Category Archives: Education / Youth

The Continuing Attack on Public Education

And Indiana’s legislative session continues…..

In the Fort Wayne Journel-Gazette, Vic Smith has accused the Indiana legislature of a frontal assault on public education.

Two bills have been filed that would create the biggest expansion of private school vouchers Indiana has ever seen. They would advance the privatization of our educational system in line with the plans of voucher-inventor Milton Friedman, who supported the abolishment of public education.

I didn’t think that the Republican supermajority would make a direct attack on public education in an election year, but it appears the Republican leadership is poised to push forward a radical new private school voucher plan. It would be the biggest voucher expansion since Gov. Mike Pence’s voucher plan costing taxpayers $40 million in new dollars and diverting $120 million from public schools was enacted in 2013.

Smith asserts that these measures are part of a longer and more ambitious effort to replace public schools with a “marketplace” of private schools funded by government, but without government oversight. He points out that although 94% of Indiana’s children still attend public schools, those public schools are being systematically starved of resources that are being redirected to private schools.

Smith sees this assault as intentional, but let’s give voucher proponents the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they genuinely believe that privatized schools will offer better educational results. (Put aside, for the moment, important questions about what we believe constitutes a good education, and how we measure that.)

To date, research has provided no evidence that vouchers improve anything other than parental satisfaction and the bottom lines of struggling parochial schools.

A recent study of Louisiana voucher schools by the Brookings Institution found student achievement actually declined, and fairly substantially.

When comparing school performance, researchers struggle to distinguish differences in schools’ effectiveness from variation in the types of students who choose those schools.

A voucher lottery provides an unusual opportunity to measure the effectiveness of private schools. The lottery serves as a randomized trial, which is the gold standard of research methods. Random selection means that lottery winners and losers are identical, on average, when they apply for the voucher. Any differences that emerge after the lottery can therefore be attributed to the private-school attendance of the winners.

The results were startling. The researchers, a team of economists from Berkeley, Duke, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the scores of the lottery winners dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of the lottery losers. The effects were very large: roughly a quarter of a standard deviation in math, social studies, and science. There were no effects on reading scores.

In previous posts, I have argued that the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, can be attributed in large part to people who did not understand the government they were elected to manage, and who substituted ideology for competence. The voucher movement displays the same hubris.

In both cases, children are the victims.

Education and Student Debt

A few days ago, I wrote about the increasing tendency to rank colleges on the basis of alumni earnings, as if higher education is simply another venue for job training.

In the comments, people pointed out the importance of earning power, especially in light of the staggering expense of a college education.

Believe me, I get that.

Nothing I wrote was intended to justify the increasing costs of a university education and the resulting sky-high levels of student debt. Indeed, to the extent that we are pricing education out of the reach of many, we are sabotaging the educational mission I was defending.

Student debt is not only a huge problem for recent graduates; it is dragging down the economy. As Matt Impink and I wrote in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education,

Student debt constrains individual decision-making in a number of ways, and its growth affects the entire economy. For example, people paying back student loans are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of new private-­sector jobs are created by small businesses, diminishing the ability to create businesses does considerable harm to the economy.

Debt loads also affect overall consumption. According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fewer 30-year-olds in general have bought homes since the recession, but the decline has been steeper for people with a history of student-loan debt and has continued even as the housing market has recovered. In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles, and other goods, a debt load that effectively precludes such purchases poses a real problem.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation can be attributed to younger adults, ages 18 to 34. In 2011, 1.3 million more Americans in this age group lived with their parents than in 2007. Although it is impossible to determine the relative contribution of student-loan debt and the economic downturn to that phenomenon, student debt is clearly implicated. Any program that reduces the need to borrow can only improve the situation.

According to a report from Zillow, the relatively few millennials who are thriving economically are the ones whose parents are able to subsidize college tuition or a down payment on a home. Help with education and buying a home were the two primary ways in which the original GI Bill created upward social mobility. Estimates are that each new household leads to $145,000 of economic impact. If student debt is keeping just a third of those two million young Americans from living on their own — a reasonable, if undocumented, assumption — that adds up to a $100-billion loss or delay in economic activity.

Student debt is an enormous issue for the country. The Democratic presidential candidates have all addressed it; Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed measures to ameliorate it.

If any of the Republican presidential candidates have paused their attacks on immigrants, reproductive choice and various kinds of “losers” in order to address student debt levels and their impact on either young people or the economy, I’ve missed it.

I Know I’m a Broken Record…

Every so often, a Facebook friend posts an article about colleges that aren’t “worth” the investment of tuition. Usually, these lists are compiled by magazines or pundits out to prove a point, and I just grit my teeth and scroll on.

But recently, the usually responsible Brookings Institution got into the act.  An article titled “More data can make college less risky” began with the assertion that the “vast majority” of students go to college because they believe that it will improve their “employment opportunities and financial wellbeing.” The authors recommended that students do what other “investors” do—research their prospective investments.

And what sort of “research” did they suggest?

For decades, economists discussed the average benefits of a college education compared to a high school education with no regard to either field of study or institution. Finally, in 2009, the Census Bureau started collecting data that could be used to assess which majors pay the most,[iii] and then just a few months ago, the Department of Education released data on the earnings of alumni by institution, for all students who receive federal grants or loans. These data can be further analyzed, as we have done, to estimate the economic contribution of schools (or value-added) as distinct from the outcomes attributable to student characteristics (like test scores).

This approach is perfectly fine, if one plans on attending a vocational school.

The assumption that college is a place you go to get job training (and if you can afford it, a social life on a pretty campus) explains so much of what is wrong not just with higher education, but with American institutions in general.

Let me be very clear: there is nothing wrong with job training. There is nothing wrong with colleges helping students acquire marketable skills. But that is not their mission. Their mission is education. 

We live in an age where a candidate for President feels free to sneer at philosophers because they make less than plumbers. (Actually, Mr. Rubio, they don’t, but that’s beside the point.) We live in an age where politicians and pundits can and do make ridiculous, factually inaccurate statements secure in the knowledge that only a few “pointy-headed intellectuals” (i.e., people who read and think) will notice or care, an age where ideologues can distort history with impunity because no one has studied it, and cite the Constitution for propositions that would make the Founders turn over in their graves, because their only acquaintance with it is a vague memory of a week in high school government class.

Only in a country that has lost respect for the life of the mind and for intellectual integrity would the Senate vote to deny man’s contribution to climate change. (Perhaps they can vote on the value of Pi next. The Indiana legislature once did that. Or on whether the earth orbits the sun.)

In saner times, we valued knowledge of the arts, literature and philosophy, knowledge of other cultures, science. We valued knowledge for its own sake—and we studied the world in order to understand it, not just in order to make money.

A college that turns out excellent philosophers, artists, musicians, anthropologists and public administrators is probably not going to have alumni earning the highest median wages. That tells prospective students absolutely nothing about the quality of the institution.

I agree that prospective students should research colleges, but not to determine how much their graduates earn.

Here are some questions students should ask:  How good are the professors? How selective is the admissions process and how diverse the student body—will you be studying with people whose conversations will enrich your own understanding and broaden your horizons? How large are the classes? Will you be able to interact with your professors, or will you be in oversized lecture halls tended largely by TAs? Will you emerge with a better understanding of the world you inhabit, and an enhanced ability to be a contributing and thoughtful citizen? 

I’ve said it before: If your only concern is job training, go to trade school.

Could Texas Get Any More Embarrassing?

That’s a rhetorical question.

In my classes, when I need an example to illustrate bad public policy (or utter disregard for settled constitutional principles), I can always count on Texas.  Patheos has reported on the most recent example of Lone Star idiocy (more recent even than the vote in Houston not to extend equal rights to LGBT folks because you just know that would encourage men to dress like women and use the girl’s potties…), to wit:

The Board just rejected a proposal that would allow experts to fact-check textbooks before they’re approved for use in the state’s public schools.

Let me repeat that because it’s so stunningly stupid.

The Board just rejected a proposal that would allow experts to fact-check textbooks before they’re approved for use in the state’s public schools.

This is hardly the first time the Texas Board of Education has been, shall we say, “controversial.” A 2010 NPR report described that year’s effort to purge Texas textbooks of material the board disliked. The Board made changes emphasizing the “importance of Christianity to the founders,” the danger to the country’s solvency posed by “long-term entitlements” like Social Security, and the causes of the civil war. (Those causes were identified as sectionalism, states’ rights and–oh yeah,what was that other thing?– slavery.)

In this case, Board member Tom Ratliff had proposed bringing in academic experts to review textbooks for factual errors only; the measure was voted down after a lengthy discussion about the dangers posed by “pointy-headed liberals in ivory towers.”

As the blogger says..

Because what the hell do “experts” who work in “academia” know about “facts” and “the goddamn subjects they devoted their entire lives to understanding”?

Just kill me now…..

Brian Bosma’s Very Good Bill

As Indiana’s legislative session gets underway, there is (as usual) plenty to criticize. (Senate Bill 100 –which ThinkProgress has dubbed “The most anti-LGBT LGBT Rights Bill Ever”–probably tops the list. See their analysis of the bill or Doug Masson’s if you want to understand why), but it’s certainly not the only item on that list.

In the interests of balance, however, it’s worth noting that the news is not all negative.

Speaker Brian Bosma has introduced a really good bill, one that will actually support public education in Indiana. (Given the beating that public education has taken at the hands of Indiana’s Administration and legislature the past few years, this is a really positive change.)

The idea is to incentivize young people to go into education; the Next Generation Hoosier Educator Scholarship program promises to give Indiana’s top high school students an opportunity to earn a full scholarship to any accredited in-state school of education, so long as they spend five years teaching in an Indiana classroom after graduation.

The five-year commitment is based upon research suggesting that, after five years, a new teacher is “hooked”–likely to remain in the profession for the long haul.

Although it is very early in the process, the indications are that the bill–or at least the general approach–enjoys widespread, bipartisan support.

Wouldn’t it be great if the upcoming session of the General Assembly turned out to be one in which Republican and Democratic lawmakers worked together on this and other measures to address the actual problems Indiana faces, rather than yet another iteration of the culture wars that have dominated past sessions? (Just the thought makes me tingly all over…)

Good for you, Speaker Bosma!

Now, can you bury S.B. 100? Somewhere deep?