Monday, July 23, 2012

Adults Who Say the Kids Are Alright Get It Wrong

Former New York City Board of Education Chancellor Joel Klein recently penned a compelling Time editorial lamenting the prevailing—and apparently growing—complacency about American students’ lackluster academic performance. He rightly points to research showing the failure to improve basic skills among students hurts their future earning potential, U.S. GDP, and even national security.

While some so-called experts struggle to justify why average performance scores are good enough, students make no excuses for why they don’t do better: they’re bored.

A new report from the Center from American Progress finds that more than one-third of fourth graders say that their math assignments are too easy. More than one-third of high school seniors report that they seldom write about what they read in class. And, close to three out of four eighth grade science students say engineering and technology aren’t being taught. (See here also.). In brief, students are not being challenged in school.

This conclusion squares with previous surveys that found almost nine out of 10 high school students said they would work harder if their schools demanded more, set higher standards, and raised expectations. Ninety percent of students want opportunities to take challenging classes, and four out of five students think passing graduation exams in English and math would improve American high schools.

Other surveys have found that the overwhelming majority of high school dropouts left school because they were failing—to be challenged. Most students said they might not have dropped out if their schools offered better instruction (81 percent) and fostered an academic climate (65 percent). Not being challenged increased student boredom and absenteeism levels. As one respondent put it, “They just let you pass, anything you got.” (See p.6 here.)

Results from international reading, math, and science assessments appear to substantiate that claim. Math and science results over the past 15 years, and reading results over the past decade, reveal that American primary school students (ages 9 and 13) and secondary school students (age 15) have consistently performed near—or slightly below—the various international averages.

American 9-year-olds perform above the international averages in reading, math, and science by as much as 8 percent, 6 percent, and 8 percent higher, respectively.

American 13-year-olds generally perform above the international averages as well, up to nearly 2 percent higher in math, and up to 5 percent higher in science. They are not assessed in reading.

American 15-year-olds, however, generally perform at or below the international averages. In reading, they score up to about 1 percent higher than the international average, but they perform as much as 5 percent below the international math average, and as much as 2 percent below in science

However popular it may be to accept average performance as good enough, a more sobering picture emerges when American students’ internationally average performance is considered alongside the country’s above-average per-pupil spending.

The United States spends far more per student than the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average at both the primary and secondary levels. As of 2008, the latest year available, the United States spent more than $10,000 per primary student and more than $12,000 per secondary student. In contrast, the average OECD country spent about $3,000 less, at about $7,000 per primary student and $9,000 per secondary student. In terms of real percentage differences, the United States spends over 40 percent more than the average OECD country at the primary level, and over a third more per student at the secondary level. (All figures and percentages are based on inflation-adjusted 2010 dollar amounts.)

There are a handful of countries that currently spend more than theUnited States (See table 429). Luxembourg now spends the most of any OECD country, $13,807 per primary student and $20,130 per secondary student. Compared to the U.S. expenditure of $10,099 per primary student, Norway spends $11,206; Iceland spends $10,723; and Denmark spends $10,198.

At the secondary level, the U.S.spends $12,238 per student compared to Switzerland, which spends $18,034, and Norway, which spends $13,223. None of those countries, however, has been a top performing country over the past 10 to 15 years.

Top-performers over the years include Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, Singapore, and Sweden, depending on the subject, assessment year, and student age level.

Compared to these top-performing countries the United States spends nearly a third more on average (32.2 percent) at the primary level and close to a third more on average (30.8 percent) at the secondary level.

Close to 80 developed and developing countries now regularly participate in international assessments. It is worth considering how much longer we can afford to pay more for more of the same. However change-averse some adults in the American public-schooling system may be students and taxpayers are clamoring for better.


Subverting American Education One Lawsuit at a Time

There is an old Chinese saying "death from a thousand cuts" and, sad to say, America is now suffering such a death. How, you ask? The answer is seemingly well-intentioned litigation that will only exacerbate an already bad situation while further draining depleted budgets. And rest assured, while we only highlight one of such "cut," the disorder is everywhere and few Americans even recognize this slow death. By the time we wake up, it will be too late.

This specific "cut" concerns a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU to force Michigan's Highland Park School District to improve the education of its academically struggling students. This is only one of several similar lawsuits filed in New York, New Jersey among other states.

The facts are straightforward. According to a little known 1993 Michigan state law, all children have a right to literacy and the Highland Park students in grades 4 and 7 are doing poorly on standardized reading tests-65% of 4th graders are not proficient and 75% of 7th graders likewise failed to reach proficiency. Many 7th graders are, in fact, barely literate so a high school dropout rate of 46% is hardly surprising. The state law requires special assistance in such instances, and while the schools offer a program targeting strugglers, it obviously fails to impress the ACLU.

The second set of facts is that Highland Park already verges on bankruptcy. Schools are losing pupils (which means less state aid) and the city faces an $11.3 million deficit. Meanwhile, major employers and middle class residents are fleeing so the tax base is rapidly shrinking. To make matters worse, the school's record keeping is so inept that nobody really knows the problem's full extent.

Can litigation help? Extremely unlikely, and given that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of Highland Parks across America, this well-intentioned "rescue" effort may well bring a national plague.

Begin by acknowledging that Highland Park educators are undoubtedly trying their best or, alternatively, problems of home life and poverty are just overwhelming. Surely teachers want to educate children and any success with these lagging kids would be career boosting. Michigan is likewise making a major remedial effort by assumed responsibility for three schools with plans to transfer them to a charter school operator in the fall. In the meantime the city's debt is being restructured.

So, why does the ACLU's intervention, a little extra kick in the pants, so to speak portend a possible national disaster? Let me be blunt: despite endless research on this question and billions for almost every alleged cure imaginable, there are no solutions and the problems are, in all likelihood, intractable. Conceivably, the limited native ability of many of these children makes "proficiency" unrealistic, no different than a law requiring 7th graders to run a 100 yard dash in under 12 seconds. The unmentionable source of the problem, then, is the unrealistic state law, not pedagogical inadequacy. A more practical ready standard might be "adequacy" and with that small legal alteration, the ACLU's suit vanishes.

Now let's assume that the ACLU wins its case, and the judge issues an edict: proficiency for all in five years, or else!!  The disaster now begins. First, though experts are clueless on a cure, rest assured that more spending will be ordered, taxes raised, and with higher taxes, an already struggling state economy will languish. Highland Park may well slide into bankruptcy. The only beneficiaries will be those profiting from already bloated, and unproductive "education industry."

To be impolite, more quacks will be hired to implement schemes that have never worked and will never work. The Kansas City experiment is the poster child-gargantuan expenses for overseas field trips, lavish athletic facilities, new expensive buildings, smaller classes, armies of special counselors and on and on, and nothing worked. The more recent "Abbott schools" experiment in New Jersey confirmed this foolishness-massive court-ordered spending increases for low-performing schools financed by taxpayers and zero improvement. Remember, faced with a court order to "do something," it is pointless to heed experts who demonstrate that "nothing works." Instead, those who insist that their schemes that "might work" will carry the day.

It will get worse. As expenditures soar, and results remain flat, the pressure to cheat will be inevitable. School officials, not students, will lead the way and recent newspaper accounts of such top-down cheating suggest that this is becoming the response to impossible-to-meeting demands (see here). In a year or two this cheating may resemble publicly tolerated tax evasion in countries like Greece and Italy. That is, since "everyone does it" only a fool remains honest, and cheaters will now dominate schools.

Unrealistic court-ordered pressure may also bring dumbed-down standards. After all, only a few bureaucrats actually know what goes into the reading test, and too difficult questions can invisibly be eliminated. Now, almost overnight, proficiency soars. (This jimmy-the-test solution is especially tempting since it relieves educators of the hands-on cheating that risks termination.)  Yes, many "proficient" students will still be semi-literate but that may not be apparent for years when employees discover the ruse. And rest assured, city and even state officials will turn a blind eye towards this dishonesty since this bogus newly achieved "proficiency" will satisfy the judge and this means no tax hikes. 
Finally, this episode will teach a horrific lesson to Highland Park students and parents: why study hard, wait until the ACLU and a sympathetic judge arrive, and thanks to their intervention, you will know how to read. Salvation via litigation, a terrific recipe for sloth and dependency.

This damage will not, however, be uniform. Smart middle class parents hardly welcome scarce educational resources being directed at the bottom of the bottom (plus dumbed-down standards), often to no avail, and will personally remedy the situation with extra tutoring, enrolling junior in a no-nonsense private school or just re-locating to an upscale school distinct immune to an ACLU lawsuit. Now, the chasm between the rich and poor will further widen. Schools in poor areas will only get worse. Advocates of America's poor now can say that with friends like the litigation prone ACLU, who needs enemies? 

Multiply this scenario across dozens of states and thousands of school districts, even those not sued by the ACLU, and you have a perfect recipe for undermining America's public schools. Those not sued will be preemptive and "ACLU-proof" the test results or while conveniently ignoring cheating. Who would have imagined the nefarious impact of such "high-minded litigation to improve our nation's schools"?  Teachers and administers as well as many public officials who once honestly struggled against great odds to impart learning will now re-focus their effort to avoid a court orders bringing unemployment and higher taxes.

Obviously, the collapse of public education in Highland Park is not a crisis threatening America. But, this tale is about death by a thousand cuts, and this is just one cut. Bit by bit, almost invisibly, scores of American schools will slide towards mediocrity to avoid judicial orders that will accomplish nothing other than raising taxes to enrich the ineffectual education industry. This is no different than what occurred under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind-intense pressure to uplift the bottom while that brought zero academic gain. And, for good measure, eliminating classes for the gifted.

To put this into a larger perspective, recall Voltaire's adage: the perfect is the enemy of the good. Our incessant efforts to uplift the bottom incur costs well beyond wasted billions. The pursuit may well destroy what we already have-a good though hardly stellar educational system-- so as to achieve the egalitarian fantasy of everyone being "proficient." Better to acknowledge intractability, no matter how painful or politically incorrect, than slide into bankruptcy and a culture of mendacity.



Is a College Education a Prerequisite for Personal Economic Success?

After the 112th Congress effectively struck a deal last year preventing interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from almost doubling to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent for another year, many students from across the country were exultant. Not surprisingly, they deemed this bipartisan compromise (a rarity in Washington these days) as step towards lowering higher education costs and alleviating the crushing burden of debt threatening the futures of so many American college graduates. But this eleventh hour resolution, although widely praised by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, is nothing more than a temporary fix to a longstanding problem; one that cannot be addressed without painful and systemic reforms.

On Thursday night, I attended “Bursting the College Bubble: The Status of Higher Education Today,” hosted by America’s Future Foundation and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Moderated by Lindsey Burke, an education scholar at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on state and local issues, the four-person panel expounded on the value of a college degree, discussed why college costs are rising exponentially, and reviewed the government’s pernicious role in the American higher education system.

Conventional wisdom dictates that obtaining a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is a golden ticket to the American Dream. Indeed, as the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jenna Robinson explains, “70 percent of high school graduates go on to [pursue] some kind of [postsecondary] academic degree” for this explicit purpose. But despite this seemingly positive trend, students are dropping out of college at unprecedented and alarming rates.

Andrew Gillen, a fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, explained this phenomenon in simplistic terms: “For every 100 students who attend college [only] 58 graduate,” he said. And of those 50 student who graduate, “only 38 use their degree in some meaningful sense.”

Let those numbers sink in.

In other words, only a small percentage of Americans attend college, graduate, and use their degree in a relevant field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as Burke explained during her opening remarks, “there are 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders…and 80,000 truck drivers [in the United States] with bachelor’s degrees.”

Not only have recent college graduates earned degrees they don’t use (after having taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans to pay for them) but the labor market is moving in a surprising and perhaps unanticipated direction.

“The economy is not demanding the degrees we’re using anymore,” Robinson intoned, referring to a different Bureau of Labor Statistics study estimating that only 3 of the 30 jobs projected to have the most growth by the end of the decade will require a four-year bachelor’s degree or higher. “[And thus the Obama administration’s] push for universal enrollment is a step in the wrong direction.

Put simply, the Obama administration’s “push for universal enrollment” is a code-phrase for making college an entitlement directed to every American. In fact, the White House is publicly pursuing policies that would give the United States the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Unfortunately, as each panelist pointed out, this initiative is merely driving up administrative costs and making college increasingly less accessible to millions of young Americans.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the cost of attending college has increased 475 percent since 1982. Last June, I had the opportunity to speak to Lindsey Burke by phone about this trend. (The interview was subsequently published in Student Groans, an article printed in the July issue of Townhall Magazine, available for purchase here). Here’s an excerpt:

    “Part of the reason [government intervention] has led to an increase in tuition and fees is because universities have zero incentive to lower costs,” she said. “They’ll spend as much money as they take in. And so there’s been no outward pressure on universities; they don’t have to worry about their bottom line because they know students can just go back, request more federal financial aid, [request] more federal subsidies, and they’ll have what they need to pay these increases in tuition.”

Given the inflated price tag of college, the panelists suggest Americans should seriously consider whether or not college is (a) needed at all for certain career paths and (b) worth the time and money invested. Bill Glod, a researcher and mentor at the Institute for Humane Studies, went a step further and praised innovator Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur who has long advocated that college is not only a waste of time, but can hinder hard working and industrious young Americans who would otherwise benefit from entering the workplace immediately after high school. His eponymous fellowship gives “20 people under 20” a one-time, $100,000 check every year to start their own companies, effectively encouraging these individuals not to go to college.

In short, a college education is not necessarily a prerequisite for personal economic success anymore. Let’s hope the next generation of Americans figures this out before it's too late.


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