Sweden is Smarter on Schools than U.S.

I came across this article in today’s Washington Post.  Apparently the folks in Stockholm have a better grasp on the power of markets to improve performance than most of us here in the states.  Well, at least some of them do.  Take Barbro Lillkaas who had this to say, “If you run a good operation then you make a profit. But you won’t get any students if you are bad,” she said. “You have to do a good job to get money; that is even more important for a private school.”  My sentiments exactly.  I can only hope that this convinces some of the left-leaning public-school advocates in this country who hold the Scandinavian countries in such high regard to rethink some of their positions.  I’m not holding my breath, but I may be breathing a little bit shallower.


Who says our kids don’t learn anything in school?

The Baltimore Sun reports on a group of city high school students threatening to starve themselves unless their demands for taxpayer funds are met.  I wonder if it ever occurred to them to try raising the money themselves through voluntary donors?  Probably not.


Learn to Be Yourself

Over at Econlog, both Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan weigh in on Brink Lindsey’s analysis of the obstacles facing lower-income Americans seeking a decent education.  Both are skeptical of the prospects of school-choice reforms (or any reforms for that matter) with respect to improving the children’s educational outcomes.  Arnold:

“I am somewhat pessimistic on competition in the school system as a panacea. I favor it, of course, but I suspect that the benefits would show up more in lower costs than in better outcomes.”


“In short, parents are correct to think that they can change their children. Their mistake is to suppose that the change will endure. Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents “mold,” we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure – and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away.”

In both case, I think the economists are too caught up in discussing the response of a particular metric as opposed to exploring the full breadth of the topic available.  For instance, I think Floccian, commenting on Arnold’s post, hits the nail on the head:”We should not think that children can learn more in school but maybe they can learn more useful things.”

This reflects a dichotomy that I’ve noticed within libertarian discourse, you can either focus on the economic aspect of a given policy, or attempt to take on its moral foundations.  Even though the two angles are more complimentary than anything, they rarely appear in the same conversation, and it seems the the economic perspective is the more dominant of the two.  This is unfortunate, since, in my view, the logical foundations of individual natural rights are at least as robust as the predictions of material prosperity that flows from a free market.  In the case of education, empowering children to discover what type of work they both enjoy and are good probably deserves a higher place than the current emphasis on improving their test-taking abilities.


Welcome to the 21st Century

            I have long been of the opinion that teacher’s unions and government educational bureaucrats are fighting a losing battle, and despite their most ardent opposition, parental choice with respect to schooling will inevitably win the day.  I am therefore pleased to read about the rise in availability and popularity of online schools in today’s New York Times. 

From my perspective, this development represents the confluence of two fundamental forces that motivate my optimism regarding educational freedom.  On the one hand, we have the primacy of the inherent concern of parents for the intellectual and emotional development of their offspring.  On the other, we have remarkable improvements in technology facilitating the essential communicative aspect of education.  As the latter rises to meet the first, we see a situation in which innovative new companies and institutions work to expand children’s educational opportunities beyond the relatively paltry offerings presently dictated by their geographical location.  It may strike some as a bold vision, but efforts like those in Wisconsin should suggest that it is far from unrealistic.

I should note that I am not blind to some of the potential pitfalls associated with online learning.  In addition to imparting academic knowledge, it has long been proposed that one of the key functions of schools is to equip students with vital social skills and what we might call emotional knowledge that will allow them to become responsible members of adult society.  To the extent that internet schooling limits direct personal interaction, it may hinder somewhat this aspect of personal development.  It is also possible that some parents may be poor stewards of their children’s education and merely plop them down in front of the computer screen, giving them no guidance and doing nothing to monitor their progress.  These things are possible, but I think it important that we keep things in perspective and recognize that most parents are keenly interested in all aspects of their children’s welfare, that they seek to engage them in a variety of social contexts outside of school, and that the importance of getting a good education has become such a pervasive message in our culture that very few are likely to neglect it entirely.

So, then, what should we make of those who criticize these new online schools?  Based on the accounts presented in the Times article, it seems the primary complaints are about money:  


“Despite enthusiastic support from parents, the schools have met with opposition from some educators, who say elementary students may be too young for Internet learning, and from teachers, unions and school boards, partly because they divert state payments from the online student’s home district.”


“Pennsylvania has also debated the financing of virtual charter schools. Saying such schools were draining them financially,”


“The district receives annual state payments of $6,050 for each of its 800 students, which it uses to pay teachers and buy its online curriculum from K12.

Saying he suspected “corporate profiteering” in online schooling, State Senator John Lehman, a Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, last month proposed cutting the payments to virtual schools to $3,000 per student.”

There are those that profit immensely from the current system which in some locations like Washington, D.C. devotes close to $20,000 per pupil.  This makes the $6,050 spent in Milwaukee look like a pittance, yet the participants in the online schools are “enthusiastic” and “infuriated” by proposals that would seek to destroy them.  The article also notes that in Colorado, “one school, run by a rural district, was using four licensed teachers to teach 1,500 students across the state.”  The response of teacher’s unions and legislators was to beef up regulation, presumably to prevent this type of efficiency from taking hold in masse.  The question, of course, is why?  Why should governments be interfering with what thousands of people regard as a successful service?  Whatever answer they provide is sure to be couched in the language of children’s welfare, but parents’ present satisfaction undermines this proposition.

            Finally, my favorite part of the article is near the end:

A state court dismissed the case, but in December an appeals court said the academy was violating a state law requiring that public school teachers be licensed.

The ruling infuriated parents like Bob Reber, an insurance salesman who lives in Fond du Lac and whose 8-year-old daughter is a student at the academy. “According to this ruling, if I want to teach my daughter to tie her shoes, I’d need a license,” Mr. Reber said.

Not so, said Mary Bell, the union president: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children — it said parents cannot teach their children at taxpayers’ expense.”

Apparently, Ms. Bell forgets that parents and taxpayers are one in the same, so let us correct her oversight and see what we make of her analysis: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children—it said parents cannot teach their children at their own expense.”  Absurd, is it not?



First, Kill the Department of Education, THEN Kill all the School Boards

Matt Miller has a piece in this month’s Atlantic (sorry, subscription required), decrying the abysmal state of education in America. I am certainly with him as far as this goes. He cites numerous statistics that give America at best a middling place in the world hierarchy, and at worst, given our outlandish expenditures on public schools, the dubious distinction of international dunces.

Unfortunately, our agreement ends at the description of the facts of the tragedy, because Miller immediately proceeds to place the blame of lagging performance on the dispersed local structure of our system. The solution for which he advocates is to replace local decisions with federal standards. His solution is tragically flawed and reflective of a mindset that greets government failure as an invitation to expand government.

There are a host of problems with Miller’s analysis and argument; I will focus on one: his contention that America’s declining performance is a consequence of too much local control.

Miller begins by lamenting that America is currently divided into 15,000 school districts which obstruct grand national schemes to rectify problems within the network as a whole. Strangely, he immediately undercuts his argument that decentralization produces stagnation and decline by subsequently noting that at one time in our nation’s past there were over 150,000 school districts. While we have not seen anything like a 10-fold decrease in educational attainment relative to our past, neither have our schools improved by that measure. If anything, the correlation between district number and student achievement would seem to suggest a causative pattern running directly counter to that put forward by Miller. By the same token, the period of the last thirty years which most regard as showing the most precipitous drop-off in American education also coincides with an unprecedented expansion of the federal government into American classrooms. Miller argues that No Child Left Behind doesn’t give central authorities enough power to set standards, but is he really going to suggest that it hasn’t enlarged federal control at all? It’s strange too for him to lament that local school boards are presently over-matched by teacher’s unions with a large national presence. How does he think this dynamic will change when the teacher’s unions no longer have to deal with 15,000 individual boards and can instead focus all their lobbying efforts on a single target in Washington? For my part, I see such a future as incredibly bleak from the standpoint of a parent or child trapped in the public system. What possible leverage could they exert against an established lobby claiming literally millions of members with like interests? So to sum up: no, local control is not the problem, and even if it were, the control is not as local as Miller imagines.

If what we really desire is an improvement in educational outcomes, then the solution is simple: return control of the money spent on education to those with the highest vested interest in seeing that is well spent, a.k.a. parents. Nothing holds service providers to a higher level of accountability than the forces of a free-market. If you want evidence of this in a specific educational context you need look no further than our own post-secondary collegiate system which is still to this day the envy of the world. I agree with Miller that school boards, even at an intensely local level, are problematic. He thinks they are too ill-informed and politically unaccountable to achieve satisfactory performance. I see the problem arising from the fact that dissident members of the community are forced to submit to and even subsidize a program that they oppose. So I agree, let’s kill all the school boards, but can we please not replace them with a School Magisterium.


Schrodinger’s Children

“Think outside the box” is a popular phrase among groups dealing with complex problems. In fact, it has almost become a cliche in our fast-paced modern world where technological changes that once would have been regarded as revolutionary are today almost quotidian. Still, there are some who are lost so deep inside their respective boxes that the darkness that surrounds them must seem the equivalent of infinite space. Kevin Carey over at the Quick and the Ed seems a likely representative of this type of person.

In his latest post, Mr. Carey takes to task Michael Winerip for his failure to endorse expansive government interference in education. In his piece in the New York Times, Winerip suggests that the state should be shifting resources away from costly “accountability” programs and in favor of costly “anti-poverty” programs. I happen to think either alternative represents a mis-allocation of funds as both are likely to undermine rather than advance achievement of their stated goals (supporting arguments here and here, respectively). In this case, however, the cost-effectiveness of government boondoggles is not my primary concern. Rather, I am troubled by Mr. Carey’s perspective that seems to imply that there is simply no solution that does not involve the state.

Confronting the findings of the ETS report, Carey poses the question “Therefore, what?” which may be read as “What should the government do about this?” He then follows this question with a proviso: “If you’re not willing to answer this question concretely, you really don’t deserve a seat at the table.” And what, exactly, constitutes a response concrete enough to secure one a place in the debate? Apparently, advancing a policy of non-intervention, or even promoting interventions not directly aimed at the public school system is insufficient. Instead, if you want to speak, you must endorse statist intervention: “NCLB, by contrast, reflects an identifiable perspective and set of resulting policy conclusions.”

It strains credulity to present NCLB as a standard of clarity. To propose that it be used to set the scope of the debate is even more galling. Education is a complex process that each of us must engage in a unique way. Acquiring the skills and perspectives that will allow us to envision and establish an individual identity in the world is not a venture readily amenable to standardization. Uniformity is antithetical to personality. Government run schools fail, not because of insufficient funding, but because they lack the flexibility and responsiveness necessary to meet the needs of the parents and students they purport to serve. The further centralization of the administrative apparatus only hastens the ossification of the system, making it brittle and more constrictive. This is the problem of living in the box.

Erwin Schrodinger once came up with a vivid and somewhat gruesome example to demonstrate one of the more mystifying implications of quantum theory. He asked us to imagine a box containing a cat, a radioactive subtance, and a vile of acid. If you’re interested in the full details, go here. Basically, though, the idea is that the cat is in mortal jeopardy, yet we have no way of knowing his fate unless we open the box to check on him. Until then, he exists in a state of suspended animation, neither alive or dead, or maybe both (though it is hard to say which is worse.)

If we extend the analogy to education, this is the current predicament of children in our public schools. They are languishing in a cruel trap guarded jealously by social planners like Carey and his ilk who venerate the contraption while condemning those of us who wish to extricate their unwilling subjects. They prefer to tinker gingerly with the dimensions of the experiment instead of investigating the merits of the underlying motivations for and assumptions of the design. The talk endlessly about improvements, excluding those who dissent with the program. Meanwhile we all suffer the scarcity of choice.


ABC’s “The View” co-host doesn’t know whether world is flat

And unfortunately that title is to be taken literally. Wow…just wow. Sherri Shepherd, new co-host for the daytime show “The View”, declared on today’s episode that she doesn’t “believe in evolution, period.” This is not news – she was open with her religious and evolutionary beliefs before getting hired onto the show. What is news, however, is what happened after fellow co-host Whoopi Goldberg then asked her whether she thought the world was flat….and Sherri didn’t know! She claims she’s “never thought about it.” Seriously? No, I mean is this woman serious, or is she trying to fool us with her acting skills? I’m assuming she has at least some high school education. I probably knew the earth was spherical before starting elementary school, but once you start school there is no excuse. I mean, hasn’t she ever seen a globe before? Please tell me this woman was joking…otherwise our education system is worse than I thought.

To see the video of Sherri’s stupidity, visit The Huffington Post.

NY Restaurants win in battle with city over calorie content

I posted about this awhile ago (“Raise your hand if you think eating at McDonalds is good for you“), but now there is an update in the situation. First for some background: NYC sees rise in fat people, thinks citizens can’t think for themselves and wants to require restaurants to post nutrition info on menus directly next to food item of interest. Restaurant association gets upset – says it’s not fair, and that it punishes many of those who already voluntarily post the info on their website or chart in the restaurant.

Says Big Brother NYC officials:

The regulation will counteract “an obesity epidemic” in New York…The city argued that posting calorie information in a prominent place would have had “a substantial potential for public health impact” and that consumers were likely to decrease their intake if they knew how many calories they were eating.

The state restaurant association:

[They] challenged the regulation by arguing that it was technically superseded by the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which requires nutritional labeling on all packaged foods and outlines some criteria for restaurants that voluntarily post their own caloric information.

Manhattan District Court Judge Holwell took the side of the restaurants (though it appears there is still plenty of room left for the city to tweak the legislation so it’s legal).

I’ve got a couple points to make – first, NYC officials lose points for misusing the term “epidemic”. Obesity cannot be an epidemic, flu and other infectious diseases can (let me know if you ever get fat just from standing next to an obese person who breathes on or touches you, and I can add it into the epidemic category). Second – they thought that by merely making the information more obvious and in-your-face, that people will magically make healthy choices. Seriously? If you’ve already followed the fried-potato smell from the street into the McDonalds, you’re not going to turn around and walk out after seeing exactly how much fat is in that Big Mac. The people who eat at those places on a regular basis tend to order the same thing each time anyway, so they probably don’t even glance at the menu. (side note – I once knew someone who referred to a quarter pounder with cheese as a “snack” – all the labeling in the world won’t change that mindset) Third – NYC officials wrote the legislation because of the “potential” to make a public health impact. Aren’t you happy that the city experiments with your tax dollars, instead of spending time and money on things that are proven to benefit public health? Just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling…

But I’m not letting the restaurant association off too easy. A spokesperson for the group said that:

federal regulations that require nutritional information on packaged food have done little to combat obesity. “We feel the way to address obesity is through education, not legislation,” he said.

I’m willing to agree that nutritional info on packaged goods probably hasn’t had a huge impact. Although I tend to look at the labels when shopping in order to avoid foods really high in salt or saturated fat, my guess is someone who is not as health-conscious (and thus more likely to be obese) could care less that the labels are there. As for education over legislation, I don’t know how I feel about that. Certainly I won’t side immediately with legislation for its effectiveness – in my opinion legislation tends to consist more often than not of nanny-state regulations – an attempt to control how you live your life. But I’m not convinced education has a huge impact. Yes you need some education if you want to know what you should eat, but how many people who went to public schools and had the food pyramid beaten into them actually eat according to those guidelines? (I mean, let’s be honest – I know I don’t get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables everyday.) Incentives are what people need – carrot and stick. Reward people for healthy choices, punish people for unhealthy choices. But this isn’t the job of the government (or it shouldn’t be, but of course I also don’t think they should be involved in health care to the extent they are) – health insurance companies and businesses that pay health insurance premiums for their employees are the ones who should be in the incentive-business. You don’t really have the option of switching countries if you disagree with the government, but you can always change jobs if you don’t like your employer.

To read about how financial incentives can help people lose weight, check out this article from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (via SciGuy)


Is this video real?

It certainly seems real (although I’m pretty gullible…) – if it is, it’s quite sad. I know our education isn’t perfect (50% of Americans don’t believe in evolution), but I guess we can say with confidence that we shouldn’t be looking to the French for advice anytime soon:

His wife/girlfriend looked pissed!

“No Standards Left Behind”

That’s the title of an article a friend recently pointed out to me, published in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.  A lot of people dislike the No Child Left Behind Act, and this author (Neil McCluskey) is no exception.  Here is my favorite part:

According to a report last month from the Institute of Education Sciences, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, while states are declaring success on their tests, almost none have standards even close to those of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress — the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” Almost all states have set their standards below NAEP’s “proficiency” level.

If it weren’t so sad it would be comical – states have standards set so low that they fail to even meet the national “proficiency” level.  What a waste of money, and yet politicians continue to throw tax dollars that direction.  How long will it take before they acknowledge the plan is a failure (or try to distance themselves from it as much as possible)?

 If you don’t have online access to the Wall Street Journal, the entire article can be found for free here.