Showing posts with label education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education. Show all posts

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Conspiracy Theories Permeate Pakistani Society

Pakistan Taliban Lambastes Schoolgirl for U.N. Speech. By Saeed Shah
Anti-Western View Shown in Verbal Attack Permeates Pakistani Society
The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2013, on page A7
For full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323309404578612173917367976.html

ISLAMABAD—Malala Yousafzai, a teenage campaigner for girls' education who was nearly killed by Pakistani militants, was feted at the United Nations last week. Here at home, however, she has been widely portrayed as part of a Western conspiracy against Islam and the developing world.

A 1,800-word open letter in imperfect English by Adnan Rasheed, one of the most feared Taliban leaders in Pakistan, outlined these conspiracy theories Wednesday, describing the type of secular education that Ms. Yousafzai championed as "satanic" and arguing that the U.N. wanted to "enslave the world."

Even as the 16-year-old girl is celebrated abroad as a hero, such radical views are becoming mainstream in Pakistani society, where even commentators hostile to the Taliban widely portray Ms. Yousafzai as a pawn of the West or even a CIA agent.

While Pakistanis usually condemn the violence of the Taliban, the paranoid worldview of the group has soaked deep into society, making the fight against extremism much more difficult. Many in the country, for example, still refuse to believe that Osama bin Laden was found living here in 2011.

"Public opinion is confused about the Malala issue. Many people hate Malala," said Zubair Torwali, a newspaper columnist from her home valley of Swat. "Anything here in Pakistan related to the West or America becomes a thing of conspiracy. The Taliban's ideology is flourishing in Pakistan. It is victorious."

Pakistani society is also influenced by the support that the military has long given to jihadist groups. More recently, the backlash over nearly a decade of U.S. drone strikes, and over the unilateral American raid to kill bin Laden deep inside Pakistan, has created a virulently anti-Western culture that sees spies everywhere.

Ms. Yousafzai narrowly survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban in October last year, when she was shot in the head from point-blank range.

When aged just 11, Ms. Yousafzai became a powerful voice against the Taliban through a diary she kept of the extremists' takeover of Swat Valley, in northwest Pakistan. The diary was broadcast by BBC radio in 2009. Following the shooting in Swat, she was airlifted for treatment in England, where she now lives with her family.

Ms. Yousafzai, brought to the U.N. headquarters in New York to mark her 16th birthday, said in a speech Friday that "extremists are afraid of books and pens."

Mr. Rasheed's open letter to Ms. Yousafzai was the first reaction to these remarks by the Taliban leadership.

Mr. Rasheed began the letter by saying that he wishes that the attack on her had "never happened." Then, however, he went on to justify it with detailed arguments, showing, if there were any doubt, the dangers that Ms. Yousafzai would face if she returned home.

"Taliban believe that you were intentionally writing against them and running a smearing campaign to malign their efforts to establish Islamic system in Swat and your writings were provocative," he wrote.

Mr. Rasheed denied that the Taliban were against education—though he went on to spell out the movement's opposition to the "satanic or secular curriculum," which is a "conspiracy of tiny elite who want to enslave the whole humanity for their evil agendas in the name of new world order."

He advised Ms. Yousafzai to return to Pakistan and enroll in a madrassah, or Islamic seminary.

"Your propaganda was the issue and what you are doing now, you are using your tongue on the behest of the others and you must know that if the pen is mightier than the sword then tongue is sharper…In the wars tongue is more destructive than any weapon," the letter said.

When the shooting happened, there was an unprecedented outpouring of public sympathy for Ms. Yousafzai, and anger against the Taliban, inside Pakistan.

However, since then, opinion has hardened against the girl. Last week, on the local Pakistani language versions of the BBC website, in the national language Urdu and the Pashto spoken in her native Swat, the majority of comments were venomously against the schoolgirl. Some even described her as a "prostitute."

Detractors seized on the assistance and attention Ms. Yousafzai received from Western governments and media after the attack. Her appearance at the United Nations seemed to confirm the view that she was somehow working on a Western agenda.

Even Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of the largest Punjab province and brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, issued an oblique criticism of Ms. Yousafzai's speech, posting on his Twitter account that it "seemed to be written for global consumption."

Saturday, January 5, 2013

We, Too, Are Violent Animals. By Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham, and Dale Peterson

We, Too, Are Violent Animals. By Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham, and Dale Peterson
Those who doubt that human aggression is an evolved trait should spend more time with chimpanzees and wolvesThe Wall Street Journal,January 5, 2013, on page C3
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323874204578220002834225378.html

Where does human savagery come from? The animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, writing in Psychology Today after last month's awful events in Newtown, Conn., echoed a common view: It can't possibly come from nature or evolution. Harsh aggression, he wrote, is "extremely rare" in nonhuman animals, while violence is merely an odd feature of our own species, produced by a few wicked people. If only we could "rewild our hearts," he concluded, we might harness our "inborn goodness and optimism" and thereby return to our "nice, kind, compassionate, empathic" original selves.

If only if it were that simple. Calm and cooperative behavior indeed predominates in most species, but the idea that human aggression is qualitatively different from that of every other species is wrong.

The latest report from the research site that one of us (Jane Goodall) directs in Tanzania gives a quick sense of what a scientist who studies chimpanzees actually sees: "Ferdinand [the alpha male] is rather a brutal ruler, in that he tends to use his teeth rather a lot…a number of the males now have scars on their backs from being nicked or gashed by his canines…The politics in Mitumba [a second chimpanzee community] have also been bad. If we recall that: they all killed alpha-male Vincent when he reappeared injured; then Rudi as his successor probably killed up-and-coming young Ebony to stop him helping his older brother Edgar in challenging him…but to no avail, as Edgar eventually toppled him anyway."

A 2006 paper reviewed evidence from five separate chimpanzee populations in Africa, groups that have all been scientifically monitored for many years. The average "conservatively estimated risk of violent death" was 271 per 100,000 individuals per year. If that seems like a low rate, consider that a chimpanzee's social circle is limited to about 50 friends and close acquaintances. This means that chimpanzees can expect a member of their circle to be murdered once every seven years. Such a rate of violence would be intolerable in human society.

The violence among chimpanzees is impressively humanlike in several ways. Consider primitive human warfare, which has been well documented around the world. Groups of hunter-gatherers who come into contact with militarily superior groups of farmers rapidly abandon war, but where power is more equal, the hostility between societies that speak different languages is almost endless. Under those conditions, hunter-gatherers are remarkably similar to chimpanzees: Killings are mostly carried out by males, the killers tend to act in small gangs attacking vulnerable individuals, and every adult male in the society readily participates. Moreover, with hunter-gatherers as with chimpanzees, the ordinary response to encountering strangers who are vulnerable is to attack them.

Most animals do not exhibit this striking constellation of behaviors, but chimpanzees and humans are not the only species that form coalitions for killing. Other animals that use this strategy to kill their own species include group-living carnivores such as lions, spotted hyenas and wolves. The resulting mortality rate can be high: Among wolves, up to 40% of adults die from attacks by other packs.

Killing among these carnivores shows that ape-sized brains and grasping hands do not account for this unusual violent behavior. Two other features appear to be critical: variable group size and group-held territory. Variable group size means that lone individuals sometimes encounter small, vulnerable parties of neighbors. Having group territory means that by killing neighbors, the group can expand its territory to find extra resources that promote better breeding. In these circumstances, killing makes evolutionary sense—in humans as in chimpanzees and some carnivores.

What makes humans special is not our occasional propensity to kill strangers when we think we can do so safely. Our unique capacity is our skill at engineering peace. Within societies of hunter-gatherers (though only rarely between them), neighboring groups use peacemaking ceremonies to ensure that most of their interactions are friendly. In state-level societies, the state works to maintain a monopoly on violence. Though easily misused in the service of those who govern, the effect is benign when used to quell violence among the governed.

Under everyday conditions, humans are a delightfully peaceful and friendly species. But when tensions mount between groups of ordinary people or in the mind of an unstable individual, emotion can lead to deadly events. There but for the grace of fortune, circumstance and effective social institutions go you and I. Instead of constructing a feel-good fantasy about the innate goodness of most people and all animals, we should strive to better understand ourselves, the good parts along with the bad.

—Ms. Goodall has directed the scientific study of chimpanzee behavior at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania since 1960. Mr. Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. Mr. Peterson is the author of "Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Quality of Government and Living Standards: Adjusting for the Efficiency of Public Spending

Quality of Government and Living Standards: Adjusting for the Efficiency of Public Spending. By Grigoli, Francesco; Ley, Eduardo
IMF Working Paper No. 12/182
Jul 2012
http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/cat/longres.aspx?sk=26052.0

Summary: It is generally acknowledged that the government’s output is difficult to define and its value is hard to measure. The practical solution, adopted by national accounts systems, is to equate output to input costs. However, several studies estimate significant inefficiencies in government activities (i.e., same output could be achieved with less inputs), implying that inputs are not a good approximation for outputs. If taken seriously, the next logical step is to purge from GDP the fraction of government inputs that is wasted. As differences in the quality of the public sector have a direct impact on citizens’ effective consumption of public and private goods and services, we must take them into account when computing a measure of living standards. We illustrate such a correction computing corrected per capita GDPs on the basis of two studies that estimate efficiency scores for several dimensions of government activities. We show that the correction could be significant, and rankings of living standards could be re-ordered as a result.

Excerpts:

Despite its acknowledged shortcomings, GDP per capita is still the most commonly used summary indicator of living standards. Much of the policy advice provided by international organizations is based on macroeconomic magnitudes as shares of GDP, and framed on cross-country comparisons of per capita GDP. However, what GDP does actually measure may differ significantly across countries for several reasons. We focus here on a particular source for this heterogeneity: the quality of public spending. Broadly speaking, the ‘quality of public spending’ refers to the government’s effectiveness in transforming resources into socially valuable outputs. The opening quote highlights the disconnect between spending and value when the discipline of market transactions is missing.

Everywhere around the world, non-market government accounts for a big share of GDP and yet it is poorly measured—namely the value to users is assumed to equal the producer’s cost.  Such a framework is deficient because it does not allow for changes in the amount of output produced per unit of input, that is, changes in productivity (for a recent review of this issue, see Atkinson and others, 2005). It also assumes that these inputs are fully used. To put it another way, standard national accounting assumes that government activities are on the best practice frontier. When this is not the case, there is an overstatement of national production.  This, in turn, could result in misleading conclusions, particularly in cross-country comparisons, given that the size, scope, and performance of public sectors vary so widely.

Moreover, in the national accounts, this attributed non-market (government and non-profit sectors) “value added” is further allocated to the household sector as “actual consumption.” As Deaton and Heston (2008) put it: “[...] there are many countries around the world where government-provided health and education is inefficient, sometimes involving mass absenteeism by teachers and health workers [...] so that such ‘actual’ consumption is anything but actual. To count the salaries of AWOL government employees as ‘actual’ benefits to consumers adds statistical insult to original injury.” This “statistical insult” logically follows from the United Nations System of National Accounts (SNA) framework once ‘waste’ is classified as income—since national income must be either consumed or saved. Absent teachers and health care workers are all too common in many low-income countries (Chaudhury and Hammer, 2004; Kremer and others, 2005; Chaudhury and others, 2006; and World Bank, 2004). Beyond straight absenteeism, which is an extreme case, generally there are significant cross-country differences in the quality of public sector services. World Bank (2011) reports that in India, even though most children of primaryschool age are enrolled in school, 35 percent of them cannot read a simple paragraph and 41 percent cannot do a simple subtraction.

It must be acknowledged, nonetheless, that for many of government’s non-market services, the output is difficult to define, and without market prices the value of output is hard to measure. It is because of this that the practical solution adopted in the SNA is to equate output to input costs. This choice may be more adequate when using GDP to measure economic activity or factor employment than when using GDP to measure living standards.

Moving beyond this state of affairs, there are two alternative approaches. One is to try to find indicators for both output quantities and prices for direct measurement of some public outputs, as recommended in SNA 93 (but yet to be broadly implemented). The other is to correct the input costs to account for productive inefficiency, namely to purge from GDP the fraction of these inputs that is wasted. We focus here on the nature of this correction. As the differences in the quality of the public sector have a direct impact on citizens’ effective consumption of public and private goods and services, it seems natural to take them into account when computing a measure of living standards.

To illustrate, in a recent study, Afonso and others (2010) compute public sector efficiency scores for a group of countries and conclude that “[...] the highest-ranking country uses onethird of the inputs as the bottom ranking one to attain a certain public sector performance score. The average input scores suggest that countries could use around 45 per cent less resources to attain the same outcomes if they were fully efficient.” In this paper, we take such a statement to its logical conclusion. Once we acknowledge that the same output could be achieved with less inputs, output value cannot be equated to input costs. In other words, waste should not belong in the living-standards indicator—it still remains a cost of government but it must be purged from the value of government services. As noted, this adjustment is especially relevant for cross-country comparisons.

...

In this context, as noted, the standard practice is to equate the value of government outputs to its cost, notwithstanding the SNA 93 proposal to estimate government outputs directly. The value added that, say, public education contributes to GDP is based on the wage bill and other costs of providing education, such as outlays for utilities and school supplies. Similarly for public health, the wage bill of doctors, nurses and other medical staff and medical supplies measures largely comprises its value added. Thus, in the (pre-93) SNA used almost everywhere, non-market output, by definition, equals total costs. Yet the same costs support widely different levels of public output, depending on the quality of the public sector.

Note that value added is defined as payments to factors (labor and capital) and profits. Profits are assumed to be zero in the non-commercial public sector. As for the return to capital, in the current SNA used by most countries, public capital is attributed a net return of zero—i.e., the return from public capital is equated to its depreciation rate. This lack of a net return measure in the SNA is not due to a belief that the net return is actually zero, but to the difficulties of estimating the return.

Atkinson and others (2005, page 12) state some of the reasons behind current SNA practice: “Wide use of the convention that (output = input) reflects the difficulties in making alternative estimates. Simply stated, there are two major problems: (a) in the case of collective services such as defense or public administration, it is hard to identify the exact nature of the output, and (b) in the case of services supplied to individuals, such as health or education, it is hard to place a value on these services, as there is no market transaction.”

Murray (2010) also observes that studies of the government’s production activities, and their implications for the measurement of living standards, have long been ignored. He writes: “Looking back it is depressing that progress in understanding the production of public services has been so slow. In the market sector there is a long tradition of studying production functions, demand for inputs, average and marginal cost functions, elasticities of supply, productivity, and technical progress. The non-market sector has gone largely
unnoticed. In part this can be explained by general difficulties in measuring the output of services, whether public or private. But in part it must be explained by a completely different perspective on public and private services. Resource use for the production of public services has not been regarded as inputs into a production process, but as an end in itself, in the form of public consumption. Consequently, the production activity in the government sector has not been recognized.” (Our italics.)

The simple point that we make in this paper is that once it is recognized that the effectiveness of the government’s ‘production function’ varies significantly across countries, the simple convention of equating output value to input cost must be revisited. Thus, if we learn that the same output could be achieved with less inputs, it is more appropriate to credit GDP or GNI with the required inputs rather than with the actual inputs that include waste. While perceptions of government effectiveness vary widely among countries as, e.g., the World Bank’s Governance indicators attests (Kaufmann and others 2009), getting reliable measures of government actual effectiveness is a challenging task as we shall discuss below.

In physics, efficiency is defined as the ratio of useful work done to total energy expended, and the same general idea is associated with the term when discussing production. Economists simply replace ‘useful work’ by ‘outputs’ and ‘energy’ by ‘inputs.’ Technical efficiency means the adequate use of the available resources in order to obtain the maximum product. Why focus on technical efficiency and not other concepts of efficiency, such as price or allocative efficiency? Do we have enough evidence on public sector inefficiency to make the appropriate corrections?

The reason why we focus on technical efficiency in this preliminary inquiry is twofold. First, it corresponds to the concept of waste. Productive inefficiency implies that some inputs are wasted as more could have been produced with available inputs. In the case of allocative inefficiency, there could be a different allocation of resources that would make everyone better off but we cannot say that necessarily some resources are unused—although they are certainly not aligned with social preferences. Second, measuring technical inefficiency is easier and less controversial than measuring allocative inefficiency. To measure technical inefficiency, there are parametric and non-parametric methods allowing for construction of a best practice frontier. Inefficiency is then measured by the distance between this frontier and the actual input-output combination being assessed.

Indicators (or rather ranges of indicators) of inefficiency exist for the overall public sector and for specific activities such as education, healthcare, transportation, and other sectors. However, they are far from being uncontroversial. Sources of controversy include: omission of inputs and/or outputs, temporal lags needed to observe variations in the output indicators, choice of measures of outputs, and mixing outputs with outcomes. For example, many social and macroeconomic indicators impact health status beyond government spending (Spinks and Hollingsworth, 2009, and Joumard and others, 2010) and they should be taken into account. Most of the output indicators available show autocorrelation and changes in inputs typically take time to materialize into outputs’ variations. Also, there is a trend towards using outcome rather than output indicators for measuring the performance of the public sector. In health and education, efficiency studies have moved away from outputs (e.g., number of prenatal interventions) to outcomes (e.g., infant mortality rates). When cross-country analyses are involved, however, it must be acknowledged that differences in outcomes are explained not only by differences in public sector outputs but also differences in other environmental factors outside the public sector (e.g., culture, nutrition habits).

Empirical efficiency measurement methods first construct a reference technology based on observed input-output combinations, using econometric or linear programming methods. Next, they assess the distance of actual input-output combinations from the best-practice frontier. These distances, properly scaled, are called efficiency measures or scores. An inputbased efficiency measure informs us on the extent it is possible to reduce the amount of the inputs without reducing the level of output. Thus, an efficiency score, say, of 0.8 means that using best practices observed elsewhere, 80 percent of the inputs would suffice to produce the same output.

We base our corrections to GDP on the efficiency scores estimated in two papers: Afonso and others (2010) for several indicators referred to a set of 24 countries, and Evans and others (2000) focusing on health, for 191 countries based on WHO data. These studies employ techniques similar to those used in other studies, such as Gupta and Verhoeven (2001), Clements (2002), Carcillo and others (2007), and Joumard and others (2010).

? Afonso and others (2010) compute public sector performance and efficiency indicators (as performance weighted by the relevant expenditure needed to achieve it) for 24 EU and emerging economies. Using DEA, they conclude that on average countries could use 45 percent less resources to attain the same outcomes, and deliver an additional third of the fully efficient output if they were on the efficiency frontier. The study included an analysis of the efficiency of education and health spending that we use here.

? Evans and others (2000) estimate health efficiency scores for the 1993–1997 period for 191 countries, based on WHO data, using stochastic frontier methods. Two health outcomes measures are identified: the disability adjusted life expectancy (DALE) and a composite index of DALE, dispersion of child survival rate, responsiveness of the health care system, inequities in responsiveness, and fairness of financial contribution. The input measures are health expenditure and years of schooling with the addition of country fixed effects. Because of its large country coverage, this study is useful for illustrating the impact of the type of correction that we are discussing
here.

We must note that ideally, we would like to base our corrections on input-based technical efficiency studies that deal exclusively with inputs and outputs, and do not bring outcomes into the analysis. The reason is that public sector outputs interact with other factors to produce outcomes, and here cross-country hetereogenity can play an important role driving cross-country differences in outcomes. Unfortunately, we have found no technical-efficiency studies covering a broad sample of countries that restrict themselves to input-output analysis.  In particular, these two studies deal with a mix of outputs and outcomes. The results reported here should thus be seen as illustrative. Furthermore, it should be underscored that the level of “waste” that is identified for each particular country varies significantly across studies, which implies that any associated measures of GDP adjusting for this waste will also differ.

...

We have argued here that the current practice of estimating the value of the government’s non-market output by its input costs is not only unsatisfactory but also misleading in crosscountry comparisons of living standards. Since differences in the quality of the public sector have an impact on the population’s effective consumption and welfare, they must be taken into account in comparisons of living standards. We have performed illustrative corrections of the input costs to account for productive inefficiency, thus purging from GDP the fraction of these inputs that is wasted.

Our results suggest that the magnitude of the correction could be significant. When correcting for inefficiencies in the health and education sectors, the average loss for a set of 24 EU member states and emerging economies amounts to 4.1 percentage points of GDP.  Sector-specific averages for education and health are 1.5 and 2.6 percentage points of GDP, implying that 32.6 and 65.0 percent of the inputs are wasted in the respective sectors. These corrections are reflected in the GDP-per-capita ranking, which gets reshuffled in 9 cases out of 24. In a hypothetical scenario where the inefficiency of the health sector is assumed to be representative of the public sector as a whole, the rank reordering would affect about 50 percent of the 93 countries in the sample, with 70 percent of it happening in the lower half of the original ranking. These results, however, should be interpreted with caution, as the purpose of this paper is to call attention to the issue, rather than to provide fine-tuned waste estimates.

A natural way forward involves finding indicators for both output quantities and prices for direct measurement of some public outputs. This is recommended in SNA 93 but has yet to be implemented in most countries. Moreover, in recent times there has been an increased interest in outcomes-based performance monitoring and evaluation of government activities (see Stiglitz and others, 2010). As argued also in Atkinson (2005), it will be important to measure not only public sector outputs but also outcomes, as the latter are what ultimately affect welfare. A step in this direction is suggested by Abraham and Mackie (2006) for the US, with the creation of “satellite” accounts in specific areas as education and health. These extend the accounting of the nation’s productive inputs and outputs, thereby taking into account specific aspects of non-market activities.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bill Gates: "We haven't chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way [...] because the negativity about them is very, very high"

Was the $5 Billion Worth It? By Jason Riley
A decade into his record-breaking education philanthropy, Bill Gates talks teachers, charters—and regrets.
WSJ, Jul 23, 2011
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903554904576461571362279948.html

Seattle

'It's hard to improve public education—that's clear. As Warren Buffett would say, if you're picking stocks, you wouldn't pick this one." Ten years into his record-breaking philanthropic push for school reform, Bill Gates is sober—and willing to admit some missteps.

"It's been about a decade of learning," says the Microsoft co-founder whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now the nation's richest charity. Its $34 billion in assets is more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined, and in 2009 it handed out $3 billion, or $2 billion more than any other donor. Since 2000, the foundation has poured some $5 billion into education grants and scholarships.

Seated in his office at the new Gates Foundation headquarters located hard by the Emerald City's iconic Space Needle, Mr. Gates says that education isn't only a civil-rights issue but also "an equity issue and an economic issue. . . . It's so primary. In inner-city, low-income communities of color, there's such a high correlation in terms of educational quality and success."

One of the foundation's main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.

"But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn't move the needle much," he says. "Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn't dramatic. . . . We didn't see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that." Still, he adds, "we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them."

The reality is that the Gates Foundation met the same resistance that other sizeable philanthropic efforts have encountered while trying to transform dysfunctional urban school systems run by powerful labor unions and a top-down government monopoly provider.

In the 1970s, the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, among others, pushed education "equity" lawsuits in California, New Jersey, Texas and elsewhere that led to enormous increases in state expenditures for low-income students. In 1993, the publishing mogul Walter Annenberg, hoping to "startle" educators and policy makers into action, gave a record $500 million to nine large city school systems. Such efforts made headlines but not much of a difference in closing the achievement gap.

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Martin Kozlowski
 .Asked to critique these endeavors, Mr. Gates demurs: "I applaud people for coming into this space, but unfortunately it hasn't led to significant improvements." He also warns against overestimating the potential power of philanthropy. "It's worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that's ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it's truly a rounding error."

This understanding of just how little influence seemingly large donations can have has led the foundation to rethink its focus in recent years. Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

"I bring a bias to this," says Mr. Gates. "I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts." Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. "That's partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don't think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research."


Of late, the foundation has been working on a personnel system that can reliably measure teacher effectiveness. Teachers have long been shown to influence students' education more than any other school factor, including class size and per-pupil spending. So the objective is to determine scientifically what a good instructor does.

"We all know that there are these exemplars who can take the toughest students, and they'll teach them two-and-a-half years of math in a single year," he says. "Well, I'm enough of a scientist to want to say, 'What is it about a great teacher? Is it their ability to calm down the classroom or to make the subject interesting? Do they give good problems and understand confusion? Are they good with kids who are behind? Are they good with kids who are ahead?'

"I watched the movies. I saw 'To Sir, With Love,'" he chuckles, recounting the 1967 classic in which Sidney Poitier plays an idealistic teacher who wins over students at a roughhouse London school. "But they didn't really explain what he was doing right. I can't create a personnel system where I say, 'Go watch this movie and be like him.'"

Instead, the Gates Foundation's five-year, $335-million project examines whether aspects of effective teaching—classroom management, clear objectives, diagnosing and correcting common student errors—can be systematically measured. The effort involves collecting and studying videos of more than 13,000 lessons taught by 3,000 elementary school teachers in seven urban school districts.

"We're taking these tapes and we're looking at how quickly a class gets focused on the subject, how engaged the kids are, who's wiggling their feet, who's looking away," says Mr. Gates. The researchers are also asking students what works in the classroom and trying to determine the usefulness of their feedback.

Mr. Gates hopes that the project earns buy-in from teachers, which he describes as key to long-term reform. "Our dream is that in the sample districts, a high percentage of the teachers determine that this made them better at their jobs." He's aware, though, that he'll have a tough sell with teachers unions, which give lip service to more-stringent teacher evaluations but prefer existing pay and promotion schemes based on seniority—even though they often end up matching the least experienced teachers with the most challenging students.

Teachers unions can be counted on "to stick up for the status quo," he says, but he believes they can be nudged in the right direction. "It's kind of scary for them because what we're saying is that some of these people shouldn't be teachers. So, does the club stand for sticking up for its least capable member or does it stand for excellence in education? We'll, it kind of stands for both."

Asked if the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have any incentive to back school reforms that help kids but also diminish union power, Mr. Gates responds by questioning the scope of that power. "We have heavy union states and heavy right-to-work states, and the educational achievement of K-12 students is not at all predicted by how strong the union rules are," he says. "If I saw that [right-to-work states like] Texas and Florida were running a great K-12 system, but [heavy union states like] New York and Massachusetts have really messed this up, then I could draw a correlation and say it's either got to be the union—or the weather."

Mr. Gates's foundation strongly supports a uniform core curriculum for schools. "It's ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different," he says. He also sees common standards as a money-saver at a time when many states are facing budget shortfalls. "In terms of mathematics textbooks, why can't you have the scale of a national market? Right now, we have a Texas textbook that's different from a California textbook that's different from a Massachusetts textbook. That's very expensive."

A national core curriculum, detractors say, could force states with superior standards, like Massachusetts, to dumb down their systems. And even if good common standards could be established, how would they improve going forward if our 50-state laboratory is no longer in operation?

Mr. Gates responds to that by saying there's no need to sacrifice excellence for equity. "Behind this core curriculum are some very deep insights. American textbooks were twice as thick as Asian textbooks. In American math classes, we teach a lot of concepts poorly over many years. In the Asian systems they teach you very few concepts very well over a few years." Nor does he see the need for competition among state standards. "This is like having a common electrical system. It just makes sense to me."

On the fraught issue of school choice, his foundation has been a strong advocate of charter schools, and Mr. Gates is particularly fond of the KIPP charter network and its focus on serving inner-city neighborhoods. "Whenever you get depressed about giving money in this area," he volunteers, "you can spend a day in a KIPP school and know that they are spending less money than the dropout factory down the road."

Mr. Gates is less enamored of school vouchers. "Some in the Walton family"—of Wal-Mart fame—"have been very big on vouchers," he begins. "And honestly, if we thought there would be broad acceptance in some locales and long-term commitment to do them, they have some very positive characteristics."

He praises the private school model for its efficiency vis-à-vis traditional public schools, noting that the "parochial school system, per dollar spent, is an excellent school system." But the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. "We haven't chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high."


It's a response that in some ways encapsulates the Gates Foundation's approach to education reform—more evolution, less disruption. It attempts to do as much good as possible without upsetting too many players. You can quibble with Mr. Gates about that strategy. You can second-guess him. You can even offer free advice. Or you can shake his hand, thank him for his time and remember that it's his money.


Mr. Riley is a member of the Journal's editorial board.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Trouble With Teacher Tenure - We can't make progress if bad teachers have jobs for life

The Trouble With Teacher Tenure. By TIMOTHY KNOWLES
We can't make progress if bad teachers have jobs for life.WSJ, Jun 18, 2010

Colorado did right by its kids recently when Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law groundbreaking education reform to overhaul teacher tenure and evaluation. The bill elicited an outcry from many teachers. But the many states now considering similar measures must not be cowed by the firestorm.

As a former teacher, principal and district leader, I've devoted my life to providing children with the excellent education they deserve. And in my 23 years on the job, there are two things I've learned for certain.

First, teachers have a greater impact on student learning than any other school-based factor. Second, we will not produce excellent schools without eliminating laws and practices that guarantee teachers—regardless of their performance—jobs for life.

Nearly everyone in public education has a story that illustrates the Kafkaesque process of trying to remove a tenured teacher. Mine involves a teacher in Boston who napped each day in the back of the room while students copied from the board. Despite repeated efforts, the district failed to fire him.

Such anecdotes are reinforced by hard data. An award-winning study of Illinois school districts over an 18-year period found an average of two tenured teachers out of 95,000 were dismissed for underperformance each year. Nationally, between 0.1% and 1% of tenured teachers are dismissed annually, according to the Center for American Progress.

It's not news that students suffer when very low-performing teachers are allowed to remain in the classroom. But teachers suffer too. In a forthcoming article, my colleague Sara Ray Stoelinga of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute illustrates how teacher tenure creates perverse practices in schools across Chicago. In interviews with 40 principals, 37 admitted to using some type of harassing supervision—cajoling, pressuring or threatening—to get teachers to leave in order to circumvent the byzantine removal process mandated by the union contract. One principal plotted to remove a teacher who had trouble climbing stairs by assigning her to a fourth-floor classroom. Another reassigned a teacher who had been teaching eighth-graders for 14 years to a first-grade classroom.

This pathological status quo feeds upon itself: The more difficult it is for principals to address underperformance, the more likely they are to use informal methods to do so. This fuels labor's argument that management is capricious, strengthening their case for increased employment protection.

This cycle leads to what educators call "the dance of the lemons"—the practice of shuffling underperforming teachers from school to school. It's easier to push a teacher to a school down the street than it is to push them out of the profession.

The effect that bad teachers have on relationships among teachers and principals might be the most corrosive aspect of tenure laws. In the book "Organizing Schools for Improvement," University of Chicago researchers showed that the quality of adult relationships in a school profoundly affects student achievement. Analyzing more than a decade's worth of data from Chicago Public Schools, they found that schools where adults demonstrate a shared sense of responsibility for student learning are four times more likely to make substantial gains in reading than schools without strong professional ties. Schools where principals set high standards and involve teachers in decision making are seven times more likely to make substantial improvements in math than schools weak on such measures. But cooperative relationships are difficult to maintain when principals must use underhanded methods to remove ineffective teachers, and when bad teachers undermine staff morale.

The good news is that the majority of teachers are not interested in protecting colleagues who don't belong in the classroom. Last summer the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its members, asking: "Which of these should be the higher priority: working for professional teaching standards and good teaching, or defending the job rights of teachers who face disciplinary action?" According to Randi Weingarten, the union's president, "by a ratio of 4 to 1 (69% to 16%), AFT members chose working for professional standards and good teaching as the higher priority." She elaborated: "Teachers have zero tolerance for people who . . . demonstrate they are unfit for our profession."

The time has come to eliminate tenure. We are facing monumental challenges in our quest to provide all students with an education that will prepare them to compete in a globalized economy. By removing one of the main sources of friction between labor and management, we can focus on the substantive issues: training, evaluating and rewarding teachers to make teaching a true profession.

Mr. Knowles is the director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Study finds focus on abstinence in sex-ed classes can delay sexual activity

Study finds focus on abstinence in sex-ed classes can delay sexual activity

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; 4:35 PM

Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can convince a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for the nation's embattled efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

In the first carefully designed study to evaluate the controversial approach to sex ed, researchers found that only about a third of 6th and 7th graders who went through sessions focused on abstinence started having sex in the next two years. In contrast, nearly half of students who got other classes, including those that included information about contraception, became sexually active.

"I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence," said John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the federally funded study. "Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used."

The research, published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, comes amid intense debate over how to reduce sexual activity, pregnancies, births and sexually transmitted diseases among children and teenagers. After declining for more than a decade, births, pregnancies and STDs among U.S. teens have begun increasing again.

The Obama administration eliminated more than $150 million in federal funding targeted at abstinence programs, which are relatively new and have little rigorous evidence supporting their effectiveness. Instead it is launching a new $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative that will fund only programs that have been shown scientifically to work. The administration Monday proposed expanding that program to $183 million next year. The move came after intensifying questions about the effectiveness of abstinence programs.

"This new study is game-changing," said Sarah Brown, who leads the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "For the first time, there is strong evidence that an abstinence-only intervention can help very young teens delay sex and reduce their recent sexual activity as well."

The new study is the first to evaluate an abstinence program using a carefully "controlled" design that compared it directly to alternative strategies -- considered the highest level of scientific evidence.

"This takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education," said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who wrote the criteria for federal funding of abstinence programs. "I've always known that abstinence programs have gotten a bad rap."

Even long-time critics of the approach praised the new study, saying it provided strong evidence that such programs can work and may deserve taxpayer support.

"One of the things that's exciting about this study is that it says we have a new tool to add to our repertoire," said Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Based on the findings, Obama administration officials said programs like the one evaluated in the study could be eligible for federal funding.

"No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants if there's promise that it achieves the goal of teen pregnancy prevention," said Health and Human Services Department spokesman Nicholas Pappas.

Several critics of abstinence-only approach argued that the curriculum tested was not representative of most abstinence programs. It did not take on a moralistic tone as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until they were married, did not portray sex outside of marriage as never appropriate or disparage condoms.

"There is no data in this study to support the 'abstain-until marriage' programs, which research proved ineffective during the Bush administration," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth.

But abstinence supporters disputed that, saying that the new program was essentially the same as other good abstinence programs.

"For our critics to use 'marriage' as the thing that sets the program in this study apart from federally funded programs is an exaggeration and smacks of an effort to dismiss abstinence education rather than understanding what it is," Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.

The new study involved 662 African-American students who were randomly assigned to go through one of five programs: An eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching the youngsters other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared to about 52 percent who were just taught safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who just learned about other ways to be healthy. The abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach.

"The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy," Jemmott said. "There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms. This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer."

Head Start: A Tragic Waste of Money

Head Start: A Tragic Waste of Money. By Andrew J. Coulson

This article appeared in the New York Post on January 28, 2010.

Head Start, the most sacrosanct federal education program, doesn't work.

That's the finding of a sophisticated study just released by President Obama's Department of Health and Human Services.

Created in 1965, the comprehensive preschool program for 3- and 4-year olds and their parents is meant to narrow the education gap between low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers. Forty-five years and $166 billion later, it has been proven a failure.

The bad news came in the study released this month: It found that, by the end of the first grade, children who attended Head Start are essentially indistinguishable from a control group of students who didn't.

What's so damning is that this study used the best possible method to review the program: It looked at a nationally representative sample of 5,000 children who were randomly assigned to either the Head Start ("treatment") group or to the non-Head Start ("control") group.

Random assignment is the "gold standard" of medical and social-science research: It gives investigators confidence that the treatment and control groups are essentially identical in every respect except their access to Head Start. So if eventual test performances differ, we can be pretty sure that the difference was caused by the program. No previous study of Head Start used this approach on a nationally representative sample of children.

When the researchers gave both groups of students 44 different academic tests at the end of the first grade, only two seemed to show even marginally significant advantages for the Head Start group. And even those apparent advantages vanished after standard statistical controls were applied.

In fact, not a single one of the 114 tests administered to first graders — of academics, socio-emotional development, health care/health status and parenting practice — showed a reliable, statistically significant effect from participating in Head Start.

Some advocates of the program have acknowledged these dramatic results, but suggest that it's not necessarily Head Start's fault if its effects vanish during kindergarten and the first grade — perhaps our K-12 schools are to blame.

But that's beside the point. Even if it's true, it means that Head Start will be of no lasting value to children until we fix our elementary and secondary schools. Until then, money spent on Head Start will continue to be wasted.

Yet the Obama administration remains enthusiastic. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both want to boost funding for Head Start — that is, to spend more on a program that's sure to fail. That's after the president already raised spending on the program from $6.8 billion to $9.2 billion last year.

Instead of throwing more dollars at this proven failure, President Obama might consider throwing his weight behind proven successes. A federal program that pays private-school tuition for poor DC families, for instance, has been shown to raise students' reading performance by more than two grade levels after just three years, compared to a control group of students who stayed in public schools. And it does so at about a quarter the cost to taxpayers of DC's public schools.

Sadly, Obama and Duncan have ignored the DC program's proven success. Neither lifted a finger to save it when Democrats in Congress pulled the plug on its funding last year.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect national Democrats to end a Great Society program, even when it's a proven failure. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect them to stand up to teachers' union opposition and support private-school-choice programs that are proven successes.

Of course, until last week, it seemed unrealistic to expect a Republican to win the Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy. If voters get angry enough with federal education politics, national Democrats may start learning from their state-level colleagues who are starting to support effective policies like school choice. Or they may just lose their seats, too.

Andrew J. Coulson directs the Cato Insti tute's Center for Educational Freedom.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Charter schools, The Ujima Village Academy, teachers' unions

Pay Your Teachers Well. WSJ Editorial
Their children’s hell will slowly go by.
The Wall Street Journal, p A10, Aug 03, 2009

The conflicting interests of teachers unions and students is an underreported education story, so we thought we’d highlight two recent stories in Baltimore and New York City that illustrate the problem.

The Ujima Village Academy is one of the best public schools in Baltimore and all of Maryland. Students at the charter middle school are primarily low-income minorities; 98% are black and 84% qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Yet Ujima Village students regularly outperform the top-flight suburban schools on state tests. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, Ujima Village students earned the highest eighth-grade math scores in Maryland. Started in 2002, the school has met or exceeded state academic standards every year—a rarity in a city that boasts one of the lowest-performing school districts in the country.

Ujima Village is part of the KIPP network of charter schools, which now extends to 19 states and Washington, D.C. KIPP excels at raising academic achievement among disadvantaged children who often arrive two or three grade-levels behind in reading and math. KIPP educators cite longer school days and a longer school year as crucial to their success. At KIPP schools, kids start as early as 7:30 a.m., stay as late as 5 p.m., and attend school every other Saturday and three weeks in the summer.

However, Maryland’s charter law requires teachers to be part of the union. And the Baltimore Teachers Union is demanding that the charter school pay its teachers 33% more than other city teachers, an amount that the school says it can’t afford. Ujima Village teachers are already paid 18% above the union salary scale, reflecting the extra hours they work. To meet the union demands, the school recently told the Baltimore Sun that it has staggered staff starting times, shortened the school day, canceled Saturday classes and laid off staffers who worked with struggling students. For teachers unions, this outcome is a victory; how it affects the quality of public education in Baltimore is beside the point.

Meanwhile, in New York City, some public schools have raised money from parents to hire teaching assistants. Last year, the United Federation of Teachers filed a grievance about the hiring, and city education officials recently ordered an end to the practice. “It’s hurting our union members,” said a UFT spokesman, even though it’s helping kids and saving taxpayers money. The aides typically earned from $12 to $15 an hour. Their unionized equivalents cost as much as $23 an hour, plus benefits.

“School administrators said that hiring union members not only would cost more, but would also probably bring in people with less experience,” reported the New York Times. Many of the teaching assistants hired directly by schools had graduate degrees in education and state teaching licenses, while the typical unionized aide lacks a four-year degree.

The actions of the teachers unions in both Baltimore and New York make sense from their perspective. Unions exist to advance the interests of their members. The problem is that unions present themselves as student advocates while pushing education policies that work for their members even if they leave kids worse off. Until school choice puts more money and power in the hands of parents, public education will continue to put teachers ahead of students.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tax Credits, Not Vouchers, Are Keeping School Choice a Viable Option

Tax Credits, Not Vouchers, Are Keeping School Choice a Viable Option. By Adam B. Schaeffer Culpeper Star-Exponent on June 25, 2009.

Many school choice supporters are discouraged after having suffered a series of setbacks on the voucher front, ranging from the loss of Utah's nascent voucher program last year to the recent death sentence handed to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. A rambling and inaccurate article in the normally supportive City Journal got the chorus of naysayers rolling more than a year ago with the cry "school choice isn't enough."

The bright spot for vouchers in recent years has been the success of special-needs programs. Yet the Arizona Supreme Court ruled recently that school vouchers for disabled and foster children violate the state constitution, which forbids public money from aiding private schools.

Naturally, the pessimists and opponents of choice are forecasting the death of the voucher movement. They're wrong, because there never was a voucher movement to begin with. It has always been movement for educational freedom, and it is still going strong.

Over the past several years, there has been a gradual shift in focus from vouchers to an alternative mechanism: education tax credits. Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa already provide families with tax credits to offset the cost of independent schooling for their own kids. Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and three other states provide tax credits for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that subsidize tuition for lower-income families.

The fundamental difference between these programs and vouchers is that while vouchers use public money, credits do not. Credits are targeted tax cuts, and no public dollars are spent with them. That single distinction is the reason Arizona's Supreme Court struck down two voucher programs in March, but upheld the state's scholarship donation tax credit program in 1999.

In fact, tax credit programs have withstood every lawsuit raised against them. Since 1995, seven tax credit programs have been passed and all are still in operation. Four voucher programs (in Florida, Colorado and now two in Arizona) have been struck down by the courts in that same time.

This does not mean that credits are invulnerable. Arizona credits just received a temporary setback from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that is sure to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, as is the case with so many other 9th Circuit Court decisions. Vouchers have certainly enjoyed some important legal victories, but vouchers' use of government funds opens them up for attacks to which credits are far less susceptible.

Credit programs have not simply survived, they have thrived. Scholarship donation programs now support more than three times as many low-income children as do voucher programs, though they are generally of more recent vintage. Direct K-12 education tax credits are benefiting hundreds of thousands of families, albeit in more modest dollar amounts.

However, these are not the only reasons that supporters of educational freedom have increasingly begun to favor credits over vouchers. Credits better preserve the autonomy of independent schools, and they extend choice and accountability to taxpayers as well as parents. Taxpayers get to choose to participate in credit programs as well as pick the recipient organization for their funds if they do. In addition, credits command increasingly bipartisan political support.

So while advocates of educational freedom regret that vouchers have been under heavy fire in many states, tax credit programs can be created or expanded to accommodate the children formerly served by vouchers.

Adam B. Schaeffer is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and an adjunct senior fellow with the Education Reform Initiative at the Virginia Institute for Public Policy.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Our revolutionary leaders wanted the best from their children

Founding Fathers. By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Our revolutionary leaders wanted the best from their children.
The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2009, p A13

Barack Obama is a doting father who says that one of the greatest pleasures of his presidency is eating dinner with his daughters on the nights when he is in town.

Some of the nation's Founding Fathers were not so lucky. Doting dads though they were, patriotic service forced them to live apart from their families for years at a time. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the three Founders who spent the most time abroad, missed milestone events. Franklin was a no-show at his daughter's wedding and his wife's funeral. Adams was in Philadelphia when his wife, Abigail, gave birth to a stillborn daughter. While in France, Jefferson received word that his 2-year-old daughter had died of whooping cough. The news came seven months after her funeral.

Trans-Atlantic separations proved too painful to bear. Whenever possible, the Founders took their children with them or sent for the children once they had established a household abroad. John Adams set off on his maiden voyage to England accompanied by his 9-year-old son, John Quincy. On a second crossing he brought along sons John Quincy and Charles. His teenage daughter, Abigail, arrived in France with her mother a few years later. Benjamin Franklin's son, William, and his two grandsons, Temple Franklin and Benny Bache, were part of the Franklin overseas ménage at various times. A new widower, Jefferson took his elder daughter, Patsy, along with him on his diplomatic mission to France and later sent for his younger daughter, Polly.

The children were not always thrilled to go. Charles Adams sobbed inconsolably as he boarded the ship with his father. Eight-year-old Polly begged her father to let her remain at home in Virginia with her beloved aunt: "I am very sorry you sent for me," she bravely wrote. "I don't want to go to France." Still she went, accompanied on the journey by a 14-year-old babysitter named Sally Hemings. Upon arrival in London, the homesick girl spent the next month in the temporary care of Abigail Adams until her father sent a French-speaking manservant to fetch her. Abigail pointedly reminded Jefferson that the experience was traumatic for the child who, once again, was faced with separation from a mother figure and sent off to live with a father she did not know.

Nor was the arrangement a piece of cake for their fathers. In addition to the all-consuming diplomatic responsibilities of winning allies and funders for the Revolution, these lone fathers had to raise Revolutionary Kids. Chief among their responsibilities was securing an elite European education for their young offspring while protecting them from the temptations and dissipations of living abroad. The Founders' children and grandchildren kept company with an aristocratic power elite, savored Continental fads and fashions, and learned to speak fluent French.

It was all too easy, their fathers worried, for the Revolutionary Kids to abandon the republican virtues of industry and frugality and, even worse, to lose their native language. "It is a mortification to me," John Adams wrote to John Quincy, "that you write better in a foreign language than in your mother tongue."

To protect their children from corrupting influences, therefore, the Founding Fathers had to part with them again. Franklin dispatched his 9-year-old grandson, Benny Bache, to school in Switzerland for five years. The Adams sons attended schools in Holland. The Jefferson daughters were placed in a convent in Paris.

Yet no matter how devoted, the Founding Fathers were not inclined, as today's parents are, to lavish their students with praise. "Good job" was not in their vocabulary. "Take care you never spell a word wrong," Jefferson admonished his younger daughter. "Remember too . . . not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much."

Nor did the Founding Fathers leave it up to their children to "make good choices." Instead, they moralized endlessly on the perils of indolence, time-wasting and thriftlessness. Jefferson reproved Patsy: "If at any moment, my dear, you catch yourself in idleness, start from it as you would from the precipice of a gulph." John Adams lectured John Quincy, hardly a slouch of a student, to "lose no Time. There is not a moral Percept of clearer Obligation or of greater Import."

When Benny Bache asked his grandfather for a gold watch, Franklin responded tartly: "You should remember that I am at a great Expence for your education . . . and you should not tease me for things that can be of little or no Service to you."

Even the profligate Thomas Jefferson embraced the virtue of frugality. When Patsy appealed for extra money, her father refused: "The rule I wish to see you governed by is of never buying anything which you have not money in your pocket to pay for. Be assured that it gives much more pain to the mind to be in debt, than to do without any article whatever which we may seem to want."

Judged by today's psychological standards, these 18th century fathers sound harsh and unfeeling. Yet to see the Founding Fathers as flesh-and-blood dads, to glimpse their struggles to rear their children at a time of grave uncertainty and peril, is to appreciate their service and sacrifice anew. Founding a nation meant more than winning a war. It also called upon the nation's Founders to pass on the passion for freedom, educational excellence and civic virtue to their children and grandchildren.

John Adams said it best in a letter to Abigail: "The education of our children is never out of my Mind . . . Fire them with Ambition to be useful and make them disdain to be destitute of any useful or ornamental knowledge or accomplishment. Fix their Ambition upon great and solid objects."

Ms. Whitehead is director of the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values and co-editor of "Franklin's Thrift: The Lost History of a American Virtue," just published by Templeton Press.

Friday, June 19, 2009

WSJ Editorial Page: The NEA's Latest Trick

The NEA's Latest Trick. WSJ Editorial
Trying to deny military families.
The Wall Street Journal, Jun 19, 2009, p A14

Public school teachers are supposed to teach kids to read, so it would be nice if their unions could master the same skill. In a recent letter to Senators, the National Education Association claims Washington, D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarships aren't working, ignoring a recent evaluation showing the opposite.

"The DC voucher pilot program, which is set to expire this year, has been a failure," the NEA's letter fibs. "Over its five year span, the pilot program has yielded no evidence of positive impact on student achievement."

That must be news to the voucher students who are reading almost a half-grade level ahead of their peers. Or to the study's earliest participants, who are 19 months ahead after three years. Parents were also more satisfied with their children's schools and more confident about their safety. Those were among the findings of the Department of Education's own Institute of Education Sciences, which used rigorous standards to measure statistically significant improvement.

If you call that "failure," no wonder the program has been swimming in several times as many applications as it can accept. They come from parents desperate to give their kids a chance to get the kind of education D.C.'s notorious public schools do not provide. That's the same chance the Obamas have made by opting for private schools and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken by choosing to live in a Virginia suburb with better public schools.

Contrary to the NEA's letter, the D.C. voucher program isn't magically expiring of its own accord. In March, Congress voted to eliminate the vouchers after the 2009-2010 school year unless it is re-approved by the D.C. City Council and . . . Congress. The program, which helps send 1,700 kids to school with $7,500 vouchers, was excised even as the stimulus is throwing billions to the nation's school districts.

The NEA's letter was a pre-emptive strike against the possibility that 750,000 students in military families would benefit from vouchers. That idea was raised in a Senate hearing this month, when military families explained that frequent moves and inconsistent schooling was harmful to their children. "The creation of a school voucher program should be considered," Air Force wife Patricia Davis dared to say.

President Obama pledged to support whatever works in schools, ideology notwithstanding. But neither he nor Mr. Duncan have dared to speak truth to the power of the NEA. Military families can join urban parents on the list of those who matter less to the NEA than does maintaining the failed status quo.

Monday, June 1, 2009

D.C. Should Create Its Own School Voucher Program

D.C. Should Create Its Own School Voucher Program. By Andrew J. Coulson
This article appeared in the DC Examiner on May 29, 2009.

Thousands rallied in DC earlier this month to save a federal program that helps low-income families afford private schooling. On the same day, President Obama signaled that he opposes school vouchers, but will seek funding so that students already attending private schools may continue to do so through the end of high school. When they've graduated, the voucher program would die. That isn't good enough.

The voucher students have little brothers and sisters. They have neighbors and friends. Under the president's proposal, none of those children would ever enjoy the chances that voucher recipients like Mercedes Campbell have had.

In an interview with ReasonTV, Mercedes said the opportunity to attend a private school has transformed her. "It's different, now that I go to Visitation.... It's like a whole new world."
Unless something is done, most poor kids in DC will never glimpse that world, let alone live in it. House Minority Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, has proposed a bill to reauthorize the voucher program, but it faces a stiff headwind as long as Democrats in Congress defer to teacher union opposition.

But there is another option: The District of Columbia can create its own scholarship program.
Can DC afford it? Average tuition at voucher-accepting schools is about $6,600, according to a federal study released last month. By contrast, the city is currently spending about $1.3 billion on k-12 education, for fewer than 49,000 students.

That works out to well over $26,000 per pupil -- comparable to tuition at the prestigious Sidwell Friends school to which the president sends his own daughters, Sasha and Malia. So DC could easily offer a voucher even larger than the one currently provided by the federal government.

Is it politically viable? Perhaps. Though Democrats in Congress are almost universally opposed to school choice programs, the same is not true at the state and local levels. Speakers at the rally to save the voucher program included DC councilman Marion Barry, former mayor Anthony Williams (who was instrumental in creating the federal program), former councilman Kevin Chavous, and civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis.

And just two weeks ago, the Florida legislature passed a bill strengthening that state's private school choice tax credit program, with the support of nearly half the Democratic caucus in the house, and two thirds of African American Democrats. The biggest champions of a similar program in New Jersey are Democratic Mayor Corey Booker, and fellow Democratic state senator Raymond Lesniak.

The political dynamics are different in city halls and statehouses than they are on Capitol Hill. The unions may lobby just as fiercely in every case, but the pushback from constituents is stronger at lower levels of government.

Few seats in the U.S. House or Senate are decided on the basis of education platforms, but education plays a larger role in the election of state and local officials. As parents get angrier and demand educational alternatives for their kids, politicians outside of Congress are more apt to take notice.

What's more, DC already has what amounts to a targeted school voucher program -- and it's larger than the federal voucher program that President Obama wishes to phase out. The District currently sends nearly 2,500 special needs students to private schools because it is not able to serve them itself. The program is uncontroversial.

Why not extend to all families a choice currently enjoyed by so few? The Department of Education's recent study shows that students who have been in the voucher program since it began in 2004 are performing more than two school years ahead of their public school counterparts in reading. There is unconscionable to deny that benefit to other students.

When the "common school" reformers began their campaign for state-run schooling more than 200 years ago, one of their core goals was to ensure that the education of America's poorest citizens did not fall by the wayside.

Despite the best efforts of generation after generation of subsequent reformers, that goal remains unmet for far too many children. We can't wait any longer. DC kids can't wait any longer.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Money and the Schools

Money and the Schools. WSJ Editorial
More isn't better.
WSJ, May 30, 2009

Brace yourself, because there's good news on education -- and in New Jersey of all places. On Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court let stand a 2008 law replacing a judge-made funding formula that had been in place since the 1980s. Under the old formula, created by the 1981 Abbott decision, 31 of the state's poor school districts received the lion's share of state education funding. Funding in these so-called "Abbott districts" has been exceeding $17,000 per student, well above the state average of $13,500.

Test scores have improved among younger students, but University of Arkansas professor Gary Ritter says education reformers had hoped for better results in earlier years of the program given that urban districts like Camden are now spending more than rich suburbs. Derrell Bradford of Excellence in Education for Everyone says scores at the lower grades look better because testing has been dumbed down, and he attributes any improvement to the fact that Abbott students can use vouchers for preschool. By any measurement, Abbott students still lag behind those in districts spending far less per student.

New Jersey taxpayers pay the highest property taxes in the country -- $7,000 on average -- to fund their own schools, and then they pay state income taxes to further fund Abbott districts. Under the new law, state funds will be sent automatically to wherever the needy kids are, even if they attend suburban schools. The real reform would be to let parents decide which schools deserve their kids and allow the funding to follow. But at least we've had one more object lesson that more money doesn't mean better schools.

A New York putsch could one day hurt D.C. schoolchildren

Textbook for Failure. WaPo Editorial
A New York putsch could one day hurt D.C. schoolchildren.
WaPo, Sunday, May 31, 2009

WHETHER NEW York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will retain control of the city's public schools will soon be decided by state lawmakers in Albany. This is an issue about which there should be no debate. By any measure, the city's schools are better off today than under the byzantine system that preceded mayoral control. Too much is at stake -- for New York's 1.1 million students as well as for education reform efforts nationwide -- for the legislature to turn back the clock. If the vested interests of the education establishment succeed in their bid to kill off mayoral control in the nation's largest school system, it will make it harder for other cities to sustain the oversight of schools by mayors. Places such as Washington, D.C., are likely to become the next targets.

The 2002 law that gave Mr. Bloomberg direct authority over the schools, replacing a system of local control overseen by a central Board of Education, expires at the end of June. Lawmakers must decide if mayoral control should be maintained, abolished or modified; the lobbying is ferocious. Critics -- including the United Federation of Teachers -- want to curb the mayor's influence, saying that he and Chancellor Joel Klein have ruled like dictators. Among the suggested changes, presented under the specious guise of "checks and balances," are proposals for reconfiguring the education panel that replaced the old school board so that it would be able to overrule the mayor and giving broad new powers to local community councils. So much for accountability and responsibility; apparently the fact that Mr. Bloomberg was overwhelmingly returned to office in 2005 after staking his political future on running the schools isn't enough.

It's important to recall the grim reality prior to mayoral control: struggling and unsafe schools, failing students, inequities in funding, corrupt politics and patronage. Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein instituted such reforms as ending social promotion and standardizing curriculum. They closed chronically low-performing schools and innovated with new and charter schools. No less an authority than U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed the undisputed progress of these seven years. "I'm looking at the data here in front of me," Mr. Duncan told the New York Post. "Graduation rates are up. Test scores are up. Teacher salaries are up . . . ." Indeed, test scores announced this month showed 68.9 percent of students in fourth grade and 57 percent of students in eighth grade met or exceeded grade-level readings standards, up from 46.5 percent and 29.5 percent, respectively, in 2002.

Why sacrifice progress and momentum when there are so many students yet to be helped? One answer is in the clear dislike by teachers union officials of the hard-charging Mr. Klein, who, much like his D.C. counterpart, Michelle A. Rhee, is absolutely fearless in putting the interests of children ahead of job protection, seniority or being liked by city pols. Unions talk a good game about wanting to be change agents, but here, when real reform is on the table, they opt for sabotage. Easier to criticize a style of governing than the benefits of real leadership. Easier to look out for your own institutional interests than what's good for pupils.

A lot is riding on the outcome in New York; Washington, where the same union leaders have inserted themselves into the fight over education, should pay particular attention.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Putin vs. the Truth

Putin vs. the Truth. By Orlando Figes
The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 7 · April 30, 2009


Review of:
Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia. By Jonathan Brent
Atlas & Co., 335 pp., $26.00

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Members of Congress value school choice -- for themselves

Only for the Privileged Few? WaPo Editorial
Members of Congress value school choice -- for themselves.
Monday, April 20, 2009

A NEW SURVEY shows that 38 percent of members of Congress have sent their children to private school. About 20 percent themselves attended private school, nearly twice the rate of the general public. Nothing wrong with those numbers; no one should be faulted for personal decisions made in the best interests of loved ones. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if Congress extended similar consideration to low-income D.C. parents desperate to keep their sons and daughters in good schools?

The latest Heritage Foundation study of lawmakers' educational choices comes amid escalating efforts to kill the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that helps 1,700 disadvantaged children attend private schools. Congress cut funding beyond the 2009-10 school year unless the program, which provides vouchers of up to $7,500, gets new federal and local approvals. Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited that uncertainty as the reason for his recent decision to rescind scholarship offers to 200 new students. Senate hearings on the program's future are set for this spring, and opponents -- chiefly school union officials -- are pulling out all the stops as they lobby their Democratic allies.

The gap between what Congress practices and what it preaches was best illustrated by the Heritage Foundation's analysis of a recent vote to preserve the program. The measure was defeated by the Senate 58 to 39; it would have passed if senators who exercised school choice for their own children had voted in favor. Alas, the survey doesn't name names, save for singling out Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), architect of the language that threatens the program, for sending his children to private school and attending private school himself.

No doubt there are those who would argue that personal choices should not dictate decisions of policymakers. Fair enough, but where is the objective examination of this program, a rational discussion of the pros and cons? Where is the humanity of not wanting to hurt children who won't be able to continue in their current schools if the scholarship program is eliminated? No one has been able to offer any evidence of the drawbacks of this small, local program, while evidence of its benefits has been mounting. It has been disappointing that many of those one would expect to speak up for the educational rights of poor, minority children -- and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) tops the list -- have been almost mute or, as has been the case with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), downright hostile. Meanwhile, former mayor Anthony A. Williams and former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous continue to champion school choice as the civil rights issue it is.

Mr. Duncan, in a recent interview, spoke eloquently of his family's choice of Arlington as a place to live because of what he called the "determining factor" of schools. He told Science magazine: "My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education." We don't think it's too much to expect our leaders to treat their constituents with the same fairness and regard they demand for their own families.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Libertarian: Federal President's Preschool Emphasis Is Misdirected

President's Preschool Emphasis Is Misdirected. By Andrew J. Coulson
This article appeared on cato.org on April 13, 2009

"When it comes to our children's future," writes president Obama in his first budget, "we cannot waste dollars on methods, programs, and initiatives that are not effective and efficient." He's right, but his budget fails to heed his own dictum.

The president is proposing education policies that are neither the most effective nor the most efficient means of achieving his laudable goals. He plans to expand Head Start and double funding for Early Head Start — federal programs aimed at preschool children. Though the president appears convinced that such programs can save many times what is spent on them, the evidence for that view is weak.

Even economist James Heckman, whose work has influenced President Obama's thinking on the subject, is far more guarded. In 2007, Heckman identified three small preschool programs from the 1960s and 1970s that studies suggest have more than paid for themselves in lower subsequent welfare and criminal justice costs incurred by their participants. But Heckman cautioned that "a much more careful analysis of the effects of scaling up the model programs... has to be undertaken before these estimates can be considered definitive."

His caveat is well justified. The "Perry preschool" study which yielded the highest estimated return enrolled just 123 children. There is good reason to doubt that it can be replicated by the federal government nationwide. A large body of research on other Head Start programs finds that while they sometimes offer short term academic benefits, these generally disappear by the elementary school grades. The largest review of this literature, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, looked at more than 200 studies and concluded that there was no lasting academic advantage to participation in Head Start.

If spending on Head Start and other federal education programs had produced widespread, significant benefits since their inception in the mid 1960s, overall student achievement and graduation rates should have risen over time. The achievement gap between children of high-school dropouts and those of college graduates should have narrowed as well, because most federal education programs are targeted at disadvantaged students. None of these things occurred.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, the best available measure of academic trends, U.S. seventeen-year-olds score no better in math or reading today than they did nearly forty years ago. In science they perform slightly worse. The gap between children of dropouts and children of college graduates is unchanged in reading and science, and has decreased by only one percent in math. According to Heckman himself, the high school graduation rate peaked a few years after Head Start was passed and has declined by four or five points since then.

For these disappointing results, the federal government has spent roughly $1.85 trillion dollars on education programs since 1965. So while some small local preschool programs may have generated lasting, significant effects, the federal government cannot be counted on to reproduce those effects on a national scale.

If the president really wants effective, efficient programs, he should look at Florida's scholarship donation tax credit. Under this program, businesses can contribute to non-profit scholarship organizations that subsidize private k-12 tuition for needy families. For each dollar they donate, the businesses owe one fewer dollar in taxes. Last December, Florida's own government accountability office found that this education tax credit saves $1.49 for every dollar it reduces tax revenue. That is three times the largest return on investment for the preschool programs cited by Heckman —and it comes from a policy that is already serving 23,000 students statewide.

Giving at-risk children access to private schooling has been repeatedly shown to improve their educational attainment. Economist Derek Neal has found that Catholic schools raise the graduation rate of urban African Americans by 26 percentage points, and more than double their chances of graduating from college – even after controlling for differences in student background between the sectors. Half a dozen other scientific studies echo Neal's findings. Researchers from the U.S. and abroad also point to higher test scores for students when they attend private rather than public schools, after controlling for student and family background, as I report in a forthcoming global literature review in the Journal of School Choice.

While it would not be constitutional for the president to pursue a national school choice program, he could greatly accelerate the growth and adoption of such programs around the country by throwing his support behind them. He would not be the first Democrat to do so. Florida's scholarship tax credit was expanded last year with the support of one third of the state's Democratic caucus.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Politics is driving the destruction of the District's school voucher program

Presumed Dead. WaPo Editorial
Politics is driving the destruction of the District's school voucher program.
WaPo, Saturday, April 11, 2009; A12

EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision -- made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall -- comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it's clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

Officials who manage the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program sent letters this week to parents notifying them that the scholarships of up to $7,500, were being rescinded because of the decision by the Education Department. Citing the political uncertainty surrounding vouchers, a spokesperson for Mr. Duncan told us that it is not in the best interest of students and their parents to enroll them in a program that may end a year from now. Congress conditioned funding beyond the 2009-10 school year on reauthorization by Congress and approval by the D.C. Council. By presuming the program dead -- and make no mistake, that's the insidious effect of his bar on new enrollment -- Mr. Duncan makes it even more difficult for the program to get the fair hearing it deserves.

That's not to mention the impact of the last-minute decision on these families. Many of the public charter schools already have cut off enrollments for the upcoming school year; the deadline for out-of-boundary transfers for the public schools has passed. No doubt Mr. Duncan is right about possible disruption for new students if the program were to end. But scholarship officials have been upfront with parents about the risks, and the decision really should be theirs. Let them decide whether they want to chance at least one year in a high-quality private school versus the crapshoot of D.C. public schools.

That, after all, is what this program is about: giving poor families the choice that others, with higher salaries and more resources, take for granted. It's a choice President Obama made when he enrolled his two children in the elite Sidwell Friends School. It's a choice Mr. Duncan had when, after looking at the D.C. schools, he ended up buying a house in Arlington, where good schools are assumed. And it's a choice taken away this week from LaTasha Bennett, a single mother who had planned to start her daughter in the same private school that her son attends and where he is excelling. Her desperation is heartbreaking as she talks about her daughter not getting the same opportunities her son has and of the hardship of having to shuttle between two schools.

It's clear, though, from how the destruction of the program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents' needs, student performance and program effectiveness don't matter next to the political demands of teachers' unions. Congressional Democrats who receive ample campaign contributions from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers laid the trap with budget language that placed the program on the block. And now comes Mr. Duncan with the sword.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves

The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. By James Tooley
Cato, Apr 09, 2009

Everyone from Bono to UNESCO is looking for a silver bullet to bring schooling within reach of the poorest children on Earth. James Tooley may have found one.

While researching private schools in India for the World Bank, and worrying that he was doing little to help the poor, Professor Tooley wandered into the slums of Hyderabad’s Old City. Shocked to find it overflowing with small, parent-funded schools, he set out to discover if they could help achieve universal education. So began the adventure lyrically told in The Beautiful Tree—the story of Tooley’s travels from the largest shanty town in Africa to the mountains of Gansu, China, and of the children, parents, teachers and entrepreneurs who taught him that the poor are not waiting for educational handouts. They are building their own schools and learning to save themselves.

Named after Mahatma Gandhi’s phrase for the schools of pre-colonial India, The Beautiful Tree is not another book lamenting what has gone wrong in the Third World. It is a book about what is going right, and it offers a simple lesson: both the entrepreneurial spirit and the love of parents for their children can be found in every corner of the globe.

India Defies Slump, Powered by Growth in Poor Rural States

India Defies Slump, Powered by Growth in Poor Rural States. By PETER WONACOTT
WSJ, Apr 10. 200

DEV KULI VILLAGE, India -- This country's path out of the global economic turmoil may start here, among a community of outcastes who dine on rats.

In Bihar, India's poorest and least literate major state, the Mushahar are the poorest and least literate. Most are farm laborers. About one in 10 can read. So impoverished is this group that they hunt field rats to supplement a deprived diet. Mushahar is Hindi for "rat eater."

But the outlook for the state's two million Mushahar has brightened in the past year. Thanks to government aid programs, more Mushahar children are attending school. Increased state investment in roads and local factories has put their parents to work. Demand for laborers has pushed up wages for field work.


Bouncing Up From the Bottom Rung

View Slideshow
The one-room primary school for Mushahar children at Bihar's Dev Kuli village, where several hundred of the low-caste Mushahar families live.

In a sign of the times, a government proposal to promote rat farming was ridiculed by the Mushahar, the very group of untouchables, or Dalits, it was supposed to benefit. They worried it would pull their children out of school and extend a social stigma to the next generation. Some protested on the streets of Bihar's capital, Patna, shouting: "We want to learn to use a computer mouse, not catch mice."

The Mushahar in Bihar are part of a political and economic shift that is building across the Indian countryside. The transformation, largely driven by development spending by national and state policy makers, will be put to a test starting next week. The world's largest democracy kicks off a month of polling April 16 in which many of the leaders behind these experiments are seeking re-election.

Growth has slowed in the new India of technology outsourcing, property development and securities trade. But old India -- the rural sector that is home to 700 million of the country's billion-plus people -- shows signs it can pick up the slack. The rural awakening helps explain why India continues to grow even as the U.S. recession drags on the world economy.

The change is largely political. In years past, many state leaders rode to power with vows to give voice to lower-caste voters. But after failing for the most part to lift living standards, these officials have been replaced in many cases by leaders who have. In poor and largely rural states from Orissa in the east to Rajasthan in the west, many new leaders have invested in health, education and infrastructure. That has set the stage for the creation of industry and consumer markets and enabled upward mobility.

It's unclear whether development spending in rural India will spark longer-term expansion. "Up till now, a lot of our growth has been bubble growth," says Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd., a software and outsourcing company. "That makes the internal reforms even more important now, so we create momentum for future growth."

Video: Teaching India's Untouchables 3:18
India's lowest castes, the Dalits, are known for their illiteracy and deep poverty. But in rural India, something remarkable is happening: Dalit children are attending elementary school.

The rural economic rise is recent, with few figures yet available for 2008. In the five-year period ending in 2007, rural Indians' consumer spending grew faster than that of city dwellers, according to Indian brokerage IIFL. Rural India has surpassed urban centers in the number of households earning $2,000 a year, above which families begin to have disposable income.

Companies from Coca-Cola Co. to telecom provider Reliance Communications India Ltd. say rising sales in once-spurned rural areas are driving their India growth. The Indian unit of LG Electronics, which sells low-voltage appliances for power-deprived areas, expects rural areas to account for 45% of its Indian sales this year, up from 35% last year. Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., a car and tractor maker, says it couldn't keep up with orders for its new Xylo, a cross between a minivan and SUV, in part because of surprising rural demand.

"If any one part of the economy is decoupled from the global crisis, it is India's rural sector," says Anand Mahindra, vice chairman of auto maker's parent company, Mahindra Group.


Tariff Barriers

The countryside's strength comes in part from a trade policy that free-market economists say may hurt India in the long run. Tariffs on agricultural imports are among the world's highest and may have deterred investment in rural India. But these tariffs have also sheltered swaths of the country. An estimated 88% of India's rural incomes are tied to activities inside those markets, according to IIFL.

Even slight improvements here are significant, economists say, because they build on a base of practically zero. "For so long, these states were a drag on our economy," says Surjit Bhalla, head of Oxus Research & Investments, an advisory firm in New Delhi. "Now larger rural populations can become a fillip to growth."

India's economy has held up better than most, in spite of slowing tech sales and falling real-estate and stock markets. The International Monetary Fund projects India will grow 5.1% in 2009, faster than Brazil (1.8%) and Russia (-0.7%). India is also closing the gap on China, whose 6.7% projected growth for 2009 marks a sharp decline from recent double-digit gains.

Bihar, which borders Nepal, was once a breadbasket of eastern India. But it largely missed out on the economic miracle of the last decade. In the 1990s, as India's economy expanded about 5% a year, Bihar barely grew.

Infrastructure was poor. Farm goods often rotted before reaching the market. Amid corruption and rampant crime, the state was branded India's "kidnap capital." The young left to seek education and jobs.

More than half Bihar's 83 million residents live below the international poverty line of about $1 dollar a day. Fewer than half are literate. The state attracted $167 million in foreign direct investment between 1994 and 2004, a period when India as a whole attracted $29 billion.


Government Open House

In recent years, political candidates won elections with promises to empower to lower-caste voters. But education, health and infrastructure projects were often neglected, presenting opportunity for opponents. In late 2005, a former railways minister from a low-caste background, Nitish Kumar, became chief minister, the leader of Bihar state.

Breaking from the torpid bureaucracy of his predecessors, the 58-year-old Mr. Kumar has tried to prod the government machinery into action. He hosts Monday open houses at his residence, where ministers and department secretaries are required to field public complaints. Bureaucrats must also accompany him to town-hall meetings in far corners of the state, where they pitch tents in fields. His critics say the exercises simply aim to drum up votes; Mr. Kumar says an open government serves the people and the economy.

"My message is that democracy should provide solutions to the problems," he said in an interview at his residence, where he wore traditional white linen trousers and shirt.
With an alliance led by his ruling Janata Dal (United) party, Mr. Kumar has built thousands of miles of roads. He has hired 200,000 schoolteachers and is recruiting 100,000 more. He has lured private-clinic doctors back to public hospitals.

Development projects and strong harvests have helped Bihar's economy close the gap with the national average. The state is growing at an annual rate of about 5.5%, and that is expected to accelerate, according to the Asian Development Research Institute. The number of people migrating out dropped 27% in the 2006-08 period compared with 2001-03, according to the Bihar Institute of Economic Studies, a local think tank.


Homes in a Gully

One of Mr. Kumar's toughest challenges is improving the lot of the Mushahar in places like Dev Kuli village.

Home to about 10,000 people, Dev Kuli is surrounded by farming hamlets and abuts a two-lane highway where long-haul trucks blast their air horns as they rumble toward New Delhi. The lives of all residents, from low caste to high, have long revolved around the rice and wheat harvests.

Several hundred village families are outcaste Mushahar, who live among goats, pigs and swarms of flies in a dried-out gully. The government began to build brick houses but left them without windows or doors.

As a caste the government has identified as "extremely backward," the Mushahar will be eligible for a $57 million government program that will provide families with a water supply, toilets, radios and educational support, according to Vijoy Prakash, the principal secretary for two government departments dedicated to low-caste assistance.

On Mr. Prakash's desk sits a stuffed rat, a reminder of who such programs aim to help. Yet he says past efforts have failed in part because only 9% of the Mushahar can read. "This is the group that has remained excluded from India's growth," he says.

As the sun came up on a recent day, a group of Mushahar gathered round a water pump to wash clothes. Later in the morning a long line of Mushahar children made their way up a mud embankment and, in a profound departure from community tradition, headed to primary school.

Parents complain that their children face discrimination even at Dev Kuli's one-room school for Mushahar children, the name of which translates as "Slum People's Primary School." Children from other castes attend a school nearby.

The government has repaired the school's roof in recent months, hired a new teacher and added an extra bathroom to provide privacy for girls. Even so, the school doesn't have chairs or desks, so students sit on empty grain bags and write on a cement floor covered with dirt.

Each day, a group of government-hired Mushahar, known as "motivators," roust children from their homes and escort them to class. Motivator Phulwanti Devi, a recent and rare Mushahar college graduate, says she battles parents almost every morning to release their children from farm work.

"We tell them, 'It will improve their future,'" says Ms. Devi, 25 years old.

"They reply, 'We don't see that you have such a good job.' I tell them: 'I have a diploma, and so I can get a better job. What about you?'"

Still, Ms. Devi and other motivators say attendance at the school has grown. Teachers say about 150 children are enrolled. On a recent day, the motivators rounded up about half that many.

There are other challenges. Some motivators say they haven't been paid their salaries of 2,000 rupees a month, about $40. Local officials occasionally tell teachers to skip class to conduct government work, such as counting votes at election time.

Mr. Prakash, the secretary for lower castes, says the motivators will soon be paid from funds his department has set aside. Bihar's education secretary, Anjani Kumar Singh, says a Bihar court has ruled that teachers can't skip class for government work, but admitted the order could be hard to enforce at election time.


Spicy Masala

Generating genuine business activity among a largely illiterate community hasn't been easy, either, judging by Mr. Prakash's rat-farming initiative. He estimated that three million people in the state would welcome a stable supply of the protein-rich meat.

Many Mushahar say they enjoy the meat, typically barbecued or cooked with a spicy masala, and believe it keeps their hair dark. But many resented being pushed into farming them. "If we get involved in rat farming, our children will also get involved," says Ms. Devi.

After some Mushahar protested in Patna late last summer, Mr. Kumar, the chief minister, shelved the proposal.

Yet Dev Kuli's economy has improved. The infrastructure push has created jobs building and repairing roads. That has helped bring factories to the area, say locals, including a steel mill and a cola-bottling plant. Those jobs have boosted farm wages to the point where the Mushahar won't work in the fields for less than about $2 a day, says Raj Ballabh Raji, a local farmer from a different caste.

Mr. Raji, who now works his six acres with a new tractor, notes one more sign of prosperity. "You can now find a petrol pump within a mile of here," he says in a tone of pleasant surprise. "The economy is changing."

—Manoj Chaurasia in Patna and Vibhuti Agarwal in New Delhi contributed to this article.