Education policy outcomes are funny things

by Natasha
Today, Matt Yglesias praised Students First for coming out with a state-by-state education policy report card. In his own words, “Importantly it’s a report card assessing the state of education policy in different places, not outcomes.”

Maybe you’re different, but when I think education policy, outcomes rank pretty high up there on the list of things I care about. Students First even claims to care about outcomes, though how anyone could say with a straight face that they think we’ll get a better quality of education from a constantly churning, insecure, overworked, poorly paid, barely-graduated-yesterday teaching workforce, I can’t even pretend to know. But I digress. Let’s get to the funny bits … and remember, laughing is healthier for you than crying.

So, outcomes. While no one metric seems enough to convey the absolute quality of education, there are a lot of things we can look at to give us a general idea. One of them is high school graduation rates, which is a good way to say that 13 or so years worth of teachers managed to keep kids engaged enough that they completed a curriculum conferring basic literacy, numeracy, and at least some sense of history and global perspective. It’s not a perfect system, but it sure beats mass illiterate serfdom or sending most of the kids to the satanic mills, as was formerly the custom of our people.

This is the Students First state education policy report card. This is a map compilation of the 2010-2011 high school graduation rates by state. The chart below is a matchup of the top nine states in the country for high school graduation rates, with graduation rates expressed as a percentage, next to their Students First letter grade for education policy:

State      Grad %    SF grade
IA 88% F
VT 87% F
WI 87% D+
IN 86% C+
NE 86% F
NH 86% F
ND 86% F
TN 86% C-
TX 86% D

Do you find it hysterically funny that something calling itself an education metric gives some of its worst grades to the state education systems that come the closest to 90% high school graduation rates? Oh, come on. Are you trying?

What really makes that a laugh-riot for the ages is that the charter schools Michelle Rhee and the Students First crew are pushing often seem to get graduation results on the same order by getting rid of problem students. Or, as Laura Clawson detailed today at DailyKos, the cheesy plot of Pump Up The Volume is now a model education policy, supported by billionaires looking to squeeze a profit out of our public education dollars. In New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, DC, Ohio, Michigan and Texas, charter schools have been reported to have senior classes as much as 25-60% smaller than their freshman classes, allowing some of them to report near-miraculous high school graduation rates.

Not only do education privatization activists want to make it easy to fire teachers, they want to make it easy to fire students. Little Johnny or Susie can’t read? Learning disability? Didn’t get enough to eat last night or enough sleep in the car their family lives in? Mom is always too tired after her second shift to make them do their homework? They’re fired. I bet you care about that outcome if there’s even a chance we’re talking about your kid, or any kid you care about even a little bit. Public schools can’t usually give up on kids quite so easily; though some have been caught trying, it’s generally regarded as a scandal rather than a desirable plan of operations.

And is there anything funnier than firing kids? Of course!

Because the wackiest thing about the Students First report card is that Louisiana gets the highest grade of any state in the nation, with a B-. Louisiana. Just stew on that for a sec. Then click here for a list of hilarious things being taught in Louisiana’s state-approved charter school curriculum. Here’s a sample:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”—United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

Are you laughing yet? Okay, try this Yglesias quote on for size, “The Students First perspective more wisely dings states that make it too hard to open charters but also dings states (like, say, Arizona) that do much too little to hold charter schools accountable for performance,” and then go look again at what made the approved curriculum for Louisiana’s charter schools. If you were wondering, Students First gave Louisiana a passing grade of C- on the metric entitled, “Spend Wisely & Govern Well.”

If the governance bit wasn’t funny enough, here’s some of what spending wisely looks like in Louisiana: spending money on creationist ‘science’ curriculum and scholarships for middle class and wealthy students, favoring high administrative spending over direct instructional costs, and neglecting need-based higher education supports. Hilarious, amirite!?

The president of your dreams

Is in Uruguay!

In the late 1960s, inspired by the Cuban revolution, he became an anti-government guerilla fighter. He was eventually shot six times by the police and sent to prison for more than a decade, including a two-year stint in solitary at “the bottom of a well.”

“His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800 – the value of the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle parked in his garage. He never wears a tie and donates about 90 percent of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor.” He keeps about $800 a month for himself.

“Under Mr. Mujica, who took office in 2010, Uruguay has drawn attention for seeking to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage, while also enacting one of the region’s most sweeping abortion rights laws and sharply boosting the use of renewable energy sources like wind and biomass.” LIBERAL DREAMBOAT.

He decided not to live in the presidential mansion after becoming president, electing to say in his tiny-ass apartment outside Montevideo.
He disparages the idea of serving more than one term as president.

Smoke gets in your eyes

And lungs, and on your rugs, and on your walls….

My mother accused me of making things up when I told her she wouldn’t have to paint every year if she just stopped smoking. When she finally did stop, she said, “You know, I’ve noticed I don’t have to paint the walls now unless I want a new color!”

Yes, Mom.

Loophole lets health insurers jack up rates

With so many people still out of work or just scraping by, this isn’t good news — especially since there’s so little chance the Republican House will do anything to close this loophole:

Health insurance companies across the country are seeking and winning double-digit increases in premiums for some customers, even though one of the biggest objectives of the Obama administration’s health care law was to stem the rapid rise in insurance costs for consumers.

Particularly vulnerable to the high rates are small businesses and people who do not have employer-provided insurance and must buy it on their own.

In California, Aetna is proposing rate increases of as much as 22 percent, Anthem Blue Cross 26 percent and Blue Shield of California 20 percent for some of those policy holders, according to the insurers’ filings with the state for 2013. These rate requests are all the more striking after a 39 percent rise sought by Anthem Blue Cross in 2010 helped give impetus to the law, known as the Affordable Care Act, which was passed the same year and will not be fully in effect until 2014.

In other states, like Florida and Ohio, insurers have been able to raise rates by at least 20 percent for some policy holders. The rate increases can amount to several hundred dollars a month.

The proposed increases compare with about 4 percent for families with employer-based policies.

Under the health care law, regulators are now required to review any request for a rate increase of 10 percent or more; the requests are posted on a federal Web site,, along with regulators’ evaluations.

The review process not only reveals the sharp disparity in the rates themselves, it also demonstrates the striking difference between places like New York, one of the 37 states where legislatures have given regulators some authority to deny or roll back rates deemed excessive, and California, which is among the states that do not have that ability.

New York, for example, recently used its sweeping powers to hold rate increases for 2013 in the individual and small group markets to under 10 percent. California can review rate requests for technical errors but cannot deny rate increases.

Critics, like Dave Jones, the California insurance commissioner and one of two health plan regulators in that state, said that without a federal provision giving all regulators the ability to deny excessive rate increases, some insurance companies can raise rates as much as they did before the law was enacted.

“This is business as usual,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s a huge loophole in the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Education in Finland

This is a very informative (and very long) article on Finland’s world-class education system, and you really should read the entire thing to effectively contrast it with the for-profit train wreck to which our public schools are being transformed. But I especially wanted to point out this one piece:

It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators -including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist— convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year- olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”

This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

Whenever you point to another country’s track record where they’re outperforming the U.S., the response is always, “They don’t deal with the urban minorities that we do.” It’s just not true — and it’s also not an acceptable excuse. If we’re going to blame our poor performance on poverty, perhaps it’s time to stop starving the government programs that have helped eradicate poverty in the past.

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