That 70’s Show in Education (CJ)

The image “https://i2.wp.com/www.hpgop.com/images/carolinajournal.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Today’s Carolina Journal (John Locke Foundation) has a John Hood column comparing education statistics of the 1970s versus today. The comparisons are striking as much as they are startling.

Here is the column, in its entirety:

 The image “http://tbn0.google.com/images?q=tbn:6kmx_iOdkr7rlM:http://www.beardbooks.com/beardbooks/bb_images/hood.gif” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. RALEIGH – I love debates about policy details. That much should be obvious. Indeed, I plead guilty to the occasionally leaden column weighted down by county-level data and discussions of statistical methods.

But I also think that sometimes it’s valuable to hit the reverse-zoom button and examine policy issues from the macro level. Take education. My colleagues and I at the John Locke Foundation have certainly spent much of the past 18 years studying K-12 education in great detail, scrutinizing such issues as teacher compensation, test-score inflation, and experimental data on effective school reforms.

Today, though, let me call your attention to just four trend lines, all beginning in the early 1970s.

First, the average scale score in reading for American 17-year-olds was 285 in 1971. For the most recent year available, 2004, it was also 285. The average varied little during the period.

Second, the average scale score in math for American 17-year-olds was 304 in 1973. For the most recent year available, 2004, it was 307. The average varied little during the period.

Third, the average graduation rate for American high-school freshmen was 78 percent in 1971. It is now 74 percent.

Fourth, average spending per student in U.S. public schools was an inflation-adjusted $5,257 in 1971. By 2004, it had more than doubled to $11,016.

In other words, despite all the additional taxpayer money plowed into U.S. public schools, there is no evidence whatsoever of any significant improvement in public education’s ability to produce well-educated high-school graduates. Consider all the things that happened during the 1971-2004 period. We listened to numerous presidential commissions and “education governors.” The first participants of Head Start and other much-ballyhooed preschool programs entered high school. States raised average teacher pay, cut class sizes, switched curricula, embraced diversity, rearranged classroom chairs and desks, redesigned school buildings, bused children across town for socioeconomic balance, began annual testing programs, consolidated small districts into larger ones, encouraged businesses to adopt schools, and installed gobs of new technology.

All of this had essentially no lasting effect, as measured by performance in core subjects and graduation rates.

I think there are really only two possible conclusions to be drawn from these data (given that there is little evidence of a change in the test-taking population large enough to obscure what might otherwise have been a sizable gain in reading performance, math performance, or high-school graduation).

The first possibility is that virtually all of the school-reform energy of the past three decades has been misspent. Policymakers shouldn’t have simply tried to make a government-monopoly education system work better. If doubling real investment and trying every conceivable top-down reform didn’t make a noticeable imprint on student learning, that should tell us something. It’s time to take bigger steps to bust up the education monopoly through decontrol, deconsolidation, charter schools, and tax credits to promote choice and competition.

The second possible explanation is that the effect of schooling itself has been oversold. Perhaps the effects of family support, inheritance, and socioeconomics are so large that even successful school reforms can scarcely make a dent in the outcome.

Either way you look at it, the current policy mix makes no sense. We should either embrace an alternative school- reform agenda, based on academic rigor and competitive markets, or bag the whole thing and focus on strengthening families and boosting economic growth. All this time, politicians have assured us that “reforming” education would improve the economy and combat poverty. One reasonable conclusion to draw from the data is that they had the causality reversed.

Which leads to my punch line. Wait for it…

The solution is to cut taxes.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

**************************

E.C. 🙂

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