If the facts don't suit you, ignore them!
The biggest difficulty for defenders of the government's school monopoly is the overwhelming consensus in the empirical research finding that school choice works. They deal with this little problem primarily by ignoring the evidence and changing the subject, but it also helps that they have a stable of professors ready to distort, confuse, and obfuscate the research.
A new article in Perspectives on Politics, a prominent academic journal published by the American Political Science Association, shows how low they'll sink. Written by Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "Data Don't Matter? Academic Research and School Choice" is a warped and unfair review of the research on school choice: It's full of innuendo, misdirection, and selective omissions.
The academic effects of vouchers have been studied eight times with random-assignment methods, the gold standard of social science. But Smith, following standard procedure for opponents of vouchers, doesn't even acknowledge the existence of most of these studies. This may be because seven of the eight studies found statistically significant positive effects from vouchers and no significant negative effects. The eighth study also found positive effects, and only failed to achieve statistical significance by watering down the data with unorthodox methods, some of which violate federal research guidelines.
Smith also follows the standard anti-choice procedure in failing to acknowledge the research consensus in favor of school choice on other questions, such as the effect of choice on public schools and whether choice students learn values like tolerance. Not one empirical study has ever found that outcomes at U.S. public schools exposed to any form of school choice have worsened, and quite a few have found that they improve. Similarly, there is a large body of empirical studies finding that choice improves students' levels of tolerance and other civic values, while very few studies find the reverse.
There is certainly lots of room for legitimate discussion about the limitations of these studies. However, for such discussion to be honest it must acknowledge the preponderance of empirical studies supporting choice, and evaluate them on their merits. Smith carefully keeps most of these studies offstage. Instead, his primary tactic is to question the motives of those whose findings are favorable to school choice. And the substantive comments he does make on the content of the research are shockingly unfair.
Bias produced by researchers' beliefs and motives is a delicate problem. There's nothing wrong with researchers' developing a point of view about the things they study. And though we need to be on guard against biased research, we also need to avoid dismissing as bad scholarship any study produced by a researcher who has a point of view on the things he studies. Ironically, Smith himself acknowledges the difficulty of this problem at one point in the article, and even provides the correct answer: He says that the important question is not whether the researcher has a point of view, but rather this: "Were the data treated fairly? Fair means that the researcher offers demonstrable assurance that he or she has adhered to scholarly conventions designed to minimize the influence of [the researcher's] preferences."
Too bad Smith didn't stick to this rule. When it comes time to evaluate the research, he is more concerned with attributing positive findings for choice to the motives of researchers and organizations who support choice than he is with determining whether the data were treated fairly. For example, a systematic review of all available empirical studies found an overwhelming consensus that private schools and choice programs improve tolerance and other civic values among students, but Smith dismisses the review out of hand because many of the studies were sponsored by Harvard University's pro-reform Program on Education Policy and Governance. (Full disclosure: Smith includes my employer, the Friedman Foundation, on his list of suspect organizations, as well as my former employer, the Manhattan Institute.)
Smith also employs misdirection. He dismisses some positive school choice findings because the effect identified is small, but a positive effect that is small over one year can look a lot bigger when you compound it over the twelve years students are in school. He points out that not all voucher programs are identical, so a study finding that vouchers work in Milwaukee doesn't necessarily prove that they work elsewhere. This clearly leads the reader to believe that the findings on voucher programs in different cities are mixed, when in fact the findings of the best studies are similarly positive across all cities.
Finally, Smith mischaracterizes scholarly debates. One major voucher study found significant gains only for black students; Smith paints this as implausible because "there is no satisfactory causal explanation" for this result. In fact, researchers have pointed to several perfectly satisfactory possible explanations, including that the black students were more severely underserved by their public schools and thus had more to gain from vouchers, and that the much smaller number of non-black participants in the study may have prevented their results from achieving statistical significance. Smith likewise dismisses as inexplicable another study's finding of significant gains in math but not in reading, but it is perfectly plausible that math achievement is more affected by schools than reading achievement, since kids learn more about math at school, and reading in the home. To disagree with these explanations is fine, but to pretend that they don't exist is blatantly unfair.
In one of his most egregious distortions, Smith reviews several critiques of a study by my former colleague Jay Greene. What Smith doesn't tell you is that Greene later published new analyses showing that his findings aren't affected by those criticisms. He also doesn't tell you that two independent studies confirm the findings.
This is only a sampling of the innuendo, errors, misdirection, and injustices in Smith's article. This phony research review will undoubtedly reinforce the myth that the research on school choice is mixed or worse, when in fact school choice is as well supported by the research as any education policy. But I prefer to look on the bright side: If it weren't for people like Smith, people like me would be out of a job.
NYC: Education Policy in Wonderland
New York State now ranks number three in the nation in education spending, with a statewide per-pupil average of $14,000 a year; only New Jersey and Washington, D.C., shell out more per student. And New York City kids aren't shortchanged: while per-pupil education spending in the city once slightly lagged the state average, the gap has narrowed to almost nothing. Earlier this spring, New York city councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, who chairs the council's Education Committee, released a report showing that the Gotham schools' operating budget has ballooned 50 percent over the last five years, to $13.5 billion. That figure, Moskowitz noted, doesn't even take into account pension and benefit costs, representing another $2 billion annually, nor the billions the city spends on the schools' capital budget and interest payments on school construction loans. All told, the real New York City education budget is zooming toward the $20 billion mark-over one-third of the total city budget. That works out to a jaw-dropping $18,000 per pupil.
With nearly $20 billion spent annually on the schools and 120,000 employees, including 80,000 classroom teachers, working in them, the city, a reasonable person would conclude, has more than enough resources to provide an adequate education for its 1.1 million students. In reality, the reason the city schools are so lousy-with student test scores dismal, despite an uptick this year, and dropout rates shamefully high-has nothing to do with money and everything to do with a dysfunctional and unaccountable school system.
Unfortunately, logic has been in short supply in the Wonderland-like courtroom of State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse, the trial court judge who has overseen the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) school-financing case that has inexorably moved through the New York state court system for the past 12 years. The suit has successfully charged that Gotham's schools do not meet the state constitutional guarantee of an "opportunity for a sound basic education."
This past February, the case hit the headlines after DeGrasse affirmed the recommendations of the three "special masters" he had appointed and ordered the state to cough up an extra $23.3 billion for New York City's public schools over the next four years. The total includes $9.2 billion in capital funds and a phased-in $5.63 billion (40 percent!) annual boost in operating support, resulting in an average per-pupil operating expenditure (not including pension, benefit, or capital costs) of $18,000 per student. This figure would be nearly enough to cover tuition at one of the city's elite private schools, where the CFE attorneys send their kids. It would be three to four times the cost of enrolling at one of the city's well-functioning Catholic schools (which DeGrasse attended as a boy). Many of those schools are now closing up shop because working-class parents can't afford the rising tuitions, modest as they are....
New Yorkers need only look across the Hudson River to see the folly of this approach. New Jersey was a pioneer in the educational equity movement. Three decades of litigation have pushed the courts deeper and deeper into education-policy decision making, resulting in huge court-mandated increases in per-pupil spending, paid for with massive state and property tax hikes. Yet the targeted urban districts have seen little in the way of improved education results. Meanwhile, the tax increases have spurred a tax revolt among fed-up voters across the state.
Governor Pataki (and his successor) must not allow this to happen to New York. Instead, he should use his newly affirmed constitutional authority and tell the courts to stay out of education policy, especially when it comes to the spending decisions that are the responsibility of elected representatives. Pataki should shift the conversation away from the tired refrain of "more money" and toward measures that will actually help open New York's ossified educational system to competition and real reform. He has already proposed a key step (though without legislative approval, so far): lifting the teachers' union-imposed statewide cap on charter schools-several are now among the city's top-performing and have waiting lists in the thousands. A modest tax credit for poor and working-class parents who choose to send their children to parochial or private schools would also be a worthy goal. Most important, Pataki should support Mayor Bloomberg's and Schools Chancellor Klein's efforts to hammer out a new contract for city teachers that requires more classroom time and greater staffing flexibility, makes it easier to fire bad teachers and reward exceptional ones, and generally seeks to treat teachers as professionals rather than union cogs.
If Governor Pataki hangs tough and insists on these commonsense reforms, he could help usher in a new era of improved educational options for New York City's kids-which is what this whole circus was supposed to be about in the first place.
Australia: Academic martyrdom highlights university brain drain
Legal academic James McConvill argues that academic conformity and correctness is stifling creativity in the universities
It has been reported that Sydney's Macquarie University is attempting to buy out embattled academic, associate professor Andrew Fraser, from his fixed-term contract, as a result of controversial statements made by Fraser. Over the last couple of weeks, Fraser has made a number of statements which have been described as "racist" and "inflammatory". Among these statements are that sub-Saharan Africans living in Australia are a crime risk as they have much lower IQ's and "significantly more testosterone" than whites; that Australia is creating an Asian managerial-professional "ruling class", and that the abolition of slavery in the US can be used as example to demonstrate a link between an expanding black population and increases in crime.
In an opinion piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald on June 15 this year ("Ideas Need an Airing in Halls of Learning"), I argued that Australian universities are at risk of losing their intellectuals due to a culture of mediocrity. The Fraser imbroglio only acts to prove my point. This is not because of the statements of Fraser, however, but rather the attempt by Macquarie University to silence him.
Universities are meant to be places where academics can raise ideas freely as a means of fostering discourse, engendering debate and enriching the community. But in Australia, many of our universities are full of academics that lack intellectual rigour and creativity, which is why most Australian universities barely come onto the radar screen in terms of international impact.
In a piece published in the Canberra Times on June 29 this year ("It's academic, really first, clean out the ordure"), I commented that it is wrong to accept this culture of mediocrity in some universities as being the result of cute eccentricity among academics. I argued that:
A number of academics are not eccentrics but rather bullshitters. Now, I am not getting crass on you - the study of bullshit has emerged as part of mainstream philosophy and should be taken seriously. Just recently, Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt released a small book titled, 'On Bullshit' (2005, Princeton University Press), which has sold truckloads of copies worldwide.
According to Frankfurt, the difference between a bullshitter and a liar is that the bullshitter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all". Frankfurt argues that because of this "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are".
Due to the way in which many universities have traditionally operated, bullshit is rife. A number of academics do not operate in the "reality-based community" because at many universities there is little in the way of meaningful monitoring of how they spend their time. As time goes by once smart, capable intellectuals sadly become bullshitters. This is an issue, as not only is bullshit useless, but it spreads - capturing in its wake generation after generation of young up-and-comers.
The solution, in my view, is a colonic irrigation of our universities. The bullshit must be flushed out, enabling universities to function properly by providing the higher education "true believers" with a clear opportunity to do their job.
In relation to the public debate concerning Fraser's statements, Macquarie University issued a press release on July 21 proclaiming that academic freedom is an important right, but that academics should ensure their comments relate to their "individual expertise and the specialised area of their appointment". In the same press release, it was also noted that "any form of discrimination, harassment, or victimisation is totally unacceptable and has no place in our society". What can be implied from this is that Fraser's statements took on these characteristics, and related to matters outside his own expertise.
The condemnation of Fraser's comments by Macquarie simply because they are not politically correct is a serious problem. Did the doyens at Macquarie University actually take the time to consider whether Fraser might be right? Did they test samples of sub-Saharan African testosterone, carry out IQ tests, or consult experts in the United States on that country's history, before issuing the July 21 press release, or before deciding to buy out Fraser's contact?
Is a university actually in a position to say that Australia will not experience an Asian managerial-professional ruling class, and what are the implications of this? All the press release can confirm is that in 2004, 31 per cent of Macquarie University students were international students. I praise my lucky stars that I work at a progressive and enlightened institution like Deakin University (where, as Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Walker confirmed in a media release on May 18 this year, there is a "commitment to . academic freedom", in order to provide "leadership to the wider community . encouraging rather than fearing debate"), which has in terms of research output and impact - probably the most productive and influential law school in Australia.
While I wish to make clear that I do not agree with Fraser's comments, he has the right to express these views, enabling others to determine their accuracy. That is, there should be an informed debate about what Fraser has put forward, rather than immediate condemnation of his views. Macquarie University in its press release provided no assistance in this respect. To repeat what I said in my earlier opinion piece, "We should take the time to truly understand [what intellectuals] put forward, rather than resort to immediate condemnation. Once we understand their views, we are, of course, free to disagree". Fraser's comments may lead to him being ridiculed, and that should be the sanction for his views, rather than censorship of them.
The whole Fraser imbroglio, overall, highlights one thing, that commentators are right in saying that in many universities today the promotion of ideas is playing "second fiddle" to the provision of services. Only at Macquarie University, they are also in the business of creating martyrs.
For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.
The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"
Comments? Email me here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here