Parent Power Gives Teachers Freedom to Teach

September 20, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s latest Perspective carries my article reviewing evidence suggesting that, where parents are in charge of education, teachers are free to teach. The data come from a study of federal teacher surveys that I did with Christian D’Andrea in 2009, but they are of fresh interest in light of the recent crisis over accountability in education reform.

Government power over schooling harms teachers in many ways. It takes away their control over what and how they teach:

On accountability, we found private school teachers were much more likely to say they have a great deal of influence on performance standards for students (40 percent versus 18 percent), curriculum (47 percent versus 22 percent), and discipline policy (25 percent versus 13 percent). They were also more likely to have a great deal of control over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (53 percent versus 32 percent) and content, topics, and skills to be taught (60 percent versus 36 percent).

It also saddles teachers with a legal and regulatory environment that prevents them from keeping order:

Shockingly, we found public school teachers were four times more likely than private school teachers to say student violence was a problem on at least a monthly basis (48 percent versus 12 percent). That means about half of public school teachers are being asked to work in an environment where violence is a regular problem. Nearly one in five public school teachers had been physically threatened by a student, compared to only one in 20 private school teachers (18 percent versus 5 percent). Nearly one in 10 public school teachers had been physically attacked by a student, three times the rate in private schools (9 percent versus 3 percent).

Where student violence is a problem on some days, student disorder is a problem every day. Sure enough, we found public school teachers were much more likely to report that student misbehavior (37 percent versus 21 percent) or tardiness and class cutting (33 percent versus 17 percent) disrupt their classes. One in eight public school teachers reported that physical conflicts among students occurred every day; only one in 50 private school teachers said the same (12 percent versus 2 percent). How are teachers supposed to teach?

The institutional environment is undermined by government control in other ways, too, undercutting teachers’ relationships with peers and school leaders:

Where parents are in charge, the school is free to be itself, and that cultivates a strong spirit. Private school teachers were much more likely to strongly agree that there is a great deal of cooperation between staff members (60 percent versus 41 percent), that their colleagues shared their values and understanding of the core mission of the school (63 percent versus 38 percent), and that their fellow teachers consistently enforced school rules (42 percent versus 29 percent).

These intangible factors affect how schools manage their more material affairs. Private schools almost always have smaller budgets than public schools. Yet somehow private school teachers were more likely to strongly agree they had all the textbooks and supplies they needed (67 percent versus 41 percent). They were also more likely to strongly agree they got all the support they needed to teach special needs students (72 percent versus 64 percent). And although their class sizes were only moderately smaller, private school teachers were much more likely to strongly agree that they were satisfied with their class sizes (61 percent versus 34 percent).

Sure enough, teachers who are accountable to parents are a lot happier than teachers who are accountable to government. Check it out and let me know what you think!


The For-Profit Boogieman

November 4, 2015

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Check it out, he’s even GREEN! What more proof do you need?

(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my column on the blob’s hypocritical allergy to profit in education:

A typical post from the blog of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) provides a window into this mindset. Posted near Christmas, it darkly warns that instead of Santa, a “sinister sleigh” was approaching Oklahoma, “being pulled by those whose intent is to devalue public education and then turn education into for-profit businesses…Alas, their motives are far from good. The bottom line for them is profit. Profit made at the expense of our children’s education.”

The great irony is that this educational blob is itself dependent upon profit in numerous ways. It’s a story as old as history: “It’s different when we do it.” In fact, the problem is not the existence of profit, but how the profit is made and who – government or parents – has the authority to decide when it’s being made at the expense of education.

I go over the various ways in which the teacher and staff unions are dependent on profit, culminating with this:

My favorite example comes from education labor reporter Mike Antonucci. He pointed out that teacher-union conventions – where rhetoric about the evils of profit is always abundant – are in fact a big business. Any large gathering of people is an advertising opportunity, and the unions have never been in the least shy about monetizing that opportunity. Try to reserve an exhibit booth at the next big union convention by paying only what it costs to provide the booth; if they turn you down, ask them how they justify such profiteering!

As always, your comments are welcome!


Choose Families, Choose Choice

September 30, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new OCPA Perspective carries my argument that the government monopoly on schools undermines the institution of the family, and school choice would strengthen the family:

Are schools an extension of the family, helping parents raise their children the way the parents want them raised? Or are schools an autonomous branch of the technocratic state, answering not to parents but to professional experts who know how children ought to be raised better than parents do?

The creation of the government school monopoly was one part of a general inversion of the social order going on in the 19th century:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family had been understood as the primary unit of society; larger political and economic structures existed to mediate relations between households, not between individuals as such. Relations between individuals within a household—such as the work of childrearing—were the family’s business, except in extreme cases. All that was now gone. The family was no longer primary; the technocratic state was primary.

The failure of the school monopoly has reoped the question of whom schools work for:

School choice and federal centralization of power are both responses to this failure. Some are seeking to reverse course, hoping that the moribund school system can be revitalized by putting parents back in charge. Others are seeking a stronger technocracy that will be more capable of achieving its goals.

I close with the reflection that social conservatives could bring something important to the school choice coalition not currently provided by the two factions that now dominate it, progressives and libertarians. As always, your comments are most welcome!


The New School Choice

March 31, 2015

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(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

The new issue of OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on how more recent school choice programs are moving us slowly but surely closer to universal school choice:

The huge wave of new school choice programs enacted in 2011-13 went far beyond earlier programs in expanding student eligibility pools, providing larger vouchers, and reducing unnecessary regulations on participating schools. Education savings accounts, probably the best program design yet devised, have been enacted in Arizona and Florida; as I write, new programs have just been approved by legislative chambers in Virginia and Mississippi. These programs, while still limited in eligibility, give parents much more control over education dollars than traditional school choice.

I argue there are both educational and civic reasons to embrace universal choice:

Two of the great pillars of our country are equal rights and freedom for diverse beliefs. Neither of these pillars is consistent with a government school monopoly, nor with the educational oligopoly of limited school choice.

A monopoly or oligopoly exists by stamping out the rights of challengers in order to protect the privileges of the powerful. When educational entrepreneurs are denied the right to start new schools on equal terms with dominant providers, all of us lose. A society where the education of children is controlled by the few is a society that doesn’t respect equal rights.

And the education of our children is at the very heart of how we all live out our most central beliefs about life and the universe. Our country can never fully live up to its commitment to freedom for diversity until we undo the monopolization of education. Part of the reason we created the government school monopoly in the 19th century was bigotry and a childish fear of religious diversity. It’s long past time we, as a nation, grew up. Let’s leave those fears behind us, in the nursery of our national history.


Choice for Foster Kids

January 13, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new issue of OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on school choice for the 12,000 foster children in Oklahoma. The state is now adopting massive fixes to address its broken, abusive foster care system:

If Oklahoma is going to adopt sweeping reforms to serve these children better, it shouldn’t just think about homes. It should think about schools. Having failed to care for these 12,000 children when they needed it most, Oklahoma owes them something.

The state wouldn’t have to create a new program:

Oklahoma already has two school choice programs: a special needs voucher modeled on McKay, and a tax-credit scholarship program serving low-income students. Either or both of these programs could accommodate foster children with a slight modification – just write a line into the law saying foster children are eligible regardless of disability status or family income.

Other states have already adopted this practice. Foster children are automatically eligible for two school choice programs in Arizona. “Lexie’s Law,” which is Arizona’s answer to McKay, includes foster children alongside special education students. So does Arizona’s innovative new education savings account law, which gives parents control of their children’s education funding to direct to a school of their choice. Meanwhile, in Florida, foster children of any income level are eligible for the state’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students.

And since choice saves money, it wouldn’t cost a dime – an important consideration given that Oklahoma is on the hook for $150 million to clean up its foster care mess.

Of course, only universal choice will get us where we need to go. But it’s not a perfect world, and few people know that better than foster kids in Oklahoma. One line in a new law could give 12,000 kids access to choice on better terms than the ones that prevail in some other programs already.


School Choice and Religious Freedom

October 30, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective has published my article on how school choice promotes religious freedom, pluralism, and peace:

It’s folly to be afraid of letting religious institutions participate in public programs on the same terms as everyone else. That kind of oppressive Kemalism has only exacerbated religious hatred when it’s been tried in places like Turkey or France. Americans have historically been more enlightened.

Believe it or not, school choice often helps children learn to respect the rights of those who don’t share their faith, and has never been found to have the opposite effect. A large body of empirical research (reviewed by Patrick Wolf in an article titled “Civics Exam” in the journal Education Next) finds that private school students are more likely to support civil rights for those whose beliefs they find highly unfavorable. Five of these studies have specifically looked at school choice programs; of those, three found the choice students were more tolerant of the rights of others while two found no difference. No empirical study has ever found that school choice makes students less tolerant of the rights of others.

The occasion for the article is an unwise legal decision as an Oklahoma school choice program winds its way through the painfully slow processes of the legal system:

If the church is burning down, don’t call the fire department! That’s using government funds to benefit a church. If someone scrawls swastikas on the synagogue, don’t call the police! And heaven forbid we allow the mosque to use our municipal water and sewer lines. Alas, Judge Jones doesn’t see things that way, and the case will continue its four-year journey through the courts.


Long Term Trends in the Fight for Choice

September 22, 2014

Disco Stu trends

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Funny Matt should choose this morning to post thoughts about the future of charters and private school choice. My article on long-term trends in the fight for private school choice was just published by OCPA’s Perspectives. [Update: Oops, link added.]

The most important omen for the long term, though, is the war of ideas and moral legitimacy. Nobody takes the school unions and other guardians of the status quo seriously any more. The mask is off; everyone knows they’re all about the gravy train. Moreover, in milder forms like charter schools, the principle of choice has been almost universally accepted on both sides of the political aisle. How long can people go on supporting charters but opposing private choices, especially as it becomes clear charter schools don’t have enough freedom to reinvent education?

As Matt Ladner likes to say, these days the “cool kids” in education are the entrepreneurs who invent radically new kinds of schools. A few years ago, everyone was atwitter about the revolutionary potential of these “greenfield” experiments. Recently, though, the bloom is off the rose. People are beginning to realize that the world of tomorrow isn’t going to be so easy to build. Where will they turn for the tools they need to truly reinvent education? Universal choice is looking better and better.

Pop culture aficionados are invited to submit their judgment on the quality of my references to Doctor Who.

A shorter version of the article was published as an op-ed in the Edmond Sun.


School Choice Is Back!

March 3, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out my latest for the OCPA – school choice is back!

So vouchers are back from the dead. The question now is, are they resurrected in triumph, or are they really an undead abomination? Are vouchers, like Gandalf, “returned from death” in a new and more powerful form, ready to do battle with evil once again? Or are they like zombies, mindlessly dragging themselves up out of the grave with no will of their own and no purpose?

The smart people will say it’s the latter. Vouchers don’t work—after all, Milwaukee schools are still awful. They’re a moribund idea with nothing new to contribute. Republicans favor them because they’re mindlessly enslaved to a failed free-market ideology, just like the walking dead under the control of a wicked sorcerer.

They’re wrong on the facts. Vouchers do, in fact, work. Ten studies have examined how vouchers impact students who use them—studies using the gold-standard method of social science, random assignment that separates treatment and control groups by lottery. Nineteen studies have examined how vouchers impact public schools. This large body of high-quality evidence consistently finds that vouchers improve results. (See the forthcoming updated edition of my report for the Foundation for Educational Choice, “A Win-Win Solution.”)

However, although the smart people are wrong on the facts, they inadvertently point to a real danger.


Bureaucratic Bloat – Bathroom Edition!

January 24, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Short version of this post: I clean my own toilet, therefore school staff unions should be abolished.

Long verson: I just had an article come out on bureaucratic bloat in Oklahoma schools, in which I noted that only half of the state’s K-12 public education employees are teachers. That’s pretty much par for the course nationwide.

(Before you ask, the breakdown looks similar if you do it by dollars instead of by headcount. I use headcount because it’s simpler – with dollars you have to navigate a more complex set of categories – and because there are categories of spending over which states have little control, such as debt service, whereas headcount is more flexibile.)

One argument I made was that instead of focusing on bloat in “administration,” we should really focus on privatizing services in the giant “other” category – bus, cafeteria, etc. Private companies already exist that can provide all those services better and cheaper. There’s no reason these functions should be performed by unionized civil servants under outrageously dysfunctional personnel rules that ensure substandard performance and with gargantuan nuclear exploding pensions that cost ONE TRILLION DOLLARS.

A disgruntled teacher writes in (anonymously) to say, among much else, that my argument is invalid because I don’t clean my own toilet:

 Not only do you expect us to teach our children, which I gladly and proudly do well, but you expect us to do so with out the assistance or limited assistance of janitorial staff, nurses, aides, bus drives and cooks. So we are to teach successfully as well as clean the toilets, cook their meals, take their temperature and drive buses (which we do anyway)…I wonder if Mr. Forster has someone that cleans his office and bathroom or if he does that himself?

(Read the letter in all its unabridged, unedited, undiluted glory here.)

Now, there are several problems here. As William F. Buckley once wrote: “I have seen non-sequiturs in my life, baby ones, middle-sized ones, and great big ones, but they all stand aside in awe at yours.”

First, I didn’t argue that teachers should clean their own toilets; I said we should hire private service providers to do it instead of using unionized civil servants. The teacher herself, curiously, seems to recognize this, but only in the non-toilet context; she complains elsewhere in the letter that under my argument “we are to contract out to professionals to provide meal service.” (I will leave unremarked upon her implicit acknowledgement that unionized civil servants cannot be considered “professionals”; unremarked upon as well will be the question of what this implies about teachers.)

The real problem with her argument, though, is that I do, in fact, clean my own toilet. The office in which I work does not hire janitorial staff. We are all responsible for cleanliness, including the bathrooms. On my first day, this fact was impressed upon me with some force by the administrative staff. And I’m proud to say that I have lived up to my responsibilities.

After all, I learned my skills through discipleship with a true master – the Li Mu Bai of toilet cleaning.

Sure he can walk on water – but does he clean it?

My first job in education was working for Jay Greene – yes, the Jay Greene – and we had no janitorial staff in that office either. In addition to our each taking responsibility for our messes daily, Jay appointed a regular schedule for comprehensive office cleaning. We each took a task – dusting, vacuuming, etc.

Jay always took the bathroom cleaning job. Every time. He told us this was his way of setting an example for the staff, citing a motto from the Israeli officer corps: “Follow Me!”

I still do.

So, if my arguments would be invalid if I didn’t clean my own toilet, doesn’t it therefore follow that since I do clean my own toilet, my arguments are valid?


Civic Knowledge Polling Controversy

November 12, 2009

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last summer, I wrote a study for the Goldwater Institute reporting the results of a survey in which we gave 10 questions from the United States citizenship exam to Arizona high school students. The results were terrible, with only about 3.5% of the district students scoring 6 or better correct (passing). A few months later, I replicated the study for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) with Oklahoma students, and the results were even worse.

Since then the survey firm I used, Strategic Vision, has come under attack from a group of critics. I believe that it started over a poll from the New Hampshire primary last year. I am in no position to judge the merits of the case involved. Over the past few weeks, the critics have turned their fire on the civics surveys. Strategic Vision’s most aggressive critic claims that someone has replicated the Oklahoma survey and found them far more cognizant of civics than the Strategic Vision reported, concluding that SV simply fabricated the data. Smelling blood, my old friend Leo Casey is waving the bloody shirt. Some are wondering how anyone ever bought into the results in the first place or are feeling buyer’s remorse.

A few comments seem in order.

First, both myself and OCPA are investigating the validity of the survey. We have asked for and received call logs for the surveys, and we are awaiting receipts for the marketing lists employed in the survey. If, it stands to reason, a polling firm were simply fabricating data it seems terribly unlikely that they would pay thousands of dollars for marketing lists. If there has been a fraud, myself, the Goldwater Institute and OCPA were all victims of it.

Regarding the question of “how could anyone have ever believed these results” people should keep an open mind and examine the available evidence.

For the Arizona study, we purchased a poll of both public and private school students. The public results were terrible, but so too were the private school results. If memory serves, 3.5% of the public school students scored six or better and 13.8% of private school students scored six or better. We reported the private results in the study, and essentially characterized them as simultaneously better than the public results and still catastrophic.

If SV were simply manufacturing data, it seems at a minimum odd to make the private school results so terrible.

Second, results from other exams of civic knowledge should be considered. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has run a series of tests on the civic knowledge of university students. You can look the results of the 2006 study here for both Freshmen and Seniors.

The average score for a freshman at Yale: 69.8%.

Harvard: 67.8%

Princeton: 66%

University of Texas at Austin: 53.8%

University of Michigan: 52.1%

These are all highly to uber selective universities, but strangely enough their students are arriving (and leaving btw-check out the Senior results) profoundly ignorant of American civics. In fact, the Ivy League kids, even the Seniors, score significantly worse than the alleged replication scores (no details provided btw)  in Oklahoma, where the kids supposedly got almost 80 percent correct.

Oklahoma high schools > Ivy League. Things that make you go hmmmmmm…

Next, it is worth considering the differences in testing method. The ISI results were given as multiple choice exams. If they ask you to name the first President of the United States, George Washington is jumping up and down right behind the letter “B.” You’ve really had to have been living on another planet not to get that one right.

The Arizona and Oklahoma surveys, however, emulated the methodology of the United States citizenship exams, directly lifting the questions from INS item bank, and employing their open-answer format. When you are asked “who wrote the Declaration of Independence” it is necessary to answer “Jefferson” without the benefit of four names, one of which is “Thomas Jefferson” literally staring you in the face.

In short, we have no reason to believe that the average high school student to be anywhere near as well-informed as the average student at highly selective universities. As it turns out, students at even highly selective universities know embarrassingly little about civics. Moreover the open answer format of the United States Citizenship Exam represents a higher hurdle of knowledge than a multiple choice exam. You are either carrying around the knowledge of how many Supreme Court Justices there are around in your head, or you aren’t. With a multiple choice exam, you’ve got a shot, but with an open answer format…good luck.

So my request to everyone is to stay calm and give us time to run the traps on this. If I got snookered, I’ll own up to it, but the jury is still out.