American Families Rebel Against K-12 Standardization with their Pocketbooks

September 27, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Research from Sabrino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg tracks enrichment spending by family decile income. The above chart tracks trends in enrichment spending by the top and bottom deciles of income over time. As you can see, upper income families are enriching with increasing gusto, while lower-income families have flat enrichment expenditures.

Enrichment- coming in various forms such as tutors, club sports, Kumon, Mathnasium etc. has become increasingly ubiquitous among the posh. It seems entirely normal, but we should recognize the significance of this trend. In addition to the equity issue staring back at you in this chart, there is also something else worth noting in the data: upper-income America continues to put their children into public schools in high numbers but they are solely relying upon those schools less and less. It’s always been the case that all American families should know better than to entirely rely upon any school to provide the totality of the education of their child. Upper income families have the ability and increasing willingness to act. Jay refers to this trend as hybrid homeschooling. I think of it as a better American version of Japanese cram schools.

In places like Japan and South Korea university admission is highly selective and competitive, and families routinely send their children to what are called “cram schools” after their regular school to prepare for admission exams. Andrew Coulson made a convincing case in Market Education that these private after school programs were more responsible for Japan and Korea’s high PISA scores than their public school systems.

To which America says “I see your obsessive preoccupation with standardized test prep mania and raise you a hackerspace for kids!”

 

If that’s not your child’s cup of tea don’t worry because there are many other options. On the academic side you can get Advanced Placement coursework and textbooks for free, and take the AP exams for a shot at college credit for approximately $85 per course. That however is just academic stuff, albeit academic stuff that can earn you college credit at an amazingly low price- how about something fun like animation camp? Or museum programs? If you go to Cottageclass.com you can find all kinds of stuff- from art, music, wood shop to ethics classes.

The trend towards enrichment may in fact be in part fueled by the overreaching of standardization in public education. Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman for instance noted in Education by Choice:

To the extent that schools of choice must conform to state imposed curriculum requirements, the principle of family control is compromised. Each centrally imposed curriculum prescription or prohibition tends to shrink the proportion of families that can be satisfied. If the state demands too much the effect will go beyond simply adding or eliminating certain courses; entire schools will be excluded. For example some preexisting private institutions would refuse to participate if sex education were required, others would refuse if it were forbidden. It seems sensible for us for the state to impose very few restrictions or mandates. In general schools should be free to please themselves and their customers.

Coons and Sugarman go on to say that in a choice system we should allow individual public school campuses to decide upon their curriculum as well. Such freedom is far more plausible in a liberal system of choice, and in the absence of that freedom local control was largely abandoned in a largely futile effort to improve outcomes through centralization. In many ways Coons and Sugarman arrived a place similar to John Stuart Mill, who had warned presciently:

All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. 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 predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

American families have deep misgivings about the conduct of public schooling, especially the modern practice of standardized testing. We should aspire to a schooling system that is a good deal more than providing test-prep custodial care for the advantaged before they move on to more genuine educational experiences after school. Likewise, the equity issue in the above chart deserves to be addressed but realistically must be addressed within a context of increasingly constrained resources. The trend towards top-down standardization in K-12 has predominated in recent decades and produced too little at too great a cost despite good intentions. It’s time for a more liberal approach that gives opportunities to educators to create schools and educational experiences, and families the opportunity to select among them. The last 40 years has gone mostly wrong, some bold states should see if Mills, Coons and Sugarman had it right.

 

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The Way of the Future: Self-Reliance (with equity?)

August 1, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In a previous post I basically made the case that a majority of American states failed to show much academic progress between 2003 and 2017 and that the nation’s fiscal problems are closing in fast. While state constitutions guarantee K-12 funding, making it about as close to a permanent institution as you get in American life, the looming crunch in state budgets between K-12 and Medicaid/Pension shortfalls does not look to be pretty. For instance, consider these projections from the Texas Comptroller’s Office:

I won’t bother to dig up the likely increased size of the Texas K-12 population that they will be attempting to educate with a smaller percentage of the budget, but you get the point: austerity is a safe assumption, and there aren’t any other states that would sit as the world’s third largest oil producer if ranked as an independent country. Things may be generally bigger in Texas, but the problems may be even bigger elsewhere, making austerity a safe bet. Austerity isn’t necessarily bad for student outcomes but the same can’t be said for politics:

Nevertheless, state funding austerity seems very likely. So where does this leave the future? Jay used the phrase “hybrid homeschooling” years ago to describe practices by upper-income families to supplement the educate of their children. These parents enroll their children in schools, but then pay out of pocket for a variety of tutors, Mathnasium, Kumon, club sports and various other educational/cultural enrichment activities. The United States certainly does not have the after-school-school culture of East Asia, but the well to do have been using a multi-provider approach to education for a long time, and in fact it is ubiquitous to the point of seeming unremarkable.

Then let’s revisit the 2015 article from Wired documenting the rise of home-schooling in Silicon Valley Money quote:

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Check out Cottageclass.com. Cottage class will help you find anything from a summer camp to a nanny-share to a private tutor or a micro-school. It’s well worth some of your time to click on various options. I’ve heard it described as Airbnb for education, and it is fascinating. Crucially, it includes user reviews to help parents navigate what is a growing universe of options. If all of this sounds reminiscent of ESAs, it is only because it is. For instance, Adam Peshek wrote in a Fordham Wonkathon:

An ESA doesn’t require committee hearings to decide where funds should be sent. It doesn’t require a school board meeting to vote on whether or not to cut the music program. Feel like your child isn’t exposed to enough music education? Pay for it. Little Stevie is falling behind in math? Get a tutor. If you’re in high school, use an ESA to pay for Advanced Placement courses to get a leg up in college, or use it to earn an industry certification so that you can graduate high school with an employable skill. An education savings account allows personalized learning to move from catch-word to reality.

That’s why we cannot implement these programs with the mindset of standardization. The ESA program needs to be seen as an innovative way to bring new options to K–12 parents—one designed to allow parents to maximize each child’s unique learning abilities by offering the educational path that suits them best.

Increasing numbers of families seem to be taking the a la carte approach, and like the Silicon Valley feature, they are doing it with their own money.

North Carolina for instance is an interesting place to keep an eye on. North Carolina has adopted both large charter and private choice programs, but thus far they can’t keep up. North Carolina keeps statistics on homeschooling, and it is interesting that other choice options can’t keep up with it. In 2007 there were 71,566 home-schooling students. In 2017-18, the figure was 135,749. This increase came despite the state taking a cap off of charter schools in 2010, and a doubling of charter enrollment. North Carolina lawmakers also created a statewide voucher program and (very recently) an ESA program for special needs students in the intervening years, but homeschooling is more prevalent than either charter or private school attendance in the state. Charters and private choice programs are growing, but they alone are not scratching the itch. District enrollment meanwhile has been flat for years despite rapid population growth.

The most interesting space these days lies within the space between a home-school co-op and a micro-school private school. The rumblings about the demand for micro-schools grow increasingly audible. Justin Cohen quoted Andy Calkins of the Next Generation Learning Challenges:

“It wouldn’t surprise me if, 5 to 10 years from now, everyone looks at this and thinks, ‘That grew a whole lot faster than I thought it could,’” he said. “There is a slice of the market that is not being served by public education. They’re saying, ‘The public schools don’t work, [and] I can’t get into the charter schools.’”

Predictions are tough, especially when they are about the future. The last decade and a half has broadly disappointed in improving public school outcomes, and the next decade and a half looks tougher rather than easier. A broad trend towards self-reliance and multiple service providers rather than one stop shopping in K-12 is already underway. Parents are not waiting on policy innovation, but policy innovation will be necessary to address equity concerns. Micro-schools often cost less than traditional private schools, and offer more options, but they do cost money.

States like North Carolina, with a statewide voucher program for low-income students and two different private choice programs to help students with disabilities, are ahead of the curve on the equity front. Florida likewise has a tax-credit program for low-income children and two programs for children with disabilities. States with these policy mixes create the possibility of economically integrated private schools options. States without them, not so much.

Let’s see what happens next.