November 26, 2007

Reading Under Aerial Bombardment!

Another year, another study declaring reading under siege, or attack, or threat, or whatever. I guess it's time for the government to start subsidizing Kindles. I actually tend to be a bit skeptical of these studies, as they equate reading with book reading, and don't take into account the fact that many of us now spend our days staring at words on the computer. Additionally, the report is working on a 10-year timeframe, and the bulk of the decline appear to have happened in the early-90s, but steadied out after that. Those caveats aside, these points are interesting:

In seeking to detail the consequences of a decline in reading, the study showed that reading appeared to correlate with other academic achievement. In examining the average 2005 math scores of 12th graders who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books, an analysis of federal Education Department statistics found that those students scored much lower than those who lived in homes with more than 100 books. Although some of those results could be attributed to income gaps, Mr. Iyengar noted that students who lived in homes with more than 100 books but whose parents only completed high school scored higher on math tests than those students whose parents held college degrees (and were therefore likely to earn higher incomes) but who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books.

The new report also looked at data from the workplace, including a survey that showed nearly three-quarters of employers who were polled rated “reading comprehension” as “very important” for workers with two-year college degrees, and nearly 90 percent of employers said so for graduates of four-year colleges. Better reading skills were also correlated with higher income.

In an analysis of Education Department statistics looking at eight weekly income brackets, the data showed that 7 percent of full-time workers who scored at levels deemed “below basic” on reading tests earned $850 to $1,149 a week, the fourth-highest income bracket, while 20 percent of workers who had scored at reading levels deemed “proficient” earned such wages.

There are two things to take from that data: First, environment matters. Studies correlating outcomes with number of books in the house, or number of words spoken by a parent to an infant, have long shown a robust relationship.

Second, I'm always a bit amazed at how weak the relationship between achievement and income can appear. Given that reading skills are not the only thing -- or even near the only thing -- creating the variance between the 20% of "proficient" readers reaching the fourth income quintile and the seven percent of "below basic" readers doing so, that's a smaller variance than I would've expected. It would be interesting to get the full data set here and see if the relationship were stronger in the third and second quintiles, or if it actually weakened as you went down the ladder.

November 26, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

November 16, 2007

Does Education Matter?

Given the nonexistent-to-moderate results for most education interventions, from charters to vouchers to merit pay to class size, I've occasionally wondered whether education policy and school quality really do achieve measurable results once demographic differences are sorted out. So this post by Kevin Carey, which breaks out city-level data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, is useful stuff. For instance, take math proficiency among poor 4th graders (defined as those eligible for the National School Lunch program):

New York City: 31%
Boston: 24%
Charlotte: 23%
Austin: 22%
Houston: 22%
San Diego: 22%
Los Angeles: 15%
Chicago: 12%
Cleveland: 10%
DC: 7%

As Carey says, low-income 4th graders in New York are more than 4 times as likely to be proficient as low income 4th graders in DC. And that's in two cities with similar percentages of students below the poverty line.

Now, what's hard about education data is that there really is a lot to disaggregate. Is New York a more economically and racially integrated city? My understanding, from Dana, is that its schools, at least, are. Are there cultural differences we're not accounting for? Hard to know. But in the aggregate, the data certainly suggests that New York is doing a far better job educating kids than, say, DC, and that they're seeing real achievement results as reward for their efforts.

November 16, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (20)

November 08, 2007

When Charter Schools Attack

The Times has a frontpager on Ohio's charter schools, of which more than half received a "D" or "F on the state's most recent set of metrics. "Fifty-seven percent of its charter schools, most of which are in cities, are in academic watch or emergency," reports The Times, "compared with 43 percent of traditional public schools in Ohio’s big cities." And what's gone wrong? "Behind the Ohio charter failures are systemic weaknesses that include loopholes in oversight, a law allowing 70 government and private agencies to authorize new charters, and financial incentives that encourage sponsors to let schools stay open."

On the bright side, in this case, these schools are accountable to the public, and so we have data on their failures and can actually do something about their decline. So this would seem to be a positive outcome: Various new schooling experiments are being tried, many are failing, and were going to close down the catastrophes. What's strange, though, is that I keep hearing that a total absence of public oversight mixed with financial incentives for schools to stay open -- and continue making money -- will fix education totally. Yet those two things appear to behind the failures here. Sometimes this world is so topsy-turvy sometimes that I just don't know what to think.

November 8, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (26)

November 05, 2007

Vouchers in DC

Since I've been involved in this debate, I've been trying to read up on the various voucher programs that have actually been implemented.  To that end, I just grabbed RAND's Rhetoric versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Voucher and Charter Schools.  RAND, it goes without saying, is no hotbed of left wingery.  But their "Academic Achievement" section begins with this:

The newest experimental voucher evidence comes from the federally sponsored voucher program in Washington DC, established in 2004, known as the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.  The U.S. Department of Education released the findings of the first-year achievement impact study, led by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, in June 2007.  Because the program was oversubscribed, scholarships were awarded by lottery. To examine total program impact on student achievement, the study compared the results of lottery winners with those of lottery losers (regardless of whether the winners actually used their scholarships or whether the losers attended public schools).  The authors found no impact, positive or negative, on average test scores in reading or math.  Similarly, they found no impact of the effect of using a voucher to attend a private school on average reading or math test scores.

Given that a lot of this conversation has actually been about the DC public school system, this data is relatively important.  Again, it doesn't mean that experimentation couldn't have positive impacts -- say, under charter schools, where pubic accountability is retained -- but this intense focus on vouchers stems from a commitment to economic orthodoxy, not because the programs have any proven results.

Update: Good discussion going on in the comments here...

November 5, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (55)

More on Vouchers

I sort of think the voucher argument has devolved into "but don't you know that markets are awesome!?" and that further continuation should actually require some evidence from school systems, rather than arguments derived from worn sticky note in freshman economics textbooks. That said, four quick points:

1) Markets fail. Governments fail. In any given policy debate, you'll have to decide which failure will be worse. But no, it is not the case, or near it, that all markets learn from failure and eventually right themselves. What markets do is either make the selling of a good profitable, or run those who can't make it profitable out of business. The profit motive is what drives markets. But profitability of schools is not our objective in education. The incentives are grievously misaligned.

2) You could, of course, align them. You could allow broad experimentation tied to public accountability. That's what charter schools are. The idea that we'd prefer to end all accountability and instead say, "here are our kids, go make some money," is fucking crazy. Which school wins in that competition? The one that develops good results? The one the kids like? The one that most effectively courts the parents? The one that does the best job cream-skimming? The one that most closely conforms to the parent's view of how old the earth is, or which deity sits on which cloud? Effective markets require effective information, weighed by capable decision makers. The first step in any discussion of market-based education reforms must be to detail what information will be collected, how it will be distributed, and how that will help children. The reality has been, like in Milwaukee, that voucher schools have often resisted any efforts to collect data or submit to testing.

3) Meanwhile, vouchers have returned just about no positive results. The data is, at best, inconclusive. That's why Megan is arguing that their repeated failures are actually a virtue (though it's a little unclear to me what sort of innovation she thinks public schools are barred from). On the other hand, reduced class sizes have shown positive empirical results. Yet, somehow, all these folks so deeply concerned with privatizing education -- for the children, mind you, not merely to sate the Ghost of Milton Friedman -- don't expend an ounce of effort advocating for them. Puzzling.

4) And just about all the evidence suggests that the schooling is far less important than the environment, than the level of poverty, than the nutrition, than the resources, than the time spent with involved parents. But the less said about the Right's interest in the economic situation of the urban underclass, the better. You want higher achievement in our schools, though? Implement this. Unlike vouchers, the policies here actually work.

November 5, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (65)

October 24, 2007


I sort of want to outsource this post to Dana Goldstein, but white parents fleeing pockets of poverty is not an argument for school vouchers. What they're fleeing is the poverty -- which, at a certain density, dissolves just about any school. If everyone had a voucher, there would still be concentrated poverty in DC, and thus in its schools, and white parents would still move away so they could easily send their kids to other schools. What they're seeking is economic segregation, not school choice. And the way you achieve that is move away from poor areas. Which is something that school vouchers would not, sadly, allow poor families to do.

Of course, this argument would fall apart if voucher experiment had actually been shown to improve student scores. But that hasn't happened. In fact, it hasn't happened multiple times. But don't get me wrong: I take very seriously the inequity of rich families just wandering off from pockets of poverty, leaving the areas all the worse off for their increasing economic homogeneity. So I support a broad range of economic integration measures, ranging from housing vouchers to legislating integration into appropriate school districts. But school vouchers don't show much hope as the answer to that problem.

Incidentally, Greg Anrig has a terrific chapter on the disappointing results of the voucher and charter experiments in his new book, which you should all buy.

Update: Woohoo! Dana intervenes!

October 24, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (52)

September 04, 2007

What Are Teacher's Unions For?

Over at TAP, Richard Kahlenberg, author of a new biography of union giant Albert Shanker, argues for the relevance of teacher's unions and reminds us of their original purpose:

In the 1950s, prior to when Albert Shanker and other New York City teachers forged the modern teacher union movement, teachers engaged in "collective begging" rather than collective bargaining. They were poorly paid (making less than people who washed cars), forced to eat lunch while supervising students, and told to bring a doctor's note when they were out sick. Collective bargaining increased wages, attracting higher-caliber candidates. Unions also pushed for reduced class size and better discipline policies, which most studies find help students learn better. While many teachers initially feared that joining a union was "unprofessional," most became in fact convinced that lack of voice contributed to their degrading treatment.

As he says, certain reforms would be welcome, including the loosening of some work rules, the institution of a peer review system, and certain types of merit pay. But the reason teacher's unions have -- against all the evidence -- become the causal factor in the decline of our schools, is the same reason that Republican politicians are so concerned about union member's dues going towards politics, or that trial lawyers are making too much in profits. It's because teacher's unions are a powerful part of the Democratic coalition:

The other big winners [in a world without teacher's unions] would be supporters of privatized education, and opponents of the American labor movement. No single organization is as responsible for the defense of public education in the United States as teacher unions. Other groups oppose private school vouchers, but only teacher unions have the political muscle and organizational and strategic capacity to beat back privatization plans. Likewise, the death of teacher unions would snuff out one of the few bright spots in an otherwise desperate landscape for the American labor movement.

If there was any evidence -- any at all -- that teacher's unions actually accounted for our suboptimal educational outcomes, then the case could be made that the bizarrely ferocious opposition to their existence was sincerely motivated. But that evidence doesn't exist. Indeed, charter schools, the policy innovation meant to free education from the teacher's unions, have, according to RAND, demonstrated "no measurable impact" on student achievement. Even in the face of this evidence, the loathing for teacher's unions persists. Which is no surprise: The Republicans who go after them do so to improve their electoral chances, and the quasi-liberal pundits do so to prove their independence. The educational outcomes just aren't the issue.

September 4, 2007 in Education, Labor | Permalink | Comments (27)

August 21, 2007

Three cheers for universal pre-K

By Kathy G.

Max reports the cheering news that the state of Virginia is seriously considering a proposal for universal pre-K.

Of all the social programs the U.S. could possibly institute, universal pre-K is perhaps the most important. It is that rare initiative that meets the gold standard of public policy by simultaneously fulfilling the goals of equity and efficiency. Equity, because preschool and other early education programs have a lasting, powerful and well-documented positive impact on the outcomes of poor children. And efficiency, because it is extremely cost efficient. Few if any government investments produce a higher rate of return.

No one has been more instrumental in establishing the social science case for early childhood education than the economist James Heckman. Heckman is a quant god and he won his Nobel for his econometric work. (Statistics nerds know him for the “Heckman two-step,” an econometric technique that controls for selection bias. Though whenever I hear “Heckman two-step” weird images of Fred Astaire pop up in my head. Anyway . . .).

Heckman is a University of Chicago economist in every sense of the word – a very conservative dude. But he’s done phenomenal work showing that investment in children pays off in very substantial ways. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year (subscription only), “There are many reasons why investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return. Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment. Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.”

If you want to immerse yourself in the wonky details of Heckman’s research, this overview is an excellent place to start. It gives you the economic theory on human capital and skill formation, and also provides the empirical results from a variety of early and not-so-early childhood intervention programs, giving you the impact on the kids themselves as well as the estimated costs and benefits to society. I'd post some of the tables and charts but I still haven't figured out how to do it in Typepad yet. The one on page 122 is my favorite.

Besides the fact that it helps children and is a wise social investment, to me, an added bonus of universal pre-K is that it could be a means of getting universal child care in through the back door. The idea being, you start by covering 4-year olds and gradually work your way down until you’ve got the 1- and 2-year olds. I consider universal child care to be the most important of the missing pieces of the unfinished business of the feminist movement.

I’m actually optimistic about the possibility of instituting a national pre-K program in this country. Liberals, of course, are already big fans of the idea. But I also think we can get through to the market-oriented conservatives by making the economic, return-on-investment argument to them. I’m probably the only person who remembers this, but Al Gore proposed a universal pre-K program when he ran for president in 2000. I always thought it was the best thing he did in that campaign.

And yeah, like Max says, fer chrissakes Virginia’s pre-K plan should be universal, not means-tested. As he points out, among other things, a means test would limit the efficiency of the program and basically amounts to “taxing children according to the incomes of parents they have not chosen.”

I will never understand these neo-liberal wankers and their infatuation with means tests, private-public partnerships, market-based solutions, yadda yadda yadda. What don’t they get about the power, justice, political durability, and elegant simplicity of free, universal government programs? It reminds me of this great quote by Nick Reville (via Chris Hayes): “If libraries didn’t already exist, there’d be no way they could ever come into existence now. Can you imagine telling the publishing industry that the government was going to pay to set up buildings where they gave away their product for free?”

August 21, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (18)

June 28, 2007

Samuelson vs. The Rankings

"What's so shameful about this campaign against the [US News and World Report college] rankings," Robert Samuelson writes, "is its anti-intellectualism." No. What's so shameful is the Samuelson column is its anti-intellectualism, and speed to recast a serious attack against an idiosyncratic, toweringly powerful rankings system as a mere example of sour grapes.

Does Samuelson think it relevant, for instance, how much money alumni give to the university every year? Are financial resources per student really so telling? Should US News be allowed to simply make up SAT scores for non-participating schools? We don't know. Not only does Samuelson neglect to engage such critiques, he never even mentions them. Instead, we get this cunning bit of divination: "Unsurprisingly, many complaining schools don't rank high. Some seem further down the list of colleges than their old-line reputations imply. Barnard is at 26; Kenyon at 32."

Unsurprisingly indeed. Sadly, Samuelson never seems to realize that this is utterly unilluminating. If poorly-ranked schools lose their authority to complain, so too do highly-ranked institutions forfeit the credibility to defend. Indeed, given the self-interest of all the actors involved, the only viable method of settling the dispute would be to examine the actual claims being made. Which Samuelson never does. What we do learn, though, is that "Brian Kelly, U.S. News's editor, is a friend," and also that students of the non-participating schools "will learn...a life lesson in cynicism: how eminent authorities cloak their self-interest in high-sounding, deceptive rhetoric."

You don't say.

June 28, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (22)

May 17, 2007

A Better Way To Do Student Loans

Robert Reich hits on one of my pet obsessions: The job lock caused by student loans. "Several of my students who will graduate next week," he writes, "tell me they would have liked to go into social work or into the non-profit sector or provide legal services to the poor. One had his heart set on becoming a painter. Another became passionate about archeology and had wanted to go on a dig in the Sahara. But they can’t do any of these things because they have tens of thousands of dollars of debt. They need jobs that pay the rent while they repay their loans."

Our increasing reliance on loans as a primary funding source for college has nasty side effects, forcing lower-income students to go into more-renumerative professions in order to pay off debt that, mind you, was originally granted so they could go to college and figure out what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. Anything, it turns out, as long as they can pay the government back.

Reich has a better idea: "Make repayment of government-subsidized loans depend on how much money [graduates] earn. Say that everyone has to pay ten percent of their income for the first ten years of their full-time work. And then the loans are considered paid off. My student who’s landed that private-equity job would pay ten percent of his income for ten years, which would be a hefty sum. My students who go into social work or become artists would pay ten percent of theirs, which would be far less."

May 17, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (68)