Thursday, December 26, 2013

The problem with fact checking

Here's a recent verdict issued by PolitiFact: "The Heritage tweet oversimplifies the debate. The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details."

Don't worry about the specific issue being examined. Instead, just ponder those two sentences for a minute. Focus on the word tweet. Is PolitiFact doing self-parody now?

I have a low opinion of the fact-check movement, since the supposedly "objective" fact-checkers are influenced by the same biases that reporters bring to other types of news. For specific examples, see my Manhattan Institute article, which also includes links to some delightful skewerings of the fact-checkers by Mark Hemingway.

At its worst, fact checking is an attempt to control political discourse by defining the boundaries of acceptable speech--all under the banner of objectivity and fairness. Take out the subjective and salacious ratings--"mostly false," "three Pinocchios," etc.--and re-label the pieces as "analysis" or "opinion," and I would have much less to complain about.

In the midst of the 2012 election, I annoyed my friends by sending them this self-written parody of a fact check: 
During his convention speech last night, Mitt Romney said that he would be a "great" president. We have called him on this falsehood before, but both he and his surrogates keep repeating it.
The FACTS: Romney never says exactly what he means by "great." The vagueness of the word allows him to twist its meaning in any way he pleases, which is a trademark of dishonest politicians. He is also implying that he can predict the future--an ability for which he has provided no evidence in the past. Strictly from a probabilistic perspective, it is unlikely that Romney will be "great" in any generic sense, since a recent poll of historians labeled just a half dozen past presidents "great." It is possible that Romney also includes the category "near great" within his definition of great, but that has never been explicitly stated, and even if true would not generate a more than 50 percent chance that his prediction will be borne out.

The VERDICT: After the first time Romney falsely claimed he would be a "great" president, we rated the comment just "mostly false," given the lack of specifics provided. However, even after we have called him on the lie, he and his surrogates continue to repeat it over and over. A spurned Fact Checker is an angry Fact Checker, and so we now rate this claim: Pants on Fire!

The most common reaction I received was, "Are you sure that's a parody?"

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ryan-Murray and the problem with bipartisanship

"I can bring people together." That's what every presidential candidate says during a campaign, and perhaps for good reason: polls consistently show that voters respond favorably to promises of goodwill, compromise, and bipartisanship.

But is it really a good thing when politicians "come together" to "get things done"? For smaller-government advocates, the answer is usually no. When bitter partisanship rules the day, Congress generally refrains from increasing spending or taxes--in fact, Congress refrains from doing much of anything in those situations. For conservatives upset with an endlessly expanding public sector, just slowing the growth is a real victory.

At least they're not enlarging the government.

Sometimes even extreme divisiveness produces good results. Take the sequester. Its forced spending cuts (including for defense) were seen as so unpalatable that the parties would simply have to agree to an alternative. Well, they didn't. Negotiations broke down, both sides pointed the finger at the other, and the sequester went through, delivering a rare treat for small-government conservatives and libertarians: genuine spending cuts.

But now suddenly Republicans and Democrats are in a bipartisan mood, and all the good feelings have produced a two-year budget known as the Ryan-Murray plan. The plan increases both spending and revenue today, with promises of future cuts that may or may not materialize.

How disappointing. It seems that when politicians work together in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, the government usually gets bigger. So maybe divisiveness isn't so bad.

(For my take on the pension provisions in the Ryan-Murray plan, please read my piece for National Review here.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Earnest suggestion or sarcastic insult?

Here's a headline from the Department of Unintentional Humor, care of the Washington Post:

h/t Robert VerBruggen

Monday, December 9, 2013

Questioning the PISA

International test scores are regularly cited by both sides in the debate over American education policy. Finland outscores us? Must be the highly-paid teachers! Or is it the back-to-basics curriculum? Or the nationalized structure? Or the homogeneous student population? Or the country's low gini coefficient? No one really knows.

In fact, the scores might not mean much of anything. Take the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). With the new PISA scores released last week, some advocates are scrambling to spin the results. Others are more skeptical. As I wrote for National Review:
[Rick] Hess points to the mixing of city and country data, ...the inexplicable fall of Finland, and the extreme sensitivity of the rankings to the choice of test questions.

What about the mechanics of PISA test administration? Did every country follow the same strict procedures? Almost certainly not. Consider sample drop-out, which is one of the most frequent problems we confront in program evaluation.... PISA response rates vary widely from country to country. For instance, Finland tested 96 percent of its nationally-representative sample, but Mexico somehow tested only 63 percent of its own. One need not be a cynic to suspect some gamesmanship there.
And even if we believe that PISA scores have some reasonable degree of validity, can we really attribute most of the country-to-country differences to education policy? No. As I noted in a separate post for National Review, "While the U.S. gets mediocre scores, it also has demographic and socioeconomic challenges that the more homogeneous European and East Asian countries do not."

Interestingly, Mark Steyn took issue with that statement, arguing that European nations also have high levels of immigration from poor countries, yet they still seem to outscore the United States. Maybe the U.S. performs poorly even after controlling for demographic factors? Tino Sanandaji did a good job of testing that theory with the 2009 PISA data. To create a comparison that is as apples-to-apples as possible, he limited the European sample to students who were not first or second generation immigrants. He then compared these native scores to the scores of white students in the United States:

Sanandaji found that this comparison makes the U.S. look pretty good. Again, I don't believe that much can be learned from PISA scores one way or the other, but there is no evidence that the U.S. education system is failing miserably.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Social planners must feel the weight of history

When Nick Kristof recently extolled Oklahoma's universal pre-school for four-year-olds, it was deja vu for those of us who are hard-headed about evaluating social programs.

Oklahoma pre-school has never been subject to a "gold standard" evaluation--meaning a large-scale, randomized experiment. Kristof's column came just weeks after a gold standard evaluation of pre-school in Tennessee found essentially no differences between the treatment and control groups. And that evaluation follows decades of experiments showing little to no effect of similar programs. Nevertheless, Kristof's enthusiasm for Oklahoma is unchecked by the weight of history.

There's a pattern here. As I wrote for National Review recently:
Skeptics of government social programs have long been frustrated by a familiar pattern of media coverage. It starts with a new social program portrayed as the key to fixing problems like poverty or low test scores. The media proceed to either ignore the long history of similar initiatives found to have little effect, or they acknowledge the history but report that this program is fundamentally different from everything that has come before.
Either way, the media trumpet the positive results from early evaluations of the program, even when those results are based on small samples, short time horizons, non-experimental data, or all of the above. Years later, researchers find that a randomized experiment shows that the program has no effect, or that the effects quickly fade, or that the effects cannot be replicated on a larger scale. These findings are quietly reported in a technical article, with no fanfare and little public attention. By that time, the media have already moved on to promoting another new social program.
Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Julia Ioffe and the cure for Gell-Mann amnesia

Building on what seems to be a new subgenre of political journalism, the New Republic has a long piece about how the Heritage Foundation has allegedly changed under Jim DeMint’s leadership.

What caught my eye was reporter Julia Ioffe’s reference to the development of the Heritage immigration study I co-authored with Robert Rector. Here’s her sentence: “Policy analysts were shut out of the discussion, and the paper, which was written to conform with DeMint’s anti-immigration stance, did not go through the standard vetting procedure.”

All three claims in that sentence are flat-out false. But why worry about facts when you've got a great (made-up) story to tell?

One wonders how accurate the rest of her piece could be. I’m reminded of what the late novelist Michael Crichton called the “Gell-Mann amnesia effect”:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well…. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.... The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Whenever I feel a bout of Gell-Mann amnesia coming on, I re-read articles like the one in the New Republic. Cured in no time!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Clarence Thomas is right about disclosure laws

In the famous Citizens United Supreme Court case dealing with campaign finance restrictions, Clarence Thomas was the only justice to argue that disclosure laws violate the First Amendment. Thomas's position was that political organizations have the right to keep their donors secret. I was initially skeptical. After all, if donors are so confident in their views, they should be willing to publicly defend them. Don't we have a "marketplace of ideas" for a reason?

Clarence Thomas
But I've come to agree with Thomas. Some views are so unpopular that people risk their livelihoods and even their personal safety when expressing them. What's troubling is that these views need not be considered universally heinous--they need only be unpopular among influential media figures or politically-connected lobbying groups. Consider the ongoing case of sociologist Mark Regnerus, whose scholarly research has questioned the "no differences" orthodoxy regarding the children of gay parents. I wrote about Regnerus for National Review recently:
Jennifer Marshall and I detail here the furious reaction that Regnerus sparked, but suffice to say that it involved hysterical condemnations in the press, a frivolous “scientific misconduct” investigation conducted at the behest of a blogger (!), emotion-laden joint statements, evidence-free accusations of corruption on the part of the journal, and more. Now the journal’s editor will have his e-mails scrutinized for the slightest inappropriate thought.
I went on to note that other researchers will be understandably leery of broaching this issue, given the harassment that Regnerus and his editor have endured. The same goes for grant writers and other donors interested in publicly supporting the research. Their case illustrates that the First Amendment must be about more than just a formalistic legal right to speak. The purpose of free speech in a democratic society is to ensure that all ideas have the chance to be heard and debated. By forcibly "outing" supporters through disclosure laws, the government effectively discourages speech that influential people don't want to hear.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Public schools do not need more money

As with most government functions, a political establishment has coalesced around public education. The establishment endlessly lobbies for more school spending, even as past experience and current evidence suggest it will not be helpful.

This past Tuesday, Colorado voters dealt the education establishment a blow by rejecting Amendment 66, a ballot initiative that would have raised $1 billion in taxes for the state's public schools. I described the amendment for National Review:
Like most government agencies, public education in Colorado has historically received big budget increases, but supposedly remains chronically short of funds. Coloradans are being deluged with stories about schools that can barely afford to keep the lights on, but per-pupil spending in the state, adjusted for inflation, is up 20 percent since 1990 and about 10 percent since 2000. Where does the money go?...If current money is tied up in bureaucratic overhead, why not try to shift some of those funds into education programs before asking taxpayers for another $1 billion?...

The initiative also creates an “education achievement fund” paid for with the new taxes. It would enable passage of a separate bill that would use the new revenue on — in the words of the New York Times — “an educator’s wish-list of measures.” These include class-size reductions, professional-development classes, full-day kindergarten, state-sponsored preschool, and more. The cost effectiveness of all of these initiatives are, to put it mildly, dubious.
Colorado taxpayers won this round, but the establishment often uses the courts to achieve what it could not win at the ballot box. From a second National Review piece:
A favorite tactic of the more-ed-spending coalition is to bypass the democratic process via lawsuits. Judges will then use innocuous phrases in state constitutions — “effective public schooling,” or something along those lines — to seize control of education policy. Max Eden recently wrote on AEI’s blog about the Kansas supreme court, which used the word improvement in this sentence from the state’s constitution — “The legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools” — to mandate that the legislature spend more money until test scores go up!
Colorado's supreme court recently rejected a similar lawsuit, but there are surely more to come.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What government schools can teach us about government healthcare

Up with teachers, down with doctors?
One of the points made in favor of single-payer healthcare is that the government can use its "monopsony" power to reduce provider prices below market levels. Is that a sound argument? Let's think about another "single-payer" government function: public education. As I wrote recently for Forbes:
...The government clearly does not try to underpay for education. Quite the opposite, in fact. Spending more on schools is a perennial promise made by politicians of all stripes. Per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled in real terms since the 1970s, while test scores have barely budged. If single-payer systems are always effective at depressing prices, our public schools didn’t get that memo.
But if government did succeed in underpaying for services, would that be a good thing? In the context of public education, advocates of larger government would clearly say no.
It’s easy to see that there would be downsides to the “savings” generated in that scenario. If schools paid too little for teachers, the government would be unable to recruit and retain the best ones. Teachers (and principals and textbook writers) would increasingly leave the public schools rather than be paid below the market rates that their skills are worth.
This point is surely understood by those who constantly push for more school spending, particularly on teacher salaries. They never suggest that the government’s education monopoly could be an instrument for spending less rather than more.
There is a remarkable inconsistency here:
Imagine a politician proudly advertising his new plan to underpay teachers! Yet this is the argument made by single-payer healthcare boosters, with the word “doctors” implicitly substituted for “teachers.” The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), for example, has published several studies arguing that public school teachers are somehow paid below market levels, and that this has dire consequences for classroom learning. But EPI also touts its public health insurance plan, which would use “concentrated purchasing power” to force provider prices below market levels. In other words, underpaying teachers is bad, but underpaying doctors is good.
This irrational "up with teachers, down with doctors" mindset calls into question the entire cost-saving justification for single-payer healthcare. Read the Forbes piece here, and also see my blog post for National Review on the same topic.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to handle federal pay during a shutdown

Federal employees are receiving full pay for the shutdown, even if they did not work during that period. As I wrote on The Corner yesterday, Congress is not being a good steward of the public purse with this decision:
Much ink was spilled earlier this month about the plight of federal workers who were furloughed due to the budget impasse. One federal employee union even bafflingly likened its members to “indentured servants.” But now, quietly, federal workers are receiving full pay for the shutdown period, whether they worked or not. In fact, some furloughed employees will receive special overtime and holiday premiums on top of their regular paychecks, just as long as they were scheduled to work overtime or on Columbus Day.
If compensation for federal employees were barely adequate as it is, adding unpaid leave might create a significant recruit-and-retain problem for the government. However, as noted in a previous post, the average federal employee receives a considerably better compensation package than similarly-skilled private-sector workers.

Of course, unpaid leave can be disruptive for people, especially those who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. But rather than turning the unpaid leave into paid vacation, Congress should have required federal agencies to expand overtime opportunities or reduce future vacation to let employees work for the lost income. A firm "work-for-pay" mindset would have better served taxpayers.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Surveying the literature on federal pay

Andrew Biggs and I have studied federal versus private-sector compensation in depth over the past few years. We've written everything from short op-eds to long quantitative reports on the subject. But perhaps our single best distillation of all the technical issues was a 2,500-word essay in The Weekly Standard. Here's a passage from the introduction:
Unfortunately, the debate over federal pay has been fraught with extreme claims. Some politicians have accused federal workers of making double what they deserve, while government unions maintain they are underpaid by around 25 percent. The rhetorical back and forth has largely hidden a substantial academic literature, dating back to the 1970s, that compares the pay of federal and private workers. Economists have addressed the issue with a variety of techniques and from a number of different angles.
We go on to discuss the human capital model, fixed effects analysis with "job switchers," quit rates, application rates, queue models, and the relationship between public-sector compensation and overall budgetary health. We conclude by noting that federal pay is a complicated problem with only imperfect solutions:
Fundamental reform of federal compensation—not merely temporary pay freezes or furloughs—could offer significant benefits to taxpayers. At the same time, we must acknowledge that there is no perfect solution. No amount of “good government” reforms can ensure that federal workers are paid exactly the same way as their private sector counterparts, because the federal government can never be subject to market forces the way the private sector is. 
It's a rigorous but accessible piece that can be read here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The misuse of academic tests

I recently wrote two pieces for National Review on the use of academic tests to promote "educational romanticism"--the belief that all students have the same ability. First, we have the annual alarm raised by the College Board regarding SAT scores: 
It's time again for the yearly ritual: The College Board releases data on recent SAT scores, which show some large percentage of American students are not "college ready." The alarm is sounded. Much hand-wringing follows. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Absent from the College Board's press release (and almost all subsequent media coverage) is a discussion of what percentage of students should be college-ready. Here's a better way to think about the performance of our schools:
Rather than gnashing teeth about college readiness each year, a more productive activity would be to analyze the degree to which our school system is tailoring instruction to individual student needs. For example, is vocational training available to kids who want it? Are two-year technical degrees advertised properly? Are gifted students challenged enough? These are much more important topics than tabulating what percentage of students pass an arbitrary test-score threshold.
Part of the movement to equalize outcomes is "open access" for advanced placement (AP) courses. Rather than invite the most capable students to enroll, some schools are subjecting oversubscribed AP courses to a random lottery, thereby excluding some of the best students. This is simply a bad policy, one that hurts kids at both ends of the ability distribution.

Let me state for the record that I like tests. I like that the SAT can sometimes reveal people's academic talent even when their grades are poor. I like that AP tests challenge high-achieving students with college-level material. Even the dreaded "teaching to the test" phenomenon can help focus a class on learning essential material. And the results of student tests, when properly incorporated into value-added models, can be useful in evaluating teacher performance. But:
It’s ironic how tests have been re-purposed in the service of egalitarianism. The SAT is normally used by selective colleges to help differentiate applicants, but now the College Board uses it to push a college-for-all ideology. AP courses were intended to give an extra challenge to the most capable students, but now the same courses are seen as tools for closing the achievement gap. Welcome to the strange world of American education policy.
Read my piece on the SAT here, and then the follow-up on AP tests here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Another broken-window fallacy applied to retirement benefits

In a disturbing trend, a number of organizations supporting increased retirement benefits have claimed that the benefits themselves are major boosts to the economy. Using a "money multiplier," they claim that each dollar in pension or Social Security benefits ripples through the economy and becomes two dollars--or even three or four dollars, depending on the study.
Billy Joel just contributed to the economy.

This is nothing more than the old broken-window fallacy in economics. These types of studies tout the economic activity we can see (the pension payment or broken window repair), but ignore the activity that we cannot see (how the money would have been spent if there were no pension payment or broken window).

Over at the Corner today, I wrote about the most recent broken-window study, courtesy of the AARP:
For whatever reason, organizations supporting higher levels of retirement benefits are attracted to broken-window fallacies. The latest example is a study from AARP, titled “Social Security’s Impact on the National Economy.” It tells a classic broken-window tale, in which retirees spend their Social Security checks on goods and services, then the providers of those goods and services take the money and make additional purchases, etc. The report tells us that “every dollar of Social Security benefits generates about $2 of economic output.”
Who knew that the U.S. could double its wealth by writing checks to seniors? How convenient for AARP. The trouble, obviously, is that the analysis leaves out all the economic activity that would have been generated by workers if they could have kept the taxes they paid toward Social Security.
Read the whole thing here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How crop-insurance subsidies are like student loans

Student loans get a lot of (deserved) attention for being much more expensive than the federal government claims. In effect, the government treats expected loan repayments as guaranteed assets rather than as risky ones, leading the government to consider them more valuable than the private sector would.

FCRA = government valuation; Fair-Value = market cost

But student loans are just one example of misleading accounting. Virtually all government credit and insurance programs receive budgetary treatment that ignores market risk. The example most in the news lately is the federal subsidy for crop insurance. As I wrote for National Review today:
The federal government not only pays most of the farmers’ premiums to private insurance companies, it also reinsures those companies against large payouts to farmers. Most egregiously, the future cost to the taxpayers of the reinsurance is systematically low-balled by the government, using accounting practices that ignore the risk that payouts may be larger than expected.

Admittedly, projecting the future cost of insurance is no easy task, but voters need at least ballpark estimates to make informed decisions. Right now, the cost of almost every government credit or insurance program – from crop insurance, to student loans, to public pensions – is underestimated. The movement for “fair value” accounting is intended to fix that problem.
Read the whole thing here. Also, see my Forbes article that goes into more detail about fair value accounting.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Teacher pensions offer the wrong incentives

Public school teacher pensions are too generous, pushing overall compensation above fair market levels. But teacher pensions have structural issues as well. Rather than steadily accruing each year teachers work, future pension benefits will "spike" in mid-career, and then actually go down if veteran teachers continue to work.

Pensions effectively incentivize teachers to "hang on" mid-career even if they would otherwise prefer to leave the profession. At the same time, veteran teachers can feel pushed out of their jobs even if they love what they do. I spoke about this problem in an interview with Choice Media TV:

In contrast to the defined benefit (DB) pensions teachers currently receive, a 401k-style defined contribution (DC) plan would offer steady accrual of retirement benefits, leaving teachers' retirement decisions unaffected. Switching from DB to DC plans is one of five recommendations in my "A Better Way to Pay" backgrounder on teacher compensation.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The "denominator problem" in assessing teacher compensation

Do public school teachers receive compensation in line with the market value of their skills? To answer that question, we have to know how much teachers work relative to other professions. Andrew Biggs and I call this the "denominator problem" in pay comparisons. The hourly wage is total salary divided by work hours, with the numerator determined easily enough using teacher contracts or survey data. But what goes in the denominator?

How much time do teachers work?
Andrew and I have an upcoming academic article that addresses the denominator problem using some detailed time-use data. Without it, researchers are stuck with using either "contract hours," which tend to understate teacher work time, or self-report data, which overstates work time.

On the Corner yesterday, I wrote about how the OECD not only uses these less reliable data, but also mixes and matches methods when comparing countries:
OECD studies are sometimes just too ambitious. The truth is that large-scale international comparisons are almost inevitably plagued by inconsistent and unreliable data. The most recent example: The OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013 shows American teachers working more hours than teachers in every OECD country except Chile (see table D4.1 in the study). Sounds impressive!

But consider how the data are collected. For many countries, the OECD appears to measure teacher work time based on statutory or contractual work hours. For the U.S., however, the OECD relies on the federal government’s School and Staffing Survey, which directly asks American teachers how much time they work.

That’s an inconsistency likely to inflate U.S. hours relative to the rest of the world.
Read the whole thing here. And for a discussion of other methodological challenges to assessing teacher compensation, try this longer backgrounder.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Evidence should matter, even for Head Start

For those of us who have long advocated randomized experiments in education research, yesterday's supportive New York Times article was encouraging. But the Times, all too typically, does not question why the Obama administration has dismissed experimental evidence on Head Start and universal preschool. I noted this strange omission on The Corner today:
As good as it is, though, the Times article omits a crucial fact: The Obama administration has ignored rigorous evaluations when the results are politically inconvenient.

Take Head Start. Experimental evidence has repeatedly shown that Head Start has essentially no impact on children’s cognitive or social development by the time they reach first grade. But right after last fall’s third-grade follow-up again showed no impact, the administration proposed to increase funding for Head Start, citing the “success” of the program!
Read the rest here. And I strongly recommend my coauthored essay in Real Clear Politics, which details the disconnect between rhetoric and evidence in the education policy world.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Debating Randi Weingarten

I debate teacher compensation on CNN with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Let's phase out the FERS annuity

Over at The Corner, I offer a suggestion for how budget negotiators can cut spending while inflicting minimal pain: Phase out the traditional pension (the "FERS annuity") for federal employees. They will still have a generous 401k-style plan, and their overall compensation will remain above market levels.
With both a government shutdown and a potential default looming this fall, Congress and the White House are gearing up for another round of budget negotiations. In searching for ways to save, both sides should take a close look at federal-employee benefits.

Federal employees receive greater compensation than comparably skilled private-sector workers. Reducing federal compensation to market levels should therefore have only a minimal effect on recruitment and retention of qualified workers. It would save money without a significant reduction in services.

But what is the best way to pursue reform?
Read the rest here. And for lots of data comparing federal and private compensation, see my 2011 report coauthored with AEI's Andrew Biggs.

Friday, August 23, 2013

There is no federal student loan profit

As policymakers debated student loans earlier this summer, misinformation about the program's cost was widespread. Many people mistakenly thought that the federal student loan program earned a profit for taxpayers. The implication was that the program should be expanded and interest rates lowered even further. But the program actually costs taxpayers money, once market risk is fully accounted for.

As I wrote for NRO today, the myth of student loan profits continues to be spread, this time by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:
Taibbi tells us that the real issue regarding student loans isn’t so much the interest rate charged as it is the ballooning principal that burdens students. (I agree.) He notes that universities keep tuition high in part by shifting so much of the cost to students and taxpayers through the federal loan program. (Right.) And he says that politicians looking to appear pro-student and pro-education are actually enabling this unfair system. (Exactly!)

But then he claims that the federal government itself profits off the student-loan program, collecting far more from students than it needs to. Taibbi says that politicians love the system because it rakes in the cash, and he describes the “massive earnings” as “a crude backdoor tax” on America’s poor and middle-class youth.

But there’s a basic problem with this theory. The profits don’t exist.
Read the rest of the entry here. And also see my Forbes op-ed on a similar topic.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dabbling in the Common Core debate

I watched the debate over the "Common Core" national standards unfold while I was at Heritage. I didn't take a public position at the time, but I never understood the motivation for a having a single uniform standard. I recently wrote two blog posts on The Corner elaborating on that a bit:
Politico ran a piece earlier this week on Jeb Bush’s education legacy in Florida, wondering whether the former governor’s support for the “Common Core” national education standards would be a liability to him in a 2016 presidential run...

I hope endorsing the Common Core becomes a liability for every politician. National standards run counter to a central argument for school choice, which is that parents should be able to pick a curriculum and learning environment that best matches their children’s abilities and interests.
Read the whole thing here.

In the second post, I addressed the argument that national standards would ensure that children who move between states are still taught material in the same sequence: 
This argument for national standards is an illustration of how politicians recommend more centralization as a way to fix problems caused by centralization. The public-school monopoly is what limits choice and creates the potential curriculum conflict. If parents had adequate choices in the first place, then interstate migration would not pose a major problem — parents could likely just choose a school in New Jersey whose curriculum is most similar to the child’s previous school in Alabama.
Read the rest here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why can’t we talk about IQ?

This article in Politico is my strongest critique to date of how the media handle the IQ issue. I wanted to call it "IQ Deja Vu" to emphasize how the same controversies come up again and again without the media ever learning anything:
“IQ is a metric of such dubiousness that almost no serious educational researcher uses it anymore,” the Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox wrote back in May. It was a breathtakingly ignorant statement. Psychologist Jelte Wicherts noted in response that a search for “IQ test” in Google’s academic database yielded more than 10,000 hits — just for the year 2013.

But Cox’s assertion is all too common. There is a large discrepancy between what educated laypeople believe about cognitive science and what experts actually know. Journalists are steeped in the lay wisdom, so they are repeatedly surprised when someone forthrightly discusses the real science of mental ability.

If that science happens to deal with group differences in average IQ, the journalists’ surprise turns into shock and disdain. Experts who speak publicly about IQ differences end up portrayed as weird contrarians at best, and peddlers of racist pseudoscience at worst.

I’m speaking from experience.
Read the whole thing here.