The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Opinions without facts

Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but I'm amazed at how people can hold opinions - and even act on those opinions (such as when they vote) - without having a grasp of the appropriate facts. I've seen two releases recently that highlight this issue: the first is a commentary from the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the second is the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (which I've addressed in a different vein previously).

From an 8/29/06 commentary by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation:

A recent survey of 400 registered voters in Washington shows that almost everyone has opinions about whether or not the state is spending enough on its K-12 public schools, but almost nobody knows how much is actually being spent.

Sixty percent of those asked felt public schools were under-funded . . . until they found out how much is being spent. Our state spends an average of more than $10,000 per pupil annually, but only 12 percent of respondents came within $2,000 of knowing that number. When asked if $10,000 per pupil each year seemed too high, too low, or just about right, 61 percent said it seemed either too high or just about right.

I'll only comment that knowing per-pupil expenditures is still not enough information to comment on how much "enough" is. Enough for what? Compared with what? How is that money used? What are you getting for it?

The PDK/Gallup poll found similar evidence of opinions absent knowledge. For example, they noted that public support for charter schools had increased over the past few years, despite the fact that the public clearly doesn't understand what a charter school is. From their report:

Findings. Public approval of charter schools has climbed from 42% in 2000 to 53% in 2006. This finding must be weighed against responses indicating that the concept is not clearly understood. Here are some comparisons:

  • 39% of respondents say charter schools are public schools; 53% say they are not (fact: they are public schools).
  • 50% say charters are free to teach religion; 34% say they are not (fact: they are not).
  • 60% say charters can charge tuition; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
  • 58% say charters can base student selection on ability; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
    I continue to have high hopes for NCLB - if not for the specifics of the law itself (it still seems to be a clumsy - but positive - first step), then for the idea that schools should be accountable for providing information to education consumers. And one can hope that if we start getting consumers used to receiving - and using - data on academic achievement, they'll start to become more savvy, asking for more and more information with which to make informed decisions.

    Of course, the final responsibility for requesting and using that information remains with the consumer, and that may be where my whole argument/desire for an informed public falls apart; that certainly seems to be the case from these isolated examples.

    The one thing that would frighten me more than schools not sharing critical information is if schools were to offer it - and not find any takers.

    Thursday, August 24, 2006

    Strange things afoot at the PDK

    For the last 38 years, Phi Delta Kappa and The Gallup Organization have conducted a national survey on the public’s attitudes toward public schools. (Go here for complete results of this year’s survey.) It’s an influential survey, put out by two credible entities, and one would be inclined to take its results at face value. But it seems as if there are some shenanigans happening behind the scenes that would severely compromise the integrity of this work.

    Given the inroads made in recent years by voucher initiatives (programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and DC for example), it would seem as if the idea of school choice is gaining political and public acceptance. Yet, according to PDK/Gallup:

    Since 1991, the PDK/Gallup polls have approached this issue with a question that measures approval of the voucher concept — “allowing parents and students to choose a private school to attend at public expense” — without using the politically charged word “vouchers.” Table 5 provides this year’s results. In considering the results, it is useful to keep in mind that choice, independent of a specific program, is popular with the public.

    Findings. The percentage favoring vouchers dropped from 38% a year ago to 36% this year, while opposition grew from 57% to 60%. Support for vouchers started at 24% in 1993, fluctuated up and down for years, and peaked at 46% in 2002. It is now at the mid-Nineties level.

    Sounds bad for the voucher folks, right? It would – if this were the whole story.

    PDK/Gallup is technically correct when they say that they’ve been asking about the voucher concept without using the word “vouchers” since 1991. What they don’t say is that they’ve been asking about vouchers since 1970; the difference is that they actually used the word “vouchers” in previous years.

    According to Andrew Coulson of The Cato Institute, on the Cato blog:

    PDK actually started asking the American public about vouchers back in 1970, with a rather more informative question:

    In some nations, the government allots a certain amount of money for each child for his or her education. The parents can then send the child to any public, parochial, or private school they choose. This is called the “voucher system.” Would you like to see such an idea adopted in this country?

    Response to this question was initially somewhat unfavorable, but those answering favorably began outnumbering those opposed in 1981, and that pattern was never reversed. The last time PDK ever asked this question, in 1991, 50 percent of respondents were in favor while only 39 percent were opposed.

    What Cato did not mention, but also can be found in the 1991 PDK report, is that “The voucher plan finds its strongest support among non-whites and blacks (57% in both groups), inner-city dwellers (57%), people with children under 18 (58%), and nonpublic school parents (66%).”

    If you want to politicize this, you can argue that The Cato Institute has an agenda of its own – but they’re simply presenting facts here, as evidenced by past editions of PDK/Gallup reports (archived here).

    It gets even stickier. Sensing that the new question (“Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?”) promoted a bias against vouchers, The Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation commissioned their own survey last year, using Harris Interactive, another well-known polling firm. In this survey, they contacted 1,000 adults, asked 500 of them the PDK question verbatim, and asked the other 500 a slightly modified version.

    The results, with changes in wording underlined:

    PDK Question: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?”
    • 37% favor
    • 55% oppose
    • 5% neither favor or oppose
    • 2% don’t know/refused
    Adjusted Question: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?”
    • 60% favor
    • 33% oppose
    • 5% neither favor nor oppose
    • 2% don’t know/refused

    That’s right – a 23-point jump in support, based on a slight rewording of the question. And while the Friedman Foundation is wholly pro-voucher, I’ve got to consider their question the fairer of the two.

    It seems clear to me that PDK’s work, at least on this issue, has been compromised by their agenda (they describe themselves as “a dedicated advocate for the public schools” on their site). As a result, it’s hard to take any of their findings very seriously – just one more example of education research that can’t be taken at face value.

    The frontier spirit

    NPR ran a story last week about a new exhibit at The Smithsonian - "ABC America" - which focuses on education-themed artwork from the turn of the 19th century. (Thanks to MKP for the tip!)

    From the recap at the NPR site:

    This painting (Edmonds' The New Scholar, from 1845) is part of an ongoing debate in 19th-century America over whether children should go to school. The whole idea of universal, free education was an invention of the 1820s and 30s. Before then, children were taught at home or in church.

    Some Americans worried that the frontier spirit would be taken from their children -- that they'd be made to conform.

    And some children weren't crazy about being cooped up in classrooms -- like the subject in The Truant, a painting from the 1860s by Thomas LeClear. It shows a little boy, with his books and lunch pail hiding from his teacher.

    It's interesting to me that the same fear of conformity that haunts us today has existed since the birth of the public education system. Americans value individuality and independence, something plainly seen in the archetypes with which we identify: pioneers, cowboys, jazz musicians, entrepreneurs. Individuals fighting the status quo, standing alone against the powers that be.

    I can understand why we built the education system we did back in the 19th century: we needed a consistent level of capable and disciplined workers to man our factories, so we engineered a system to produce them.

    But our needs as a society have changed. We no longer need masses of factory workers, all prepared to work within a system designed by someone else. To compete in the world today, we need to get back to our frontier roots, building a nation of individuals who take responsibility for their lives and have the skills, and the spirit, to lead and to innovate. As John Taylor Gatto says, we need to get back to our jazz roots, becoming the creators, not the manufacturers.

    Gatto compares our schools to "the little mill that ground salt when salt wasn't needed;" it's an accurate observation. Our needs have changed, and the way we educate our kids must change as well.

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006

    How many planets are there?

    In elementary school, I - like millions of other kids - learned that there were nine planets in our solar system. It was a fact - couldn't argue with it - and it had always been that way (at least as far as we were concerned - Pluto was actually discovered in 1930).

    Turns out that facts aren't always facts. The international body of astronomers, after considerable debate, are facing a decision: because Pluto is so different from the other planets, we either have to stop calling it a planet or we need to add some more planets based on the revised definition. That leaves us with either 8 or 12 planets, including a celestial body charmingly named 2003 UB313. (Article here for more information.)

    I mention this as a reminder to anyone interested in education reform. Just because everybody knows something - just because everyone looks at something the same way and calls it a fact - doesn't mean it's right, and it doesn't mean that you can't look at things differently over time.

    There are facts, and there are "facts". 2+2=4 is a fact. Pluto's existence is a fact. But whether Pluto is a planet is not a matter of fact: it depends on how we define a planet, and that's not only subjective, it's also somewhat arbitrary.

    Same things with schools. As Christian Long points out today at Think:Lab, in the whole great history of mankind, we've only been doing public schooling for the last 200 years or so. There are no hard and fast scientific laws as to how schooling has to be. Schools do not have to be as they have always been. We can change the definition. We can change the desired outcomes. We can change the processes.

    It may look like an impossible task, given the size of this $700 billion juggernaut we call an education system. But anyone who "knew" that there were nine planets should take comfort in the fact that that things don't have to be what they've always been.

    Friday, August 11, 2006

    Google as model for public schools?

    Great article on what schools can learn from Google, courtesy of Edspresso: "Googling Public Education." Well worth a read.

    Wednesday, August 09, 2006

    Building consensus on education reform

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it – Uptown Sinclair, from “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked” (1935)

    I saw this quote in the paper a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s so obvious when you think about it – but something I, for one, have certainly overlooked when thinking and talking about education reform.

    I’ve wondered how it is that some people don’t understand basic concepts of education improvement and /or reform, such as increasing pay for hard-to-find teachers (STEM subjects, special ed, etc.) or the value of competition among schools. These concepts are clear and proven. Supply and demand concepts work. Competition works. We see them every day in industries not controlled by the government; no doubt at all that they would work with schools.

    But these aren’t just abstract concepts. Changes like these affect people’s lives – their job security, opportunities for advancement, benefits, and the money they take home to their families. If you institute a major change in a system with millions of employees, you introduce uncertainty and turmoil – and no one wants to be thrown into professional turmoil when they have a family to support.

    I continue to believe that we must change the education system in substantive and systemic ways in order to reflect our current needs and market environment. And I also believe that, as a taxpayer-funded enterprise, public education exists to educate our kids for their benefit and for the benefit of society, not to guarantee lifelong employment and shelter public employees from the market forces to which the rest of us are subjected.

    But I’m starting to see the debate through a broader lens. It’s so easy to advocate for change when you don’t have any skin in the game. It’s much harder to endorse change – almost heroic, really - if doing so threatens your paycheck, or at least creates an unknown future.

    It seems as if the battle lines have been drawn in the war over education reform, and the fight is being waged through sheer force on the twin battlegrounds of politics and public opinion. But force isn’t the only way to win a battle. Sometimes you can avoid a fight entirely, provided you can persuade the other side to defect.

    And how do you do that in the education reform war? I think you have to present the vision for Education 2.0. Show the people in the current system that there’s a place for them within the new vision, and that their lives will be better in the new order.

    Every educator wants to make a difference. They want to see kids learn. They want to see kids care. They want to see kids working hard, striving to reach their potential. And they want to be a part of it, enabling kids to be all that they can be (to steal a phrase) and being recognized for their role in making that possible. That’s not happening very much in the current system. And that’s our opening.

    If we think education reform can do this, let’s show them, and make it clear that we want them to be a part of it. How could any educator walk away from that?

    We need to remember that education reform isn’t about abstract concepts and systems: it’s about people, not only the students but also about the people who make learning possible. As Upton Sinclair pointed out, we need to recognize their very real and personal concerns in order to bring them on board and make real change possible.

    Tuesday, August 01, 2006

    Serving the customer

    Just had a second article posted on Edspresso - "Serving the customer." I'd love to hear feedback, either here or there - thanks!