Monday, July 28, 2014

Paul Ryan's education plan: Good policy, wrong goal

The education portion of Paul Ryan’s “Expanding Opportunity in America” plan moves federal policy in the right direction, but part of the rationale is troubling.

First, some of the policy proposals. Ryan would turn federal funds for the ineffective Head Start program into a block grant for states to integrate into their early education services. Encouragingly, he would fund multiple randomized experiments to test claims made by preschool advocates. Let’s hope those are multi-site experiments conducted by outside investigators so that the results are most informative. As for K-12 education, Ryan would block-grant Title I-A spending and make it portable, part of a longstanding conservative goal. The block grant would lessen federal involvement in education, and the portability feature would encourage school choice.

These are all steps in the right direction, but I still feel uncomfortable reading through the education section. There is a troubling focus on the desire to “close the achievement gap.” In fact, based on the introduction, much of Ryan’s education plan appears premised on the need for gap-closing.

That’s a misguided and potentially counter-productive goal. Socioeconomic achievement gaps in school are inevitable for a couple of simple reasons: Smarter people tend to attain higher socioeconomic status, and smarter people also tend to have smarter kids. Those are generalities, of course, but in the aggregate it would be shocking if the children of rich kids did not do better in school than the children of poor kids, even if both groups enjoyed the same educational resources.

The gap-closing mindset leads to condemnation of schools serving low-income students as “failing” even when they might actually be doing a decent job. It generates layers of bureaucracy tasked with employing the latest pedagogical fads. It disregards the needs of gifted students looking for creative outlets. And it may ultimately undermine the case for school choice: When education reformers conclude that school choice does little to close test-score gaps, they will move on to alternative reforms that give less power to parents.

The success of an education policy should be measured not by how much it closes gaps, but by the degree to which it tailors instruction to individual student needs. School choice is probably the best way to pursue the latter goal, and I wish the Ryan plan—as positive as it is in most respects—had recognized that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SPLC: Republican opposition to Common Core is “hate and extremism”

The editors of National Review (where I'm a contributor) warned last week that free speech rights are threatened by the pernicious notion that businesses should not enjoy First Amendment protections. The threat is real, but altering the Constitution like that is still a lot of work. Activists have an easier way to suppress views they don’t like: Just call those views “hate.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) runs a blog titled “Hatewatch: Keeping an Eye on the Radical Right.” It has a daily feature called Hatewatch Headlines, which is dedicated to "highlighting the best stories around the web on hate and extremism.”

On the same day as the NR editorial, Hatewatch Headlines offered a revealing selection. Amidst links to articles about secret KKK members, apologies for slavery, and anti-government terrorism, the SPLC listed a piece from the Washington Post titled: “Forget Obamacare. Common Core is the Republicans’ new big enemy.”

Common Core is the name for a set of K-12 education standards that supporters hope will become de facto national standards. (See here for my perspective.) Needless to say, what opposition to these standards has to do with Klansmen and terrorists is not clear. But the SPLC is happy to link any conservative cause to "hate." That shuts down debate without any need for direct censorship.

The Post article itself is a lazy attack on Common Core opponents, with the usual charge that opponents are against the standards simply because the president is for them. It’s a strange accusation, given that a number of liberal groups have stated their opposition as well. Nevertheless, Republican opponents are portrayed as extreme in the Post article, and the SPLC ups the ante by surrounding the link with variants of the word “hate.”

If even the most innocuous political position—say, preferring that school standards not be uniform nationwide—can be characterized in the media as hate and extremism, then weakening the First Amendment will not be necessary to control the discourse.

Monday, July 14, 2014

About half of teachers have education degrees

I received a request from Education Realist to detail how many and which types of teachers hold undergraduate education degrees, using the ACS data mentioned in the previous post.

The ACS provides five different occupational categories that pertain to public-school teachers. Here is their distribution in the combined 2010 through 2012 samples:

Right away we can see some limitations in the ACS data. It would be nice to separate elementary from middle school, and preschool from kindergarten, but we have to work with what's available. We also have to rely on the Census Bureau to accurately categorize respondents' descriptions of the work they do, and it's not clear that it has. The percentage of secondary teachers appears too low--I expected to see around 25 percent--which suggests some misclassification.

I created three categories for college majors: pure education, subject-specific education, and non-education. Included in the first category is any field that is primarily about pedagogy rather than an academic subject. They are the types of majors that people usually mean when they say "education":
General Education
Educational Administration and Supervision
School Student Counseling
Elementary Education
Early Childhood Education
Secondary Teacher Education
Special Needs Education
Teacher Education: Multiple Levels
Miscellaneous Education
Educational Psychology
By contrast, some teachers major in how to instruct a particular subject. Their courses of study are generally similar (and sometimes identical) to majoring in the subject itself, but with an added teaching component. These are the subject-specific education majors I found in the ACS:
Mathematics Teacher Education
Physical and Health Education Teaching
Science and Computer Teacher Education
Social Science or History Teacher Education
Language and Drama Education
Art and Music Education
The table below shows how pure education, subject-specific, and non-education degrees are distributed among teachers of different grade levels. (Click the table to see a larger version.) Overall, 49 percent of public-school teachers in the ACS have a pure education degree, another 11 percent have a degree in how to teach a particular subject, and the remaining 40 percent have a non-education degree.