Most of the fights in education today are about three things: money, money, and money. The legislative and policy arguments, be they over charter school funding or teachers’ pensions, inevitably revolve around budgets.
I think the more interesting debate is over what to teach. Every time I meet a parent I eventually pose this question: what should your child learn? When they graduate high school, what should they know that would make you say: “Yes! I got my money’s worth out of the school system.”
The answers vary. In the mad rush of raising children, school can become like a black hole their kids disappear in from September to May. It’s a place they go to, come back from, and do homework for. At some point they have to figure out what to do when they leave it.
So the number one answer parents usually give me is that school should prepare their children to get into and graduate from a good college.
Fair enough. While the jury deliberates over the value of a college degree compared to its cost, it is still a ticket to higher earnings over a lifetime. Rarely do I hear my personal opinion: the purpose of the American education system is, first and foremost, to make good American citizens. Making them productive citizens is a secondary goal, and preparing them for college – a distant third.
Of course it’s great if they are productive, which I will define as making a lot of money. But a person can make $40,000 a year and still be productive. They will still pay taxes, own a home, buy things that keep the economy going, etc. But this is only an economic consideration. Surely there are more important things than money?
There are, and everyone admits to this truth. It is harder to put into practice, though, because parents are vaguely suspicious of idealism. It doesn’t pay the bills. Find something that does before you commit yourself to a lifetime of ideas.
This is always sound advice, but when we speak of idealism in this case we’re not talking about particularly grandiose goals. We mean all Americans should be able to discharge the duties of their citizenship.
This is why our country’s birth was such a landmark event – it was a swan dive into an unknown pool of idealism. The idea that you are born with rights that no government, no person, no earthly institution can take away from you is, in a nutshell, our founding principle. Natural law. We take it for granted today, but what a truly revolutionary concept it was at a time when the world was ruled (or usually misruled) by tyrants, kings, emperors, sultans, and thugs. Every American parent, regardless of political persuasion, surely agrees with this. Most assume it is taught to their children at some point in their academic career.
Think again. Of course, there is the obligatory lip service to America’s liberal ideals (i.e. – government of the people, by the people, and for the people), but these receive much less energy and passion than the catalog of America’s sins. The Constitution is portrayed as a dry, lifeless document, noteworthy for the fact that slaves were counted as only three-fifths the value of a free man. The fact that it was a masterpiece of compromise forged by people who understood human nature and were desperate to come up with one, just one, experiment in self-rule before they died is rarely emphasized.
Part of the problem is the way civics is taught. It is often presented in a vacuum with no contrasting idea. To know how good we have it, we have to know how bad everyone else had it. This comparative approach necessarily means criticizing other systems and ways of life. There is nothing racist or imperialistic in this approach. It is how judgment is taught.
But the very word “judgment” is often a pejorative now, which leads to the other part of the problem: the great unease which academia (K-12 and college) displays toward American exceptionalism.
We are firm believers in American exceptionalism, but we don’t teach it because we want our students to thumb their noses at the rest of the world. Rather, we want them to see what has failed in other times and places so they realize the advantages of our system. If they don’t learn that, how will they have the will and passion to preserve, protect, and defend it?
To that end, we often combine our civics units with those from our “How Not To Do It” file. This includes excerpts from William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Donald Wood’s memoir of apartheid South Africa, Asking for Trouble and, of course, that masterpiece of Dystopia – 1984.
We don’t use these examples to say, “See what idiots they were!” We present them in this spirit: “Be careful, this could happen to you too.”
Dean Acheson once said that the United States, by default, had become the “locomotive at the head of mankind.” The only guarantee of peace, he thought, was the “continued moral, military, and economic power of the United States.”
Maintaining this power is a big responsibility. Our young people are definitely up to the task, but we can’t just expect them to figure it out on their own. They must be taught to meet this 240-year-old responsibility for self-government.
Unless, of course, we prefer Winston Smith’s life to the one we have now.
Last week I wrote about failure and its often-circuitous route to success. I mentioned the struggle for growth that my publishing business experienced, but we had another example a few years ago that was much more profound in its impact.
We make no secret of the fact that as an organization we support education reform. In its current definition, this basically means supporting more charter schools. Only a few reformers have gone so far as to advocate full voucher programs, where parents are basically refunded their property taxes to use for any educational purpose they wish.
In 2015 Nevada officially earned the title of the nation’s most radical reformer when its State Legislature approved a full-scale voucher program. Arizona and Florida had adopted some of the same measures but limited their vouchers to special education kids, Native Americans, or the children of active-duty military parents.
Not Nevada. It opened the floodgates and said, “Come one, come all.” Didn’t matter what color your skin was or how much money you made – if you wanted a voucher for your child, you got one. This essentially put $7,000 in your pocket to pay for private school, religious school, or specialized tutoring services (like ours).
In short, it was the real deal. No fine print, no exceptions. That it was passed at all was a minor miracle, but Governor Brian Sandoval signed the Education Savings Account (ESA) bill into law in May of 2015.
Needless to say, we were very excited. This represented a HUGE opportunity for us. We could compete with public, private, and parochial schools for taxpayer dollars – a true free market. We sprang into action. I immediately started the ball rolling to get our Nevada business license ($1,500), registered agent ($250), and upgrade to our liability insurance required by the law ($350). I made several trips to Carson City and Las Vegas to speak with the Treasurer’s Office (they were in charge of vendor registration) and to start interviewing part-time instructors to teach our curriculum in Vegas and Reno.
No sooner had the ink dried on the law, however, than the usual suspects began to threaten lawsuits. The ACLU and Nevada teachers’ union immediately asked for an injunction to stop the law’s implementation. It was granted within two months. No worries, we thought, either the injunction will be dismissed or the law will be referred to the State Supreme Court. We counted on a favorable ruling from the justices in Carson City, and so continued with our preparations to begin operating in the state as soon as they rendered a verdict.
The Nevada Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January 2016, putting it on a “fast-track”, which meant the case would probably be heard that summer. If worse came to worst, we were also confident that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would come out in our favor too since it had ruled (narrowly) in a Cleveland voucher case that State Legislatures had the last word on education policy. It is a state issue, funded mostly by state income and local property taxes, to be decided by each state's duly elected representatives.
Our confidence was justified. In October 2016 the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in favor of vouchers. The law was legal and constitutional – hallelujah!
Not so fast. The next month elections to the State Legislature were held and Democrats won control of the Assembly and the Senate. They immediately repealed the law. No more vouchers. After hundreds of man-hours and thousands of dollars, we came away with nothing. It was all for naught.
But maybe we did get one thing from it – the wisdom that comes from bitter experience. And here’s what we learned. For one thing, the law did have a major weakness – it did not specifically serve the poor. The CEO of MGM Resorts makes about $7.5 million a year in total compensation. If he has school-age kids, he would be getting the same amount of voucher money from the State of Nevada as one of his housekeepers, who makes about $29,000 a year. If both their kids went to Bishop Gorman (generally regarded as the finest high school in the state at a cost of $12,700 a year), the CEO could easily write a check for the difference between his voucher and the total tuition cost. The housekeeper, on the other hand, would need to come up with an extra $5,000.
Not so easy for her to do. So in retrospect, maybe the lawmakers should have included a salary cap? For example: no one with an annual household income above $50,000 would be eligible for a voucher. This might have been an easier pill to swallow for conservative or reform-minded Democrats who were open to some kind of relief measure for kids stuck in Nevada’s lousy public schools (they generally share the label for “nation’s worst” with Mississippi and New Mexico).
Naturally, opponents of vouchers were ecstatic and went back to playing the only string they have left on their banjo: give us more money. But more money for what? What makes them think more money will do anything other than reinforce failure?
Granted, the law wasn’t perfect, but we were ready to show what we could do; ready to provide our services to anyone who needed them. In fact, we had made the worst schools in Las Vegas our priority. Put us in coach!
Instead, before we could even receive the kickoff, the referee blew his whistle and sent us back to the locker rooms. We never even got a chance to prove ourselves.
And P.S. – canceling my Nevada business license cost another $150. I wonder if the ACLU will pay for that?
When we started our own literacy program in 2011, we wanted to prove that we could take a small number of students, get big gains from them, and thus drive up overall test scores. We’ve now done this on a grade, school, and district level. In the midst of this success, it’s important to talk about failure. Yes, failure, because we’ve had plenty of that too.
Somebody once told me, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” If that’s true, then I must have been exerting maximum effort in high school because my career there was only notable for its complete lack of achievement! In fact, my senior year I was voted "Most Likely to End Up In a Foreign Jail." (kidding, of course - although that almost happened my first day in Africa).
More to the point, I think this advice was given in the spirit of a coach I once had who used to make a distinction between errors of commission and errors of omission. He said he would never fault us for mistakes we made while trying, only the mistakes we made by not trying.
I think this is true. The more you attempt, the more you are bound to fail because no one has a 100% success rate. My first business failure took place shortly after starting my first business – an online publishing company. I started it in grad school because of sticker shock at the cost of my textbooks. Everything at that time was trending towards online solutions – online banking, online video, online advertising.
Online textbooks seemed like a natural progression, so I started a business for college professors that would take the book chapters, articles, and videos they assigned in their classes and organize them on a web page. They could update the syllabus in real time and the cost to their students was half of what they paid at the bookstore.
A solution that was cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient – a recipe for success, right?
Wrong. What I failed to see is that college professors had no incentive to switch to online textbooks. Contrary to their reputation as progressive thinkers, they really are hidebound traditionalists when it comes to prerogatives like tenure, merit pay, and…selling their own books at university bookstores.
The privilege of assigning their own work is something professors take very seriously. Allowing us to publish this material and thereby hijack the royalties they would otherwise earn was never in the cards. Even those who didn’t write their own textbooks proved to be unmoved by the idea because…well, they just weren’t moved.
Never underestimate the power of inertia. Many frustrated entrepreneurs I talk to blame “conditions” – the business cycle, the market, regulation, investors, etc. Some even accuse their customers of lacking sophistication or intelligence.
It’s a bad sign when you start blaming customers for your failures, so always remember that even the best idea faces an uphill struggle simply because it is new and disruptive. It’s not so much that everyone is conspiring against you, it’s that the status quo is called that for a reason. It’s comfortable. It’s something everyone is used to. It is embodied in the phrase: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Well, vacuum tubes weren’t broken, but they were replaced by microprocessors. Landline telephones worked just fine, but cell phones marginalized them. Lots of people enjoy print newspapers, but they have been overtaken by online content.
Why some innovations succeed and others fail is one of the mysteries of the universe. Timing has a lot to do with it. The first fax machine was shown at the New York City World’s Fair in 1964 but didn’t become widely used until 30 years later. Anyone who invested heavily in fax machines in 1964 would have been wiped out. It just wasn’t their time.
And it really isn’t the time for online textbooks either. The company I started sixteen years ago has exactly two customers. They seem to enjoy its convenience, and their students certainly like the cheaper price tag, but I would not call a business with two customers a success. After a few years, I had to cut bait and move on to something else.
That something else turned into Mile High Education Services. Success can come in a very roundabout way.
by Nate Braden
This week the results came in from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) – the battery of language arts and math tests the state gives to all public school students in grades 3-8.
As usual, they were mediocre. The number of students in Colorado who are proficient in Language Arts stands at 44.5% – up 2.2% from last year. The number who are proficient in math is 34.1% – up a whopping 1.3% from 2017.
There was one bright spot. Math scores for eighth-graders improved dramatically – 7.2%. If scores rose this much across the board, we could break out the party hats and claim light at the end of the tunnel. However, overall math proficiency for eighth-graders is still a dismal 28.2%. When you’re that low, there’s nowhere to go but up.
This mediocrity has been pretty much routine since statewide testing began here more than twenty years ago. A little bit up, a little bit down, but nothing seems to move the needle much.
Which begs the question: how important are these scores? If they go up, everyone in public education says, “see, we told you we knew what we were doing”. If they go down, the same people say, “well, test scores aren’t the only measure of academic success.”
The thing is, there has to be some way to mark progress among students and compare it to other schools. Like it or not, standardized tests are the only way to do this. You certainly can’t rely on grade point averages anymore, now that they routinely go up to 5.0 and a B is considered average.
Nonetheless, these tests vary from state to state. Colorado is one of the 42 that have adopted the Common Core Standards Initiative since 2010. These tests are tougher than the old versions and are supposed to more accurately assess critical thinking skills. They are not without controversy, however, especially when it comes to the way they test math.
Like it or not, the old SAT may still be the best gauge of math and verbal aptitude. It’s been around long enough that several studies have been done linking high SAT scores with career and earnings success. Colleges still use them because they really are the only way to objectively discern applications from overachieving teenagers who are all the most brilliant in their class and write about how much they’re going to change the world when they graduate.
Personally, I would like them to start with showing up on time to their first job, putting in an eight-hour day, and getting my sandwich order right at Subway. Let’s see if you can master those basic skills before you try bringing peace to the Middle East.
But I digress. If we can agree that SATs are still the best way to measure raw academic success, then Colorado is on the right track in administering this test as early as 9th grade. All ninth-graders here must take the Pre-SAT, with tenth and eleventh-graders taking the regular SAT. The state legislature has mandated this and I think it’s a good move, because even though not all high school graduates will go on to college they should at least have the choice, and a higher SAT score broadens their options.
What should they shoot for? Our flagship university – CU Boulder – requires an average SAT score of 1250 for incoming freshmen. This is out of a maximum score of 1600. How prepared are Colorado high school students to meet this threshold?
You be the judge. The average PSAT score for 9th-graders this year was 902. For 10th-graders it was 944, and for 11th-graders, 1014. The highest averages were, predictably, in the wealthier districts, including Boulder itself. Its 11th-graders averaged a score of 1139 – probably because all their parents work at the university.
Here at Mile High Ed we use the Lexile reading test. It’s not as well-known as the SAT but most educators are familiar with the score range. We have made it company policy to test our students immediately before each retreat or school intervention and then immediately after. We administer it online, it doesn’t take very long (30 to 40 minutes), and it gives students their scores right away.
That doesn’t tell us everything about their abilities, of course, which is why we take them to the Air Force Academy’s Leadership Reaction Course the next day. Among their tasks on this course is to break out of a POW camp using nothing but a rope and their own wits. Now THAT’S a test.
In the world of education you hear the phrase “Title I” thrown around a lot, especially with regards to funding, but what is it?
Title I refers to the first part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This bill was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on April 9, 1965. It was a linchpin in his War on Poverty and one of his key Great Society programs, so named because of a speech he gave at Ohio University in 1964 in which he called for a “Great Society…where no child will go unfed and no youngster will go unschooled.”
Noble goals, to be sure. Johnson had cut his teeth as a freshman Congressman in the 1930s at the height of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The belief that government could solve society’s problems with the stroke of a pen and millions of dollars in funds was powerful in those days, and Johnson carried this belief with him to the White House thirty years later.
Has the law worked? You open up a whole can of worms by even posing that question, but now that we’ve had more than 50 years of Title I results, it’s worth taking a look.
First, there’s the language of the original law. The very first line of the ESEA states that it’s an act “To strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools.” And Title I of that law specifically offers “Financial assistance to local educational agencies for the education of children of low income families”.
Local educational agencies are school boards. Nearly every school district in the country receives some Title I funds, even wealthy districts. This is because they are intended to serve students that receive free and reduced-price lunches, and only students whose family income is at or near the federal poverty level can qualify (this year, that level is $24,600 for a family of four). Even the wealthiest districts have a few students who live at the poverty level, so they receive “targeted” funds that are supposed to be spent on these students.
Schools in which more than 40% of the student body is poor get additional Title I money known as “schoolwide” funds. Since this is the majority of Title I funding, urban principals will actually recruit poor students to attend their schools so they don’t lose this money. There is a special disincentive to never lose Title I standing because that means less revenue and more accusations that these schools are becoming “gentrified.” In fact, if more local parents end up sending their kids to a school that was once considered mediocre and has since turned its performance around – something we used to call success – they are often accused of pushing poor kids out and making it too expensive for low-income families to live there.
Nevertheless, in 2017 the federal government distributed $15.4 billion in Title I funds to all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Did this money produce results?
Let’s take a local example from my home state of Colorado. In 2016 our state received $142,901,138 in Title I money. Denver Public Schools alone got $29,622,309 of that.
The results? English Language Arts scores among Colorado students in grades 3 through 9 improved an average of 2%. In math that number was .2%. At this rate it will take 20 years to bring the entire state into the acceptable range for Language Arts (80%+ proficiency) and 250 years to reach the same level in math!!!
Of course, the majority of any state’s education funding comes from local sources, and once that money enters the state budget it becomes “fungible” – that is, you’re not sure if the dollars come from the feds or the state. This money is supposed to be kept separate so it can be accounted for, but this is all but impossible since it is often used to hire extra teachers (who are state employees) or buy new curriculum (purchased with district funds).
However, there is one way to keep this money separate and accounted for: allow outside parties to bid on it.
Since local school boards have control over how Title I money is spent, each district can invite private education companies to bid on that money, announce how they’re going to use it, and be held accountable for the results every year.
Full disclosure: we are one of those private education companies and this is exactly what we are trying to do in school districts across Colorado.
If we can move the needle significantly with reading and writing scores, and another company can do the same with math scores, why not give us the money and let us prove it? If we fail, the district can fire us and find somebody better.
And this doesn’t just apply to academic standards. Title I money should be used for vocational training as well. The Homebuilder’s Association in Colorado has an outstanding program where students can actually build a house on rollers in the parking lot of a high school and learn how to frame, plumb, tin, and pull wire. Once it’s finished, that house is transported to an actual development where it is put on a foundation and sold to an actual homeowner.
What have school boards got to lose? It sure beats hanging around until 2268 to see if math scores go up.
A Case for Contracting Out Teaching Services
It’s not often that an insurance actuary makes national headlines, but Jeremy Gold did just that for many years before his death on July 6. His claim to fame was that he was among the first to cast doubt on the rosy pension forecasts put forward by state governments, which routinely overestimated the investment returns those pension funds would earn. He practically invented the term “unfunded pension liability.” Thanks to his warnings, in 2013 Moody’s began to calculate the cost of state pension funds themselves rather than relying on government numbers.
The work of an actuary – assessing risk for insurance companies and then advising them how much that risk should cost – is decidedly unglamorous work. But Mr. Gold turned heads in 2015 by estimating that state pension funds were in the red by at least $1.5 trillion. In fact, so sketchy were the reporting standards for state pension funds that he thought the range might even extend to $4 trillion.
One of two things must happen to close this gap: either raise taxes or cut pension benefits. Needless to say, neither is a popular option. Taxpayers who routinely work into their 70s have little patience for state employees who get to retire in their 50s. They are also more numerous, and if put to a vote the taxpayers would choose overwhelmingly to cut pension benefits.
On the other side, municipal employees’ and teachers’ unions are adamantly opposed to this and believe their pension plans are written in stone – a sacred pact between private citizens and public employees that cannot be violated.
Regardless of which path state governments choose, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is too expensive to hire state employees. Since most state employees are teachers, this means there will be less money to hire new teachers as retired teachers’ pension costs chew up more and more of state budgets.
What to do? Contract out teaching services.
This is already done for some special education and mental health services, but it will become increasingly common for everyday teaching.
Consider the annual cost of employing a teacher. In my home state of Colorado, the average salary of a teacher is around $50,000. Over a 30-year career, this adds up to $1.5 million. Even though most teachers will not work that long, state governments must assume that someone will occupy that position for 30 years and must be compensated. That is a long-term liability.
But once that teacher retires in his mid-50s he will be making around $70,000 a year and thus be entitled to a pension of approximately $50,000 a year for the rest of his life. Assuming he lives another 30 years, this amounts to $1.5 million in total pension costs. Even though several teachers may occupy that position over the course of 30 years, they are all entitled to some retirement compensation.
Then there’s health care. Although these costs vary widely among individuals, the average American spends about $10,000 a year in treatment and insurance, whether she pays that herself of has the premiums covered by her company or a government program. Before a teacher goes on Medicare at age 65, most of her health care costs will be covered by the state she works in. That amounts to $400,000 during her career and first ten years of retirement. And since many spouses use the public employee health care system along with their children, this adds even more to liability costs.
Nevertheless, lets assume the bare minimum costs in our calculation: $1.5 million in lifetime salary, $1.5 million in lifetime pension costs, and $400,000 in lifetime health care benefits. That’s a total of $3.4 million. Averaged out over a thirty-year career, the average teacher thus costs the taxpayers $113,333 a year. And this is a profession that gets four months off every year.
If reading and math proficiency were in the 70% or 80% range, taxpayers might conclude that it was worth the cost. But here in Colorado our proficiency rate among 9th-graders is 36% in language arts and 32% in math. Hardly reason to break out the party hats.
Now let’s consider the alternative for contracting out these services. With $113,333, our company could provide 30 hours of small-group literacy instruction and critical thinking field exercises to 324 kids. Six of our instructors could teach our curriculum to 36 kids every month over the course of the school year, with a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:6.
By contrast, the average class size in Colorado high schools is approximately 20 students for every teacher. Such numbers preclude the use of direct instruction methodology and result in the same mind-numbing classroom delivery (naturally with some exceptions) that we’ve come to expect over the last 40 years. Even the best public school teachers struggle to make the impact they really want to on classes of that size.
And the best part about contract teaching is that if we don’t get results, the district can fire us and bring in somebody who does. Not only is there more bang for the taxpayer buck, but you can give that buck to a different organization every year depending on your needs.
Given the current state of public education and public employee benefits, this kind of arrangement is the wave of the future.
American Education is Broken.
Sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still have de facto segregation in our schools. The way public education is currently structured, delivered almost solely by government employees in government-run schools, is simply not working. One thing I found in the military, which applies to education even more, is that you cannot reform the system from within. The situation has gotten so bad that even charter schools aren’t enough.
These revelations are nothing new. In 1978 Walter Cronkite anchored a CBS New Special Report called “Is Anyone Out There Learning?”He opened this broadcast with the comment: “What we found was an alarming number of high school graduates who could not read well enough to function in society.”
Fast forward five years. The opening paragraph in a 1983 report entitled A Nation At Risk, submitted to President Reagan by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, began with the words: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Fast forward another 35 years to this editorial in the May 9, 2018 edition of The Wall Street Journal. While reviewing the latest jobs report, the Journal declared: “Increasingly, employers say that if a person is halfway presentable, they will provide the training, though that is expensive. Ultimately, these skills deficiencies reflect poorly on America’s schools, which often fail to graduate students who can read or write.”
Note the language: if a person is halfway presentable. Is that how far we’ve fallen? Not only do we fail to teach our young people how to read and write, we struggle to even get them across the “halfway-presentable” finish line.
Enough is enough. The time has come to look at other alternatives to delivering public education.
And that’s where we come in.
Maybe the first thing to mention that we actually have a solution. Bit by bit, student by student, we make a difference. As you navigate through our site to learn about our programs and results, keep that in mind. We have a ground game. We have a track record. We get things done.
But we need your help. We ask you to bet on our children’s future like your whole world depended on it.