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.