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Out of Control Policy Blog Archives: 10.7.12–10.13.12

Data on Teacher Class Size Not Settled yet

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, George W. Bush Institute fellow Jay Greene argues that expanding the number of teachers in the U.S. education system is an ineffective and expensive waste of precious school funds. Unfortunately, his weak analysis makes this article an unreliable resource for anyone interested in changing how schools use their own resources.

Greene states:

"For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.... [Despite employing more teachers,] math and reading scores for 17-year-olds have remained virtually unchanged since 1970."

Part of that is right. An examination of the U.S. Department of Education's most recent study of long-term trends in U.S. education (released in 2008) reveals that 17-year-olds' scores remain largely unchanged from 1971 to 2008. However, the same data shows notable academic gains have been made among 9- and 13-year-olds. In fact, during the same 1971 to 2008 time period the average reading score for 9-year-olds rose 12 points (from 208 to 220). For 13-year-olds over the same period, the score rose 5 points (from 255 to 260).

In math, the 9-year-old's average score rose 24 points from 1973 to 2008 (from 219 to 243). The 13-year-old's average score rose 15 points over the same period (from 266 to 281), but the 17-year-old's average score only rose 2 points (from 304 to 306).

Using 17-year-olds' test scores as evidence of national academic stagnation ignores the gains made in younger age groups, undercutting Greene's argument-which might be why he ignored them.

Where the Greene piece really loses strength is assuming the low changes in 17-year-olds show the failure of small class size. At most his argument shows correlation, and it is far from proving causation. For instance, it is quite plausible that the discrepancy in test scores is related to efforts to reduce class sizes in earlier grades. According to the Center for Public Education, most programs to reduce class size take place in earlier grades "because earlier research... suggested that these are the optimal years for such programs." This may be evidence favoring the hiring of more teachers to reduce class sizes. Unfortunately, Mr. Greene's article lacks the necessary depth to even acknowledge this intriguing possibility, preferring the glib use of statistics to support a superficial analysis.

If it turns out that more teachers really are the best approach to changing education, this does not mean the federal government should fund them. In a best-case scenario, the expansion of private schools would provide that influx of new teachers.

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Understanding Correctional Privatization in Florida

In a recent piece Andrew Marra of The Palm Beach Post ominously warns:

The specter of privatizing more (Florida) state prisons makes many uncomfortable. For-profit companies would want more inmates in prison, despite bipartisan calls for sentencing reform. Then there are questions about security and accountability.

However, Marra's piece misses the mark in several important ways. I submitted a letter to the editor that was not published in print, but is available online here. In short, my piece explains that correctional outcomes in Florida are improving, in part because of privatization.

First, these improvements can be measured in cost savings:

The Florida Department of Management Services recently reported that privately operated facilities cost taxpayers 10-27 percent less to operate than comparable state prisons.

Second, they can be measured in improved quality:

A Florida Chamber of Commerce evaluation of private and public facilities in south Florida finds private partners have four times as many inmates participating in educational, vocational and life skills programming (79.3 percent versus 21.3 percent). 

My piece concludes:

(Privatization) is an effective policy tool that has been thoughtfully integrated into the system over decades; making all Floridians—not only taxpayers and inmates—better off.

For related work, see Reason Foundation's Prisons and Corrections Research Archive.

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Airport Screening Did Not Enable the 9/11 Attacks



Last month federal judge Alvin Hellerstein rejected a motion by American Airlines and United Continental to dismiss a lawsuit that blames the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 on flawed airport screening. The suit, brought by WTC tenants seeking compensation, will presumably proceed to trial.

The connection to these two airlines stems from the way airport screening was carried out in those days, prior to creation of the TSA. The FAA was responsible for aviation security regulation, and it imposed an unfunded mandate on airlines to provide checkpoint screening. It’s never been clear to me why the mandate was imposed on airlines rather than airports, but apparently since the original purpose of checkpoint screening was to prevent weapons from being brought on board airliners, and since in many cases specific airlines more or less ran concourses of gates devoted mostly or entirely to their flights, there was a certain rough logic to this policy.

But that’s where the logic of this case stops. Since the unfunded mandate was imposed by the FAA on airlines, they understandably sought to comply with the mandate at the lowest possible cost—just as they do with all other operating costs. And since there were essentially no standards for FAA-mandated screening, this led to a low-cost system using security contract firms selected by low-bid. GAO and FAA’s own “red teams” documented the poor performance of this screening as far back as 1978. GAO in 1987 recommended that performance standards be established, but the FAA failed to act. Congress eventually ordered (in the 1996 FAA reauthorization act) the agency to develop certification requirements for airport screening companies, as well as the implementation of uniform performance standards. It took the FAA more than three years to come up with a proposed “Certification of Screening Companies” rule in January 2000. When that rule had still not been finalized by November 2000, Congress ordered FAA to issue the final rule by May 31, 2001. After FAA failed to meet that deadline, Congress required the agency to report twice a year on the status of each missed statutory deadline. The attack on 9/11 occurred without the new rule and standards in place.

So point 1 is that airlines, as of 9/11, were complying with the regulations in place as of that date, no matter how pathetic those regulations were.

Point 2 is that, as most people know, the apparent weapon used by the 9/11 terrorists—box cutters—were not prohibited items at that point in time. So no matter how low the quality of airport screening may have been at that point, it was not the failure of either the screening companies or the airlines that employed them that led to the successful take-overs of the cockpits of those planes.

Point 3 is an intelligence failure, in which the various agencies charged with protecting this country from terrorism failed to connect the dots that would have identified the terrorists and either prevented them from flying or at the least subjected them to heightened inspection at the checkpoint. This could have been done, in part, by an information system called CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System) that had been in operation since 1998, had that system been allowed to be used to identify higher-risk passengers. But a 1999 FAA regulation limited CAPPS to determining which passengers’ checked bags should be screened for explosives. For fear of being accused of allowing “discrimination,” FAA barred airlines from using CAPPS to identify passengers who should be searched and questioned. Nine of the 9/11 hijackers had been flagged by CAPPS, but none were searched at the checkpoints.

Thus, if any party should be sued for damages over the destruction of the World Trade Center, it should be the FAA. That agency failed to provide standards for passenger screening companies, like those that were in place at the time at numerous European airports that use certified security firms for screening. And it prevented airlines from using a tool that could have stopped at least nine of the hijackers from boarding the flights in question.

The WTC tenants’ suit against the airlines is completely wrong-headed and should have been dismissed. And if there is any justice in the world, the court will find that there is no cause to hold the airlines responsible for the 9/11 tragedy.



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