plumber doesn’t have to demand my respect to get my resources.  He just has to do a good job to get me to continue paying him for his services. 

But the resources devoted to education are largely unrelated to how well teachers serve their students.  Political popularity largely determines the level of resources available for teachers, so not surprisingly, teachers actively lobby the public to enhance their image.

The problem is that it is hard to sustain political popularity and community respect as results continue to disappoint despite huge increases in resources.  Teachers interpret this disappointment as a lack of respect, when it is really just frustration at being forced to pay for services that are chronically inadequate.  If people could hire teachers like they hire plumbers or dentists, teachers wouldn’t need to demand respect to get resources.  They would earn respect and resources by serving their voluntary customers well.

AFT and UAW – More Alike Than You’d Think

December 30, 2008

aft uaw1

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Lots of people are picking up on the temper tantrum about alleged “demonizing of teachers” begun by a Randi Weingarten speech and continued in Bob Herbert’s column on the speech.

Even that notorious right-winger Eduwonk points out that Weingarten and Herbert are hitting a straw man. I think the real problem is not that school reformers demonize teachers but that defenders of the government school monopoly angelize them. When we reformers insist that teachers should be treated as, you know, human beings, who respond to incentives and all that, rather than as some sort of perfect angelic beings who would never ever allow things like absolute job protection to affect their performance, it drives people like Weingarten and Herbert nuts.


A typical teacher, as seen by Randi Weingarten

But what I’d like to pick up on is the question of whether the troubles of the government school system are comparable to the troubles of the auto industry.

Of the alleged demonizing of teachers, Herbert had written:

It reminded me of the way autoworkers have been vilified and blamed by so many for the problems plaguing the Big Three automakers.

Eduwonk points out Herbert’s hypocrisy (though he delicately avoids using that word) on this point, because elsewhere in the column, Herbert praises Weingarten for expressing a willingness to make concessions on issues like tenure and pay scales. Union recalcitrance on these types of reform, Eduwonk points out, is precisely why the auto industry is in so much trouble, and Weingarten has been driven to make noises in favor of reform because a similar dynamic has been at work in the government school system.

On the other hand, Joanne Jacobs thinks the comparison between the AFT and the UAW is inapt:

 I don’t think skilled teachers and unskilled auto workers have much in common.  Auto unions pushed up costs, especially for retirees, making U.S. cars uncompetitive.  In education, the problem isn’t excessive pay, it’s the fact that salaries aren’t linked to teacher effectiveness, the difficulty of their jobs or the market demand for their skills.

But teachers’ unions have pushed up costs – dramatically. In the past 40 years, the cost of the government school system per student has much more than doubled (even after inflation) while outcomes are flat across the board. And this has mainly been caused by a dramatic increase in the number of teachers hired per student – a policy that benefits only the unions.

It’s true that high salaries aren’t the main issue in schools, although teacher salaries are in fact surprisingly high. The disconnect between teacher pay and teacher performance is much more important. But the UAW has the same problem! Their pay scales don’t reward performance, either.

The source of Jacobs’ confusion is her mistaken view that auto workers are “unskilled.” Farm workers are unskilled, but not auto workers. The distinction she’s reaching for is the one between white-collar or “professional” work and blue-collar work. But some blue-collar work is skilled and some is unskilled, and auto workers are in the former category. This matters because with skilled blue-collar workers, as with white-collar workers, there’s a dramatic increase in the importance of incentives as compared with unskilled labor.

In fact, a lot of smart people have been arguing (scroll down to the Dec. 26 post) that exorbitant salaries and benefits aren’t nearly as much of a problem in the auto industry as union work rules – including poor performance due to absolute job protection, pay scales that don’t reward performance, and rigid job descriptions that make process modernization impossible.

Sound familiar?


The Federal Role In Education

October 21, 2008

Mike Petrilli has an excellent piece on Flypaper about lessons for the next administration on the limits of federal involvement in education policy.  He’s reacting to a report by Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham laying out an agenda for the federal government, which presumably they will be helping administer for an Obama administration.

Having learned these lessons the hard way, Mike warns that Sara and Andy are falling into old traps despite the best of intentions.  Mike argues that giving money to favored organizations, such as KIPP charters and Teach For America to “Grow What Works” will suffer from the same flaws as the Bush administration’s efforts to give money to favored organizations, such as Reading First.  Even if the favored groups are doing great work, giving money to them will be portrayed by opponents and the media as cronyism and pork. 

In addition, Mike notes that expanding Teach For America and KIPP requires cooperation from state and local agencies to lift caps on charters, equalize funding for charters and traditional public schools, and relax certification requirements.  The problem is that state and local agencies have perfected the art of subverting federal mandates.  At best unwilling state and local agencies will minimally comply with federal requirements while eviscerating their spirit.  At worst they will defy the requirements and dare the federal government to withhold funds.  The feds generally lack the political nerve to risk the political fallout from actually applying a sanction to a local or state education agency.

Let me expand Mike’s observations to draw lessons for the future of No Child Left Behind.  Like Mike, I once believed that the federal government could use the carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) in NCLB to motivate local and state education agencies to improve.  Since I was convinced by evidence that incentive systems worked, why shouldn’t the federal government do what works? 

My mistake and the mistake of NCLB was in not considering how much implementation of those incentive systems matters.  The federal education bureaucracy lacks the familiarity with local circumstances, the nimbleness to respond to changing circumstances, and the political will to apply sanctions to properly implement an incentive system.  Incentive systems are good for education reform but the federal government is too big, slow, far-away, stupid, and cowardly to do it right. 

The same is likely to be the case when the federal government tries to expand Teacher For America and KIPP under an Obama administration.  As Andy and Sara will soon discover and as Mike has warned them, the federal government will be obstructed by unwilling local and state actors.  And the mandates the Feds issue to overcome that resistance will trample upon or fail to anticipate local circumstances.

So what can the federal government do right?  First, they can continue to improve the availability of information about the school system.  NCLB deepened and entrenched the testing requirements that 37 states had already adopted before NCLB was adopted.  Improving transparency facilitates better policy evaluation and the development of effective state and local accountability systems.

Second, the federal government can facilitate “redistributive” efforts that localities cannot pursue without being punished by collective action issues.  For example, no locality can operate a substantial special education or English language learner program without attracting more students needing services, which then drives up the costs of the programs and drives away the local tax base that pays for those programs.  (See Paul Peterson’s The Price of Federalism for a great discussion of this).  To the extent that we want redistribution, we need the federal government to mandate it.  And I fully confess that I depart from my Cato colleagues in that I think we need some (but very limited) redistribution.

Third, the federal government can fund pilot programs to experiment with new ideas and approaches.  But I should emphasize that I think the federal government has no business evaluating or paying for evaluations of those efforts.  The evaluation process in the US Department of Education and the small number of contract-research firms is far too politicized to be reliable.  Instead, the federal government should play its role of improving transparency by making data on the pilot programs it sponsors available to any qualified researcher rather than to a favored research firm.  The Feds should heavily be in the data collection and distribution business, much as the Department of Commerce makes economic data available, but they should leave analyses of those data to the market of ideas.

The failures of the Bush administration have been a humbling experience.  But we are doomed to repeat their mistakes if we do not learn from them and limit the federal role in education to what the Feds can actually do well.

(edited for typos)

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