Thursday, September 1, 2011

Joe's Take: Whose Child?

Who should shape the worldview and moral code of children -- parents or the state? That issue, which dates back at least to Plato, was raised anew by the recent story about the New Jersey school district that, to the distress of parents, assigned books with steamy sex scenes and vulgar language for summer reading.

When societies debate the role of parents and government in raising children, schools are often at the center of the swirl, and for good reason. Schools are powerful conveyors of values and culture, transmitting an ethos that can support or erode what is taught at home. There is justifiable cause for concern when public schools fill the minds of children with images, words, and ideas at variance with the values of their parents.

In a talk two years back at the National Press Club, John E. Coons, professor emeritus at Berkeley Law, listed some of the topics about which children can receive conflicting messages at school: sex, euthanasia, animal rights, war, the environment, abortion, gay marriage, health care, Al Gore movies, scientism, Columbus, and corporate greed. And that’s just for starters!

Schools, said Coons, “teach a rich lottery of values, and to the extent that this is true, the child of the not-so-rich parent takes moral pot luck.” He argued that providing parents with greater choice in education would enable them to choose the values to which their children are exposed and help them ensure that what is taught at school comports with what they teach at home.

Thirty-five years ago, Stephen Arons, professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, struck the same theme of providing parents choice as a means of protection against state intrusion on their right to raise children in accordance with their beliefs and values. In a classic essay for Harvard Educational Review in 1976 titled “The Separation of School and State: Pierce Reconsidered,” Arons wrote that when a public school attempts “to inculcate values that a particular family may find abhorrent to its own basic beliefs and way of life,” the family is faced with the choice of “(1) abandoning its beliefs in order to gain the benefit of a state-subsidized education, or (2) forfeiting the proffered government benefit in order to preserve the family belief structure from government interference.” There’s a bit of a problem, however. “Conditioning the provision of government benefits upon the sacrifice of fundamental rights” is unconstitutional.

Arons concludes that “compulsory education may have to be revised to eliminate its economically discriminatory nature and to preserve freedom of belief for families in search of adequate education.” No doubt many parents in the offending New Jersey school district would welcome such preservation of their freedom right now.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director) 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Joe’s Take: Marshmallows

More than once I’ve heard David Brooks tell the marshmallow story. It’s about an experiment conducted in the late 1960s by psychology professor Walter Mischel in which pre-K children were given the chance either to consume a marshmallow (or cookie or candy) right away on the spot or to delay consumption in exchange for a guaranteed second marshmallow minutes later.

As anyone who knows four-year-olds might guess, some children ate the treat within seconds of the offer, some held out a bit longer, while others (some 30 percent) were able to control their desires for the experiment’s full 15-minute duration.

Though the power of the treats was readily apparent, it would be years before Mischel realized the full significance of the study. As the children were tracked over ensuing decades, it turns out that this extraordinarily simple measure of the capacity to delay gratification at age four was a powerful predictor of behavior later in life. In high school, the short delayers had an average SAT score 210 points lower than the long delayers. They also had more trouble paying attention and keeping friends. As adults they had higher body-mass indexes and incidents of drug abuse.

Now lest you think that future success is entirely determined by one’s skill in postponing gratification at age four, Mischel’s work and related research (engagingly described in this piece by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker) shows there is a learned component to self-control. Children can be taught how to do it, and practice can make it habitual, which brings us back to David Brooks.

In his latest book, The Social Animal, Brooks devotes considerable space to the role played by institutions and communities in forming character -- the habits of mind and behavior that shape a person’s core and set the stage for success. Self-control is among those habits, and Brooks correctly calls the trait “one of the essential ingredients of a fulfilling life.”

Now it’s no secret that many religious and independent schools put a premium on instilling self-discipline in students: paying attention in class, attending to the task at hand, doing homework without excuses, refraining from disruptive outbursts, behaving courteously during assemblies, not speaking out of turn, and on and on. Students get a whole lot of practice and encouragement when it comes to regulating their own behavior. “Character,” says Brooks, ”emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.” Families, schools, religious institutions -- all with their particular social and moral capital -- contribute to the mix. “It is very hard to build self-control alone,” he writes.

Just as many parents provide children opportunities to learn to postpone gratification (no TV until your homework is done; no dessert unless you finish your dinner), religious and independent schools help children develop a work ethic and a sense of self-discipline in pursuit of a higher purpose that sets the groundwork for success and accomplishment later in life. They instill routines of order and respect that build, exercise, and strengthen enduring traits of character. Brooks calls the rules and habits of self-control promulgated by institutions “external scaffolds that penetrate deep inside us.” Indeed, the scaffolds of discipline that private schools provide help students resist instant marshmallows for a more substantial and lasting good.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Joe's Take: Sleeper Effects

The American Enterprise Institute recently hosted a discussion on a fascinating study by David Figlio of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Figlio’s study concludes that the Florida tax credit scholarship program has sparked improvement in the public schools that face new competition from nearby private schools.

We typically think of school choice as helping students who transfer out of public schools. This study showed positive effects for the students left behind. To sweeten the pie even more, the program also resulted in savings for taxpayers and higher levels of school satisfaction among participating parents.

But for me, the discussion’s key comment came from panelist Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution. Recalling that a significant outcome of the opportunity scholarship program in the District of Columbia was the higher graduation rates for scholarship recipients, Whitehurst suggested that school choice programs might deliver “sleeper effects,” not immediately measureable in math and reading scores. He said studies of some choice schools show outcomes in “soft areas, motivationally related areas, rather than skill-related areas” whose results may be seen in “aspirational differences later on.”

Discussant Jane Hannaway of the Urban Institute reinforced Whitehurst’s point, calling test scores “only partial and imperfect measures of the learning that goes on in school.” And in a similar vein, Nada Eissa, an associate professor at Georgetown University, said that in evaluating whether voucher programs are any good, these deeper effects “are the really important outcomes.” She added, “By focusing only on test scores, we may just be missing a whole lot of what’s important from the social perspective.”

I presume the panelists were talking about the effect schools can have in cultivating a culture of learning and instilling in students the desire to succeed. Some schools promote the obligation to put one’s gifts and abilities to good use in the pursuit of life’s purpose. These are the deeper lessons, the sleeper effects, the lifelong results of religious and independent schools that a short-term scale score in reading or math cannot even begin to capture. Parents seem to intuitively grasp the essential values involved. The AEI discussion is a hopeful sign that researchers are starting to do the same.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Joe’s Take: Not an Even Swap

“School’s Out, Forever,” a recent article in The New York Times by David Gonzalez captures with great compassion the heartrending story surrounding the closing of St. Martin of Tours School in the Bronx. Gonzalez brings a unique perspective, having graduated from the school 40 years ago this month. He explains how the school offered a sanctuary in a neighborhood ravaged by “gang fights, racial unrest and crack wars.” In the midst of mayhem, the school managed to propel students to success. But its benefits were more than academic. The school built character and, through instruction and example, taught students how to live. Gonzalez remembers the “sacrifices made happily and gifts given freely by women religious,” recalling how “[t]hrough word and deed they taught us the works of mercy: to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and educate the ignorant.”

Unfortunately, the closing of priceless educational gems like St. Martin’s is playing out in cities across the country. In the Archdiocese of New York alone, 26 elementary schools are slated to shut down this month. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that the past decade has seen the number of Catholic schools in the country decline by 1,166 –- an astounding loss of opportunity for families and children.

Part of the narrative behind the closings has been the rise in charter schools. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 1999 to 2008, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools climbed from 340,000 to 1.4 million, while during roughly the same period (1999-2009) the number of students in private schools dropped from 6.0 million to 5.5 million. Charter schools gained students, and private schools lost them. Of course, enrollment demographics present a complicated scenario, and no one is suggesting a student-for-student transfer from private schools to charters. But in certain regions and communities, there is no question that some parents have swapped one sector for the other.

The problem is the trade is not an even one -- not for students, parents, or society. For starters, private schools have a history, a proven record of performance; they are not novice upstarts. Further, private schools are free of excessive government control that can stifle effectiveness and compromise a school’s unique identity. What’s more, private schools can establish a certain kind of culture and shared community that charter schools cannot. As David Gonzalez suggests, they strive to instill in students a sense of mission and service, a call to act selflessly for a greater good. The faith and values that explicitly drive so many private schools are simply off limits in charter schools.

Finally, there’s a major public policy distinction between the two sectors: the source of funding. Every student who switches from private to public represents a huge cost to taxpayers, so for any growth in charter schools at the expense of private schools the public foots the full bill. Perhaps that’s why, in this time of tight budgets, so many states are looking to expand genuine school choice by providing modest financial incentives to help parents select private schools, thereby easing the burden on neighborhood public schools and sparing taxpayers the full cost of educating the child. The bonus is that parents are provided proven, effective options –- the kind of life-changing opportunity that David Gonzalez had.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Joe's Take: Baffling

Baffling. That’s one way to describe the back-to-back speeches last week by Education Secretary Duncan and President Obama at the centennial celebration of the National Urban League.

Both Obama and Duncan decried the status quo in education, offered some expensive and untried proposals for improvement, but failed to embrace an obvious and economical reform: school choice.

Too many low-income children are sentenced to chronically underperforming schools and nearly 50 percent of African-American and Latino students drop out of high school, putting themselves and the nation at risk, said the secretary. But while acknowledging some pockets of educational excellence that exist across the country, he and his boss overlooked the amazing work being done by religious and independent schools to combat the drop-out rate and close the achievement gap.

The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that black eighth-grade students in private schools score roughly two full grade levels higher in reading than their counterparts in public schools. According to other government reports, private high school students take tougher courses, score much better on the SATs and ACTs, and go to college at significantly higher rates than their public school peers. If getting more students ready for college is the administration’s primary educational goal, then helping more parents choose private schools for their children should be at the front of reform efforts.

Yet, astoundingly, the Obama team has shunned school choice (except for the president’s children) as a way to improve performance, even initiating the slow death of the popular and effective DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) by shutting out new students. As a result, some religious schools in the nation’s capital that participate in the program will likely close, denying opportunities for lifelong success to an even wider scope of students, scholarship and non-scholarship alike, and forcing many families to switch to government schools at taxpayer expense.

A random-assignment study commissioned by the Education Department has found that students who attended private schools through the OSP were more likely -- by 21 percentage points -- to receive a high school diploma than a control group that did not take part in the program. Can any of the administration’s proposals boast a similar record of proven performance backed by gold-standard research? If the goal is to expand college-prep opportunities for minority students, why on earth kill a program that demonstrates remarkable success in achieving just that?

And here’s the kicker, it achieves the success at substantial savings to taxpayers. The scholarships are worth a maximum of $7,500 per student, far less than the per-pupil cost in DC public schools. With government spending out of control and voters demanding that budgets be balanced, policymakers should be embracing programs that deliver results at lower costs. Instead the administration has turned to charter schools, an expensive alternative that shifts the entire cost of education to the taxpayer and narrows opportunities by forcing some traditional religious schools to close.

“We know what's possible -- we are seeing it all over the country,” said Duncan. He’s right, but he and the president failed to acknowledge the obvious centers of excellence that exist in private schools and the contribution those schools make to improving education while saving taxpayers lots of money. Baffling.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joe’s Take: Trust Me

A new ad by Apple has the now familiar Mac and PC boys bickering about the reliability of Windows 7. This version will live up to the hype, touts PC, “Trust me.” The claim, however, rings hollow once we learn that similar promises accompanied a string of previous products -- all falling short of expectations.

Like computer operating systems, efforts at education reform also leave a lot to be desired. The most recent national test results in math have prompted debate about whether the assessment and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are having their intended effect on student achievement. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the gains fourth-graders had been making since 1990 have stalled, while eighth-graders continue to make only modest progress (see related story).

Against this backdrop, students in religious and independent schools, which are not subject to NCLB, show significant performance advantages over students enrolled in the public option: a 7-point advantage in grade 4, and 14 points in grade 8. (Since 10 points on the NAEP scale is equal to about a full grade level, a 14-point difference is substantial.) Also, the black/white achievement gap is narrower in private schools.

In the past five decades, we’ve seen the following major efforts at education reform, all more or less sold by Washington to the American public with the claim “trust me”:
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)
Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (1981)
Improving America's Schools Act (1994)
Goals 2000: The Educate America Act (1994), through which every child was supposed to demonstrate mastery of challenging subject matter by the year 2000
No Child Left Behind Act (2001), through which every child is supposed to perform at the proficient level by the year 2014

With NCLB apparently not doing everything it was supposed to do, Education Secretary Duncan is now calling for new reforms -- in his words, “reforms that will accelerate student achievement.” But because past efforts have fallen short of expectations, the secretary will have a tough time conveying the message that this version will be different. Something convincing is needed. “Trust me” will not cut it.

Since NAEP first started measuring achievement, students in religious and independent schools have consistently and substantially outperformed students in government-run schools. Many factors may be involved, but the achievement advantage alone suggests that one convincing reform the secretary should consider is simply to allow more parents to select schools with a proven record of performance. Parents tend to know what’s best for their children. Trust them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Joe's Take: Let Me Rise!

In 1971, a 10-year-old boy from a low-income family with a single mom received a scholarship to attend a private school. The school had a profound effect on his life. Years later he described that effect this way: “There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful.”

The boy (pictured right) was Barack Obama. The school was the Punahou School in Hawaii (see the December issue of CAPE Outlook for the full story).

As a new ad points out, Mr. Obama now has an opportunity to ensure that similar children get the same chance he did – the chance for a future full of hope.

Voices of School Choice, a Web site promoting the right of parents to choose their child’s school, features a powerful, must-see video about these students titled “Let Me Rise.” Narrated by Juan Williams, the 30-minute film about the profound impact of school choice on particular families and children “offers a compelling look at the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as told through the voices of the children whose educational futures continue to hang in the balance.”

The site also features several ad-length videos, including a particularly moving one about the effect that a private school scholarship had on President Obama.

A visit to Voices of School Choice would provide a refreshing and uplifting break from the evening news tonight.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)