A Potpourri of News

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

The more I write this weekly column, the more I feel like I’m shifting towards VH1’s “The Best Week Ever,” wanting to make fun of every lawmaker in the US and Canada (not that there aren’t many more lawmakers around the world we couldn’t make fun of). But I’ll try and behave myself and not digress. This will be difficult.

This week, there are a number of stories that are worthy of comment, so I’ve put a potpourri together so I can talk about almost anything I want to. So, here we go:

Competitiveness Bill. The House and Senate passed the “21st Century Competiveness Act, 2007” this week to spur US global competiveness. In fact, the Senate passed the Bill unanimously, which is significant. This has been a big issue on Capitol Hill for a number of years, and they have thrown in the kitchen sink with this one. Included are several new education programs, including “Math Now,” a “Reading First” like program which gives states money to use “proven” practices in math and science education. The cynic in me asks: shouldn’t they be doing that now??? But let’s throw some federal money at it and see how it takes off… (he says, slyly).

Other pieces include more programming or funding for Advanced Placement, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, foreign language, P-16 data systems, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and more. If all appropriations are filled, which is always questionable (civics 101: authorization ≠ appropriation and authorization without appropriation is largely useless), the price tag is $43 billion over three years. That is a significant amount of money, and, if appropriated, I hope it gets used well. See our article for more details.

Teachers Happy? A new report by NCES says that public school teachers are much more “happy” than perceived (Ms. Smith, please pass the vicodin). Perhaps more interesting is that teacher turnover is not near as bad as most of us have been led to believe, or have led others to believe. In the public policy circles, it is largely held that 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. However, this new report, written by our wonderful research staff at MPR Associates in California, finds that only 18 percent of teachers left within the first four years. Unless there was a big jump in the fifth year, we’ve all been wrong, because 50 percent of starting teachers were still teaching 10 years later. And only 13 percent of those who left did so because of salaries. So this party debunks that issue, too.

The HEPI. Each year the “HEPI” comes out with its price index for higher education. I’m not a big HEPI supporter, but for what it’s worth, the HEPI does measure the “costs” of higher education—meaning the infrastructure, staffing, benefits, and other physical plant and activities that have a line item associated with it in the budget. Just like with the medical field, the costs in higher education are not the same as the CPI (Consumers Price Index). All this is true. However, the problem is that the HEPI keeps going up at rates much higher than CPI, and we use the CPI to gauge the affordability of items to families. At a time when incomes are going up at a snail’s pace (unless you are a utility executive), these figures matter greatly, because regular wage earners have to figure out how to pay for something—in this case, tuition—which continues to escalate far beyond that of CPI. For the record, HEPI went up 3.4 this year, and 5 percent the year before. CPI went up 2.6 percent over the last year, so the “cost” of higher education continues to grow at higher rates than standard inflation. Most economists will tell you this will always be the case because higher education as a commodity is more expensive than standard “market basket” indicators (e.g., bread, milk, cars, etc.). I understand that, but it doesn’t bode well for college affordability for those of use trying to plan 5-10 years down the road.

Early Childhood Matters. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that adults who were involved in a youth intervention program were more likely to acquire more education and less likely to commit crimes than other study participants. The study director said that “these findings are especially relevant to schools and policymakers in decisions about modifying existing programs or expanding access to early education.” Sounds good to me. The intervention was a Head Start-like program in Chicago, aimed at 3-9 year olds. Education Week cited the University of Chicago’s James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, who is promoting preschool programs as a wise economic-development strategy.

Why does this matter? Because on Capitol Hill the Reading First Program is getting lambasted by the Democrats. Their dismay is due to the incompetence of the US Department of Education in running the program and also reports that certain private vendors are being given preference in the program. Those are real and serious issues, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We just finished evaluating Reading First programs for the State of North Carolina, and we found many supplementary programs that were both interesting and well designed for students. From research we understand that reading is the foundation of everything else that can happen educationally and career-wise to a young person. So reading matters. Let’s learn from this study.

Is NCLB Working? In this week’s edition of Education Week, writer Scott Cech documents a study of mathematics and reading test scores in 12 states (p. 9). The study in question was directed by Bruce Fuller of UC-Berkeley and the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) at Stanford.

Fuller’s report finds that while academic progress appears to be increasing in mathematics, the growth rates are below those posted before and during the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Additionally, the study finds that in reading, there has been no closing of the gap by race/ethnic groups since 2003, although scores were closing before NCLB, and only Latino students have continued to make progress in mathematics.

A second study reported in this week’s Ed Week (p. 7) reports that, in Chicago, NCLB is not benefiting poor and affluent students, but is having some impact on those from the middle class.

It’s be interested to see these reports increase over time, but it’s likely that we won’t see much return from NCLB: bottom line: large federal programs never show much impact in the classroom. They just never do, which suggests that the federal government has limited impact on teaching and learning, a state (and provincial) responsibility.

That’s enough for today. I could go on forever.

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