Friday, December 14, 2007

Education Debate, Round 2

Kyle's opening salvo of Round 2 is here. My original series of posts is available here, here, and here.

Before I respond to Kyle's various points of contention, I want to recall that in my opinion the goal of our debate is to arrive at a solution that may compromise details but does not compromise principles for either side. Importantly, any compromise that maintains the status quo inherently does not violate a principle, since neither side has done anything to move away from their core principles. To that end, we could probably stop right now and have some sort of an agreement that would meet those terms; it would be a vastly incomplete agreement, but it would be an improvement nonetheless.

I should add that, for reasons unrelated to this series, I've been doing a lot of research recently on Bloomberg's reforms in the NYC Public Schools; my intuition is that our ultimate compromise will look somewhat similar to the most recent round of those NYC reforms.

Turning to Kyle's points:
1. Kyle wants a federal mandate that graduating high school students be capable of making transitions into one of three areas. Although I am generally opposed to federal involvement (and ultimately all government involvement) in education on principle, the type of involvement Kyle envisions here would be a much looser and individualized approach than the federal government currently takes. As libertarians love to point out- the American education system has gotten progressively worse ever since the feds started to become heavily involved. However, Kyle's proposal regarding federal involvement seems more one of creating very broad standards, which allow for greater decision making at the local level. So his first point is a big step in the right direction and is thus acceptable to me as is.

2. My opposition to standardized testing is less an opposition based on principle than an opposition based on standardized testing as practiced. I should also say that insofar as a government-created schools dominate the education market through the government's monopoly power, I agree in principle with Kyle's statement that: "But we also need to measure the growth of each individual student in order to identify problem areas, areas of growth, and collect the data needed to better teach them." This is, I might add, exactly the approach taken in NYC's latest reforms and in no way the approach taken by NCLB (which mandates testing based on a school's raw performance vis-a-vis arbitrary benchmarks). So I'd say we have achieved an agreement in principle on this point.

3. Competition- Kyle seems to agree in principle that competition would improve schools generally speaking. His primary concerns are stratification and the exportation of problem environments. Leaving aside the issue of private schools, vouchers and tax credits for the moment, the issue of stratification can be solved or mitigated relatively easily. One such way to do this is a concept under which school funding "follows the student." Again, this is a concept that NYC is largely adopting; under this concept funding is not a function of arbitrarily drawn district lines but is instead a function of an individualized funding formula. Under this formula, students with particular traits (e.g., low family income, special needs, etc.) are worth more funding than other students (e.g., high family income). The result of this is that low income students become every bit as valuable as high income students (who have a greater ability to pay).

As for the issue of exportation, I'm not sure that the evidence really supports that contention; indeed, this was precisely one of the most common arguments against desegregation busing, yet the evidence I've seen showed that busing had no negative effects on the "higher-class" schools. My understanding is that the evidence showed a decrease in dropout rates (for instance) amongst bused-in students, combined with no effect on dropout rates for the pre-existing majority student base.

I still think that full-on private competition is the best way to fix the education problem, but a "funding follows the student" system similar to NYC's would be a big step in the right direction (I would at a minimum want to see far more individual choice amongst public schools than NYC's current system allows, though; the NYC system places more of the critical decision-making on the principal, for whose business various non-profits and city-run organizations compete, which is at least a massive decentralization of power and creates a vastly improved free market effect).

4. Already agreed to- no need to comment further: end cookie cutter education!

5. We're in agreement on incentives. I should add that anything that increases competition amongst individual schools, even as outlined in point 3 above, would mitigate many of the legitimate concerns the unions have about merit pay based on the principal's decisionmaking. I know I sound like a broken record here, but yet again, Bloomberg's plan is a terrific example of how to improve teacher incentives: bonuses/extra classroom funds for highly rated teachers (thus not running afoul of existing union contracts), tenure based on merit rather than pure years of service.

As an aside, having done my share of government employment law over the years, I absolutely loved this remark of Kyle's, since it is even more true than I think he realizes: "Again, being a federal employee helps me here. In order to get fired, I need to basically commit a felony while on the job to lose my job, and even that is debatable."

6. At this point, Kyle turns to a more detailed discussion of standardized testing in the context of his excellent Progressive Diversification proposal, with which I expressed almost complete agreement in my second post of Round 1. He agrees with my emphasis on somewhat less standardized testing combined with greater anonymity.

7. Next we turn to the specific issue of private competition on a level playing field with public education. In my original proposal, I had emphasized a system of means-tested tax credits that would essentially allow poor families to spend equal amounts on education as more well-off families. Those amounts could be spent on any school, public or private, or on home-schooling.

Kyle is not completely opposed to this, but he has a number of serious reservations. First, he argues that "I think what would happen is that we would end up funding the private sector using government funds." Naturally, I disagree with this concern. If we were talking about vouchers, I think this is an accurate concern; however, we are talking about means-tested tax credits. What this means is that the parents are literally spending their own money on the private school; the government is simply reducing their tax liability by a corresponding amount without any regard to where the parent chose to spend it- as long as it was on their child's education. Indeed, in both form and practice, this concept is no different from educational tax credits that we already offer families for college students.

I also disagree that the public schools would be destroyed by the immediate stream of students from public to private institutions resulting from tax credits. First, existing private institutions have limited space since they are set up to deal with a system in which they are competing with a 100% subsidized monopoly. In other words, they can't handle the massive short-term increase in demand that Kyle worries about, which would mean most students in the short-term would remain in the public schools, and giving the public schools plenty of time to retool. In addition, the mean-tested tax credit system would actually increase per-student funding in the public schools since few students would qualify for 100% reimbursement of the local per-student public school spending. This would speed up the ability of public schools to retool.

As for church and state concerns, I'm a fairly well-established high-waller. This is the primary reason I'm uncomfortable with vouchers, which I worry have a far bigger effect on the religious schools than the schools have on government; on top of this, the qualification process for receiving vouchers raises the specter of government discriminating amongst religions. Tax credits largely get around this problem- again, this is the parent(s)' money, not the government's. Indeed, I think the bigger church-state concern comes under our current system, when individual parents must send their children to government-run schools that push topics that the individual parent finds heretical. This concern is what has led to the watering-down of curricula in order to make them uncontroversial to one religious group or another. So my feeling is that tax credits actually reduce church-state concerns compared to our current system.

Next-stratification between elite private institutions and institutions that the poor can afford. Here, I want to point out that this stratification already exists and cannot get much worse. As Megan McCardle pointed out last week, private high schools make up only a tiny portion of our overall schools, yet students from private high schools make up a massive percentage of enrollees at Ivy League schools. This despite the fact that Ivy League schools are offering increasingly generous financial aid packages for less well-off students.

As for the issue of standards in private institutions, the libertarian perspective here is that the standards are not horribly different from licensing requirements. However, we already require accreditation of schools, so I don't have too much of a problem with ensuring that a school meet certain minimum requirements to be eligible for tax credit funds. But there should be some sort of a process where a school with an innovative idea can apply for a variance.

Kyle's general idea about making PD district-wide and including private schools in the mix makes a certain amount of sense. My reservation is that the district lines are relatively arbitrary. I should also mention that this reservation is also reinforced by the fact that I'm in NJ, where school districts are drawn absurdly small. I think the solution to this is to make the "districts" a minimum size based on geographic area; I would also want some sort of an opportunity for parents to send their kids to school in a different "district" if they meet certain conditions not worth getting into here.

8. Finally, Kyle responds to the third and final installment of my Round 1 offerings (which was a response to his initial proposal).

a. I have no problem with the committee(s) having authority to start trial runs of programs within the public schools, as long as they are limited in size. My big concern is that the committees will become nothing more than lobbying targets for interest groups seeking to protect or popularize their pet project or a particular line of textbooks, or a particular product line billed as a learning system. This is precisely what has happened with certain elements of NCLB, though the effects of it have been somewhat mitigated for reasons not applicable to this discussion.

b. Central pool of funds- I still have my objections to the concept. However, the Bloomberg program again provides an excellent example of a format that I would be willing to accept. The program itself is rather complicated, but the funding concept is not- the funding follows the student, with each student being allocated an individualized level of funding based on their particular needs, as reduced to a (admittedly oversimplified) formula. There is a lot more to the program than this, but I'll admit I've been struggling to understand all the details for two days.

c. Certification standards/improved quality of teachers- one of the best ways to improve teacher quality is inherently merit pay. But our problem isn't that the teachers at the top aren't good enough- the teachers at the top are I suspect as good as any teachers in the world. Adopting merit pay would also bump more of our middle-tier teachers into the top tier. But merit pay may not do much to improve the quality of the bottom-tier of teachers. For that, I think you can introduce some programs that would be useful. For instance, you could add mandatory off-day or off-season professional development, along with frequent in-class evaluations (you would pay for this in part by reducing the number of in-class evaluations of top-tier teachers). A teacher whose students failed to show acceptable improvement during their time in the teacher's class over a period of 3 consecutive years would be automatically dismissed.

d. Much fat science is bad science because it fails to account for all sorts of variables; the most logical explanation for the fat "epidemic" is in my opinion the more sedentary nature of our jobs, combined with the ongoing redefinition of what it means to be obese or overweight. I don't want to get too sidetracked on this issue, though, and especially not on the science side of things- it's too much of a distraction from the broader debate. But as a matter of principle, I'm opposed to anything that restricts parental choice. My solution on this issue remains the free market, but Kyle is obviously correct in pointing out that the primary reason for choosing a school is almost entirely education; but if two schools are in a close competition for a parent's child, it is quite possible that vending options/restriction of vending options would be the tiebreaker or deciding factor. Again, though, the manner in which vending contracts are awarded is worthy of a closer look.

e. Everything else, we seem to be agreed on.

I apologize for taking a few days to get this post out. As I pointed out above, I've been doing a bunch of work looking into the NYC reforms lately for reasons unrelated to this debate; I needed to get my mind off the education topic for a few hours a day, which meant putting this post off.