Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why some conservatives oppose vouchers

Medical researchers go to a lot of trouble to test a new drug. They record exactly what they're administering, how often, and in what quantity. They solicit volunteers and randomly give the drug to some but not others. Thanks to decades of these randomized experiments, "House," "Doc Martin," and even your local GP have at least a clue as to what works and what doesn't.

As I've just argued elsewhere, most education policy advocacy is quackery by comparison. Analysts routinely claim to evaluate one policy by looking at evidence from another. When they do present relevant evidence, it is often inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading. Many education policy analysts either do not understand or do not care what constitutes meaningful evidence.

If they worked in the field of medicine, you would not let these people within fifty yards of your children, but they've been shaping the way children are taught for over a century. Education has suffered as a result. Despite a near tripling in the inflation-adjusted per pupil cost of a K-through-12 education, graduation rates are lower today than they were two generations ago, and students seem no better prepared academically.

So what's the alternative? Can you reject the quackery and demand the same quality of research from the education policy community that you do from the medical community? The answer, to a surprising degree, is yes... but there are some interesting complications.

The greatest challenge is that there is so little variation in education policy within the United States that our ability to evaluate alternatives is constrained. There are now charter school, voucher, and education tax credit programs in numerous states, but these programs are quite small. Charter schools are the largest, but even they enroll less than five percent of students. To draw firm conclusions we need to see a variety of policies operating on a larger scale.

An obvious solution is to look at the experiences of other nations, but this poses a challenge of its own: how do we know if the outcomes we observe can be attributed to a nation's policies rather than to economic, cultural, or demographic factors?

In principle, we could control for these other factors by mimicking medical experiments, randomly imposing a policy on one set of countries (the "treatment" group), while leaving a second group of countries as-is (the "control"). Not really feasible. Fortunately, medical researchers ran into this difficulty long ago—and found a way around it. Doctors can't impose restricted diets and increased exercise on entire national populations in order to measure the health effects, but they realized that when such changes occur naturallythey can still study the results. These are called "natural experiments" and they exist all over the world and throughout history, not just in medicine but in education.

For instance, many countries have two or three different types of school systems operating side-by-side. By studying the effects of these within-country variations for a large number of nations, and over a vast swath of history, we can isolate the impact of the policies themselves.

Because this approach draws on very large bodies of evidence, the source citations alone for a study of this kind would be many times longer than the present commentary. But while the evidence itself is hard to compress into this space, the findings are not. When we review natural experiments in education policy fromthe 5th century BC to the present, and in dozens of countries in the modern world, clear patterns emerge. It turns out that education is generally most effective, efficient, harmonious, and responsive to families when educators are freed from government regulations, families choose from among a variety of schools, schools vie with one another to attract and serve children, and parents pick up at least some of the cost directly themselves—in essence, a free education marketplace.

But the historical and international evidence also indicates that government funding of private schools tends to bring with it a pall of regulation that grows over time; and schools hamstrung with this red tape underperform those that give educators and families more freedom. Though the regulatory burden is usually heaviest in older and larger programs, it can be seen even in small modern U.S. voucher programs.

The upshot of all this is that vouchers are likely to smother and homogenize the private sector in the long term, causing it to resemble the bureaucratized state-run school system that voucher advocates so ardently wish to reform. Catch 22.

But the news is not all bad. State-level education tax credit programs are another way of broadening access to the kind of education marketplace supported by the historical and international evidence. The early research suggests that they do indeed raise achievement, and improve efficiency as that evidence leads us to expect. But, unlike vouchers, they do not appear to hobble educators with red tape. That does not mean it would be wise to enact education tax credits at the federal level, but it is a path that nine states have already begun to follow and the results so far are promising.

These, at any rate, are conclusions I have drawn in systematically studying scores of school systems from classical Athens and Sparta to modern Chile and America. Much more such work can and should be done. And it might be, if Americans demand the same level of seriousness from the education policy community that they do from the medical community.


One Third of U.S. Schools Receiving Stimulus-Funded 'Student Improvement Grants' Showed Declines

Three years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the Obama administration would spend $3.5 billion -- including $3 billion in stimulus funding -- on Student Improvement Grants. The money, he said, would "support the transformational changes that are needed to turn around the nation's lowest-achieving schools."

Now, after the Obama administration spent up to $2 million per school at more than 1,300 of the nation's lowest-performing schools, the data shows that one third of schools receiving SIG funding had declines in achievement -- a "not surprising finding," the Education Department said, "given the steep institutional challenges that these schools face."

"There's dramatic change happening in these schools, and in the long-term process of turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools, one year of test scores only tells a small piece of the story," Duncan said on in a Nov. 19 news release.

But the Education Department says in three main areas, there are signs of "positive momentum" and progress:


The British government minister who thinks that lessons in porn are acceptable: MP says schools are free to teach children despite impact of images on youngsters

Schools are free to give lessons in pornography, an education minister has admitted despite concerns about the impact of hardcore images on children.

Campaigners have warned that growing numbers of youngsters are hooked on graphic films found online.

David Cameron is preparing to make it easier for parents to block online porn from new computers.

But Liz Truss insisted lessons in porn can form part of ‘age appropriate’ studies.

Some teaching unions have called for students to be taught about porn from the age of 10.

But an alarming study last month revealed children as young as 11 are becoming addicted to internet pornography giving them 'unrealistic expectations' of sex.

Counsellors at Childline also report a surge in calls from youngsters traumatised after seeing adult images online.

However, Ms Truss backed teachers to discuss porn in the classroom.  She said: ‘The Government wants all young people to have high quality, age appropriate sex and relationships education.

‘The current non-statutory programmes of study for Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, which include sex and relationship education, can provide opportunities for schools to teach about pornography.’

PSHE, which includes sex and relationships education, is not compulsory in England unlike other parts of the UK.

Ms Truss’s admission that pornography can be taught as part of PHSE lessons will alarm parents and children’s campaigners.

While lessons on pornography would focus on the impact and dangers of graphic images online, they could backfire by alerting children to what can be easily accessed on the internet.

David Cameron is ready to take action to curb online porn. Anyone buying a new computer or signing up with a new internet service provider will be asked whether they have children when they log on for the first time.

Those answering ‘yes’ will automatically be taken through the process of installing anti-pornography filters and a series of questions about how stringent they want restrictions to be.

It follows a series of alarming cases of boys watching porn before attacking other children.

In June this year a 14-year-old boy who raped a nine-year-old girl after watching hard-core pornography online was spared jail.

His lawyer said the boy, who was just 12 at the time of the attack, wanted to feel grown up.  Sean Templeton, defending the boy, said: ‘There is a real risk that young people are growing up with a skewed view of what sex is and sexual activity.'

Ms Truss was responding to a parliamentary question from Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, who said how children find out about pornography was a matter for parents not teachers.

‘This is a matter for parents to make a judgement on,’ Mr Rosindell said. ‘I don’t think it is a matter for school teachers.

‘There is a general concern across the country that these things are becoming far too accessible for young people and the moral side of this needs to be upheld.

‘Guidance on young people is something that is something we need to ensure is there, rather than let this sort of thing become too prevalent.’

Last month the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) called for porn to be taught in lessons from the age of 10.

Policy adviser Sion Humphreys said: ‘Children are growing up in an overtly sexualised world.  ‘That includes easy access to porn and they need the skills to deal with it.’

The union called for teaching about the impact of pornography to be included ‘as part of a statutory Personal Social Health Education (PSHE) programme’.

‘Evidence suggests 10 isn't too young to start lessons on pornography, but it wouldn't be a full on lesson but the grounding would be laid down.’

The National Union of Teachers said referring to issues of porn in lessons is a step too far and that schools should only talk about it if asked by students.

Tory MP Chris Skidmore, a member of the Commons select committee, said any lessons on pornography would have to be handled sensitively.

'It is much better for schools to take control of this issue rather than simply allow children to find images on their phones in the playground.

'It would be naive to think that you could just prevent children getting access to these images.'

Jon Brown, head of the NSPCC’s Sexual Abuse programme said: 'It’s a good thing for children to learn that porn does not mirror real-life and gives a distorted view of sex.

'As long as this is explained in an age-appropriate way, with the consent of parents where necessary, it can help children form healthy relationships based on care and respect.'


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