The after-Arne edition

Arne Duncan’s resignation and legacy, John King’s succession to the crown, Friedrichs and the beginning of the new SCOTUS term, and peer effects in college.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Jonathan Smith and Kevin Stange, "A New Measure of College Quality to Study the Effects of the College Sector and Peers on Degree Attainment," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 21605 (October 2015).


Mike:                    Hello. This is your host, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Kate McKinnon of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa:                  Thank you, Mike, but does that make you the Hilary Clinton of education reform as on this week's SNL?

Mike:                    Well, that's a good question. Kate McKinnon, she plays Hilary Clinton on Saturday Night Live, they have that fun skit together. I could be the Hilary Clinton. Hilary Clinton is getting props by none other than Rick Hess for blasting away at Bernie Sanders' plan to make community college "free." Hilary was saying, "Well, do you really think that Donald Trump's kids should get to go to college for free?" I think that's a pretty good point.

Alyssa:                  As an alum of the college that all of Donald Trump's kids went to, I can very much attest to it was not a free education there, but it was a nice one.

Mike:                    Yes, but he could probably afford to pay full-freight. Right? There you go. Okay, hey, Alyssa, it's been awhile since I've been on the show and it's been awhile since you've been on the show.

Alyssa:                  Me too. I hope we can handle this.

Mike:                    Let's see. We might be rusty but you know who is not new to the show? Who's been on week after week after bloody week?

Alyssa:                  Clara?

Mike:                    Clara! Let's play "Pardon the Gadfly" Clara!

Clara :                    All right. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced he will be stepping down in December. What kind of legacy will he leave behind? What does this latest development mean for ESEA reauthorization?

Mike:                    Let's talk about the legacy first. Alyssa, obviously there's been a lot of pontificating on this and, not surprisingly, you can guess where people fall on the education reform battle lines by people's reactions. What's your take?

Alyssa:                  He's definitely been one of the boldest Secretaries of Education that we've had, certainly between the waives and his push for getting Common Core in schools, his stances on teacher evaluations ... He certainly hasn't been afraid to share what he's thinking and to push for that.

Mike:                    He is definitely a man of action. That has riled up conservatives and, look, I'm in that camp, at least some of the time. I think that he has crossed the line on some occasions in terms of the limits of federalism and also, frankly, the limits of the executive branch's authority. I would argue the Obama administration writ-large, he has not been particularly concerned about these niceties of the division between these branches. On the other hand, I understand that democrats feel strongly that congress has not exactly been in a cooperative mood, either.

Alyssa:                  Which leads us to our second point.

Mike:                    Which cuts both ways. Just on his legacy, briefly though, I do think that the education reform movement is certainly stronger today than it was when he took office. There are more charter schools, the charter schools are better, states have higher standards, efforts to improve teacher equality are stronger. He doesn't get credit for all of that. That's a team effort. Frankly, I think the fact that Republicans swept into office in so many states in 2010 gets a lot of credit for some of those changes at the state level but, on the whole, I would say we're in a better place today than we were when he took office in terms of education policies. Give him some credit for that. On ESEA, the conventional wisdom is this is yet another reason to believe ESEA reauthorization isn't going to happen. What's your take?

Alyssa:                  I would put it slightly higher than it was earlier. Of course, I'm still not over the 50% threshold of it happening before 2017. I do think throughout the years as Arne has taken positions on various issues he's garnered enemies from the right, from the left, and that's made it difficult to get ESEA through. Whether or not it will still actually happen? That's still a huge open question.

Mike:                    Not just that. I think people like him on The Hill in terms of a person but here's the deal. I have never believed that he and his team actually wanted a reauthorization bill. Why would they? He's got all the power right now. At least, he has claimed all the power via these waivers that he added these, in my view, illegal conditions on top of. Any law that comes in is going to strip the Department of Education of much of its authority. It's going to send that authority back to the states. Even the democrats are in favor of moving in that direction. The only debate is how far. I don't think Arne has ever really wanted the bill. I know he has said he wanted one but I think he only wanted one if it was one that maintained his authority. I think him leaving creates an opportunity. Maybe now that he is leaving, we can turn the page and actually devolve significant power back to the states. Okay, Clara, topic number 2.

Clara :                    What can we expect to see from his successor, John King?

Mike:                    Alyssa, when you answer this question, I want you to use various puns of the name king. We have now a little more than a year to have a lot of fun with the last name "King" being our education secretary.

Alyssa:                  I've only had 2 cups of coffee this morning so the puns might be coming a little slowly. If we're going with puns, I think he will ... He's certainly been crowned with a lot of authority. He will continue a lot of the policies of his successor. Okay, I lost the pun train. I was going for a Queen Elizabeth thing but I lost it.

Mike:                    Yeah. Talking about his reign coming up. I like John King a lot, super smart guy. Young, I don't think he's even turned 40 years old yet and he's already accomplished an amazing amount. Started a fantastic charter school in Boston, Roxbury Prep. Did work, I believe, in Joel Klein's Department of Education. Then state superintendent in New York. There, he had a tough job selling the state's teachers on the Common Core.

Alyssa:                  Really? Tell us more about that.

Mike:                    Oh my goodness. Shouted down by mobs at hearings and all sorts of things. I like him a lot. You could argue he could have handled some of the New York state stuff better than he did. We certainly have a full-on Common Core and testing backlash there that we don't have in other places.

Alyssa:                  I think the situation in New York is certainly larger than 1 person. I think a lot of it has to do with the battles brewing between Cuomo and Di Blasio. I do think, though, that by the end of Arne's tenure, the teacher's unions were putting him on an improvement plan. I don't think they are going to be much happier with John King, based on their previous relationship, we'll call it, in New York. 

Mike:                    That's fair. That's fair and the press has gotten in to that. Clearly, the fight between the Obama administration and the unions will continue. The big question to me is where John King is on the Federalism stuff. Is he going to have more respect for these limits? More respects for the limits of the executive branch? More deference to congress than Arne Duncan has showed? I don't have any reason to believe that's the case, but hey, again, it's a new leaf, a new time, maybe he will.

Alyssa:                  He now has the 7 years of lessons that Arne didn't have when he started simply because they hadn't happened. I think we're going to see a huge continuation of the policies that have been in place. I don't think we're going to see anything too radically different.

Mike:                    Okay. Clara, topic number 3.

Clara :                    This past Monday marked the start of the 2015 Supreme Court terms. What implications could a ruling on the Fredericks case have for education?

Mike:                    This case, I think it's Friedericks, although I have not met the teacher herself behind this. The issue in this case is whether or not states can make it compulsory to make teachers pay these agency fees. This is if teachers don't want to join the union, they have a constitutional right that's already been decided that they don't have to join a teacher union or other public sector employee union. But, they can be required, and 21 or 22 states require them, to pay these agency fees. Which, basically, are supposed to support all the non-political activity of the teachers unions including collective bargaining. The issue at this case is whether even those agency fees go a step too far, in effect, because they support political activity; that collective bargaining in the public sector is inherently political.

Alyssa:                  Right. I think the phrase "non-political activity of a union" is a slight oxymoron. A union is, inherently, a political body that represents its members. Its members, in this case, are adults. When the needs of adults are coming against the needs of children, unions typically take the side of the adults.

Mike:                    Let's be careful here, Alyssa. In the private sector, you could argue, collective bargaining between one set of adults and another set of adults, neither of which are elected publicly, that's a totally different thing. The issue here is in the public sector. Because the unions play a role, in many cases, in electing the people they're bargaining with, and then because the bargaining itself is, in effect, public policy. It's advocacy in a different means. That's the issue that's at play here. All these states could turn into right-to-work states, basically. Teachers could choose not to join the unions, all of a sudden will have a choice between paying what can, sometimes, be almost $1000 in these agency fees, or pay nothing at all. What do you think, Alyssa? Are unions going away?

Alyssa:                  I certainly don't think unions are going away permanently. I do think that this case, if it's decided in favor of the plaintiff, is going to have huge implications on almost every issue of education reform.

Mike:                    Let's push on that a little bit. I certainly think that in the right-to-work states, which tend to be the bluer states, you're going to see that teachers unions are going to lose a lot of members and they're going to lose a lot of money. That is going to have an impact, for sure, on the politics around this issue and everything else. But, it's not like in those non-right-to-work states that the teachers unions or the teachers associations have no political power. You look at a place like Alabama, for example, for a long time the NEA there still has remained incredibly powerful. You still have a huge number of members. You still have a lot of people who vote, who have family members who have teachers ... This is still going to be a powerful political bloc.

Alyssa:                  Yeah. There's debate over whether or not it's going to make it a "leaner, meaner" union or a weaker union. I tend to split the difference on that one. It's certainly a case to watch. There's a lot of education coming up in this year's Supreme Court term so it's going to be a big year.

Mike:                    That's right. We've also got a Affirmative Action case at the higher ed level. Okay. Lots to watch. Thank you, Clara. That's all the time we've got for "Pardon the Gadfly." Now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute.

                                David, welcome back to the show.

David:                   Hey, thanks for having me.

Mike:                    David, pinch-hitting here for Amber, who is .... Where is Amber? She's somewhere important.

Alyssa:                  Florida?

Mike:                    Florida.

Alyssa:                  I think she's in Florida at a conference.

Mike:                    Presenting on something important which we can't remember at this point.

Alyssa:                  Everything we do is usually important.

Mike:                    That is true. Amber cannot be here but David Griffith, pinch-hitting, and what's you got to talk about today, David?

David:                   Well, Mike, I have an exciting study which is entitled, "A New Measure of College Quality: To study the effects of College Sector and Peers on Degree Attainment." It is an exciting study. I can't say much for the title there. The authors of the study are Johnathan Smith and Keven Stange from the University of Michigan.

Mike:                    Go Blue!

David:                   Yep. In the study, the authors use PSAT scores from 2004 and 2005, enrollment and completion data from the National Student Clearinghouse, and IPEDS data. Basically, they used these data sources to track the progress of about 3 million students over time as-

Mike:                    Is that all they had?

Alyssa:                  (laughs)

David:                   -as they enter and complete college. It's the first study to really attempt to capture the contributions of peer effects to community college outcomes. It's also the first to try to quantify the role of these peer effects in explaining the difference between bachelor degree attainment in traditional colleges ... 4 year and 2 year institutions. It's an interesting study. Consistent with previous studies, the authors find that recent high school graduates who start at 4 year colleges are 50 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor's degree within 6 years than those starting at 2 year colleges.

                                This difference obviously has a number of possible explanations. One is self-selection. It could just be that better students start at 4 year colleges. Another is the transfer costs associated with moving from a 2 year institution to a 4 year institution. Finally, peer effects. Broadly, I think the results of the study suggests that all 3 of these factors play a pretty important role. The main finding, the central finding, is that, according to the authors, about 40% of the bachelor's degree attainment gap between 2 and 4 year colleges can be explained by average peer quality.

                                In other words, it's a major factor in explaining why students who start at 2 year colleges are maybe less likely to winding up getting a 4 year degree. Another interesting finding is that a student's own ability is more important in the 2 year sector, while peer ability is more important in the 4 year sector. Even comparing students with the same test scores who have similar peers, they still find that there's a big gap between those who start at 2 year institutions and those who start at 4 year institutions. Which suggests that there are some other major structural factors here such as barriers to transferring between institutions.

                                The study obviously has important implications. For example, it really suggests that the quality of 2 year colleges, which is an understudied topic, as measured by average PSAT scores matters. If you're a student out there, it may actually be worth looking around a bit instead of attending the nearest community college as many students wind up doing. It also has some important implications for policy makers. First of all, it's possible that in incentivizing 2 year college enrollment through things like free community college, we might inadvertently lower some students' chances of receiving a bachelor's degree. Although, it's tough to prove that or totally conclude that from this study.

                                The other related implication is that any accountability measures that focus on the performance of these sorts of outcomes may wind up incentivizing these 2 year institutions to focus on things they can control. It may inadvertently discourage them from focusing on bachelor's degrees. I know there's a lot there but hopefully we can unpack it.

Mike:                    Let's talk a little bit, Alyssa and David, about the implications for K-12. One, is for high school counselors and teachers ... It's to say there's a strong reason to encourage kids to go to 4 year programs. If they're more expensive, that's a little bit of a tough call. We do worry about particularly low income kids under-matching. They end up going to  a community college when they can get into a selective 4 year institution where they would probably do a lot better. The other one for me is, what would happen if these community colleges would be at least a little bit selective? Part of the problem here is they're these open-access institutions, you've got all these kids coming in who are not actually ready for college, they get stuck in remedial education ... It also just drags down the quality of the peers of those institutions. If you had some standards there, maybe you would have a better teaching and learning environment at these community colleges.

Alyssa:                  I think I would disagree a little bit. I do think that one of the roles of the community college is to be open to everyone. That's certainly something that ... As someone who grew up where the only college nearby was a community college, that's a value that I hold-

Mike:                    Even people who can't read and do math at the 6th grade level?

Alyssa:                  Most of the people going there were from my school district. It was troubled, but not that troubled. It was definitely a place where people could go if they didn't have other options, they didn't really have another path, they didn't know what exactly they wanted to do. I think that's an important role that the community college does play. I do agree that something that the study does raise is the value of preparedness, ensuring that when kids exit the K-12 system they are ready, whether that's for a 2 year program with the intention of transferring, a 2 year program with the intention of earning an Associate's, or a certificate, or to go straight into that 4 year.

Mike:                    That's all fine and good, Alyssa. We're talking about 40%, right now, of kids who graduate college-ready. That means

Alyssa:                  That's a big gap.

Mike:                    Almost 80% of kids going to college. We're talking a lot of kids, right now, going, especially to community colleges, who are not ready. I'm just saying, if we want to improve what happens on community colleges, having some kind of a floor that says, "Obviously, this is a place where we want to help kids get over that bar. We want to help them get ready." But maybe it's saying, "You've got to, at least, be at an 8th grade level. But, if you're at a 6th grade level, I'm sorry. This is not a good place for you."

Alyssa:                  But then where do those kids go?

Mike:                    They go into the workforce. That is why we have to do a much better job in K-12 education getting kids college-ready. There you have it. David, thank you. That's a fascinating thing.

David:                   I'm not touching that one (laughs).

Mike:                    David has been very quiet on that, wisely so.

Alyssa:                  Tellingly so.

Mike:                    One cool thing is the peer effects research. This is something that you start to see more in K-12 as well. Always wondering when we look at impacts, if we're talking about charter schools, or diverse schools, or voucher schools, or anything, is it because of what's happening in the schools in terms of their instruction, their teachers? Or is it simply the peers? We certainly know ... Look, parents understand, when it comes to college, they try to send their kids to a college that has as smart of peers as possible. A lot of parents send their kids to private school for that same reason. Some argument that that's happening in charter schools as well. I'm willing to defend that. We just have to be clear about what we're studying and what we're explaining and understand that if peer effects matter, then you've got high-achieving peers who are not equally distributed in our schools and colleges.

David:                   I'll just close with one thought that shouldn't be controversial which is that, one thing I did take away from the study was just that we have to stop talking about community colleges in these blanket terms as though they're all the same. In fact, there are big differences. There's big differences in terms of the peers that you will find at a community college. If you're a student out there, regardless of how you feel about the issues we've been discussing today, it's worth shopping around and paying some attention to who you're going to college with.

Alyssa:                  For all the high schoolers that listen to this podcast.

David:                   Yes.

Mike:                    Absolutely. I am glad that I have peers like you. You guys make me smarter. I know that that's the case. That's all the time we've got for this week. Until next week ...

Alyssa:                  I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Mike:                    I'm Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.