18 February 2008

Education -> Now, with references!!!!

  • Feb 18, 2008

Education -> Now, with references!!!!

NOTE:  let me say upfront that I think this entire entry is a gross oversimplification.

We (Americans) aren't very smart.

Oh sure, there are plenty of individuals to prove me wrong; but as a whole, as a nation, I think it would be hard to argue.

But we are like the school bully or the rich kid (whose parents think it's good for him to go to public school).  We get our way all the time, and no one dares to point out to us how dumb we are.

We alone still use the English system of measurement, being afraid to learn something new, even if it's far easier in the long run.  50% of us believe in literal creationism (dinosaurs are either a hoax perpetrated by scientists and/or the devil, or they died in Noah's flood), and another 40% believe in intelligent design(1). Contrast this with England, where even 97% of priests and ministers don't believe in literal creationism(2)! 20% of us think the sun revolves around the earth,  and 11% can not find the US on an unmarked world map.(3,4)

Clearly we have the resources.  We have by far the largest total GDP, as well as one of the highest per capita wealth in the world.(5,6)

So why is it this way?


I don't know.

For once, I can not even pretend to have any answers.

I don't like how this blog is turning out.
I think I will erase the whole thing and start over.

We'll see.


For once it seems that the conservatives and libertarians have at least part of it right.

As it turns out, the US spends more per student than a great many other industrialized countries, the majority of which have students at all levels that can out perform ours.(7,8)
Private schools in the US also spend less money per student, yet have better test scores and higher graduation rates.
There is of course a number of more complex issues than money - kids in private schools have parents involved enough to not only pay the tuition, but to choose a specific school for their kid, put in the time to find it and enroll them, and a more involved parent willing to pay extra for education is more likely to have been well educated themselves, to have begun teaching stuff like counting and the alphabet early, and to have sent the child to preschool and kindergarten. 

However in at least one US school district that was studied, it was also true that for the equivalent size, the public schools had twice the administrative staff compared to the private schools, and half the teachers.(9)
While spending overall divided by number of students is higher, a great proportion of that is wasted on administration, management, and bureaucracies.

Unfortunately it looks like if anything, the efforts meant to improve public schools are aimed largely at management and bureaucracy.  Poorly performing schools have control handed over to larger and more distant entities, the district becomes more involved, and eventually the state takes over entire districts.  Increasingly complex and demanding rules govern funding, with policy set at the state and federal level, and teachers are taken out of the classroom (and replaced with subs) for mandatory training and professional development - regardless of how well they're doing or what they may have been working on in the classroom that day otherwise.

There seems to be something disturbingly self-defeating about much of our education policy, some things which seem so obvious that it's hard to not wonder if people could really believe that some of our policies are really optimal.

First and foremost, while our spending is high on average, the distribution is anything but equitable.
In the majority of states school district funding comes primarily not from federal funds, but from equal parts state taxes and local property taxes.(10)
So, the obvious result is that cities or counties with high property values - and therefor well off residents - have much better funded schools than areas with low property values.

What better way to preserve the status quo from one generation to the next?

This system is nothing new.

The emphasis on "accountability" is.

Of course to today's society, focused on growth and material goods over sustainability, health, or happiness, and gross GDP over equitable distribution, the purpose of education is not a wise, knowledgeable, or well rounded populous, but a new generation employable in high-tech sectors. 

However, even then, if we want people to succeed in college it makes sense to attempt to have students who genuinely understand the material, rather than merely being able to pass a multiple choice scan-tron type test.  In the work place there won't be a list of 4 choices a-d to fill in the correct bubble next to.  But demanding that all students everywhere use the same standardized test in order to advance a grade helps to ensure that teachers must teach to the test, teach test-taking strategies (eliminate the obviously wrong answers) instead of taking the time to explain concepts, and how they tie in with each other.

Worse yet, funding has been made proportionate to performance.  In other words, the schools which need the least help get the most money, and those which need the most get the least.  They call this "accountability". If a school, (perhaps due to being in an area with poor property values) has out-dated textbooks, a once-a-week librarian and counselor, few computers, and an un-reliable source of supplies, chances are they have lower test scores than one which has a computer for every student, brand new books, and a well stocked supply room.  And in turn, due to the low test scores, the already strapped school will be the one to get funding cut even further.  Funding buys things like after-school tutors, or more teachers (which means smaller class sizes, more individual attention, and more time for teachers to develop interesting and effective lesson plans).  I went to help my (ex)wife prepare for the next week's class one weekend, and ended up having to borrow paper from another teacher that was there that day, because there was no paper in the copy room.

I think perhaps the people who came up with the idea, and those who promote it, are generally business leaders, politicians, and capitalists.  They are all people who are motivated first and foremost by money, who take the Ayn Rand view on altruism (that it is unnatural, and harmful to both giver and receiver).  To them the idea of penalizing under-performance makes sense; to them it would be the best (or only) motivator to a teacher with tenure and paid on salary.

What they don't realize is: if you are a person with a Master's Degree looking to start a career, and your primary motivator isn't to help kids, you don't go into education.  Teachers - while paid more than blue-collar workers - have one of the lowest incomes among salaried professionals - those who had to go to an extra 6 years of school to get the job. Especially considering the extra hours required and that it is one of few professions which is specifically exempted from the overtime laws that ordinarily apply even to salaried workers.

If you wanted to get rich you would have become a stock broker, a real estate developer, worked your way up to upper management in some company, or perhaps software development.  People become teachers because they care about children.

Threatening to withhold funding or close under performing schools pre-supposes that the teachers weren't already trying their hardest, weren't already motivated, didn't really care if their students learned or not.  If a school is already filled with dedicated caring teachers, threatening them will not produce any results - other than extra stress, and an emphasis on teaching to the tests so that the school looks good on paper, even if the students are equally ignorant.

I strongly doubt that anyone would or could have planned something so elaborate out over such a long period of time, and so this idea is really not serious.  Although I do question from time to time whether there may not be a least a little truth to it.

I wonder if it is really to the advantage of the upper class to have universal high quality education.
If you have an unreasonable amount of undeserved wealth and power, would you rather the masses be college educated and aware of the world around them?

But the "law" says everyone is entitled to education up to high school.
Even minorities!

After slavery was legally abolished, the "Jim Crow" laws, legal segregation and discrimination, helped to insure the non-whites remained in a separate and lower class for generations.  With the success of the civil rights movement, it became necessary to find more subtle and indirect ways to preserve the status quo. 

Crack and cocaine are chemically identical.  They come from the same source and produce the same effects.  The primary differences between them are cost, method of delivery, and: the demographics of the majority of users of each drug.  The mandatory sentencing guidelines make the sale of 5 grams of crack punished by the same sentence as it would take 100 times greater an amount of cocaine sales to equal.(11)

There has been an increase in focus on crime (even when rates nationwide are dropping) in both politics and media, with nearly half of states instituting some sort of 3-strikes law; in CA none of the crimes need be violent, and only the first 2 even need to be "serious", with petty theft being enough of a trigger for a 25 to life sentence.(11)  Over half of 3-strikes offenders are non-violent.
Embezzling millions from shareholders will not lead you to life in prison, while shoplifting can.(12,13)  No white collar crime - although it may cost the victims far more - is considered "serious". 
This is not directly racism. While it is true that the average crime rate among African American communities is higher than the overall, the arrest and conviction rates are disproportionately high even considering differing crime rates.  In other words, on average, if a black and white person are both caught for the exact same crime, on average, the black person is more likely to be convicted and/or receive a longer sentence. In particular with drug use, while blacks make up 15% of drug users, they make up almost 60% of drug convictions (80-90% in a number of states) - even among convictions, 33% of whites convicted of drug charges are given prison sentences compared to over half of blacks convicted of drug charges, with drug charges making up around 20% of the overall prison population.(14,15)
If, for whatever reasons, the justice system as a whole is biased, then any increase in punitive responses to crime inherently increases the effect.

Along with the war on drugs and a focus on crime, we've seen a strong and successful push to reduce or eliminate taxes and restrictions on the upper classes, eliminating taxes on un-earned income (inheritance, stock dividends) which applied only to the upper class (net worth of over a million and/or incomes over 350,000 a year and/or enough investment returns to eliminate the need to work) while reducing the progressivity of the income tax on productive work - a top bracket of 91% in the 50s lowered to a top bracket of 35% today, as well as on estate taxes, with a 2 million dollar inheritance just (2007) dropping from 55% to 45% with the entire tax repealed in 2 years.(16,17,18)

We also saw great calls to welfare "reform" in decades past, with much media and politician attention to a few rare examples of people who stayed on welfare indefinitely, and little attention drawn to the fact that before the calls to reform started the average welfare recipient received aid for under 2 years, and never returned to it.  It was put forth as a major tax drain despite being far down the list of federal expenditures (the military, government purchased privatized health care, and interest on the debt being the top 3 for decades).  On budget pie charts food stamps and AFDC checks are lumped together with Social Security (which the recipient paid into), education and even student loans, in a broad "social welfare" category which skews perception, but in reality direct assistance to the poor only made up around 1-2% of government budgets.  Including medi-care, school lunches, veterans benefits, and other welfare which the middle class receives as well as the poor, it goes up to 12%.(19,20)  As a result of the falsely hyped up expenditure of tax dollars on AFDC, WIC, and section 8 payments, welfare reform was put into place to force recipients, most frequently single mothers, to get a job, any job, immediately. 
This included dropping out of college to get a minimum wage job as well as leaving children with inadequate or no supervision during the work day to avoid severe or total cuts in benefits, with a mandatory cut off after 2 years regardless of circumstance.
With overt discrimination (against not just of race, but the entire lower class) becoming more difficult due to universal education anti-discrimination laws, increased freedom of information, and just being a democracy, more complex ways of keeping the lower class low and the elite excessively wealthy must be set up to appear on the surface to be equitable just and fair, while affecting some people more than others.

Might it be possible that the undermining of the public education system through local funding, standardized testing, "accountability", (and then promotion of the voucher system so that those in the middle class can afford to escape it) was another piece of other subtle social elements - the war on drugs, welfare reform, the elimination or reduction of taxes on unearned income - designed to preserve the status quo help prevent the "anyone who works hard can make it" concept that they promote as being a possibility in order to maintain social stability.

No.  I don't really think that is what is happening.  Yet sometimes its hard not to wonder if people really think some of the ideas they come up with are a good idea.



From the reading I did in the process of writing, I do have some concrete ideas for improvements after all.

Although I am in general strongly in favor of regulation, unions, and other liberal protections, and have very little faith in the free market as a cure-all, in the case of education specifically, there does seem to be an unreasonable degree of government waste and bureaucracy.

While funding should remain public and access free and universal for students, contracting out upper management and administration (and possibly support services such as lunches, transportation, and janitorial services as well) is likely to provide a huge increase in efficiency both in funding and in procedures.

I would concede also that a degree of accountability is important, although I don't think the way it has been implemented is fair or helpful.
It would make sense to link teacher and principal raises to student performance rather than seniority on the individual level. If a particular teacher were to consistently have entire class average scores significantly below that of the district, and school average for that subject, it would be reasonable to conclude that it is the teacher him/her self which is ineffective, and penalize and/or fire that individual.
However, looking at an entire school out of context by comparing a school to a national average only serves to re-enforce any existing disparity.

Funding should be standardized nationwide, across all states, urban and rural communities, regardless of a state or counties level of prosperity. Funding should be based strictly on enrollment. If the private management company in a district did not allocate that budget effectively, they could be fired and replaced.

Kindergarten should be made mandatory.
HeadStart (preschool) should be universally free to all children.
That first year or two of schooling has been shown to be one of the better indicators of success later on in school and life(1). Otherwise you end up with some first graders who can read, write, and even add in the same class with peers who are still learning the alphabet. That disparity inevitably continues on throughout school as certain kids are always one step ahead.

If we really want an well educated populace, make grades 13 and 14 universally free as well.

And last, but certainly not least, do away with the entire "No Child Left Behind Act". I will refrain from any further comment on that...


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