On the campaign trail

Opting out, poverty and opportunity, presidential candidates’ views on education, and the link between AP exams and college outcomes.    

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Jonathan Smith, Michael Hurwitz, and Christopher Avery, "Giving College Credit Where it is Due: Advanced Placement Exam Scores and College Outcomes," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 21147 (May 2015).
Robert:            Hello, this is your host, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net. Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Alexander Ovechkin of ed reform, Brandon Wright.

Brandon:         Oh, why did you call me that?

Robert:            Let me ask you, do you think that's a compliment or not a compliment?

Brandon:         I mean, I think according to our hockey expert in the office, he's the best goal scorer in the NHL. He did also just call a game. He said they were going to win game seven, which is tonight, even though the Capitals are like four and twelve in games where they can win a series.

Robert:            I'm from New York.

Brandon:         A bit of a risk.

Robert:            In New York, we love our Rangers, and Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the Rangers, is eight and 0 in game seven situations.

Brandon:         I believe he also has a below one goals against average. That's pretty good.

Robert:            By the time our listeners hear this, they will know the answer to this. I don't mean this to insult you, but I think Ovechkin, hopefully by the time you hear this, will just be known as a big loser like the Caps. Go Rangers.

Brandon:         Woah. All right.

Robert:            All right.

Brandon:         Fortunately I'm a Red Wings fan so it's all right.

Robert:            Oh, I'm so sorry for you.

Brandon:         They've done pretty good.

Robert:            So far.

Brandon:         Pretty well. Pretty well.

Ellen:               All right. Robert, you recently had a piece in the US News and World Report about lessons we can learn from the Opt Out debate. Will you discuss them?

Robert:            Oh, my. How much time do we have? Look, Opt Out is kind of winding down the. The testing season is winding down in most states and there's been a lot of overheated commentary about what it means. I think at this point we can take a step back and maybe come to one or two conclusions. One, I'll throw this one, I'll lay this at our feet here at Ed Reform. I think we have been a little bit too either inattentive to opt out, a little bit dismissive. How often do we talk including right here in this podcast, about how important it is to honor parental choice? How parental choice is a great lever of ed reform? What is Opt Out if not a form of parental choice? I think we need to be a little bit careful about being dismissive of that.

Brandon:         Yeah. A couple questions.

Robert:            Sure.

Brandon:         One, I'm going to say what a colleague of ours asked about your piece. In point one, you kind of talk about the right to parental choice.

Robert:            Sure.

Brandon:         You use an an analogy, free speech. Free speech, of course, isn't an absolute right. Free speech is usually capped when there is sufficient harm done by that speech.

Robert:            Yeah. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, is the classic example.

Brandon:         Right. Then in your third point, you talk about the harm that opting out does to certain kids.

Robert:            I see where you're going with this, Brandon.

Brandon:         Now, I'm not saying I agree with this point that the question implies, but is there sufficient harm done that it would actually make sense to limit, as you call it, this right?

Robert:            Yeah. That's a really interesting question. In other words, should there be a legal limit or is there a moral imperative? I think those are two different things.

Brandon:         Sure.

Robert:            I hesitate to talk the law around a law school grad like you, but let me try not to embarrass myself. I think it's more of a moral imperative. I think this is why the oneness is on those of us in Ed Reform to make a better case for testing. Look, I've written a lot here at Fordham and elsewhere about not just the abuses of testing, but how the testing tail has wagged the educational dog too much. My hunch is that's a lot of what parents are responding too. Now, the response to that, if I understand your question correctly, is should there be a limit on your ability to opt out because if a kid opts out in the suburbs, that can effect the educational fortunes of a low income black or brown kid in an inner city. Good case. I'm not sure we made it well enough, but is that a legal case that therefore you should not be allowed to opt your kid out because of the harm it's done? That's getting awfully far away from what I would describe as real harm.

Brandon:         Sure.

Robert:            I think it's more of a moral argument than a legal one.

Brandon:         Sure.

Robert:            You agree?

Brandon:         That makes sense.

Robert:            Wow. All right. I passed a Brandon Wright legal test.

Brandon:         All right. I have a second question. At the end of your piece, you talk about the uncoupling of testing from teacher accountability. If we did that, would teacher accountability fall back to just observation? If so, are you okay with that?

Robert:            Am I okay with that? The short answer is yes. Look, I also have this very complicated relationship with testing, which I've confessed to you in the past. I mean, I think it's important. I think the data for those of us who care about Ed Reform is essential and we need to guard it very, very carefully and do whatever it takes to protect it. If that means the price of maintaining the testing regime that we have is to uncouple tests from teacher accountability, one, I'm okay with that. Two, I think ultimately we may not have a choice. When parents complain about the effects of testing, how it's really kind of gotten in the way of education, I don't think they're making that up. I also think that too much testing really damages the education of low income kids, particularly around things like literacy, for reasons that we don't have time to go into right now.

                        I do think that a lot of the overreaction, the reason that testing dominates schooling so much, this is not a particularly original point, is because of teacher accountability. If I told you that your pay raise was going to be dependent on your wearing a collared shirt and shining your shoes every day, what would you focus on every morning when you got dressed? A collared shirt and shiny shoes. Everything else might go away. I think that's just an inevitable price we might have to pay to preserve the data that we need to insure that the Ed Reform movement, charters, choice, all this dynamism around education, that it continues.

Brandon:         Makes sense.

Robert:            Okay.

Brandon:         All right.

Robert:            I'm on a roll.

Ellen:               Yesterday Robert Putnam joined President Obama and AEI President Arthur Brooks at Georgetown University to talk about poverty. What did they have to say? How does it relate to education?

Brandon:         First, you know, three brilliant guys.

Robert:            Sure.

Brandon:         A colleague of ours who doesn't particularly like Obama as a president, I was talking about this with him, and he said something along the lines of, "Wow. You forget how smart Obama is. He was really, really good at the stuff. He could do our jobs. I don't think I could be a president, but he could do our jobs."

Robert:            Well, we might be able to take him on here at Fordham as of January 2017. He'll be looking for work.

Brandon:         He'd be a great hire. He'd be a great hire.

Robert:            Okay. You're in charge of recruiting.

Brandon:         They really talked about poverty and opportunity. Of course, us being an ed policy shop, the big question is how this relates to education.

Robert:            Sure.

Brandon:         Obama made some comments about investing more in these kids. I think he meant time, energy and also financial.

Robert:            Oh, not just money, in other words.

Brandon:         Investments. Yeah.

Robert:            Okay. That gets complicated. Right?

Brandon:         Sure.

Robert:            The knee jerk reaction is always just invest more money. I'm not sure I've seen compelling data to suggest that it's about the money in terms of changing education outcomes. It's about what you spend that money on. I think for what it's worth, you probably have a more nuance view about this than I do, I haven't read the entire Putnam book, but he seems quite solid on education. We will have an essay from Robert Putnam in the Gadfly this week. He's singing a lot from the Ed Reform hymnals. He seems to like charters. He seems to like some of the innovative things that have gone on at Kipp and other charter schools and whatnot.

Brandon:         Yeah. Yeah, that sounds right. In his book, one of his last chapters kind of gives a menu of kind of education reform options that districts can take. He doesn't really advocate for one over another. He definitely demonstrates that he's aware of the reforms and knows about them. In terms of financial investment, Obama specifically mentions Early Childhood Education, which is, I think, a place where some financial investment could be wise. I think we need to get better at Early Childhood Education for disadvantaged kids.

Robert:            Oh, absolutely. As we've discussed here many times, it is not merely a matter of creating an entitlement, throwing more money at this problem, but doing it strategically. It's not about pre-K, it's about quality pre-K.

Brandon:         Right. Exactly.

Robert:            Right.

Brandon:         A big asterisk is when you spend more money, you have to make sure that you spend it well, that you implement any reform well. Just throwing money at a problem isn't going to fix it. You have to throw it smartly, essentially.

Robert:            It never does. We should also mention that Robert Putnam is going to be our guest here at Fordham. This is Wednesday, so this afternoon. By the time you hear this podcast, hopefully there will be a link from here that you can listen to Robert Putnam himself talk about his new book, which is called Our Kids.

Ellen:               Brandon, you've been covering what the presidential candidates have to say about education. What are the takeaways, and who is the most reform-minded?

Brandon:         All right.

Robert:            Great question.

Brandon:         Well, the takeaway so far is that there's a huge Republican pool and a very small Democrat pool.

Robert:            Is there anybody over 35 in the Republican Party who is not running? Let's make that list.

Brandon:         I'm not sure.

Robert:            Yeah.

Brandon:         I mean, eight have officially said they are, but the list of potential ones, I think, is like 20 people long.

Robert:            Oh my lord, it just gets longer by the day. Let me give you credit, Brandon. You have been doing remarkable work in going through the archives to find out in their own words, as they declare what each of the candidates in the one or two Democrats who have declared so far have to say about education. What surprises you? What have we learned?

Brandon:         Well, we have learned some things. I'm not sure that they're surprising. Republicans really dislike the common core. In fact, I think the only one who will is Jeb Bush.

Robert:            He hasn't declared yet, so therefore we have not plumbed the depths of his writings on education.

Brandon:         Speaking of Jeb Bush, if he does run, I think he'll be the most reform-minded person. He started, as you know, The Foundation For Excellence In Education, which advocates for things like Common Core, school choice, et cetera.

Robert:            They do very good work.

Brandon:         In terms of the ones who have officially said that they're going to run, it's kind of a tough choice in terms of who is the most education-minded of the bunch. Pretty much all of them have said a lot, which Is why I could pull at least ten quotes for everyone. Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee stand out for me for K-12 education.

Robert:            Okay.

Brandon:         Rubio has a lot to say about education, but he tends to focus on higher ed. In terms of some of the most surprising stuff, Ben Carson, who is a pretty traditional Republican ...

Robert:            And a brain surgeon.

Brandon:         ... and a brain surgeon, yeah, he was the first one to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.

Robert:            I've got nothing compared to that.

Brandon:         Yeah. If he becomes president, I'm not sure that will be his greatest accomplishment.

Robert:            He could be his own Surgeon General.

Brandon:         Yeah. He has a surprising idea for redistributive school funding.

Robert:            Okay.

Brandon:         He thinks that most Republicans, or most people, wouldn't mind if you're in a rich district with kind of a surplus of cash, that you take some of that and give it to more cash-strapped school districts.

Robert:            Are you sure that's Ben Carson and not Bernie Sanders who said that?

Brandon:         It is, in fact, Ben Carson.

Robert:            Wow. That surprises me. There was another candidate. Was it Rubio who was talking about funding higher education? I know this is higher education, but funding education by almost selling futures in students. Do I have that right?

Brandon:         Yeah. He calls it a student investment plan.

Robert:            Okay.

Brandon:         He gives an example of a kid who needs $10,000 to pay for college. Instead of taking out a private loan, he says that person could approach approved and certified private investment groups. In short, these investors would pay your $10,000 in return for a percentage of your income for a set period of time after your graduation. Say, for example, 4% a year for 10 years.

Robert:            This really is almost like a futures market in students. Now, on paper you would be a great investment. University of Michigan Law School.

Brandon:         I work for a think tank, so I'm not going to make that much money.

Robert:            Well, I would have lost a lot of money investing in Brandon Wright.

Brandon:         Yeah. I'm not sure how that would work for someone who doesn't get a job.

Robert:            Yeah, yeah. It's a novel solution. I think it's a little crazy, but it's certainly creative.

Brandon:         That was surprising, too, I guess. It's a pretty new idea.

Robert:            It is. Who is yet to come on this? We're waiting for Jeb to declare, we're waiting for Scott Walker, and you'll continue to ...

Brandon:         Yeah, I think we're going to try to put out a Jeb piece this week, probably Scott Walker next, and I actually hear that Lindsey Graham is going to declare at the beginning of June. That's what I've heard.

Robert:            All right. In the meantime, we should start that futures market in students. I have a 17 year old daughter who is looking to line up investors. Thank you, Brandon. Up next, here is Amber with this week's research minute. Welcome, Amber.

Amber:            Thank you, Robert.

Robert:            Here's my question for you. Do you know who Alexander Ovechkin is?

Amber:            He's a hockey player.

Robert:            Good!

Amber:            I do know that much.

Robert:            Okay. Okay.

Amber:            Yes, and he is a really good one, from what I hear.

Robert:            Batting two for two.

Amber:            Yes.

Robert:            Do you want to quit while you're not too far behind?

Amber:            Yeah, and he's been around a little while.

Robert:            Okay.

Amber:            That's about my extent of all I know.

Brandon:         Three for three.

Robert:            That's not bad.

Amber:            He's a nice guy. I actually have heard that. Is he a nice guy?

Brandon:         I think so.

Amber:            I think so. Maybe. We women care about this. If they're nice guys, then we want to root for them.

Robert:            We just care as a New Yorker and a Rangers fan, that he go home unhappy tonight.

Amber:            I see. I see. Okay, well, I've exhausted my Alex Covechkin ...

Robert:            Ovechkin.

Amber:            Ovechkin. One of those guys.

Brandon:         Close. Close.

Robert:            That was pretty good. I'm impressed. I'm impressed.

Amber:            That's all I got on him.

Robert:            Okay. What you got for us research-wise?

Amber:            Research-wise we've got a new study out by Harvard and College Board researchers called Giving College Credit Where It Is Due. It examines various college outcomes relative to taking AP exams. It's kind of a neat study. They use College Aboard and National Student Clearinghouse data. They have student level data from 2004 to 2009. They're looking at graduating high school cohorts during those years. In other words, some of those high school kids we can track for at least five years after they've graduated. About 4.5 million students are analyzed who took AP exams. In order to glean the potential benefits they compare. This is a regression discontinuity design where they look at the nearly identical students who scored just above and just below the threshold of each scaled score. One through five, the kids who scored just above what you had to get a one through five, and then they zero in specifically on the kids who scored just above and below the score you needed to get to have credit at the college that you intended to go to.

Robert:            Which is usually a three. Right?

Amber:            It's usually a three. That's right. Anyway, bottom line is we can assume these kids are similar in demographics, and also similar in their college aspirations. Three key findings. Number one, attaining an AP exam score that counts for college credit increases the likelihood of completing a post-secondary degree within four years by one to two percentage points per exam. It does not appear, however, to impact the probability of completing the degree in the longer term. Once you get into five and six years, they didn't have evidence that it actually enhances the ability to complete it in the long term.

Robert:            Okay.

Amber:            Number two, while students with higher exam scores tend to enroll in more selective four year colleges, that's a no-brainer, they are no less like to attend colleges that provide credit for their AP exam scores.

Robert:            Wait. Say that again. In other words, that's not a deal breaker in terms of their college selection?

Amber:            That's right. That's right.

Robert:            Okay.

Amber:            Yup. They're not more likely to choose colleges just because they know they can get credit for their AP exam.

Robert:            Right. Okay.

Amber:            Nor are they more likely to attend particular colleges because of their AP exam scores. In other words, even though they tend to go to selective colleges, we can't say they go to selective colleges because they got a higher score on their AP exam.

Robert:            It's probably if anything, the other way around. Those who are most likely to get, say fours and fives on the their AP, are probably ticketed for more selective colleges, regardless. Right?

Amber:            Probably. Yeah.

Robert:            Okay.

Amber:            Yeah. That's the bottom line, is we can hypothesize, but we can't really say it's causal for this one.

Robert:            Sure. Of course.

Amber:            Then number three, receiving a score of three over a two when you took your AP exam in your junior year, causes you to take more AP exams your senior year, although it was a pretty small increase. If you take one junior, you do well, you're more likely to take another one.

Robert:            If you're successful and you get credit, why not take another?

Amber:            Yeah. Then they have a little section where they talk about the cost and implications. They basically kind of do this little estimate where they say earning credit from one AP exam could save a student about $900, assuming the student completes 30 hours per year and you go to a four year college with tuition around $9,000. I thought that sounded a little low to me.

Robert:            It does sound low, doesn't it?

Amber:            It's a little low.

Robert:            Yeah.

Amber:            I think they were conservative estimates, given the $9,000 a year.

Robert:            Sure.

Amber:            Then they talk about to take an AP test, it costs you about 91 bucks. If you score high enough to earn college credit, that's a pretty decent return on your investment.

Robert:            Having had my daughter just struggle through AP Physics all year, it's not the 91 bucks that I'm going to miss, it's her 17th year on the planet.

Amber:            Wow.

Robert:            That's pretty much gone.

Amber:            She's just all studying the entire time?

Robert:            Yeah. Yeah.

Amber:            Yeah.

Robert:            I used to have a kid and now I have a kid who takes AP Physics.

Amber:            Yeah. Well, that's impressive. What did I take? I took AP English and AP Biology in high school, and I just really enjoyed it.

Robert:            Oh, now you're just bragging.

Amber:            No, no. I actually feel like I learned so much in those AP courses, because they are just cramming that content down your throat. You feel the pressure, because you're like, "I'm not going to study my butt off and then not get that stinking three." Right?

Robert:            Absolutely. Am I right also to say that far fewer colleges accept AP credits towards your degree as used to?

Amber:            I think that I have read that quite a few times as a trend. Sort of seen as maybe a little elitist to be prioritizing the AP exam score.

Robert:            Yeah. My focus group of one, my daughter and her high school, I think most of her friends tend to take them less for college credit then as a signifier to college, that I'm capable of doing college level work.

Amber:            Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. No, that's interesting.

Brandon:         It seems like you're just trying to go to the best school possible.

Amber:            Yeah. That's right. In my mind, I guess it matters if you're paying for your own tuition. Right? If I knew I was going to get like three credits ... Let's say I just aced three of my AP exams and I wasn't going to have to pay for three college courses, that's a big deal now. Right?

Robert:            Yeah. Sure. Absolutely.

Amber:            I guess it's just not on your radar screen if you're the kid and your parents are paying. Right?

Robert:            Yup.

Brandon:         Or you take out a loan and you know you're going to have $40,000. I mean, who cares about $800 when you're paying $40,000. It seems to be a little more expensive than $9,000 a year.

Amber:            I think so.

Robert:            A lot more. There was a wonderful picture from somebody's commencement. I think it was Wayne State's commencement. A girl had on top of her mortar board in perfect HBO style handwriting, it said, "Game of Loans: Interest is coming."

Amber:            Wow, she crammed all that on the top of that, huh?

Robert:            Brilliant, just brilliant.

Amber:            Anyway, I was happy to do the study. These were College Board researchers, because they've got sort of the clamp on these data that all other research want to get a hold of. We're hoping, just to put a plug in, now that David Coleman is over there, that we're actually going to be able to get our hands on some of these data that have been hard to get.

Robert:            Hear that, David?

Amber:            Granted, this was a great study. It was at NBR and kudos to the College Board for allowing us to dig in to the scores of these 4.5 million kids.

Robert:            We're coming for your data, David Coleman. That's all the time we have for this week's Gadfly Show. Until next week ...

Brandon:         Brandon Wright.

Robert:            I'm Robert Pondiscio from Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.