Category Archives: Education (K-12)

From the Frying Pan into the Fire?

byrd_midde_schoolSo, the Henrico County School Board has done the politically correct thing and re-named Harry F. Byrd Middle School to Quioccasin Middle School. Quioccasin, a Native American word meaning “the gathering spot,” is a local place name used for the road on which the school is located.

I’m OK with re-naming the school, which is located in western Henrico County near where I live. Virginians should re-think they way they honor former segregationist governors (even one who enacted the first law in the United States banning lynching). But given the tenor of our times, I wonder how long the new name will remain politically correct. Can’t the use of Native American names be condemned as “cultural appropriation?”

If calling a football team “the Redskins” is outre, how long until people begin calling for re-naming of all the places names stolen from displaced and exterminated native peoples? Where is the logical point at which enough is enough?


Disrupting Education and Health Care


Steve Case

by James A. Bacon

Education and health care are the two most moribund economic sectors in the U.S. economy, plagued by lagging productivity and poor outcomes. Not coincidentally, both sectors are joined at the hip with government. Democrats are determined to preserve the status quo, while Republicans offer no clear market-based alternative. Is there any reason to think anything will change?

Steve Case, the legendary co-founder of AOL who now runs investment firm Revolution LLC, thinks that a “third wave” of Internet innovation will transform both sectors from the bottom up. He writes the following in the Wall Street Journal today:

While the presidential candidates discuss the merits of abolishing or expanding the federal Education Department, entrepreneurs are revolutionizing how instructors teach and students learn. Venture capitalists see what’s coming. Funding for EdTech startups hit $1.85 billion last year, according to EdSurge, up from $360 million in 2010. Former teachers are leading companies that are unleashing—finally—personalized and adaptive learning. While the pundits debate education policy, the innovators are in the trenches improving classrooms all across the country.

Or look at health care. As the candidates pitch plans to abolish or build on the Affordable Care Act, the real action to improve America’s medical system is coming from entrepreneurs. They are inventing better ways to keep us healthy, and smarter ways to treat us when we get sick. The revolution in health care is being led by the innovators who are working tirelessly to improve outcomes, enhance convenience and lower costs. And again, investors sense this: Last year health care companies raised a record $16.1 billion in venture capital, this newspaper reported, an increase from 2014 of 34%.

But there is no divorcing government from the process, argues Case.

Third Wave innovators … won’t be able to go it alone; they’ll need to go together. They’ll need to engage with governments, as regulators and often as customers. And they’ll need to recognize that revolutions often happen in evolutionary ways. Success will require many alliances, as well as constructive dialogue with regulators.

This entrepreneurial revolution offers Virginians an alternative to the stale and polarized alternatives of the past. Virginia may or may not be where these new companies originate and create product-development, back-office and headquarters jobs. But our approach to public policy will influence where these entrepreneurs do business first. The more flexible and open we are, the greater the likelihood of attracting investment and re-energizing our education and health-care sectors. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Will we take it or squander it?

The Virginia Department of Data Suppression Strikes Again

data_suppressionIf you suspect that the Virginia Department of Education and local school districts are manipulating student-achievement numbers to portray themselves in the best possible light, John Butcher, a retired attorney who authors Cranky’s Blog, has presented more data to bolster your case.

Virginia has four programs for testing students with special needs. Butcher, a retired attorney, previously documented the abuse of one of them, the Virginia Grade Level Alternative, in which students are classified as handicapped in order to boost pass rates on standardized tests.

In yesterday’s post, Butcher focused on the Virginia Alternative Assessment Program, which offers a testing alternative for students with “significant cognitive disabilities.” His analysis shows that school divisions with lower Standards of Learning (SOL) scores and in most need of better scores, have higher-than-average VAAP scores, raising the question of whether school divisions are using the alternative test as a means of removing marginal performers from SOL testing.

Getting a definitive answer to that question is difficult because VDOE suppresses the data for school districts with fewer than 10 participants “to protect the identity of individual students.” But Butcher observes that VAAP pass rates are expressed in decimal values that could be created only if far more than 10 students were taking the test. “Given VDOE’s interest in high SOL scores,” he asks, “should we suspect that they are hiding something here?


Virginia, Proudly Supporting the Educational Status Quo

Middleburg Community Charter School, one of seven charter schools in Virginia.

Middleburg Community Charter School, one of seven charter schools in Virginia.

by James A. Bacon

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee has effectively killed two measures designed to encourage the creation of charter schools in Virginia, ensuring that public education in the Old Dominion, one of the most stultifyingly top-down school systems in the country, will remain that way.

“Localities and parents need to maintain control over whether or not to develop a charter school program,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax. “The proposed measures took that power away. That is not the way to strengthen public education in Virginia.”

That’s precious. Parents have no control over charter schools as it is. Otherwise, there would be more of them, just as there are in almost state in the union… Which brings us to our philosophical musing of the day.

In reading Matt Ridley’s book, “The Theory of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge,” I was particularly taken by Ridley’s perspective on the evolution of educational institutions and how the world came to embrace an educational model of compulsory, class-based education in which students move in lock-step through “grades,” learning the same subjects at the same time, regardless of individual aptitude or learning style.

Private education had flourished around the world before the rise of the industrial school system. By 1840, literacy in the Northeastern states had reached 97% by 1840. Education was close to universal in the Great Britain by 1870. But it was the state-sponsored Prussian model, introduced in 1806 in response to Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon that caught on. The purpose of the Prussian model was to train young men to be obedient soldiers who would not run away in battle. Writes Ridley:

It was these Prussian schools that introduced many of the features we now take for granted. There was teaching by year group rather than by ability, which made sense if the aim was to produce military recruits rather than rounded citizens. There was formal pedagogy, in which children sat at rows of desks in front of standing teachers, rather than, say, walking around together in the ancient Greek fashion. There was the set school day, punctuated by the ringing of bells. There was a predetermined syllabus, rather than open-ended learning. There was the habit of doing several subjects in one day, rather than ticking to one subject for more than a day. Those features make sense … if you wish to mould people into suitable recruits for a conscript army to fight Napoleon.

American states, led by Massachusetts, began adapting the Prussian model as early as the 1850s. The Prussian model had much to recommend it for America’s burgeoning industrial economy — not for molding future soldiers but for molding the industrial workforce. As states stepped in, they crowded out private forms of instruction, which were diverse, competitive and innovative, in favor of a top-down system that dictated when and where children should attend, what they should be taught and by whom.

The key to remember here: States did not merely decide that universal education was in the public interest. They decided that universal education provided by the state was in the national interest.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, schools became vehicles for indoctrinating the citizenry. “Nationalized schools did much to teach children well into the twentieth century that their country was glorious and usually right,” writes Ridley, “while its rivals were perfidious and usually wrong, God was a Christian, and so forth.” The main difference today is that the indoctrination takes a different form. “It may be the gospel of multiculturalism and respect for the planet. … Platitudes about the state of the world, or the desirability of wind energy seem to crop up with alarming frequency in children’s textbooks, even when the ostensible topic is history or Spanish.”

One topic that Ridley did not address, but is certainly consistent with his argument, is the extent to which the educational system is subject to “regulatory capture” by teachers unions and other professional organizations. The educrats ensure that the system reflects their priorities in matters of pay, pensions, job security, working conditions and pedagogy. While their control over the educational establishment is far from complete — it routinely bumps up against fiscal limits, and teachers and administrators grapple with standardized testing established to create a measure of accountability — educrats and their ideological allies still exercise extraordinary power. And the last thing they want is to relinquish that power by putting it into the hands of parents by means of charter schools or, god forbid, vouchers.

If there is one force that could break up public-school monopolies, it is technology. Tablets and online learning are changing education radically in developing nations like Kenya where there is no entrenched educational apparatus to block innovation, Ridley says. Whether technology can broaden the sphere of educational freedom and choice in Virginia remains to be seen. As long as paternalistic elites believe that they know better than parents what’s best for their children, we’re not likely to see much progress.

Running Out of Options

Cabin in the woods -- looking better and better.

Cabin in the woods — looking better and better.

Declaring the the global economy is “highly vulnerable” to adverse shocks, the International Monetary Fund is urging the United States and other major governments to prepare contingency plans that could be rolled out quickly to boost growth.

What options does the U.S. have? Traditionally, the federal government has two main policy levers: monetary and fiscal policy. If the U.S. had to act in order to counter a global economic slowdown, how are those levers looking at the moment?

Could we lower interest rates? Let’s see. Currently, one-month treasury bills yield 0.19% per year, or close to zero. Thirty-year bonds yield 2.88%. Yes, it’s possible to go lower, but not much lower unless we want to experiment with negative interest rates, which would wreak havoc with the banking and financial sectors with all manner of unpredictable consequences.

A more stimulative fiscal policy, then? According to the latest Congressional Budget Office projections, the U.S. is expected to run a $544 billion budget deficit in FY 2016, and the deficit (under current laws) will continue growing to nearly $1.4 billion a year by 2026 even in the absence of a recession as Baby Boomers retire and start drawing on Medicare and Social Security. Throw in a good recession, and you can add $500 billion or more to the annual deficit.

Fiscal and monetary policy can’t substitute for fixing flawed institutions. Three major sets of institutions — health care, education and transportation/land use — are highly dysfunctional and represent a tremendous drag on the economy. Between them, the three sectors probably account for a third of all economic activity. All are dogged by low productivity, poor quality and/or wasteful spending — and, of course, intensive government/political involvement at all levels.

With Washington in gridlock, it’s hard to imagine any positive change coming out of the nation’s capital. (Actually, it would be hard to imagine positive change even if Washington weren’t gridlocked.)  The only saving grace is that each of these dysfunctional institutions are significantly impacted by state and local policy, which gives states the opportunity to enact at least partial fixes. Unfortunately, there is no will in Virginia to do anything more than tinker on the margins. I see little sense of urgency, much less a consensus on how to reform health care, education and transportation/land use. Given the power of institutional interests to thwart change — witness the power of the educational interests this year to block legislation to allow more charter schools and the uncertain fate of Certificate of Public Need reform — Virginia is mired in the dysfunctional status quo just like the rest of the country.

Time to buy that cabin in the woods. Meanwhile, keep reading Bacon’s Rebellion, the only blog that consistently writes about these under-performing institutions.


Reading Between the Lines

ap_examThere’s good news and bad news for Virginia coming out of the College Board’s recent announcement of 2015 Advanced Placement tests. The good news is that Virginia has the nation’s sixth-highest percentage of public high school seniors qualifying for college credit on their AP exams: 29.8% of the commonwealth’s graduating seniors earned a score of three or higher on at least one exam.

That’s the angle provided by the Virginia Department of Education in announcing the results. The press release was devoid, however, of the usual puffery, quotes from senior administrators,  and rah-rahs from the governor.

Perhaps that’s because of the bad news. Virginia was one of only eight states to see a decline from the previous year in the percentage of students qualifying for college credit. Indeed, according to the College Board, Virginia and New York tied for the third worst year-to-year comparison in the country, with a decline of 0.2%.

You’ve always got to read between the lines. Always.


Bye, Bye, Byrdie

Harry F. Byrd. Bye, bye, time to go.

Harry F. Byrd. Bye, bye, time to go.

I normally don’t have much use for the politics of symbolism, but I will say this: It’s about time the Henrico County School Board got around to re-naming Harry F. Byrd Middle School. Naming the school after a champion of Virginia segregation is depressingly inappropriate for a school whose enrollment is 50 percent non-white and 20 percent black. A rough equivalent for white students might be attending “King George III Elementary School” or “Benedict Arnold Middle School” — but even those names wouldn’t carry the same emotional resonance.

Changing the school’s name would do nothing to address the lagging educational achievement of black students in Henrico County, which stem from deep-rooted historical, economic and cultural forces. Indeed, the controversy is a distraction from the important work that needs to be done. But renaming the school is plainly the right thing to do: The people we honor sends a message about who we are and what we value. The school board should just get on with it, take the issue off the table, and move on to matters of substance.