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So Much for the Evidence

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So Much for the Evidence

February 5, 2010
EducationPre K-12

Michael F. Shaughnessy - It’s strange that President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan are urging that we set much higher (but ill-defined) standards, while calling for the elimination of the goal of the lower standard of basic proficiency by 2014.

It’s strange that President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan are urging that we set much higher (but ill-defined) standards, while calling for the elimination of the goal of the lower standard of basic proficiency by 2014. Duncan’s new term is "career or college ready" (CCR). No one knows what that entails and it is unclear how we are supposed to reach that bar when we concede that we can’t get students to read and add at a basic level. Every time I hear education officials repeating the acronym CCR, I’m going to be thinking that the education system really needs CPR.

Despite a number of positive proposals from the administration for reforms that are consistent with rigorous policy research, political interests still have a very strong effect on the administration’s education agenda. Obama and Duncan have embraced choice through charter schools and the concept of merit pay and weakened teacher-tenure. But the unions really hate these ideas. So as not to anger this key constituency too much the administration is softening its proposals in ways that would permit union cooptation or dilution of otherwise beneficial ideas. Obama and Duncan want to be reformers in rhetoric without having to anger their base too much in reality.

The program is in the process of being dismantled. Congressional Democrats understand that it would be bad politics to throw low-income minority students out of schools that the government’s own evaluation finds are beneficial for them. Instead, they plan to kill the program in stages by forbidding new students from entering, regulating and harassing the participating students and schools so that more drop out, and then discontinuing the program when most students grade-out or transfer out.

The evidence is very clear from the recently released government evaluation of Head Start that the program has basically no lasting benefits for students. The benefits don’t even last to the end of kindergarten. These results are consistent with past evaluations. Despite these negative results, leaders of both parties -- not just the Obama administration -- have continued to embrace Head Start and shovel more money into it. I’m not sure what it will take to end this bipartisan support for a completely ineffective and extremely expensive government program. Perhaps highlighting the evidence will help.

The D.C. voucher evaluation was released just days after a key Congressional vote to phase out the program. And it was released on a Friday without a press release. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, they might as well have released it into a locked cabinet in the basement behind the sign that said "beware of leopard."

Even if Duncan and other senior education officials did not delay the release, they were certainly aware that its release was pending and could have alerted Congress of that fact before the vote was taken.

The Head Start evaluation had strange timing in that its release appears to have been delayed for years. Data collection was completed in 2006 and the study was not released until 2010. There is not good reason why it should take almost four years to analyze, write, and release an evaluation. It’s not clear who delayed the release and it appears that the delays occurred under both Bush and Obama. But someone should investigate why important information on government programs is not released in a timely and neutral way.

It would certainly be more accurate.

There is no silver bullet to fixing our schools. We need to pursue a variety of reforms, including structural reforms, incentive reforms, instructional reforms, etc... But to keep all of these reforms honest the people who operate schools have to experience some consequences for pursuing effective or ineffective reforms and for implementing those reforms well. Having school choice where resources follow students, whether through vouchers, charters, inter-district choice, magnets, etc..., imposes those consequences and can facilitate all other effective reforms.

The unions have a lot of clout and are probably the greatest single obstacle to effective reform. But their power is often exaggerated, even in the minds of policymakers. Like the Tobacco lobby, they only seem all-powerful until people show that they aren’t. Over time it is very hard to sustain really bad ideas.

Overall, I actually think Obama and Duncan are saying a lot of right things about education. While I am disappointed with the gap between their rhetoric and the reality, their words in support of meaningful reforms, like choice and weakening tenure, is very important and could eventually lead to real action.

It just came out yesterday but I have received a few emails. As usual, some are supportive and some are not.

I think we covered a lot. Thanks!

  1. Jay, President Obama has just delivered his state of the Union address, and I am still wondering what a “world class education” consists of. He seems to use this term, but never explains it...or am I off on this?
  2. It seems Obams’s evidence-based oriented education does not come close to reality. Why the gap?
  3. What is going on with the D.C. voucher program and why the concern?
  4. Why does the Obama administration insist on pouring money into Head Start? What does the data and evidence show about Head start and its efficacy?
  5. It seems that the administration does use robust methodology to assess results, then seems to ignore the stuff that is statistically significant- am I off on this?
  6. You’re entirely right. Ironically, Democrats regularly charge Republicans with conducting a "war on science" because of their positions on stem cell research and other issues. But the blatant disregard of rigorous research by the Obama administration in setting its education priorities suggests that both parties may be conducting their own "war on science."


  7. Let’s talk about the timing of when the administration releases their results. What’s up with that?
  8. Jay, if the administration says “ We are going to fund head Start to help parents find day care so that they can go to work”, would that be better than claiming the program has educational benefits?
  9. Jay, what do you see as the “first pillar of reforming our schools”?
  10. Do you think the unions are influencing policy in terms of charter schools and vouchers? And how much cloud do the unions really have or is it just a democratic liaison?
  11. What other skullduggery do you see going on with President Obama and Arne Duncan?
  12. Any reaction to your piece covered in the City Journal yet?
  13. What have I neglected to ask?