Education in Obama’s State of the Union

February 2, 2011

(Guest Post by Bill Evers)

President Obama said the United States is currently having a Sputnik moment and wants to rally us to support his education programs and spending on that basis. With that in mind, it is worth recalling that the launching of the pioneer Russian space satellite back in the late 1950s had a quite important impact on American school curriculum.

American panic over Sputnik led directly to the unteachable New Math of the 1960s – an approach (set theory, number systems not based on 10) that baffled parents, teachers, and students alike and was wittily satirized in a song by comedian Tom Lehrer.

President Obama’s Sputnik moment has led his administration to push untried national academic-content standards and national tests on American schools.  For example, these standards would impose methods of teaching key components of geometry (similar and congruent triangles) that have never succeeded in any country, state, or local district.

These national standards, which the President promoted in his State of the Union address, have retreated from the decades-long consensus that we should strive to match top-performing countries by teaching Algebra I in eighth grade to as many students as we successfully can.

In contrast, the new national standards endorsed by Obama’s Education Department expect Algebra in ninth-grade and have, for example, thrown a monkey wrench in California’s longstanding effort at eighth-grade Algebra (now reaching 64% of students). California’s eighth-grade math teachers will in future be impossibly burdened with trying to teach two years of subject-matter content in one year — No thanks to President Obama’s Sputnik moment.

In the State of the Union address, President Obama misleadingly described his administration’s heavy stimulus spending on education. He said that his administration didn’t “just pour money” into the existing system that, as he said, is “not working.” But in fact, that is exactly what Congressional Democrats and Obama’s administration did. Close to eighty percent of that stimulus spending has been spent to shore up the status quo and relieve states and districts from having to make changes – under financial pressure – in ways that would improve productivity.

The Obama Education Department has awarded reform grants to states, and these grants deserve credit for encouraging states to remove caps on the number of charter schools and for encouraging school districts that need to improve to look at test scores of low-performing students and at who their teachers have been.  But his reform grants plainly went to some states that didn’t deserve them (Hawaii, Maryland, Ohio) and didn’t go to some states that did (Louisiana and Colorado). The formula for choosing the winning states was weighted in favor of teacher-union “buy-in” and thus was a formula for maintaining the status quo.

Before the State of the Union address, Republican U.S. House Speaker Boehner endeavored to test President Obama’s calls for bipartisanship by asking the President to join in a bipartisan effort to continue the opportunity scholarship program in Washington, D.C, — a program that rigorous studies have shown is improving the schooling of African-American students. But President Obama did not take up this offer.

In sum, the President set forth many of his old, usual rhetorical themes in education, pushed more spending and dubious reforms (national standards and tests), and missed an opportunity to advance reform in new and substantive ways.


Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’ Hoover Institution and member of the institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.  He served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 2007 to 2009 and was a member of the California Academic Standards Commissions in the late 1990s and again in 2010.

Why Random Assignment is Important

July 2, 2009

Bill Evers has an excellent post over on his Ed Policy blog about how unreliable observational studies can be and how important it is to test claims with random-assignment research designs. 

Observational studies (sometimes called epidemiological or quasi-experimental studies) do not randomly assign subjects to treatment or control conditions or use a technique that approximates random-assignment (like regression discontinuity).  Instead they simply compare people who have self-selected or otherwise been assigned to receive a treatment to people who haven’t received that treatment, controlling statistically for observed differences between the two groups.  The problem is that unobserved factors may really be causing any differences between the two groups, not the treatment.  This is especially a problem when these unobserved factors are strongly related to whatever led to some people getting the treatment and others not. 

The solution to this problem is random assignment.  If subjects are assigned by lottery to receive a treatment or not, then the only difference between the two groups, on average, is whether they received the treatment.  The two groups should otherwise be identical because only chance distinguishes them.  Any differences between the two groups over time can be attributed to the treatment with high confidence.

If you don’t believe that research design makes a big difference, consider this table that Bill Evers provides on how much results change in the field of nutrition when random assignment (or clinical) studies are done to check on claims made by observational studies:

If we want to avoid the educational equivalent of quack medicine, we really need more random-assignment studies and we need to give the random-assignment studies we already have significantly greater weight when forming policy conclusions.

As I’ve written before, we have 10 random-assignment studies on the effects of vouchers on students who participate in those programs. Six of those ten studies show significant academic benefits for the average student receiving a vouchers and three studies show significant academic benefits for at least one major sub-group of students.  One study finds no significant effects.  

I believe that there are more random-assignment studies on vouchers than on any other educational policy and there are certainly more studies with positive results.  The depth of positive, rigorous studies on voucher participant effects is worth keeping in mind each time some new observational or (even descriptive) study comes out on school choice, including the most recent report from Florida.  Our opinion shouldn’t be based entirely on the latest study, especially if it lacks the rigorous design of several earlier studies.

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