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Separating Fact from Fiction at the Education Summit: What Research Confirms (and Disproves) About the Rhetoric

By Matt Barnum | August 24, 2015

The Fact-Check is The Seventy Four’s ongoing series that examines the ways in which journalists, politicians and leaders misuse or misinterpret education data and research. See our complete Fact-Check archive, and be sure to check out all our coverage of the 2015 New Hampshire Education Summit.
Several themes emerged last week, as six Republicass convened to talk K-12 education at the 2015 New Hampshire Education Summit. (Watch all the highlights.) Three themes of note were shared by several candidates, including opposition to teachers unions, spending more money on classrooms, and federal involvement in education. But what does the research say? Let’s dive in:
1. Claim: The federal government stifles innovation.
Republicans were generally consistent in saying that when it comes to education, the federal government should get out of the way and empower states, districts, and schools. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said, “The federal government is the last place in the world I want holding state and local school districts accountable.” Carly Fiorina claimed, “What doesn’t work are big bureaucratic programs from Washington, D.C. What doesn’t work are people spending money on mandated programs, either at the state or federal level.”

These comments are driven in part by philosophical views about the role of government, but from an empirical perspective, there is little to no evidence that federal involvement has harmed student achievement. To the contrary, research strongly suggests that federal intervention through No Child Left Behind increased student learning in math (though did lead to some unintended consequences). And even the frequently derided federal school turnaround program had some positive effects.

Several candidates also complained about the federal government’s role in pushing the Common Core. While it’s true that the feds incentivized the adoption of the standards, it is flat-out wrong to say that they are “federally mandated” — after all, several states have not adopted the Common Core. Fiorina also raised concerns about the federal government’s role in driving the over testing that some parents and teachers have complained about. She’s on firmer ground here, as it is clear that the Department of Education has contributed to a large increase in standardized tests in many states.
2. Claim: Teachers unions are holding back public education.
Almost all the Republican candidates shared a dislike for teachers unions. Chris Christie, for example, suggested that part of the solution to improving schools is “the guts to challenge [the] unions.”

Does the empirical evidence support this? The short answer is not really, but the research is mixed. Though one can make the case that unions have modest negative effects on student outcomes, the large-scale harm that many of the candidates suggested are unlikely.

Determining unions’ causal impact on students is extremely difficult for a variety of methodological reasons, but some have tried. An oft-cited study from Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found negative effects of teachers unions on student outcomes, but there have been significant questions raised about it. A recent working paper found that strong collective bargaining for teachers had harmful long-term effects on students.
However, a review of research by Robert Carini suggested modest positive effects of unionization, whereas a more recent analysis found the research “mixed, but suggestive of insignificant or modestly negative union effects” on student outcomes.
In sum, the research is ongoing, but at this point there is certainly no clear evidence that unions have had large negative (or positive) effects on schools.
3. Claim: Throwing more money at public education is not the answer.
Many of the candidates suggested that there is little relationship between spending more money and getting better results. Carly Fiorina claimed, “We know that how much money you spend doesn’t always have much to do with the outcome… California spends more per pupil, K–12, than 49 out of 50 states, and the results are 49 out of 50.” Jeb Bush said, “It’s not about money. We spend more per student than any other country in the world other than Belgium, Luxembourg, and one other rounding error.”

It is true that the United States spends more money on K–12 education than most other industrialized countries, but U.S. spending as a fraction of gross domestic product is relatively average. (Contrary to Fiorina’s claim, most estimates suggest that California is in the bottom of the pack nationally in spending per pupil.)

Moreover, the evidence that money has no relationship to results is weak. The basis for this conclusion is likely research from Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, who has long argued that money doesn’t matter. Yet his results have faced significant questions, and more recent evidence strongly suggests that additional resources do in fact improve student outcomes.
More food for thought: Even reforms favored by many of the candidates — such as New Orleans’ virtually all-charter school district — necessitated a substantial infusion of resources.
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