Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A massive "I told you so"

Megan McArdle has made the claim that the Obama administration had fewer scandals related to corruption and affairs because they were more focused on "clean" evidence-based decision-making, a position which I dispute in a queued post, Affairs and graft are the predicates of progress.

While there was talk about evidence-based decision-making, when it came down to the actual decision, too often the evidence was thrown out the door and replaced by ideological nostrums and assumptions.

The Washington Post had a massive example last week in Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work by Emma Brown.
One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

“We’re talking about millions of kids who are assigned to these failing schools, and we just spent several billion dollars promising them things were going to get better,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has long been skeptical that the Obama administration’s strategy would work. “Think of what all that money could have been spent on instead.”

The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.
The expert quoted, Andy Smarick, has his own column on the same subject: The $7 billion school improvement grant program: Greatest failure in the history of the US Department of Education? Smarick is much more pointed.
The final IES report on the School Improvement Grant program is devastating to Arne Duncan’s and the Obama administration’s education legacy. A major evaluation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by two highly respected research institutions delivered a crushing verdict: The program failed and failed badly. (The Washington Post’s article by Emma Brown does an exceptional job recounting the administration’s $7 billion folly.)

Despite its gargantuan price tag, SIG generated no academic gains for the students it was meant to help. Failing schools that received multi-year grants from the program to “turn around” ended up with results no better than similar schools that received zero dollars from the program. To be clear: Billions spent had no effect.

When Washington spends billions of dollars on something, it’s reasonable to assume it will do some good, especially when the Secretary of Education promises “transformation not tinkering.” But not with SIG.

No matter how the researchers crunched the numbers, the abysmal results were the same. SIG didn’t improve math scores. Or reading scores. Or high school graduation rates. Or college enrollment. SIG didn’t improve elementary or secondary schools. It didn’t help schools in Race-to-the-Top states or non-Race-to-the-Top states.

The results are almost too much to believe. How in the world do you spend billions and billions of dollars and get no results—especially after Secretary Duncan promised it would turn around 5,000 failing schools and hailed it as the biggest bet of his tenure?
OK, another failed government program. It is important to report it, but that isn't particularly astonishing.

Smarick gets at the core issue.
Probably the only thing more remarkable than the scope of this program’s failure is that this outcome was absolutely, positively, unavoidably predictable. Starting seven years ago, I warned that this dreadful day was coming.
He then goes on to document a series of posts in which he highlighted what was going to happen and why it was going to happen, culminating in his article, The Turnaround Fallacy in which he musters the evidence against the operating assumptions of SIG. All before the SIG program was launched. He later expanded that column into a book, The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering.

In other words, Smarick did what is so rarely done in policy making. He provided evidence, reasoning, causation and specific forecasts based on that evidence, reasoning and causation. And it turned out that his evidence, reasoning and causal understanding was in fact markedly superior to the hope-based program of the Administration.

Smarick is issuing a massive "I told you so." All the evidence was there, all of it was public, all of it was available beforehand during policy formulation and yet the administration proceeded to pursue a policy that was predicted, based on evidence, to fail. He is correct, SIG was a case, not of evidence-based decision-making, but of ideology-based decision-making.

It is rare, and therefore worth noting, that you have such a clean example of hypothesis, evidence, explicit forecast, and the realization of the forecast.

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