Parenting Advice from Sara Mead

December 12, 2011

Sara Mead takes issue with my recent post that puts misconduct by some McKay schools in perspective.  I noted that those reacting to reports of misconduct by calling for the elimination or heavy regulation of McKay do not similarly react to incidents of misconduct in traditional public schools.  She likens this to a misbehaving child saying “he did it first.”  Sara urges us to be tough parents who don’t accept such weak excuses:

I was a very naughty child. When I was inevitably caught misbehaving, I often tried to justify it by saying “So-and-so (usually my sister or a classmate) did it first!” Not surprisingly, that argument never won the day or kept me from being punished.

I was reminded of this by Jay Greene’s recent blog post about reports of malfeasance and fraud by operators participating in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities. Jay cites a series of examples of abuses in public school districts–basically a grown-up “he did it first!”–before stating that “existence of misconduct in traditional public schools in no way excuses the misconduct that has been uncovered in the McKay program.”

Glad we agree on that one!

Let’s ignore that I clearly said (in the comment she quoted!) that misconduct by McKay providers is inexcusable.  And let’s ignore that she mis-characterizes my call for perspective.  And let’s ignore my argument that the direct operation of schools by the government or heavy regulation of private providers unfortunately does not eliminate misconduct.

Instead, I would like to offer some parenting advice of my own.  When I was a child I sometimes tried to persist in making an argument, even when the evidence contradicted it.  My parents correctly taught me that when you are wrong, you should admit it.

I was reminded of this when thinking about Sara Mead’s repeated claim that the McKay Scholarship program provides incentives to increase the over-identification of students as disabled.  In 2003 she and Andy Rotherham released a report that made a series of speculative allegations against McKay, including:

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. 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.

And in 2007 Sara Mead repeated the claim:

Offering vouchers to children with disabilities—and only children with disabilities—creates an incentive for parents to seek out a special education diagnosis in order to get a voucher. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some parents seek out diagnoses of learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to get their children additional help and accommodations on tests. McKay’s offer of a voucher for students with disabilities creates an even stronger incentive for parents to “game the system.” And Florida psychologists who diagnose youngsters with ADHD and other disabilities have told reporters that they see some Florida parents who are seeking these diagnoses just so they can get a McKay voucher.

But in 2009 Marcus Winters and I released an empirical examination of the issue that actually found the opposite.  McKay actually provided incentives to reduce the excessively high rate at which students are identified as disabled.  And in June of this year, the leading quantitative AERA journal, Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, published our article with this finding.

Nowhere has Sara Mead said that she was mistaken.  And last week Education Sector responded to reports of misconduct in McKay by urging people to read the 2007 report with this (and other) false or unsubstantiated claims.  People shouldn’t persist in repeating false claims.

I hope we can agree on that one.


The Gates Foundation and the Rise of the Cool Kids

July 28, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay and Greg have been carrying on an important discussion concerning the Gates Foundation and education reform. I wanted to add a few thoughts.

Rick Hess and others have noted the “philanthropist as royalty” phenomenon in the past. Any philanthropist runs the danger of only hearing what they want to hear from their supplicants, and Gates as the largest private foundation runs the biggest risk. The criticism of the Gates Foundation I had seen in the past emanated from the K-12 reactionary fever swamp, hardly qualifying as constructive.

The challenge faced by philanthropists: how do you challenge your own assumptions and evaluate your own efforts honestly? Do you hire formidable Devil’s advocates to level their most skeptical case against your efforts?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, just that if I were Bill Gates I would be terrified of everyone telling me how right my thinking is because they want my money. This is however the best sort of problem to have…

Jay’s central critique of the Gates Foundation strategy seems to be that they have put too much faith in a centralized command and control strategy. They would be wise to entertain this thought. If command and control alone were the solution, then we wouldn’t have education problems-district, state and federal governance have all failed to prevent widespread academic failure for decades.

The Gates strategy does however embrace decentralization. Over the years they have supported charter schools, and fiercely opposed the worst one-size fits all policy of all: salary schedules and automatic/irrevocable tenure. Riley’s WSJ article makes clear that Gates understands the benefits of private school choice, but that he falls for the Jay Mathews fallacy of thinking it is just too politically difficult.

Sigh…perhaps next year Greg can make a dinner bet with Bill.

Gates is also the primary backer of Khan Academy. This new article on Sal Khan in Wired magazine makes clear that Khan understands the danger of being swallowed by school systems and that he is not going to allow it to happen. Khan academy is both radically decentralized and is in the early stages of being used by people within the centralized school system to improve outcomes.

Whatever the mistakes to date, the Gates Foundation has in my mind has succeeded in serving as a counter-weight to the NEA, mostly through funding the efforts of a myriad network of reform organizations collectively known as the Cool Kids. Today, there is a struggle for power going on within the Democratic Party over K-12 policy and the Gates Foundation deserves some credit in my mind for supporting  the ideas behind the “Democrat Spring” on education policy. This spring is following more of the Syrian than the Egyptian model thus far, but it is happening, and it is very important.

Does that mean that they are the “good guys” and Jay should lay off of them? Of course not-reasoned critiques of large philanthropists are in short supply for all of the factors cited above. Jason Riley wished that Gates were bolder in embracing decentralization reforms, but noted that in the end that it was the Gates rather than the Riley Foundation. This is absolutely true, but it doesn’t make the royalty problem go away, and leaves a continuous question of how the emperor gets feedback on his new clothes.

I don’t agree with the Cool Kids about everything. The next time I hear someone ask a question about having Common Core replace NAEP (the very pinnacle of naive folly) for instance I may pull out entire tufts of my graying, thinning hair in utter exasperation. Reformers of all stripes need to be on guard against the ship-wheel conceit, which is to imagine that if only my strong hands steered the ship, we’d sail through the rocky shoals of ed reform without a hitch.

The East Germans ran a much better economy than the North Koreans, much to the benefit of Germans and to the detriment of Koreans. This is real and important in human terms- I do not make this point glibly. I never heard about an East German famine decimating the population, but food shortages have even soldiers starving to death in North Korea (pity the women and children). Better quality management is good and desirable, but…it will only take you so far. Today, Chinese apparatchiks are noisily crediting themselves for the tremendous economic progress in China without the slightest hint of irony. Without the market forces Deng introduced and with more apparatchiks, China would revert back to a starving backwater. With fewer apparatchiks, her progress would almost certainly accelerate.

As Sara Mead correctly noted in this guest post at Eduwonk, today’s education debate largely involves a mixture of technocratic and market-based reforms (neo-liberals) on one side and a group of reactionaries lacking realistic solutions on the other. A third of our 4th graders can’t read and have been shoved into the dropout pipeline. We need both technocratic and market based reforms, and we need stronger reforms of both sorts than those fielded to date.

Jay’s critique concerns the right mix of reforms within the bounds of the neo-liberal consensus. This of course is a matter of debate, and debate is the path to deeper understanding. The sheer size of the Gates Foundation has the potential to stifle such debate as it relates to their efforts, even passively, and reformers should recognize the danger in allowing it to do so. This isn’t about them so much as it is about us.


Sara Mead’s inscrutable opposition to McKay Scholarships

May 19, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Thumbing through the latest edition of Education Next I found a letter from Sara Mead taking exception to Jay and Stuart’s previous article on McKay Scholarships. Mead’s argument seems to boil down to the idea that Jay and Stuart forgot that vouchers for children with disabilities are bad.

Jay and Stuart note in their response that Mead failed to cited any evidence for her opinions about special education vouchers. I will be happy to present some evidence that Ms. Mead is entirely mistaken. The above chart shows gains on the 4th grade NAEP reading exam between 1998 and 2009 for the nation and for Florida.

For those squinting at your IPAD, that big red column more than two and a half times bigger than the blue column is Florida. Florida beats the nation in progress for students with disabilities on all four big NAEP tests.

Now several other factors certainly were involved in driving Florida’s gains among children with disabilities. For instance, policy changes such as heavy weighting of children in the bottom 25% certainly played a role, and I suspect that the revamping of literacy instruction did as well. I make no claim that McKay was the sole cause of this improvement.

If however the fact that all children with disabilities gained the ability to attend private school early in the Aughts negatively impacted their learning, it is awfully difficult to see any evidence of it in their test scores. In fact, it seems far more reasonable to assume that it helped.

Mead wrote:

But there’s no evidence that children with disabilities need additional education options more than any other youngsters in underperforming schools, or that vouchers address the underlying problems in special education. Rather, voucher proponents have seized on this population because they are more sympathetic beneficiaries than poor and minority youngsters. Using children with disabilities to increase public support for vouchers may be smart politics, but it doesn’t mean that special education vouchers are good policy.

On the first point, I can’t help but wonder how much Mead has spoken to parents with children with disabilities. More broadly, this is quite an achievement for a single short letter: a number of unsupported assertions and faulty ESP regarding the motives of McKay supporters. It falls to me to break the news to Mead, but the case for special education vouchers is extremely powerful. If for some strange reason you wish to halt their progress into law, you’ll have to do better than to imagine theoretical problems.


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.


Question for Sara Mead

June 9, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I saw a documentary on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign a few years ago. After a completely nasty setback, Napoleon retreated in defeat back to Cairo, but then ordered a victory parade to be held before fleeing the country entirely.

Watching Fordham’s pre-school event online, I can’t help but think that pre-k advocates are trying to do the same thing with Oklahoma: pretend its a victory, when in fact it looks more like their Waterloo.

I watched the Fordham Foundation pre-school event online yesterday. I was especially taken by Sara Mead’s claim that universal preschool could lead to dynamic changes in K-12, and that disadvantaged kids in Oklahoma’s pre-k program made larger gains than other students.

The biggest problem for universal pre-k advocates, in my view, is that the academic gains associated with Pre-K programs fade out. Consider the blue line in the chart below-4th grade NAEP scores from Oklahoma. In 1998, Oklahoma adopted a universal pre-k program.

FL vs. OkI assume that Ms. Mead has a basis to say that disadvantaged children make bigger gains under the Oklahoma pre-k program. The more important question is whether those gains are sustained over time.

Based upon the NAEP scores, Oklahoma’s program looks like a dud, increasing all of one point between 1998 and 2007.

The best one can try to spin out of the Oklahoma situation is scores might have actually dropped in the absence of the program, but now you are really grasping at straws. I seriously doubt that anyone who voted for this program in 1998 could be anything other than disappointed.

The red line, Florida, shows what can be done with a vigorous effort to improve K-12 schools. Florida’s low-income children improved by 23 points between 1998 and 2007.

Florida voters created a universal pre-k program, which was implemented as a voucher, but none of those students had reached the 4th grade by 2007.

Mead would likely argue, and I think she did at the event, that Pre-K and K-12 reform aren’t mutually exclusive, and I agree. It seems fair to ask however: is Pre-K a waste of time as an education improvement strategy? If not, why are the Oklahoma results so dreadfully unimpressive?


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)