Saturday, May 22, 2004

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

Matt Yglesias is confused about No Child Left Behind, even if he doesn't know it. Yglesias fumbles through a random post on the bill wherein he makes errors on both basic factual matters and commits more serious errors of judgment as he ventures headlong into speculative statecraft. (Full disclosure: Matt's a friend.)

Basically, Matthew argues that No Child Left Behind is a bad law because its testing provisions are underspecified to the point of incoherence. Nevertheless, NCLB is "A Good Thing," in Matt's catchy phrasing, because the existence of a federal education law is one giant leap towards centralization. Matt continues on to press his novel theory that it doesn't matter if a federal government program is good or bad as long as it is; after all, we can fix it later.

As I mentioned before, Yglesias is wrong on both factual and theoretical fronts. Yglesias seems to think that NCLB represents a brand new federal involvement in education. Not even close. In fact, NCLB is actually just the latest re-incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was first passed in 1965. That important bill is responsible for the federal government's financial stake in education, which remains modest in absolute size of 10%. (In effect, though, it's huge, because no one in the states is willing to reduce 10% of total per pupil funding just to get the satisfaction of telling the Feds where they can stick it.)

So in fact, No Child Left Behind's much derided accountability provisions are actually just attaching some strings to the money that Federal Government has long been giving out. The most derided part of the law is the mandatory testing in grades 3-8 and the sanctions (actually they're not sanctions) included to try to get schools on track if they don't meet the standard. You can tell that the accountability measures have some teeth--or at least educrats in the provinces think that they do--because they're going batshit over the provisions. This actually is A Good Thing.

Matt's thrilled at No Child Left Behind because he think's it's one giant step towards a national curriculum. Unfortunately, that's speculation on Matt's part and it's just wrong. There isn't anything in the law that tells teachers how they have to teach (with the exception of phonics-based reading instruction). The whole mantra of the standards-and-accountability movement is to focus on outcomes, not processes.

Young Yglesias seems to relish the idea that NCLB, as a halfway measure, is destined to fail underneath the weight of its logical contradictions and thereby usher in an era of more technocratic, rationalistic, centralized standards. After all, if the rules of algebra don't vary from state to state, and some methods of algebra are more effective than others, than why not just mandate best practices on the national level?

To which I respond: Kansas. Or alternatively: Ohio. Would you really want to see the debate over whether to teach Creationism taken national? Would you want to see a gay rights curriculum debated in the red states? How about debating the correct way to multiply fractions? Or teach the Vietnam War?

No, Matt. You really, really wouldn't. You may think that population flows and concentrations of power are on your side, as the effete east coast liberal type. (This is not ad hominem; I'm Matt's neighbor and nearly as effete as he is.) But you have not witnessed social strife until you've been to an out-of-control school board meeting discussing some aspect of curriculum desing.

Finally, and most cloyingly, Matt ascribes the desire to keep the federal government out of education as "Republican stinginess." He describes the Constitution's neglect of the education issue as "foolish." In truth, Yglesias knows better than that. Republicans have children, too. If they thought that sending a few extra bucks to the Dept. of Ed would help kids learn better in Tulsa or Winnetka or Provo, they would do it. Republicans have proven in the past few years that they sure do know how to spend money. That's what parties in power do. They deliver the goodies.

And Matt would be wise--very wise--to pause before the next time he wants to piss on the framers. It may be that centralizing power in the hands of a small elite would lead not to benevolent implementation of the best policies, but the rise of callous, conceited ruling class that was too incompetent perform its task and too haughty to admit its shortcomings.

Then again, maybe we already have such a ruling class.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Shirking Our Responsibility to the Next Generation

It has an enduring theme and an utterly cliche headline but Michael Ryan's piece accurately identifies what causes the horrific writing skills of today's students. (Long story short: No one cares enough to correct them.)

I have one little bone to pick. The author implies that this is "a generashunal thing." Maybe so. But I believe that that horse left the barn a long time ago. I've worked for executives who couldn't string together an error-free paragraph even if their six-digit salary was on the line.

Although I haven't read it, I'd be surprised if this book didn't have something insightful to say about it.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Well, This is Different

Washington Post Education columnist Jay Matthews--for my money, one of the best education writers around--makes a case against teaching teens moderate drinking and in favor of the current 21-to-drink rule. Article is here.

Amongst members of my class and cohort, the idea that the drinking age is an absurd, anachronistic, tidbit of legal moralism is universally acknowledged. Frankly speaking, no one I know believes that drinking ban should be enforced for people under 21. By 21, the argument goes, you can live alone, get married, die for country etc. etc. The moderate positon seems to be that 18--the age of college and selective service--is the logical choice.

The more I think about it, the public health counter argument is a little weird. (For those uninitiated, this is the idea that drinking should be "taught" and supervised by parents.) First, you don't really have to teach people to drink. Alcohol is gulped and swallowed like any other liquid.

Now, you might say I'm being overly literal and perhaps I am but I have a point. What the public health types mean is that children should be taught gradually to experience socially permissable levels of intoxication. But again, this isn't a matter of teaching. All of the effects of alcohol are internal, so the interpersonal act of "teaching" is inappropriate. It's really a question of calibrating one's tolerance. (E.g., how much to drink before you pass out, how much before you wear a lampshade, et. al.) Matthews argues this should be done at 21, others argue for a gradual onset starting earlier.

What's really missing is the language of self-control. People need to know that they're responsible for their actions and the answer "I had X to drink" doesn't absolve them of that responsibility. If they're not being level-headed due to inebriation, well, they're the dopes who got themselves intoxicated. Moreover, they should be instilled with the virtue of moderation and dignity, an unwillingness to look like a fool just because they've had a few. If people were embarassed by drunken idiocy, they might be less-inclined to get completely smashed. What needs to be taught isn't some "skill" of drinking, it's attributes of character.

One really interesting aspect of the article is that the Matthews sites an NIH study which claims that 40% of people who begin drinking by 15 will face a problem with alcoholism at some point in their lives. Here's the question: Is this true in France, Germany, or other enlightened countries? Or is this a pushback reflex of our semi-Prohibition like policies?
Zero-tolerance, Zero-Common Sense

In many parts of the country, well-intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies for violence, drugs, and alcohol have led to surreal, non-sensical outcomes. For instance, a while back a girl was prohibited from submitting to the yearbook a picture of herself sitting on a cannon ("zero-tolerance for weapons").

Here's the story of a girl who was sentenced to disciplinary action after she refused to take a Breathalyzer test at a football game (although she insisted that she hadn't been drinking.) Also, according to the story, "Parents in [the town of] Katy cannot appeal decisions to send their children to the discipline school for periods of 60 days or fewer." Great.

And how's this for depressing? "In Katy, the kind of upper-middle-class suburb that draws parents seeking better schools for their children, drug dogs, metal detectors and children in police handcuffs once would have been unthinkable.

Now such things are so prevalent that a group of parents have organized a Web site (www.katyzerotolerance.com) to protest what they consider over-the-top discipline."

Ed Reform from the Far Southwest

Arizona has been the source of innovative education reform initiatives for a long time.

So why is Gov. Napolitano chairing a commission that's reviewing old solutions, has drawn pre-determined conclusions, and is stacked for partisan advantage?

Production Function, What's Your Function?

Dennis Doyle has a seemingly reasonable article on reasonableness and education spending. His reasonable-sounding argument is that "it all depends."

To be sure there are comparables (similar districts can be compared) but that too is part of the political process, as we shall see in some of the comparables displayed below. Does this mean that noting can be said about spending, that it is all luck of the draw? To the contrary, much can be said but very little with technical precision. What can be said is a matter of informed (or uniformed, as the case may be) judgment, together with a knowledge base that includes contextual information. For example, a high school that spends $4,000 per year is probably spending too little, particularly if it is serving a large inner-city population -- unless, that is, it is a Catholic order school. Then it is about average for its comparables. By way of contrast, a school that spends $20,000 plus per year may be spending too much – unless it is St. Paul’s or Sidwell Friends. Then it is average (slightly below, actually) for its comparables.

For better or worse, the question of reasonableness can only be answered “it all depends.” It all depends on what the school in question is organized to do, what its resource constraints are, where it is located and what kinds of students it serves.

The dilemma of “reasonableness” is not confined to education judgments. The test of reasonableness in the learned professions is seasoned professional judgment. The concept of the “reasonable” man (or woman) is used in tax policy, law, medicine, journalism and economics as well as education. It refers to a common sense understanding of what “reasonable” people would do in similar circumstances.

In tax policy the adage is” equal treatment of equals;” in economics the hypothetical “rational man” is used; in law the test is what a person might reasonably be expected to do; in medicine it is a doctrine of “prevailing practice;” in journalism it is typically two independent sources and in education it is “what are your peers doing?”

This all sounds very amenable and sensible until you gain a little familiarity with the statistics. The fact is that when Harvard University professor measured inputs (costs) against outputs (student achievement on NAEP, the nation's report card), she found that educational productivity had fallen by between 55% and 74%.

Many people don't like the economic language of productivity. They think that it's inappropriate and that it necessarily leads to a stingy, scrooge-like set of policy conclusions. (Spend less on kids!)

No, not necessarily. Think instead in terms of opportunity cost. We as a society, like any shopper, are trying to get the most for our money. In this case, we're trying to get the most education for our kids per education dollar spent. Lost productivity steals from our children's learning. Our kids are being cheated.

Don't think so? According to Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby, if schools today were as productive as they were in 1970-71, the average 17-year-old would have a score that fewer than 5 percent of 17-year-olds currently attain. (summary here; full paper by Hoxby that includes her opinion on school choice here.)

In other words, we would attain Lake Woebegone levels of achievement, where all the kids are above average.

Don't think that that's possible? Compare the function of a car today to one in 1971. Compare a computer today to one that you could acquire in 1971.

In truth, we wouldn't stand for a situation in which cars and computers were were worse today than in the early '70s. So why do we tolerate it for education?

I welcome any and all e-mail that tells me why this form of analysis is invalid or misplaced.


Expansion Management Magazine asks, "Are you tired of having business executives giggle uncontrollably every time you try to explain how your local work force is really among the best in the country, despite the fact that your local school district is widely regarded as being among the worst in the nation?

Am I ever!

Actually, the question is a good one, especially if its posed in a deeper way. Are our perceptions of which schools and districts are best really in line with those that actually perform best? What the hell do we mean by "best" anyway? Are we looking for places that have the smartest people at the head of the class or the ones that do best most of their students? This is the problem that No Child Left Behind runs into when it tries to break down achievement requirements by race, gender, etc. and consequently ends up labeling many "elite" public schools as "in need of improvement."

Anyway, EM proves to be totally clueless in this regard when they rank metro areas' school systems. They give more points to districts that simply spend more. Way to go, idiots. Remind me never to choose you guys for contract-based work.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

I Brought You Into this World, And I Can Take You Out

Boiling with jealousy over the runaway success of this website, the Progressive Policy Institute has launched its own blog called Eduwonk.com. Despite lacking the resources and expertise that go into CKEB, the blog looks good!

Sunday, May 02, 2004

What next?

Not doing your homework is illegal in Pennsylvania. No, really.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Opposing Views on Teacher Pay

How can we get better teachers? Would increasing salaries help the situation?

Michelle Mooney is a teacher. She thinks that teachers are overworked, underpaid, and barely appreciated at all. Nevertheless she wouldn't trade her job for the world.

Rick Hess is the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He argues that teachers aren't underpaid and therefore pay raises wouldn't lead to better teaching

Two different types of argument, two different conclusions.
What's the Connection?

People might be surprised to know that the National Education Association was a sponsor of the pro-choice March for Women's Lives that recently took place in Washington, DC. Since the connection isn't obvious, readers might be interested in this analysis by Mike Antonucci, whose Educational Intelligence Agency Communique (following teachers unions) is always insightful:

1) NEA and Abortion: What Neither Side Wants to Hear. The big NEA story last week was the union’s sponsorship of the March for Women’s Lives. NEA usually low-keys its involvement in the broader, non-education-related liberal movement, but lending its name to the abortion rights rally was exceptionally direct. Abortion, like lesbian/gay issues, puts NEA in a bind, and its reaction last week to the complaints of pro-life NEA members clearly illustrated its dilemma.

NEA and religious conservatives actually share a common goal: they both want to paint the union’s positions on social issues in stark terms, with us on the side of goodness and light and them on the side of evil and darkness. Unfortunately for both, NEA’s position on abortion (and homosexuality) has a lot more to do with conflicting internal and external imperatives than anything else.

What pro-lifers don’t want to hear (especially from me, I might add) is that NEA’s position on abortion has absolutely no discernible effect on the issue at any level – federal, state or local – or in any venue – executive, legislative or judicial. NEA’s policy does not lead to abortion advocacy in the classroom, nor in the textbooks, nor in the Democratic Party. It budgets no money for the issue. And if the union were to pass a resolution of neutrality on abortion, most members would never know the difference.

The only reason NEA has any policy at all on abortion is because a large majority of the union’s activists are liberals and leftists. Just as conservative organizations have single-issue people, the NEA has many different single-issue people. One faction cares passionately about lesbian and gay issues. Another cares about Mumia Abu Jamal. Another faction is made up of anti-war activists.

The difference between the left and the right is that conservatives are content to let single-issue people be single-issue people. The National Rifle Association never asks the Christian Coalition to publicly support Second Amendment rights. But liberal factions are always trying to sign up other liberal factions to support their single issue. So, not only does NEA sponsor the March for Women’s Lives, but so do groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Communist Party USA, the Earth Rights Institute, the Nevada Shakespeare Company, and the Sierra Club.

But NEA has a broad membership, with a large minority of members who don’t want their union joining every liberal parade. If NEA had a resolution with an open declaration of support for abortion rights, it would lose members and income, particularly in states where teachers are not compelled to join or financially support the union. Instead, it has a resolution that states: “The National Education Association supports family planning, including the right to reproductive freedom.”

The abortion rights advocates get tacit support for their position, and the union gets cover in those places where membership loss is a real possibility.

What NEA doesn’t want to hear (especially from me) is that last week’s events show how untenable this policy is. The claim that NEA has no position on abortion isn’t fooling anyone. The March for Women’s Lives declared its support for reproductive freedom, in accordance with NEA’s policy, but it also declared its mission “to uphold the fundamental right of women to control their lives through safe and legal abortion” and “to ensure the availability of contraceptive services, family planning, and abortion services to all women regardless of geographic location or income.” That, my friends, is a position on abortion.

Even more insulting to the intelligence of its members is the set of talking points NEA headquarters sent to state affiliates about the march controversy. By citing four old legal cases in which the union has been involved, only two of which has the remotest relation to abortion, NEA wants members to believe it is merely trying to protect them from being forced to have abortions against their will. Nice try.

One vulnerable state affiliate had its own method for dealing with the issue. The Utah Education Association (UEA) flatly denied any involvement with the march. “UEA is in no way participating in this rally,” said UEA President Pat Rusk.

Quote of the Day, Division of Stopped Clocks

One of the great goals of education is to initiate the young into the conversation of their ancestors; to enable them to understand the language of that conversation, in all its subtlety, and maybe even, in their maturity, to add to it some wisdom of their own.

--Joseph Sobran

Monday, April 26, 2004

Take it for What it's Worth

Nearly half of Texas school teachers are considering quitting.
Next in the Parade of Reports and Publications

The Alliance for Excellence in Education has a new report out which claims that "American high schools are in crisis" and then goes on to compare President Bush's and John Kerry's proposals on secondary school issues. (Here's their more comprehensive, original report on what ails our high schools.)

One of the weaknesses of this report is that its graphics are situated such that in any place where one proposal does not correspond to another, one candidate is left with "no comparable initiative." The take away assumption is that if one candidate does not have a proposal that deals specifically with problem X, then said candidate does not care about problem X. If this is conscious, then this is an attempt to gin up the number of proposals on an educational topic. The problem is that more proposals do not equal better policy, it just means more proposals. While there is something to be said for trying a number of approaches, all that's actually achieved is the proliferation of small programs that are often never revisited to assess their efficacy.

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