Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Do Test Scores Really Mean for the Economy?

Stagnant NAEP scores spell trouble ahead for the U.S. economy

It is increasingly common to hear public statements downplaying the results of student tests. Such was the widespread reaction after the annual release of the highly reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores in April, often called the "nation's report card." The 2017 average scores, which measure U.S. student performance in math and reading for a nationally representative sample of 4th and 8th graders, indicate a general stagnation compared with two years ago. And the results from two years ago were significantly below those from four years ago.

The common reaction to the NAEP results—for parents, policymakers, and school leaders—has the tone of, "Oh darn, we do need to do better." But there is no sense of urgency. Nor is there much realization that we have essentially had the same results and the same reaction for four decades. Math and reading scores of 17-year-olds, for instance, are unchanged since the 1970s.

Putting our heads in the sand is not the right answer. Test scores today say a lot about what our labor force will look like over the coming decades. Our current students' skills will dictate our economic future in the long run. Understanding the implications of higher skills—as measured by regular standardized tests—provides a way of assessing how our country as a whole will fare in the coming years.

It is well-documented that people with a better education tend to earn more over their lifetimes. But fewer people understand the overall effects of an educated society on the economy. Research I have done with my German colleague Ludger Woessmann over the past decade shows a clear link between nations' scores on international math and science tests and their economic-growth rates between 1960 and 2000. Other research also shows that growth rates are directly related to achievement improvements that result from better school policies, including external exit exams for students, higher relative teacher salaries, and more choice and competition among schools.

Even though Canada does not seem culturally or historically far removed from the United States, its schools produce systematically better outcomes. On the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment's math tests for 15-year-olds, Canada ranked 9th, while the United States ranked 39th—almost one-half standard deviation behind. Continuing "business as usual" puts us well below the average math-skill level in developed countries, leaving us faring only slightly better than countries such as Croatia and Greece—two nations with low PISA scores and struggling economies.

By historic patterns, if we were to close just half the gap between our students' PISA scores and Canada's, it would lead to long-run annual economic-growth rates that are almost 0.5 percentage points higher. That increase would raise the average U.S. gross domestic product 7 percent across the 21st century—more than enough to pay for projected fiscal problems with Medicare and Social Security benefits. Such monetary improvements would be more than 10 times larger than the economic losses from the 2008 recession.

Making headway on such improvements is feasible, and we already have a roadmap: Achievement in Massachusetts, consistently our highest-performing state, closes two-thirds of the average U.S.-Canadian performance gap. But this is just one state, and it cannot carry the entire nation. If other states realized the performance gains that the aggressive educational policies in Massachusetts have yielded over the past two decades (along with states that include Delaware, Florida, and Maryland), our nation could become internationally competitive. These states all put a relentless focus on student performance through emphasizing strong school accountability and teacher effectiveness. They also make their policies consistent across different political administrations.

To be sure, the effects of improving schools do not immediately appear, nor is there an exact recipe. It takes time for higher-achieving students to enter the labor market and make their skills known. But the delayed outcome isn't grounds for waiting to change our practices.

Improving student outcomes has proved difficult in large part because we are unwilling to take any major steps to make schools better. It appears acceptable just to put more resources into existing schools without any evidence of better academic learning. Real school expenditures per student have more than doubled since 1970—yet our graduates' achievement remains mostly flat.

When we talk about dealing with the rigidities of our current education system, people generally shrink back. Witness, for example, the reactions to teacher strikes in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. There were no discussions of relating any salary increases to the effectiveness of teachers. Indeed, the only thing on the table was more funding for failed existing policies.

The economic costs of not paying attention to the message of stagnating schools are huge. The absence of improvement in our nation's schools not only translates into significantly lower economic outcomes for our children, but it also signals a loss of our international prestige and influence. Why risk losing our country's top leadership position in the world economy and the futures of our next generations in one fell swoop?


New Poll Suggests Lessons Teachers Unions Should Remember in November

 “Teachers are standing up for their students and themselves against largely red states with weak labor laws,” writes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in her recent USA Today editorial. “The days of passive resignation,” she says, “are over.”

Weingarten and others seem fond of characterizing the recent wave of teacher strikes as political re-awakenings. Yet preliminary findings from a pending survey suggest that teachers unions and their allies may regret their “Remember in November” mantra.

Commentators spanning the left-of-center spectrum have highlighted how union leaders were largely Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies to teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and most recently North Carolina (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). This is a significant misstep at a time when unions are fighting for their collectivist lives.

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in Janus v. AFSCME, a case brought against government unions for charging non-members agency fees. If unions are prohibited from charging these fees, the cost of members’ dues could soar—by hundreds of dollars annually in the case of California Teachers Association members (see here and here). The result? Less money and fewer members.

Anticipating an unfavorable ruling, the National Education Association is reducing its two-year budget by $50 million and bracing for a membership nosedive in excess of 300,000 teachers, according to union watchdog and Education Intelligence Agency Director Mike Antonucci.

But it doesn’t take wildcat teacher pay strikes or Supreme Court cases to see just how out of step unions appear to be with rank-and-file teachers, whose average salaries are seven to eight times lower than what Weingarten or NEA President Lily Eskelsen García makes.

Preliminary results from a pending Educators for Excellence (E4E) survey of American public-school teachers indicate close to one in three unionized teachers (30 percent) believe that their unions are not essential or something they could do without (p. 1). If unionized teachers were not automatically enrolled in their unions, 60 percent say they would still be “very likely” to opt-in (p. 8). The other 40 percent aren’t so sure. As for non-unionized teachers, 61 percent say that they would opt out of paying their unions’ agency fees given a choice (p. 9).

Making teachers’ opt-out decisions easier could be the fact that just 28 percent of unionized teachers believe their unions’ policy decisions represent their perspectives “a great deal” (p. 5). A separate Education Week poll released late last year also found that just 28 percent of teachers said that their unions’ political views represented their own “a lot.”

This disconnect is further reflected in low levels of teacher engagement with their unions, including advocacy-related activities. Less than one in five unionized teachers say they participated in a union-organized rally (18 percent) or took an online advocacy action (15 percent) in the past year (p. 6).

So much for unions’ claims about being the voice of teachers (see, for example, here and here), especially in political matters.

Almost half of all unionized teachers (47 percent) agree that it is just “somewhat” to “not at all important” for their unions to provide them information about political candidates, while close to two-thirds (62 percent) agree that it is only “somewhat” to “not at all important” for their unions to support/endorse political candidates (p. 4).

Contrary to the collectivist mythos dominating union policies and practice, teachers are not a monolithic voting block. They don’t need—or want—any Grand Poobahs telling them how to vote.

But apparently, some strike organizers missed the memo.

Consider Arizona, home to the country’s largest teachers’ strike in history. For all the claims about being a non-partisan coalition that simply wants higher pay for teachers, Education Week opinion contributor Lance Izumi documents the decidedly partisan underbelly of prominent strike organizers (see also here, here, here, and peruse here). Several Arizona news media outlets have also reported about the anything-but-apolitical leanings of organizers (see here, here, here, here [explicit language warning], and here).

That underbelly, together with heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent from those who don’t subscribe to a preferred ideology (here, here, and here), may be the undoing of a movement that’s hardly a unified front itself (see here, here, and here).

There’s also mounting backlash from Arizona teachers who feel betrayed about the movement’s true intent, which was supposed to be about higher teacher pay (see here, here, here, and here). Yet the same day a 20 percent teacher pay raise deal was reached by the governor and legislative leaders, strike organizers issued four additional demands and continued the strikes (see here, here, here, and here).

Those demands were defeated the following week when the budget plan came to a vote (see here and May 2-3, 2018, tweets here). The 20 percent teacher pay raise, however, was passed along highly partisan lines, with all but four Democratic lawmakers voting against it, and every Republican lawmaker except one voting in favor.

Meanwhile, many Arizona parents, who are largely supportive of higher pay for teachers and have approved billions of dollars in additional education spending, are angered that the strikes meant their children missed more than a full school week (see here, here, and here). Want to make parents even angrier? Tell them the strikes were really “for the children” (see comments).

In response, a growing number of parents may be voting with their feet this fall by taking advantage of Arizona’s expansive educational choice programs (see here, here, here, and parent comments here). These choices include public charter schools (see here, here, and here), private schools, homeschooling, online instruction, and education savings accounts—options some strike representatives have publicly opposed (see, for example, here and here).

So, come November parents, teachers, and taxpayers in Arizona and other states will certainly remember—but likely not the way strike organizers or union bosses presume they will.


Walter Williams: Diversity and Inclusion Harm

In conversations with most college officials, many CEOs, many politicians and race hustlers, it's not long before the magical words "diversity" and "inclusiveness" drop from their lips. Racial minorities are the intended targets of this sociological largesse, but women are included, as well. This obsession with diversity and inclusion is in the process of leading the nation to decline in a number of areas. We're told how it's doing so in science, in an article by Heather Mac Donald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, titled "How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences."

Mac Donald says that identity politics has already taken over the humanities and social sciences on American campuses. Waiting in the wings for a similar takeover are the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. In the eyes of the diversity and inclusiveness czars, the STEM fields don't have a pleasing mixture of blacks, Hispanics and women. The effort to get this "pleasing mix" is doing great damage to how science is taught and evaluated, threatening innovation and American competitiveness.

Universities and other institutions have started watering down standards and requirements in order to attract more minorities and women. Some of the arguments for doing so border on insanity. A math education professor at the University of Illinois wrote that "mathematics itself operates as Whiteness." She says that the ability to solve algebra and geometry problems perpetuates "unearned privilege" among whites. A professor at Purdue University's School of Engineering Education published an article in a peer-reviewed journal positing that academic rigor is a "dirty deed" that upholds "white male heterosexual privilege," adding that "scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced, and colonizing."

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are two federal agencies that fund university research and support postdoctoral education for physicians. Both agencies are consumed by diversity and inclusion ideology. The NSF and NIH can yank a grant when it comes up for renewal if the college has not supported a sufficient number of "underrepresented minorities." Mac Donald quotes a UCLA scientist who reports: "All across the country the big question now in STEM is: how can we promote more women and minorities by 'changing' (i.e., lowering) the requirements we had previously set for graduate level study?" Mac Donald observes, "Mathematical problem-solving is being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects; the pace of undergraduate physics education is being slowed down so that no one gets left behind."

Focusing on mathematical problem-solving and academic rigor, at least for black students at the college level, is a day late and a dollar short. The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka The Nation's Report Card, reported that only 17 percent of black students tested proficient or better in reading, and just 7 percent reached at least a proficient level in math. In some predominantly black high schools, not a single black student scored proficient in math. The academic and federal STEM busybodies ought to focus on the academic destruction of black youngsters between kindergarten and 12th grade and the conferring of fraudulent high school diplomas. Black people should not allow themselves to be used at the college level to help white liberals feel better about themselves and keep their federal grant money.

Mac Donald answers the question of whether scientific progress depends on diversity. She says: "Somehow, NSF-backed scientists managed to rack up more than 200 Nobel Prizes before the agency realized that scientific progress depends on 'diversity.' Those 'un-diverse' scientists discovered the fundamental particles of matter and unlocked the genetics of viruses." She might have added that there wasn't even diversity among those white Nobel laureates. Jews constitute no more than 3 percent of the U.S. population but are 35 percent of American Nobel Prize winners. One wonders what diversity and inclusion czars might propose to promote ethnic diversity among Nobel Prize winners.


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