Category Archives: Education

Can Good Schools Close the Black-White Achievement Gap?

Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an ambitious social experiment, combines community programs with charter schools. We provide the first empirical test of the causal impact of HCZ charters on educational outcomes. Both lottery and instrumental variable identification strategies suggest that the effects of attending an HCZ middle school are enough to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics. The effects in elementary school are large enough to close the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and ELA. We conclude with evidence that suggests high-quality schools are enough to significantly increase academic achievement among the poor. Community programs appear neither necessary nor sufficient.

The authors are Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer. The title is: “Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone” and it will be in the next issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

Why is the Department of Education in Wisconsin?

The Department of Education’s first seeds were planted in 1866 in a communique issued by the National Association of State and City School Superintendents. The following year Congress established the U.S. Office of Education. It had a staff of six and a budget of $13,000. It’s mission was to collect statistics. From there the idea grew.

As G. Gregory Moo notes, these 19th century petitioners for greater federal involvement in U.S. education, wanted, “what has never been and never can be – federal assistance without federal control.” They wanted Congress to create a bureau “without it being invested with any official control of the school authorities therein…Indeed, the highest value of such a bureau would be its quickening and informing, rather than its authoritative and direct control.”

In 1979, the teachers unions scored a coup with the creation of a cabinet-level agency to set education policy and advance the interests of its members, which includes collective bargaining.  For a thorough history read G. Gregory Moo’s book, and Myron Lieberman’s, The Teachers Unions.

A short answer to the question:

Why is the Department in Education in Wisconsin – a state which we might otherwise assume is free to set its own policies on this subject.

Because states and local school districts are intertwined with the National Education Association the Department of Education.  That explains the recent two-day summit held by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He’s  trying to find a way to bridge the growing labor-management divide in thousands of local school districts. That is, Mr. Duncan is cabinet-secretary-cum-labor negotiator who is going to “do everything [he] can to bring governors to the negotiating table.”

Race to the Top a Mixed Bag

After Delaware and Tennessee were awarded funds from the newest federal aid to education program, Race to the Top (RTTT), many states are still competing in an attempt to be awarded funds in the second round.

RTTT has several advantages over the former federal education program, No Child Left Behind, in that Race to the Top encourages innovation and competition at the state level rather than prescribing one top-down solution for all schools.

However, RTTT suffers from the problems that will plague any top-down education reform, in that it exponentially increases the bureaucracy of education. Because federal regulators do not have the local knowledge necessary to evaluate programs in individual schools, they must rely on statistics to evaluate school performance. A Washington Post blogger opines:

Part of the problem for D.C. may have been the trouble it has had in developing a data information system. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years but still no real system exists. And using “data” to drive reform is one of Duncan’s core principles, even though we all know that data is vulnerable to manipulation.

[…]

Duncan uses a lot of jargon too, but it is easy to understand what he is trying to do with education: expand charter schools, increase student standardized testing, link teacher pay to test scores and close down the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Unfortunately, what is not easy to understand is why President Obama’s education secretary is pushing those initiatives. This administration was supposed to bring some reason back into education reform after the failed era of No Child Left Behind.

Furthermore, the lack of local knowledge regarding schools at the federal level forces federal officials to allocate RTTT funds based on metrics that may not reflect the actual quality of state and local education reforms. The lack of transparency behind the allocation of federal funds led Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to consider dropping out of the second round of the competition. The New York Times reports:

Colorado, which had hoped to win $377 million, ended in 14th place. Now Mr. Ritter says the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, some Coloradans view the contest as federal intrusion and the governor has not decided whether to reapply for the second round.

“It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s,” Mr. Ritter said.

Colorado is not the only state where the initial results of the Obama administration’s signature school improvement initiative, known as Race to the Top, have left a sour taste. Many states are questioning the criteria by which winners were chosen, wondering why there were only two that won and criticizing a last-minute cap on future awards.

RTTT’s emphasis on accountability and competition between schools offer some improvement over No Child Left Behind’s focus on multiple-choice standardized testing. However, RTTT’s failures so far demonstrate the reasons that education policy should not be managed at the federal level.

The Failure You Know

Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t. – Traditional idiom

Sayings become traditional if they contain sufficient truth, but truth can usually be graded on a scale, from absolute to non-existent; better writers have called this the “truth-of-the-head” and the “truth-of-the-heart.”

The truth-of-the-head is that American public schooling is failing. Expenses are too high, political influence is too systemic, and results are terrifyingly low. This isn’t news. We’ve written and talked about it extensively.

A new study from the National Center for Policy Analysis adds to the mountain of evidence that school choice overwhelmingly benefits students, especially the poor.

From 1998 to 2008, the Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation funded a $52.4 million voucher program for residents of the low-performing Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. The vouchers were available to any student in Edgewood whose family chose to participate, regardless of academic ability or income.

The evidence shows that the voucher students weren’t the only ones who benefited. The students who remained in the Edgewood public schools benefited from increased funding resources due to increasing property values, and improvements in the public schools in response to increased competition.

Those are impressive results. Yet anti-reform groups and their legislative supporters have almost successfully killed school choice in Washington, DC, arguably the flagship federal school-choice program. Reason.tv has documented the trials, triumphs, and tribulations of the D.C. program for several years.

The recurring arguments against choice have always been theoretical. Students might be worse off. Communities might be forced into educational ghettos. Students might be subjected to failing systems, where private educators care only about power and money.

But any reasonable person has to agree, replace “might” with “is,” and “private” with “public,” and you have a fair critique of the current state. When faced with possible problems but tangible benefits, the devil you know seems egregiously evil.

I guess that’s why “idiom” and “idiot” are only one letter apart.

Institutionalizing Failure

From the New York Times:

As advocates of charter schools, including the Bloomberg administration, try to persuade legislators to lift the limit on the number of such schools in the state, no one is as likely to stand in their way as Mr. Perkins, whose district encompasses nearly 20 charter schools. Several more are planned next year.

Over the last decade, as charter schools have multiplied, Mr. Perkins has undergone a dramatic shift and emerged as their most outspoken critic in the Legislature, writing guest columns in newspapers and delivering impassioned speeches criticizing the “privatization” of public schools.

First, calling charter schools “privatization” is a lie. They’re publicly approved, publicly financed, and publicly supervised. The only way they’re “private” is they are free of the education bureaucracy and the grasp of teachers unions.

There are two main arguments against charter schools, which are logically inconsistent. First, there are those who say that charter schools don’t improve educational outcomes, while conversely arguing that charters ‘”eave some students behind.” If there’s no benefit to charter schools, what are the students who stay in public schools being left behind from? In Mr. Perkins’ words:

“If there are people fleeing from something, it is cause for alarm,” he said in an interview in his office. Using an analogy he favors when talking about charter schools, he said: “That should tell you there is a fire, and those who are responsible should find out what is causing that fire, not just create a new place for those who flee and leave the rest inside to burn there.”

The analogy is apt; public schools are failing students at catastrophic rates. Students and parents are fleeing, with good reason. Mr. Perkins, however, is firmly blocking the door. I’ll never understand people that refuse to accept choice and freedom because of some unpredictable future. Is the devil you know really better than the chance at something better?

Interestingly, Alex Tabarrok points to the NBER Digest‘s summary of recent research on the schools in Harlem:

Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer find that in the fourth and fifth grade, the math test scores of charter school lottery winners and losers are virtually identical to those of a typical black student in the New York City schools. After attending the Promise Academy middle school for three years, black students score as well as comparable white students. They are 11.6 percent more likely to be scoring at grade level in sixth grade, 17.9 percent more likely to be scoring at grade level in seventh grade, and 27.5 percent more likely to be scoring at grade level by eighth grade. Overall, Promise Academy middle school enrollment appears to increase math scores by 1.2 standard deviations in eighth grade, more than the estimated benefits from reductions in class size, Teach for America, or Head Start.

Those numbers indicate that the failures of monopolistic public education are so institutionalized and ingrained in students, it takes years of instruction and adaptation to the new institutional arrangements of charter schools to rehabilitate students, and then they can begin to blossom.

However, the article notes that Mr. Perkins decided charter schools were unsatisfactory after… a few months.

A Strange Tale of Education Budgets

Maine’s legislature recently engaged in a strange exercise. A representative introduced a bill to eliminate local referenda on educational budgets. The bill read in part:

A regional school unit’s budget must be approved at a regional school unit budget meeting and by a budget validation referendum as provided in section 1486.

The very next day, the bill’s sponsor disavowed the measure, after he was inundated by constituent mail opposing the proposal. After hearing Representative Howard McFadden’s mea culpa, the education committee unanimously voted the bill down, allowing localities to retain control of local education spending.

The issue was far from dead, however. The education committee was also considering a separate bill which contained a referendum-killing provision, ostensibly to enable easier school-consolidation measures.

Ultimately, a “tidal wave” of constituent input convinced the education committee to unanimously abandon the measure. For now Mainers retain the right to control local education spending, and judging by the hue-and-cry voters raised, by a significantly popular margin.

School consolidation in Maine is problematic. The state is divided into two radically different polities. Southern/Coastal Maine is relatively affluent and densely populated, while Northern and Central Maine are sparsely populated and less affluent.

Consolidation makes sense in many respects, but the economics are questionable. Some towns, like Fayette, have no higher education facilities, but have a voucher-style tuition system to send students to any of the surrounding high-schools, including a local private high school.

This kind of school choice introduces a modicum of competition into local systems, and allows families to choose the school that is best suited to their particular needs.

Instead of removing local control via consolidation measures, Maine’s education committee should consider measures introducing more personal and local choice.

Previously on Neighborhood Effects, Emily Washington wrote about education competition and Eileen Norcross detailed the struggles of D.C.’s controversial voucher system. Eileen also recently co-authored an issue of Mercatus On Policy on educational competition.

(H/T Maine Heritage Policy Center.)

“A Very Smart Person”

Mercatus Senior Fellow and Neighborhood Effects leading lady Eileen Norcross appeared on Fox Business this afternoon, discussing her recent article in Reason. She discussed the fiscal situation in New Jersey, and how it got so bad. From the Abbot court cases to public sector unions, she covers a lot of ground. Watch the interview here.

In the Reason article she dives into the union stranglehold on state finance in more depth:

Since 1990 local governments have added 45,500 new jobs. Nearly all of them are represented by one of a dozen unions, which have helped secure some of the plushest public sector jobs in the nation. It’s easy to see how property taxes have grown at twice the rate of inflation over the past decade. A government worker in New Jersey earns an average of $58,963, a police officer averages $84,223 (the second highest in the nation), and six-figure public sector salaries are commonplace. Compare this to neighboring Philadelphia, where the average police salary is $49,000. According to one estimate, of the $23 billion New Jersey raised in property taxes in 2008, $18 billion was spent on police, municipal, and teacher salaries.The tab for public workers doesn’t end there. Factor in the state’s pension plan, currently under-funded by $34 billion. The New Jersey Taxpayers’ Association calculates pension payouts for the average teacher range from $1.6 million to $2.5 million, per retiree. For the average police officer, that range totals between $3.2 million and $6 million, per retiree.

Risky Bets: Prepaid College Tuition

My Money Blog noticed a disturbing trend in some state-run prepaid college tuition funds. These plans initially sound like a great investment, but perhaps deserve a second look:

Lock-in tuition now, and don’t worry about future hikes. However, it appears that even though 18 states have pre-paid tuition plans, only seven of them actually guarantee them – Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington. (The image below says six, but the article was corrected later to add Virginia.)

Currently, the plan hurting the most publicly is from Alabama, called the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Plan (PACT). The plan’s asset value dropped from $899 million in September 2007 to $463 million at the end of January, nearly a 50% drop. Why? Because they invested over 70% of their assets in stocks, and also assumed a consistently high rate of return.

The coverage from ABC News wildly misses the mark. Their headline “Market Endangers State-Run Tuition Plans” operates on the same theory as blaming Ford for drunk driving accidents.

The Birmingham news does some actual journalism to get to the real heart of the problem. It seems that these plans fall prey to the same mistakes as many other publicly administered funds. Most egregiously, public fund managers are usually forced to fall back on unrealistic expectations to justify irresponsible investments that are “too aggressive,” i.e., too risky.

Haines said Alabama’s as­sumed rate of return is unrea­listic, and requires too much risk. Fund managers also haven’t incorporated enough hedging investments to lessen the impact of a downturn in the market, he said.

“We just felt that (the fund) was too aggressive,” he said.

According to an actuarial report on the fund filed by the state in January 2008, the fund’s managers then as­sumed a rate of return of about 8 percent until 2013, and 8.5 percent after that. That report also found that the fund’s liabilities exceeded its assets by about $20 mil­lion.

Bottom line: don’t invest in your state’s 529 plan without reading the fine print VERY closely.

(Hat tip to Tony Woodlief.)

Fixing Education First

Eileen Norcross has an op-ed in the Asbury Park Press arguing that Governor-elect Christie must deal with New Jersey’s education system before it will be possible to deal with the budget deficit, property taxes, income taxes, and outmigration:

School funding is a mess not because of decisions by the Legislature, but edicts from the state’s Supreme Court. For more than 30 years, the courts have controlled the schools through the Abbott decisions (which number 20 separate rulings over 24 years).

To wit, 31 court-designated Abbott districts must spend the same amount per student as the highest-spending district in the state. While other state courts have ruled on state funding formulas for education, none have effectively taken over the Legislature’s policymaking functions as the New Jersey courts have. Continue reading