Friday, August 23, 2013

How to improve education: ignore the data, plod forward

Big problems require big solutions. Or at least that's what the fans of big government are always saying, always insisting. And the corollary: big solutions cost big money.

This mindset has dominated the corridors of power throughout the land for decades now. Since the Great Depression, really, when the mantra was put to the test. And for many decades after that, most assumed it had been proven true, that FDR's responses--huge, costly responses--had effectively saved the nation (nevermind that even those making such arguments are quick to offer the World War II caveat). More recent scholarship--roundly ignored by those with vested interests in maintaining and growing a large central government--suggests that FDR's responses may have actually prolonged the Great Depression.

But that is neither here nor there. The point is, people simply assume a big problem must require a big solution because they believe such an assumption logically follows or is just common sense. In fact, it's very much a logical fallacy, the fallacy of identity.

In historical scholarship, this fallacy rears its ugly head quite frequently. David Hackett Fischer describes it thusly:
The fallacy of identity is the assumption that a cause must somehow resemble its effects... 
A more common form of the fallacy of identity is the idea that big effects must have big causes, or that big events must have big consequences...
Historians trying to understand apparently sudden collapses of empires--like Rome--often fall prey to this fallacy, as do those historians engaged in economic history, wherein any large-scale economic episode is assumed to have an equally large scale economic trigger or consequence.

Outside of history, proper, the fallacy appears in the realm of policy--public and private--in its solution-problem form. For instance, many businesses facing severe problems tend to approach things the same way: by assuming the only way out of a huge mess is with a huge solution, when the truth is that such a solution may only make matters worse. Oftentimes, the mess is a consequences of a series of small things--which can lead essentially to feedback loops, but that is another discussion--that could be corrected or changed with ease. But making suggestions like this doesn't tend to impress anyone, by and large. It's easier to sell the "big solution" because people are quick to believe such is required.

As is the case with the American healthcare system. There are lots of small things that have contributed to the dramatically rising costs in this industry, but almost no one in power wants to adopt a piecemeal approach to improving the system. Instead, they want it all at once, a big solution to a big problem. The consequences? Decades of fiddling, of trying to get such a solution by the only means possible: a huge federal program. And now we have one, which at best looks like it's not going to solve anything. At worst, it may make the problem even bigger (which of course will necessitate an even bigger and more costly solution down the road).

The education system is in similar straits. Recognition of the failings in K-12 schooling has, at various moments, spawned various big solutions from the Federal government (even thought it is not really the job of the Federal government to fund local schools). Several years ago, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute--currently the director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom gave a presentation before the House Committee on Education & the Workforce. Here it is.

Coulson demonstrates how the ever-increasing amount of Federal spending on K-12 education has produced no meaningful results, in terms of student achievement. Take a look at this chart, which speaks for itself:

Courtesy the Cato Institute

Some claim that this Federal spending replaced a corresponding decrease in State and local spending, but Coulson demonstrates this to be a complete fabrication, as total spending per student--adjusted for inflation, of course--ballooned up at an even faster overall rate.

He also looks back at one of the first Federal education initiatives for K-12 schools--the National Defense Education Act of 1958--which was supposed to improve math and science scores across the land. Unsurprisingly, math scores failed to improve at all (there is no data on science scores); they actually dropped every year after the program began until 1966. It wasn't until the '80's (long after the program had been cancelled) that math scores returned to their 1958 level.

Coulson sums up the reality:
To sum up, we have little to show for the $2 trillion in federal education spending of the past half century. In the face of concerted and unflagging efforts by Congress and the states, public schooling has suffered a massive productivity collapse — it now costs three times as much to provide essentially the same education as we provided in 1970.

Grim as that picture may seem, it fails to capture the full measure of the problem. Because as productivity was falling relentlessly in education, it was rising everywhere else. A pound of grocery store coffee is not merely as affordable as it was in 1970 — it hasn’t just held its ground — it is cheaper in real dollars. Indeed virtually every product and service has gotten better, or more affordable, or both over the past two generations.

Seen in that proper context, we would have to be disappointed with our nation’s lack of educational improvement even if federal spending had not increased at all. The fact that outcomes have remained flat or declined while spending skyrocketed is a disaster unparalleled in any other field. The only thing it appears to have accomplished is to apply the brakes to the nation’s economic growth, by taxing trillions of dollars out of the productive sector of the economy and spending it on ineffective programs.
This is sobering stuff. It suggests that big monies--big solutions--are not the answers to the problems in the education system. Hell, they may be a part of the problem. Yet despite very real and very accessible data being available, we continue to get demands for more spending, for new and bigger Federal programs, like NCLB and then more recently the Common Core Standards initiative. Everyone is familiar with the failings of NCLB. And I've addressed Common Core previously.

Yet, people don't seem capable of grasping the notion that these kinds of programs are just not going to solve any problems. Witness Charles Blow's recent op-ed on the matter:
One strategy of changing our direction as a nation is the adoption of Common Core State Standards, meant to teach children the skills they need to be successful in college and careers — skills like critical thinking and deep analysis.

These are things that Americans recognize that our schools need to teach. According to a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll released Wednesday, 80 percent of Americans strongly agree that schools should teach critical thinking skills, 78 percent agree that they should teach communication skills, 57 percent agree that they should teach students how to collaborate and 51 percent believe that they should help build student’s character.

The Obama administration strongly supports the Common Core, and the American Federation of Teachers endorses it. The president of the United Federation of Teachers says that most teachers agree it should be implemented. And, according to, “45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense Education Activities have adopted the Common Core State Standards.”

This seemed like a sure thing.
He liberally cites the widespread support for the program and concludes that it is therefore likely a "sure thing." But why is it a sure thing? Because it sounds like a good idea, that's why. No other real reason, no actual empirical evidence to make the case. Amazingly, Blow notes the need to teach critical thinking, then proceeds to make an argument devoid of any critical thinking whatsoever! He goes on to idealize the role of teachers, ostensibly suggesting that great teachers are the real solution to the problem, though he fails to explain why adopting the Common Core Standards will create great teachers.

Worse still, he notes in passing what is likely one of the real keys to the problem: parental involvement. That and the fact that a certain percentage of schools--mostly inner city--are simply failing their students and their communities actually go a long way towards explaining things. There are an ample number of studies demonstrating the latter. As to the former, the lack of parental involvement is most evident in those same failing schools, along with those schools on the edge. This is, in my opinion, due to a host of factors revolving around socio-economic issues, the breakdown of the family unit, and a failure to prioritize learning. Thomas Sowell has provided ample evidence to back this up, as has--more recently--Charles Murray in Coming Apart (which I've mentioned a number of times in past pieces).

But setting all of that aside, the fact remains that evidence clearly shows more Federal programs and spending are not the answer. They never have been. Yet, those who think they know better keep pushing for more of both. When, I wonder, will they finally educate themselves?

Cheers, all.

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