Education: “A Nation at Risk” Twenty-Five Years Later

At Cato Unbound, Richard Rothstein wrote the lead essay, which opens:

In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and consequently set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good.

The diagnosis of the National Commission on Excellence in Education was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.

…I do not suggest that American schools are adequate, that American students’ level of achievement in math and reading is where it should be, that American schools have been improving as rapidly as they should, or that the achievement gap is narrowing to the extent needed to give us any satisfaction. I only suggest that we should approach fixing a system differently if we believe its outcomes are slowly improving than if we believe it is collapsing. And we owe the latter, flawed assumption, to A Nation at Risk.

I didn’t find Rothstein’s essay very useful. He seems to be of the Krugman school of social policy, mainly criticizing education reformers and finding little fault with the monopoly public education system. As Sol Stern closed his essay:

Instead, he’s still waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.

There are three reaction essays: Michael Strong, Sol Stern, and Frederick Hess.

I didn’t find Rothstein’s essay very useful. He seems to be of the Krugman school of social policy, mainly criticizing education reformers and finding little fault with the monopoly public education system. As Sol Stern closed his essay:

Instead, he’s still waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.

I found the Hess essay especially compelling:

…Rather than ask why teacher colleges should hold a monopoly on teacher preparation, why technological advances were not yielding labor-saving practices or new efficiencies, or why schools and classrooms serving very different student populations should be expected to operate in similar ways and in accord with similar rules, the commission focused on recommending more academic courses, more instructional time, and higher standards for teachers.

…Along the way, little attention has been paid to the design of these efforts to deregulate a $500 billion a year industry, fostering a vibrant supply of effective providers, nurturing effective mechanisms for quality control, or understanding the multiplicity of arrangements and practices that stifle even nontraditional schools and service providers. For instance, the choice community has had next to nothing to say about the need for venture capital in education, about the ways in which personnel policies and benefit systems stifle new ventures, or about how consumer choices should impact the compensation and job security of educators and school leaders.

One result is that some who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

For decades, we have poured money into schooling while seeing few obvious benefits. Current per-pupil spending in constant dollars more than tripled between 1961-62 and 2003-04, from $2,603 to $8,886. Pupil-to-teacher ratios plunged, from 25.1 students per teacher in 1965 to 15.3 per teacher in 2007. Meanwhile, educational progress has been disappointing, at best, over the past quarter-century. This is the epitome of pushing on a string. In an economy marked by new technologies, labor-saving devices, steady growth in productivity, and an evolving labor pool, we are hiring and deploying educators just the way we did a half-century ago. The result is that new investments have not delivered the hoped-for results.

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School choice: Reports on Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden

For more than 80 years, independent schools have been the preferred choice of parents in the Netherlands, with the number of schools and student enrollment outpacing the public school sector by a large percentage.

…This struggle ended with an amendment to the constitution, passed in 1917, that guaranteed equal funding for public and independent schools. Within a few years, close to 70% of students were attending independent schools. The Dutch education system had changed from a state-organized monopoly into a system that gave priority to parental choice and freedom of education. It continues to flourish today.

Sweden is only following in the footsteps of the successful experience of Denmark and the Netherlands. For more background, here’s a five-page report on the Swedish revolution from the Canadian think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy:

Executive Summary More than a decade ago, Sweden reversed its long history of centralized school administration and adopted a school voucher program.

  • Allowing parents a choice of schools rapidly expanded the number of independent schools.
  • Schools that receive vouchers must except students regardless of ability or background, and must not charge tuition beyond the value of the voucher.
  • Independent schools may not consider academic ability as a standard of admission.
  • Non-state schools now house more than ten percent of school-age children; most are located in large cities, and few have opened in rural areas, although that is changing.
  • Independent schools typically specialize in certain styles of pedagogy; they tend to be smaller in size than municipal schools.
  • The growth of private schools has not harmed municipal schools; in fact, they have improved their performance in response to competition for students.
  • Independent schools have increased the level of socio-economic diversity, as students from poor neighbourhoods can now attend schools located in more affluent areas.
  • The school voucher system has garnered wide public and political acceptance.

Here’s a four-page report on the Netherlands school choice system, which provides 100% funding of private/independent schools.

Executive Summary

  • Parents in the Netherlands enjoy a nation-wide system of free choice between public or independent schools, with no cachment areas.
  • Non-profit organizations or groups of parents and teachers can organize and manage a school if minimum requirements are met.
  • These freedoms have resulted in a comparatively diverse supply of schools.
  • The central government provides a national curriculum and exams.
  • Teacher salaries and work conditions are regulated through national collective agreements.
  • Independent schools are protected by the constitutional right to freedom of organization, allowing a high degree of managerial autonomy.
  • Around 70% of primary and secondary pupils attend independent schools.
  • The money follows the child. The principle that governs the flow of funds is that of invisible per capita financing.
  • School budgets depend on enrolment and vary according to demand in both public and independent schools.
  • Government covers the full cost of schooling. There is no parental “topping up”, but financial contributions to extra-curricular activities are permitted.
  • Schools with enrolling students from less privileged backgrounds receive more government money.
  • If this model were applied to Manitoba, school boards would be eliminated and the system of passing along costs to local property owners by means of property taxes would cease to exist. Funding would simply follow the student and there would no longer be an administrative middleman to complicate lines of accountability

Lastly, a short report on Denmark, which has about 75% funding of the full cost, with parents contributing $720/yr [CD$ I think].

Teachers’ unions have traditionally opposed the idea of school choice, which they see as a direct threat to our system of universal primary and secondary education.

This reasoning is flawed. In fact, more choice tends to strengthen public schools, as recent evidence from Denmark indicates. In September, the Fraser Institute took a look at the Danish experience with public school vouchers. It turns out that schools there were all better off when parents are allowed to shop around.

The Danes have a long history of offering a diversified school product, a result of their fervent embrace of religious autonomy and parental control over education. When they made basic education compulsory in 1849, they also guaranteed parents would be able to send their children to the schools of their choice for whatever reasons moved them, whether religious, academic or political.

Vouchers in Denmark pay about 75% of the full cost of sending a child to private school. Believing that parental interest and control would suffer if the state footed the whole bill, the government requires families to pay around $720 a year for each child enrolled in an independent school. This small out-of-pocket touch makes parents “price-sensitive” customers. More basically, choice produces a powerful incentive for results. Compare, the competitive, choice-based Danish model with our own “free”, cost-plus monopoly system. The Danes educate a student for under $2900 and score higher on international literacy and math tests. Manitobans pay about $7000 per public school student, even though results are lower.

The Danes — including those in the Education Ministry — believe wider choice has improved government schools. To quote the Fraser report, “Danish municipal schools imitate successful practices pioneered in the independent sector because they risk losing pupils and popular support if they do not.” According to the OECD, “Municipal schools are starting to replicate the [independent school] model of parental involvement. . . .”

FCPP has more research resources on school choice at The Education Frontiers Project.

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School choice: FCPP on Swedish vouchers

FCPP is another school choice resource, with links to other studies:

In Brief:

  • Sweden created a competitive school market by introducing vouchers in 1992.
  • Subsequent rapid growth in independent schools has garnered wide public support, even from teachers’ unions.
  • Although ethnic and religious segregation has increased, class integration is declining as poor children find better schools.
  • The Swedish success confirms similar evidence from vouchered American states.

The principle that inspires them—that the best use of governments’ funding power is to direct resources, not to provide services directly—is also finding wider support in mature welfare states. The recent use of school vouchers in Sweden, where splitting the purchaser from the provider improved healthcare efficiency, offers another object lesson.

The Swedes started to use vouchers in elementary and middle schools in 1992, with the passage of national legislation called Freedom of Choice and Independent Schools, and expanded the program two years later to include high schools. Rapidly growing private, for-profit companies like Kunskapsskolan have introduced unique curricula to attract vouchered students.

In North America, vouchers are already in use in six of the United States and the District of Columbia, and many more are hearing increasingly vocal demands for such alternatives to assist children trapped in low-performing inner-city schools. The Province of Ontario installed a form of them in 2002 by expanding tax credits for children in private schools. A 2001 Compas poll reported that 57 percent of the Canadian public supports the use of vouchers.

Why, then, don’t we have them already? In spite of abundant evidence that provincial education systems cost more and deliver less than students, parents and their communities want, special interest groups like teachers’ unions stand in the way. In terms of influence, “educrats” will lose the most from the systemic decentralization of public schools. Competitive schools mean less concentrated bargaining power and more merit pay for teachers, long the bête noire of their powerful professional organizations.

What happened in Sweden may change some of their minds. The two largest teachers’ unions are converts to the voucher system, probably because their colleagues who work inside the burgeoning market for independent schools are generally more satisfied with working conditions than those who remain in public schools. In a poll conducted by Svenskt Näringsliv, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, students overwhelmingly confirmed they liked the new freedom of choice.

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School choice: Voucher Lessons from Sweden

Robert Holland on the Swedish revolution in School Reform News — excerpt”

School choice has come to Sweden in a big way over the past 10 years, confounding widespread perceptions of the Swedes as statists and providing inspiration for supporters of market-based education reform in the U.S.

Sweden has the highest rate of taxation in the West and the highest ratio of public spending to GNP of the industrialized nations. For all but nine years during the postwar era, the Social Democrats have ruled this Scandinavian country.

Yet, as a result of a top-to-bottom education reform launched in 1991-92, virtually anyone can start a school in Sweden and receive public funding. Families are free to choose whatever state-subsidized school they prefer for their children, including those run by churches.

After 10 years, what lessons can be learned from Swedish education reform?

School Choice Works



“The main lesson to be learned from the Swedish reforms is that school choice works,” concluded Swedish economists and researchers Mikael Sandström and Fredrik Bergström in a January 2003 study for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. “Sweden has left behind an almost completely centralized system, with tight national control of schooling and a minuscule role for non-governmental institutions.”

In short, Sweden has done a 180-degree turn in education over the past decade, in the process generating a number of positive results. Although the U.S. is far behind Sweden and much of Western Europe in school choice–ironically so, given the vibrancy of the American market economy–the researchers believe there are a number of lessons the U.S. can take from Sweden.

Among the positive outcomes they found from Sweden’s shift to free educational choice:

  • The number of independent schools has increased fivefold. Under Swedish law, they now must be funded equally with the municipal schools–as Swedish public schools are known–once they have received approval to operate.
  • Attendance in independent schools has quadrupled.
  • Student performance in Sweden’s government-run schools has increased, the apparent result of competition from a much-increased supply of schools.
  • Most of the independent schools are run by for-profit educational management companies, with no negative effect on the quality of education.
  • Free choice under a voucher-style approach has not led to advantages for the elite rich. In fact, poorer Swedes choose independent schools at higher rates than do affluent families.
  • While there are differences of opinion within the teaching profession, the Swedish teacher unions have not opposed school choice. Surveys show teachers tend to prefer working in the independent schools because they find the climate for teaching better there.

Were full choice to become the norm in the U.S., perhaps American teachers would begin to wonder why their unions have demonized vouchers. The study notes that when teachers can choose not only among several municipal schools but also many independent schools, they benefit by being able to market their skills and choose a school that best fits their interests.

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School choice: the Swedish revolution from a UK perspective

The Conservative Party is trying to introduce a free market education system into the U.K. In this Spectator piece Fraser Nelson examines the success of the Swedish reforms. A fragment:

This summer, at least 25,000 children will drop out of English schools without a single qualification to show for their years of compulsory education. Some 240,000 will graduate from primary school unable to read or write properly. By autumn, some 250 schools judged to be failing will welcome an intake of new pupils. Youth unemployment will probably hit an 11-year high. It will, tragically, be just another year in one of the world’s highest-funded education systems.

…He would, in short, seek to bring the Swedish education revolution to Britain. When Mr Cameron first promised to do this at the Tory conference in Blackpool (along with Wisconsin-style welfare reform), it sounded a rather abstract idea, the stuff of think-tank seminars rather than everyday life. Yet in the last five months Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, has been carefully designing a blueprint which would enable the establishment of a new breed of local independent schools, funded by the state but not run by it. It is potentially a plan of huge significance.

…Today one in every eight schools in Sweden is a so-called ‘free school’ — some 900 already, with a further 1,550 applications granted last year. That said, Hultin also points out that most of these applications do not result in new schools. ‘Many applications are by parents wanting to pressure a council which is threatening to close down a local school,’ he says. So of course, if the council backs down, the application is unnecessary. This tactic is hard to comprehend in Britain. Swedish parents don’t protest against school closures — they simply apply to open a rival school. This prevents councils from amalgamating good small schools into ever-larger educational warehouses.

Part of the Conservatives’ problem in selling the policy is trying to get across the idea of a system where pupils choose schools, and not vice versa. Where parents on council estates are inundated with leaflets from schools competing to educate their child. And where fee-charging private schools might revert to the purpose they served before the comprehensive era: social clubs for the richest.

The first question you might ask is: how would people find the buildings? This question takes as its premise the Grange Hill model of a secondary which has, alas, become the norm in England. The average English school here now has a roll of a thousand pupils — whereas the new breed of Swedish schools averages just 180 pupils. So new schools can, and usually do, open in a former office.

Per Ledin, head of Kunskapsskolan group, which owns 25 schools, explained the process to me. ‘Most office buildings are constructed in a way that it’s no big deal to tear down a wall and make a classroom.’ But don’t the council schools put up a fight against their new competition? ‘Of course,’ he shrugs. ‘They say, “We already have 500 surplus school places, so please, no more misery.” But it doesn’t work. The 1992 Act says new schools can only be blocked on very specific grounds.’

This is the secret to the system’s success (which the Tories would replicate): a central body granting planning and financial permission. New schools cannot be blackballed by jealous local authorities as they are in Britain. Mr Blair could only look on and weep last year when councillors in the deprived borough of Tower Hamlets rejected Goldman Sachs’s offer to open a city academy. Even now Lord Adonis, the schools minister, is being dragged into the High Court by groups trying to stop the government opening new schools.

The second charge is that this funding system creates educational apartheid. If money follows pupils, won’t a socially damaging segregation between the best and worst schools be a natural consequence? Were it not for the evidence of the Swedish model, it would be easy to imagine any such proposal being still-born in this country. But there is now a mass of academic studies — one surveying 28,000 pupils — showing that such fears are unjustified. In education, a rising tide really does lift all boats. The older schools improve as they are galvanised by the pressure of the new: shape up, or lose pupils and money. It works.

What is perhaps most surprising about these new schools is their Spartan appearance. In the south of Stockholm I visited Enskede School, which could not strike a greater contrast with the flagship city academies I have been shown around in England. There are no trophy buildings, interactive whiteboards or other gizmos. There is an Ikea-style simplicity at work. The classrooms have tables and chairs, but not much else. Playgrounds are converted car parks. But no one seems to mind.

…Yet there is one part of the Swedish system which is too openly capitalist even for the Tories: allowing schools to make a profit. In the Prime Minister’s Office in Stockholm’s old town, Mikael Sandström, a state secretary for the Moderate party administration, explains why the Tories are wrong. ‘If you’re a not-for-profit school, then the longer the waiting list the better,’ he says. ‘It’s a lot of trouble to expand, so they don’t. Also, profit-making schools have been shown to have less social segregation.’ And then he says something one would be surprised to hear in the White House, let alone the Rosenbad in Stockholm. ‘The question for me is whether we should abolish non-profit-making schools,’ Sandström says. I am not at all sure he was joking.

I visited another school which illustrates Sandström’s point. Engelska Skolan, which teaches primary children in English, had two founders who disagreed whether to seek profit. They went their separate ways. The original school still stands, on its own in a trust, six applicants for every place. The profit-making version is now a chain of eight English-speaking schools. If the waiting list grows big enough, they open another one.

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More backing for free market schools

Thanks to Tom Clougherty for this link:

The Stockholm Network released its latest policy video yesterday, this time tackling education reform and commending the Swedish model. Summing up the video’s message, Helen Disney, the SN’s director, said: “The State should continue to fund most primary and secondary education, but such money ought to follow pupils in the form of a voucher and be spent in a much more competitive and open market of independent providers. Learning from the Swedish policy agenda which has greatly encouraged school choice, parents and teachers must be allowed to set up their own schools where there is a critical mass of local support.” Hear, hear.

The video is not to be missed!

Democrats’ Risky Alliance with Big Labor

Jennifer Rubin:

This is one more instance in which Democrats have confused the interests of union power brokers with the interests of working-class voters. Unions may want to do away with workplace democracy, but real workers do not. Similarly, teachers’ unions hate school choice measures, but working-class voters whose kids are trapped in underperforming public schools like them.

Moore's Law meets education

There is a technology war coming. Actually it is already here but most of us haven’t yet noticed. It is a war not about technology but because of technology… The early battles are being fought in our schools. And I already know who the winners will be… This is a war over how we as a culture and a society respond to Moore’s Law. — Robert X. Cringely

…who offers a couple of important points in his latest PBS column [and podcast], both rooted in the idea that broad adoption of a new technology takes about 30 years — a generation for social adaptation. [Robert X. Cringely is the pen name of technology journalist Mark Stephens]. Mark is prone to hyperbole, so bear with me for a moment.

1. Mark credits the widespread adoption of ISO 9000 certification with enabling the substitution of foreign manufacture for components previously supplied by U.S. manufacturing. I’ll grant that ISO 9000 was an enabler, without getting into how significant a factor that was in the shift towards global supply chains.

2. Mark then extrapolates the ISO 9000 certification idea to a future where students are certified — not schools, but students.

The latter smells like a Big Idea to me. I believe that the existing state-monopoly approach to education is certain to be displaced by free-market competition — where education resources compete for parents’ selection. This is already happening everywhere the legal shackles have been loosened to permit parents to choose [“school choice“]. Of course, for decades parents have been making a very expensive choice — to send their children to private schools even in the absence of financial relief via vouchers, tax rebates or charter school options — therefore paying twice for the education service.

But why does educational certification necessarily require that the student spend 100% of her time in a physical, accredited institution? I’ve written several times about such innovations as the Open Courseware movement, symbolized by MIT’s free internet offering of their entire curriculum.

Suppose that a fraction of the $Billions squandered by the educational establishment were instead invested in both Open Courseware, AND a robust methodology for certifying that a student actually can DO what is needed to succeed? A significant part of the latter evaluation should be possible via online methods. To the extent that both the learning and certifying resources evolve into “Information Technologies”, they become subject to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Imagine the future children who are products of a learning path that is improving like Moore’s Law! It’s a good thing I don’t have to compete with those kids!

To motivate you to “read the whole thing”, here’s a few excerpts from Cringely’s “War of the Worlds“:

…we’ve reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.

I came to this conclusion recently while attending Brainstorm 2008, a delightful conference for computer people in K-12 schools throughout Wisconsin. They didn’t hold breakout sessions on technology battles or tactics, but the idea was in the air. These people were under siege.

…I live in Charleston, SC where the public schools are atrocious despite spending an average of $16,000 per student each year. Why shouldn’t I keep my kids at home and online, demanding that the city pay for it?

Because that’s not the way we do it, that’s why.

Well times are changing.

…Technology is beginning to assail the underlying concepts of our educational system – a system that’s huge and rich and so far fairly immune to economic influence… We are nearing the time when paying dues and embracing proxies for quality may give way [to] having the ability to know what kids really know, to verify what they can really do…

Mark doesn’t get into other important benefits of bricks-and-mortar education institutions — like learning from peers. But I can imagine innovations that preserve the institutional benefits while liberating students from failed institutions that are motivated primarily by union and bureaucratic incentives.

School choice: education tax credits

School Choice is becoming the most popular education reform idea, but not all school choice is created equal. The most powerful kinds allow parents to choose any school—public, independent, or religious. Most of the time, vouchers are what people think of when we are talking about this type of full-fledged choice. Yet, there is another policy that increasingly has been successful in recent years: education tax credits.

Vouchers essentially are checks that the state sends parents to use at schools that the government deems are voucher-worthy. Tax credits, though, reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he or she spends on a child’s education. Moreover, tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations can help support school choice for lower-income families, and personal-use credits can help middle- class families. For instance, if a business owes the state $4,000 and donates $4,000 to a scholarshipgranting organization, it would pay nothing in taxes. Similar benefits for donations can be applied to individuals.

Three states have modest forms of personal-use tax credits: Illinois allows families to claim credits worth 25% of their educational expenses, up to $2,500; Iowa allows 25%, up to $1,000; and Minnesota allows 75% of nontuition expenses, up to a maximum credit of $1,000 per child. Five states— Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island— have more powerful donation credits. Pennsylvania allows a 90% credit for donations and Florida a 100% credit, helping thousands of children from lower- income families attend good, independent schools.

Education tax credits are a more powerful and bipartisan “third way” school choice reform that promises to spread educational freedom across the country. They are the future of school choice for five reasons:

Education tax credits are more popular than vouchers. Surveys generally demonstrate that tax credits command five to 10% more support than do vouchers. A large academic poll conducted for the magazine Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University illustrates the remarkable wide support for tax credits. Even current and former public school employees favor them by a margin of nearly two to one; public school employees oppose vouchers by a two-point margin.

[more from Adam B. Schaeffer]

I don’t care if its tax credits or vouchers — what is essential is that the financial offset be equal to the state’s average per pupil cost — a 100% offset. What do you think is the chance of such reforms if the U.S. has a president Clinton or Obama?

School choice: incentives matter

Notice that Florida’s program worked even though the program was very weak. It offered vouchers only to students in the worst schools and only after those schools received F grades in multiple years. The vouchers were relatively small and could not be topped up. In addition, the program lasted only a few years before it was declared unconstitutional by Florida’s supreme court.

A true voucher program would be national, would not discriminate among students, would offer funding equal to that spent on students in public schools and would be permanent. Competition in such a system would be more intense and even more productive than in Florida’s program.

[more] A sure bet – if Obama gets into the U.S. White House, school choice will be blockaded by the teachers unions for another four to eight years [at minimum]. That will be extremely sad. Everyone in the world loses from substandard U.S. education, not just Americans [less innovation –> less growth in personal income, less progress against poverty].