Category Archives: education policy

the shrinking field of vocational education

Before you look at the graph …

What subjects do you think have become more or less prevalent in US high schools since the late 1980s?

If we measure the percentage of all high school teachers who are assigned to each major subject, this is the pattern:

Almost all the subjects were similar in 1988 and 2012, except that vocational education dropped a lot and health/physical education shrank by a bit. The other subjects all gained about the same amounts at the expense of those two.

It isn’t worth showing the trends for most of those subjects by year, because the lines would be pretty flat. But here is the proportion of vo-tech teachers for all the years in the survey.

Posted without a comment, except to say that this may surprise people who think that some of the arts and sciences have expanded at the expense of others.

My analysis of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), “Public School Teacher Data File,” 1987-88 through 2011-12; “Private School Teacher Data File,” 1987-88 through 2011-12; and “Charter School Teacher Data File,” 1999-2000.

Educational Equity During a Pandemic

In lieu of a post here today, I have an article up on the American Federation of Teachers’ Shanker Institute blog, entitled “Educational Equity During A Pandemic.” It begins:

My wife and I have each spent many hours teaching by video this spring. While sitting in the same house, I meet online with college students who attend a selective private university; she meets with 5-to-9-year olds in an urban public school system, helping them learn to read. 

Both of us think and worry about equity: how to treat all students fairly within our respective institutions and across the whole country (even the world). And both of us discuss these issues with our respective colleagues. I suspect that many other educators are similarly wrestling with the challenges of teaching equitably while schools are closed. 


I hope it may have some value for people currently teaching remotely (at any level) or for parents and other adults concerned about education while schools are shut.

discussing school choice

In my public policy course, we are discussing school choice as an opportunity for exploring theoretical issues (What is a market versus a state? What is a public good versus a private good?); empirical questions (What happens when you implement various systems of choice? How should we measure the outcomes?), and normative principles (What counts as an acceptable outcome, or an ideal outcome?) Most policy questions involve a combination of mandates and choice, or choices structured and constrained by laws. School choice is therefore exemplary of broader issues.

Some quick notes from the readings so far:

1. Chubb, John E., and Terry M. Moe. America’s public schools: Choice is a panacea. The Brookings Review 8.3 (1990): 4-12.

This is a classic (1990) manifesto for the modern school choice movement. It presents a radical proposal, and is therefore not based on data or experience from the past. The main argument is theoretical, applying a certain strand of public choice theory. The authors argue that if you favor any particular approach to education, there is little point in advocating it to government-run schools, which work in the interests of government officials. The only reform that can succeed is to make schools accountable to parents, who will then demand the education they want–squeezing out bad practices and supporting a diverse array of schools that meet their diverse preferences. Note, however, that in their proposal, the government remains the funder of education, which is therefore as much a public good as Medicare is, or schooling in a country like the Netherlands that uses vouchers. Bernie Sanders’ college proposal is like theirs for k-12 schooling.

2. Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek, Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About

Johanek contributes a chapter on the history of how American kids have chosen, or been placed in, particular schools since colonial days. Ben-Porath presents and analyzes the main conflicting principles of justice that arise when we consider who should attend which schools, and who should decide. It’s a complex and wide-ranging book, but if I had to derive one summary statement, this would be it: We do not face a decision about whether or not to implement “school choice.” Which school you attend is inevitably a function of choice under constraints. The appropriate question is: Who should choose among which options for whom, and how?

3. Robert Pondiscio, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice (2019)

Pondiscio embeds himself in a school within the controversial charter network called Success Academy. He has written a nuanced and beautifully reported account that eludes easy categorization. But again, if I had to summarize it, I’d say something like this: Success Academy actually works extraordinarily well for the goals that its parents and teachers sincerely value–best defined not as high test scores but as winning a competition that they consider worthy. The school works because the parents and teachers share these goals, and both sacrifice to make it succeed. Although the parents are diverse individuals, a common profile is a culturally conservative working-class family of color that values discipline and is especially concerned about the variety of racism that manifests as low expectations. These families often thrive at Success Academy and have a right to the choice that it offers. But the model wouldn’t scale very far, because it depends on the specific value commitments and capacities of its parents and teachers.

4. Abdulkadiroglu, A., Angrist, J., Dynarski, S., Kane, T., & Pathak, P. (2011). Accountability and flexibility in public schools: Evidence from Boston’s charters and pilots. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 126(2), 699-748. 

This is a quantitative study that claims to measure causation, whereas Pondicio’s book is a qualitative study that offers a perspective on what it’s like to be inside one school. (We need both methods.) According to this paper, being randomly selected to attend and then actually attending a Boston charter school is associated with higher test scores regardless of other factors. However, random admission to a Boston “pilot” school is not associated with higher scores. Both charters and pilots are choice schools that use lotteries to admit students. The main difference is that the pilot schools come under the standard union contract, while the charters do not. The charter schools have smaller classes and longer hours, probably because they pay their non-unionized teachers less/hour. A reader could conclude that unions are the problem–or that spending more money on unionized teachers would allow regular schools to equal charters. It is also worth considering whether the measured outcomes (test scores) are what we should value.

5. Meira Levinson, “Is Pandering Ethical? Power, Privilege, and School Assignment”

Levinson describes the relatively new Boston Public School (BPS) assignment plan. Every child is assigned a basket of schools that includes all the local ones plus an equal mix of good, medium, and bad schools (as measured by scores) from across the city. Parents rank their preferences, and competing choices are randomly settled by an algorithm.

Putting distant schools in every student’s basket improves equity, because poor neighborhoods have worse-scoring schools. If every child had an equal chance of attending any BPS school across town, that would maximize equity, but it would sacrifice convenience and neighborhood schools. It would also alienate a set of middle class parents who believe in equity and diversity, do not argue that they deserve better schools, but would leave BPS if their kids were assigned to “bad” schools. If they stay in BPS, they improve it.

What to do about these families? Levinson says it’s not a matter of compromising, because they don’t claim a right that needs to be balanced against other parents’ claims. It’s not a question of coercing them, because they can leave. She thinks “pandering” is the best description, and it may be ethically obligatory to pander given unjust social contexts.

School and Society in the Age of Trump

John Rogers and the research team of Michael Ishimoto, Alexander Kwako, Anthony Berryman, and Claudia Diera have produced a landmark study entitled “School and Society in the Age of Trump,” based on their survey of 505 high school principals and follow-up interviews of 40 principals.

The principals offered evidence about five challenges that confront schools at this moment: 1. “Political division and hostility,” 2. “Disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources,” 3. “The crises posed by opioid addiction,” 4. “Vulnerabilities associated with threats of immigration enforcement” and 5. “The perils and frequency of gun violence.”

The report explores the frequency of these issues in various types of school: those with predominantly students of color, racially-mixed schools, and schools with mostly white students; schools in Trump, anti-Trump, and politically mixed communities; and schools in different regions of the country. Principals were also also asked how their schools respond. For instance, do they communicate the importance of respecting new immigrants? Do they discipline students for uncivil or demeaning behavior?

All the results make sense, but they are not always immediately intuitive. For instance, derogatory remarks about other racial/ethnic groups are more common than derogatory remarks about immigrants, and both are most common in predominantly white schools, but far from absent in the other schools. (See below.)

Principals are also most likely to report disciplining students for insensitive remarks in mostly-white schools, but they are much less likely to talk with their students about the importance of respecting immigrants in the mostly-white schools.

Many principals report proactive responses, such as meeting with student groups to ask for their help in promoting civility and respect or meeting with parents for similar purposes. But those responses vary greatly. Sixty-two percent of principals serving mostly youth of color met with parents for this reason, versus 37% of principals in mostly white schools.

It’s common today for parents to challenge the information or news sources that teachers assign or for students to reject assigned sources. The frequency of those events doesn’t differ dramatically depending on the schools’ demographics (although I imagine that the sources that are distrusted differ).

According to the report, “A little more than a quarter of principals report they have restricted topics or information sources in order to diminish the flow of unreliable or contentious information.”

A different kind of stress comes from the opioid crisis. It is worst in predominantly white schools but definitely present in racially-mixed schools and those that serve mostly youth of color.

Rogers and colleague write that “Sixty-eight percent of the principals we surveyed report that federal immigration enforcement policies and the political rhetoric around the issue have harmed student well-being and learning, and undermined the work of their schools in general.”

Students across the board are fearful of gun violence, but more so to the degree that their students are people of color.

These challenges vary by demographics and region, but I’ll show a final graph about politics. The opioid crisis is most widely reported in Trump country. Political division is also more often reported there than elsewhere, but by small margins. In Trump country, far fewer principals report immigration enforcement as a challenge for their students. (That is either because of where most immigrants live or because of problems of under-reporting in Trump districts, as Rogers notes.) Untrustworthy information is seen as a challenge everywhere, to about the same degree, but I am sure that what counts as untrustworthy varies.

These are just some snapshots from a rich and compelling report.

the first “civic ed” bill: 1642

The Massachusetts legislature is considering S. 2306, a bill to enhance civic education. I’m for this legislation. Questions about whether the Commonwealth should require civics–or, indeed, any subject–led me to wonder when civics was first mandated in Massachusetts. I think the answer is 1642:

Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and whereas many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kind. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of every town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin.

There was a high-stakes test. All “children or apprentices” had to learn “some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kind.”

And there were accountability mechanisms. In addition to the “twentie shilling” fine for local leaders who failed to ensure successful educational outcomes for all their communities’ youth, there was also a plan to be followed when “children and servants bec[a]me rude, stubborn & unruly.” First, the responsible selectmen would be admonished. Next, “the said Select men with the help of two Magistrates, or the next County court for that Shire, shall take such children or apprentices from them & place them with some masters for years (boyes till they come to twenty one, and girls eighteen years of age compleat) which will more strictly look unto, and force them to submit unto government according to the rules of this order, if by fair means and former instructions they will not be drawn into it.”

The 1642 act required religious as well as civil instruction, which we wouldn’t endorse under the US Constitution. It included a large dose of what we might call character education, career preparation, and/or social-emotional development, under the heading of preparation for “some honest lawful calling, labour or employment, either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves.”

I’m not saying that the Massachusetts School Law of 1642 is what we need today. It’s wise to innovate. But there is certainly precedent for requiring civics: 375 years of precedent, in fact.