Sunday, December 03, 2006

Education and spending.

Paul Tough had a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine last week (link now unavailable to us non-subscribers) to which Jon Chait responds in today's LA Times with a more discouraging note. Matt Yglesias threw in his two cents as well, prompting me to ask my brother -- who knows a thing or two about this topic -- for his thoughts. His e-mail response is below. He generally is to be found in the Yglesias/Chait neighborhood of the political spectrum, so any disagreement should be taken as prompted by policy, not ideology. He was a little ornery when he wrote this, and thought I should point this out when I asked to post it.
Educational policy -- like lots of other things -- gets grabbed by a certain number of experts (hello, Jon Chait) and used, baseball bat style, to beat on those of differing ideologies. Thus the hordes of liberals who use K-12 education as a handy excuse to complain about Republicans and their service-cutting ways, just as hordes of conservatives wail about Democrats' allegiance to corrupt and public-good obstructing unions. On this subject Matt seems to have a potentially deaf ear for when he's being played for a partisan patsie, and when he's not.

The argument that widespread improvement in American education will take huge amounts of (presumably politically unattainable) money has been repeated so often over the years that lots of people consider it for 30 seconds, find it persuasive, and walk away to think about other things for the next several months. This ends up being extremely frustrating to people who are actually improving K-12 education and would really prefer if Chait and Yglessias paid attention to what has been working -- noticed its general lack of correlation with 'paying teachers like investment bankers' -- and wrote more about that.

Some recent observations that they don't seem to register:
  • Per student, many city and suburban schools do not have nearly the spending disparity that people assume. Boston city schools have spent more per student than suburban schools for years. This is because State and Federal funding offsets a large amount of the local funding disparity in most American urban schools.
  • Within schools of similar operational and capital investment levels, educational outcomes can swing wildly as a basis of lots of other things, not least of which is the actual educational program being delivered.
  • Teachers who work 16 hour days are far from universal among high successful school models. There are lots of public and charter school distracts that have achieved similar results to KIPP (the network Chait is referencing) without significantly increasing teacher time.
Would more money help? Sure, why not. In the long run is it probably necessary, once the country reaches the limits to the improvement that can be made without increasing funding? Absolutely. Is more public money a necessary precondition for significantly improving US K-12 education? Not based on my limited experience.

To Chait's point about teacher retention: massively increasing teacher pay does a lot less to drive retention than having teachers work in schools that are very successful. Like lots of other industries, people who enjoy their work and are part of a very successful organization enjoy high levels of job satisfaction and longevity that far outweigh people who are paid moderately better but work in hell. The reason lots of inner-city schools have high staff turnover is not because lots of young, idealistic teachers go in with some delusion that they're going to work cushy 9-5 hours for really good pay. A bigger driver of turnover is the misery people feel at being a cog in a failed system. Lots of top-performing charter school networks around the country pay their teachers less than public schools, and enjoy far better retention. Pesky those facts.

Chait final paragraph that ends, "you can't build a national education strategy around relying on the kindness of strangers," makes me momentary want to laugh or vomit. Can we translate this whole op-ed into a the bumper sticker 'I really want my wife to get a raise, and have been pissed about it for years', toss it into the trash can of silly commentary, and move on? Lots of people, like Chait, think their spouse does something admirable that should be paid more. The idea that this pay increase should come before any serious conversation about how K-12 education is already being improved is.... well, self-serving is one word that comes to mind.

Of course, there is another group of people out there who have been working for years to get public school teachers paid more -- and who are perfectly blunt about their indifference to improving education. That's the public teachers union. If you told me I could either 1) magically pay American teachers like investment bankers, or 2) abolish the teacher union, I would say that the second has far far far far more likelihood of resulting in a significant improvement in American public education in the near future. The first, absent something like the second, would lead to very little.

As shown by Chait's op-ed -- which might as well have been a press release from his wife's union -- we've still got a long way to go.
I've edited the form a little, but the words are all his. And the "limited experience" thing is just a little self-effacing.

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