Nat Malkus

This is the second in our three part interview series with American Enterprise Institute education scholars. This week, we focus on K-12 education.

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in K–12 education. Specifically, he applies quantitative data to education policy. His work focuses on school finance, charter schools, school choice, and the future of standardized testing. Before joining AEI, Malkus was a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, where he led research teams analyzing national education data on topics ranging from how many college students take remedial courses, to the comparisons between charter and traditional public schools, to tracking student achievement and graduation rates in schools undergoing turnaround reforms. Previously, Malkus worked on a four-year experimental study to evaluate whether math coaches could help math teachers improve student performance. He has also taught advanced graduate statistics courses and quantitative policy analysis to graduate students. Earlier, Malkus spent four years as a middle-school teacher in Maryland. Malkus has a Ph.D. in education policy and leadership from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a B.A. in historical studies from Covenant College.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics. 

Morgan Lewis: I’m Morgan Lewis, and I’m here with Nat Malkus: scholar and deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Nat’s research focuses on our country’s K-12 education system. Nat, thanks so much for talking with me today.

Nat Malkus: Yeah. I’m happy to be here.

ML: To start off, let’s discuss a topic you’ve covered extensively: this summer’s Supreme Court decision in the Janus case. In this case, the court ruled that teachers’ unions may not compel nonunion members to pay agency fees. What are agency fees and why should the average American care about this decision?

NM: Agency fees are sort of like partial dues. So, of course, not all employees in a public-sector union category have to be a member of a union. But, in some states, they are compelled to pay for the representation that a union does when they negotiate a contract for all the employees. They call those agency fees. In about twenty-two states, workers were forced to pay those fees to the union whether they wanted to be a member or not. Why should everyone care about this? Well, it’s pretty important to the size of public-sector unions because the agency fees change the cost of membership.

If I’m a teacher and I want to decide whether I should go into the union or not, I look at the costs. If there’s an agency fee, I have to pay the agency fee, which may be $650. Or, I could be a full member for $1000. So, the cost is $350, and most people will become a member. Without the agency fee, the cost jumps to $1000. So, loss of agency fees could drastically reduce union membership.

ML: So, what are people predicting for the future of teachers’ unions?

NM: Well, the states that had agency fees had much higher rates of unionism. Again, this is because agency fees changed the culture and cost of being a union member. I, as well as the unions themselves, expect some pretty serious declines in union membership. When you lose members, you lose political power, partially from the revenue that they represent but partially also just from “boots on the ground” and the size that you can get in political and negotiating gambits. So, teachers’ unions are going to look at challenges in the coming years. I’m predicting that they could lose north of 35% of their members over the next five years.

ML: Now, moving on from teachers’ unions, let’s talk a bit about the performance of America’s K-12 schools. You reported on The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released this past April, saying that the scores on the nation’s report card were not looking great.

NM: NAEP is often called the “gold standard.” This is because it is a sampled survey; not everyone has to take it. It’s a test that is comparable over time across all fifty states and it’s also kind of low stakes. So, the kids that are taking it are not really preparing for it. It just measures them. We use it to determine how well the country overall is doing. We test kids in 4th grade, 8th grade, and sometimes in 12th grade. In 2017, the results were basically flat. They pretty much didn’t go up or down. That’s important because the 2015 results fell for the first time ever. When you have the first time NAEP scores fell and then, the year after that, they’re flat, you’re thinking, “Wow, we really do have a change in trajectory.” That wasn’t just a fluke. We’ve topped out on our progress on reading and math. And, of course, that should concern anyone who cares about K-12 education.

ML: Were there any categories that were particularly worrisome or were the scores pretty standard across the board?

NM: That’s the thing. You see some variability. Year-to-year, we’ll see some variability: variability across states. But, when it comes to student groups and so forth, it was pretty blanket. Across the board, achievement gains are no longer increasing.

ML: If the tests themselves can’t tell us why performance has stagnated, where can we look for answers to these results?

NM: That’s the $64,000 question. I don’t know the answer to it. We have been making progress on NAEP slowly and steadily. How to continue to do that largely takes educators being freed to do their jobs well. We need to give them the resources and also have high expectations. How you actually turn that into practice, what the actual individual variables and programmatic elements that can make that happen and lead to increasing returns on our educational investments. Man, if I only knew! Believe me, I’d be telling everyone.

ML: Although the NAEP results haven’t been great, graduation rates have soared in school districts all across the country, especially in Washington, DC, which achieved a 73% graduation rate in 2017. So, how did D.C. achieve this high graduation rate?

NM: Yeah. Graduation rates have been increasing. Across the country, the federal government changed how we counted graduation rates in 2011. And ever since then, we’ve had a record graduation rate every single year. This is kind of interesting because we just said that our NAEP gains have plateaued. They fell in 2015 and then stayed at that level in 2017. So, you have to ask yourself, “How’s our graduation rate soaring when our test scores are flat?”

In D.C. in particular, and in most school systems, there is a lot of pressure to graduate students. And there are good reasons we want kids to graduate because kids who drop out of high school have worse life outcomes. So, we want kids to graduate from high school and we spend a lot of money for them to do that. The problem in D.C. was that the desire to get kids to graduate turned into the desire to get kids to graduate at any cost.

It came out this winter, after some very glowing coverage in the news media, that the year D.C. had the 73% graduation rate, a ton of kids graduated despite egregious absences. 10% of graduates that year missed more than half their senior year of school, and they passed anyway. There are also problems with credit recovery courses, which are sort of “make-up” courses given out in violation of policy. Basically, they were giving away these degrees. When we say that one thing we can be proud of is these graduation rates, it’s important to make sure we can really be proud of them. Unfortunately, D.C. put getting the numbers over doing what’s right for students and keeping a culture of high expectations and high standards, and making students reach those high standards. Now they’re trying to figure out, with a new chancellor, how to turn the ship around, and it’s going to be a long slog in D.C.

ML: Has this type of inflation of graduation rates happened in other districts?

NM: That’s a good question. The problem is that it’s hard to tell. I’m just about to come out with a report nationwide on these credit recovery programs. Again, you can say, “It’s a good idea to give kids a second chance in high school. If you fail a class in high school, maybe we can give you a second chance.” We’ve been doing this forever with programs like summer school. We all know what summer school is. The problem with credit recovery is that it’s shorter, easier, and more accessible. So, you get into some moral hazards.

It turned out, when I looked at the national data, that about 8% of our high schools have at least 18% of their kids in high school currently participating in credit recovery. That’s almost 1 in 5 kids. In an average class of 25, five of those kids are retaking at least one class. That seems a little supercharged to me. Unfortunately, those schools are more likely to be high minority, low-performing, and have low graduation rates. Oddly enough, those schools are making the fastest graduation rate gains. So, it raises some serious questions as to whether the services we’re trying to provide our students are actually doing them a service.

ML: Well, we look forward to seeing that report. Now, let’s close out with one final question. If you could give your college self one piece of advice, what would it be?

NM: You know, when I got out of college, I was very ready to do just what was right in front of me. Fortunately, I got married shortly after I graduated from college and my wife kept prodding me to do new things and do things that I might not have otherwise done, and might not have stretched as far. So, I’d say, don’t get lazy right out of college. Find something to stretch yourself, and go after it. Who knows where it’ll take you.

ML: Thanks again! If you want to learn more about Nat’s work, check out his AEI scholar page and his newly-released AEI Education Podcast. Thanks Nat.

NM: Thank you!