Liam Julian

Regarding Coby's earlier post: A much-overlooked aspect of the "cash for grades" idea is that it might???and, according to past research, probably will???create kids who will work for good grades only when they're being paid for it. Sometimes, it seems, policymakers get hung up on crafting incentives to induce good behavior without thinking about how the added incentives themselves are skewing relationships and detracting from other, naturally occurring motivators.

Kevin Carey (a.k.a. Mr. Quick) is less enamored with Jim Ryan's suggestions for fixing NCLB than I was (see here). Carey complains that Ryan "fails to notice that his proposed solutions completely contradict one another" because, on the one hand, he wants to eliminate annual testing, while on the other hand, he wants to include measures of student progress from year to year???which requires annual testing.

This is, to use a bloggy cliche, a classic "and a pony" policy agenda. NCLB can be improved, no doubt, but the people who wrote it weren't morons; there are some very real and difficult tradeoffs to contend with in formulating accountability policy, and one of them is the tension between the costs and burdens of assessment and the need for comprehensive information.

Fair point, Kevin. But you have to admit... his proposal for national testing???no matter how frequent???is downright brilliant....

Liam Julian

Some 300,000 students in the U.K. have asked that their national examination scores be given "special consideration," i.e. additional points, because, for example, they had a fever on test day. The number of successful appeals has risen by 9 percent since last year. (See here.)

At his high school alma matter yesterday, John McCain made his first major education speech (not just the first in this campaign???the first in his life, as far as I can tell). He voiced support for several sound policy ideas, including school choice and merit pay. But what's most worth noting was his rhetoric, particularly about teachers. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of another war hero, Bob Dole, who attacked teachers unions in his 1996 convention speech, and was made to look anti-teacher, he clearly wanted to side with excellent teachers while decrying the bureaucracies and unions that defend their incompetent peers.

Much of the speech is a stirring personal account of his days at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He speaks glowingly of his favorite teacher there???William Ravenel, who was "as wise and capable as anyone could expect to be... loved English literature, and taught us to love it as well... He was simply the best man at the school; one of the best men I have ever known."

Then he broadens his praise to include all teachers???or at least all good ones:

Teaching is among the most honorable professions any American can join...


In a recent video, Glenn Loury of Brown University and Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute discuss Mayor Bloomberg's "cash for grades" program.

MacDonald argues, and Loury more or less agrees, that the program institutes "a caste system" since it assumes that "some of us do things because we understand it's right, or because it's in our long-term self interest, whereas the other group we're just gonna treat like rats in a Skinner behavioral science exam."

Of course, the government frequently intervenes in the lives of those who presumably don't know what's in their long-term interest. Governments do what they do mostly to protect certain segments of society from themselves. Food stamps, housing projects, Medicaid, free or reduced lunch, NCLB???these all cultivate a kind of caste system. Americans have their very own untouchables just like everyone else.

The big difference is that the directness of the cash payouts in Bloomberg's plan reeks of paternalism, while in the examples above the nanny-state scent must travel through the byzantine air ducts of massive bureaucracies before it reaches our noses. When you get down to it, though, they're both stinky government cheese....

Liam Julian

The New York Times seems especially fascinated with smart kids who don't sleep with each other. First there was this story, and now there is this one, from last weekend. Both focus on Harvard. The second story reports, though, that abstinence movements/clubs are far more prevalent at high schools than on college campuses. That's too bad. While I don't disagree with the ideas that undergird such clubs (although some of their members, quite frankly, seem analogous to penguins who would join an anti-flight society), I do think that sex-related groups--be they for the act, against it, whatever--do not have a place at high schools. Sixteen-year-olds who wish to have sex and those who adamantly do not should do it or condemn it elsewhere. In schools, all the sanctioned chatter and controversy is a distraction from learning.

Hypothetical interlocutor disagrees: "But sex is a part of reality for many high-school kids, who need a safe place to explore sex-related ideas." Well, sex is a part of reality for many people in their 20s, 30s, and (I've heard it's true) 40s, 50s, 60s, and French in their 70s. But that doesn't make offices suitable places to hold...

Liam Julian

Spellings definitely thinks we should have a national way of calculating the number of dropouts. But a national way to calculate student achievement? No way! Are you nuts?

At Slate, the University of Virginia's Jim Ryan offers a brilliant plan to fix No Child Left Behind. Why so brilliant? Well, he agrees with us; his to-do list looks a lot like ours:

NCLB checklist

My favorite part is his smart description of the problem we identified in The Proficiency Illusion:

Schools must show annual improvements on test scores or face increasingly severe sanctions and the stigma of being labeled as failing. NCLB couples this punitive scheme with utter laxity regarding the standards and tests themselves. States get to develop their own standards, create their own tests, and set their own passing rates. Imagine if the EPA told the auto industry it would be fined heavily for polluting too much but let automakers decide for themselves what counts as "too much" pollution. That's basically how NCLB works.

Nice analogy, nice recommendations. Now we just need a new President who might actually be able to put these ideas into action....

Sixteen-year-old Jim Hennessy is angry. His rights have been violated, as has been his "personal freedom." What's at stake that caused the New York Times to give Jim's story prominent attention? Free speech? Religious expression? Not, it's worse; Darien High School had the audacity to require Jim and his peers to pass a breathalyzer test before entering a school dance.

"What you do off school grounds should be your own business," says Jim.

Um, yeah, Jim, maybe that's true if you stay off school grounds (and then it's your business and your parents' business). But setting sobriety as a prerequisite to school functions is hardly a step toward the Third Reich. Nor is it a panacea; as the local school board chairman admitted to the Times, "It doesn't solve the problem of teenage drinking. But it solves the problem of teenage drinking at school dances."

It's hard to fault Jim entirely, though. He's lived his entire life in the age of student "rights" guaranteed by the Supreme Court, no less (see here). Believing he has the right to attend school dances drunk is just the logical extension of decades of court decisions, you...

The New York Times reports today on the admissions crunch at Ivy League schools. Due to record numbers of applicants, Harvard's acceptance rate this year is down to a new low of 7.1 percent, and other schools are setting their own records as well. Why? The Times speculates, but focuses on demographics:

Many factors contributed to the tightening of the competition at the most selective colleges, admissions deans and high school counselors said, among them demographics. The number of high school graduates in the nation has grown each year over the last decade and a half, though demographers project that the figure will peak this year or next, which might reduce the competition a little.

Other factors were the ease of online applications, expanded financial aid packages, aggressive recruiting of a broader range of young people, and ambitious students' applying to ever more colleges.

I'd bet on that last point--students applying to more and more colleges. Anecdotally speaking, when I applied to colleges 16 years ago, submitting a handful of applications was the norm. Now that seems lazy.

As the International Herald Tribune reported in January, "'There was a time when kids applied to three...