Monday, November 3, 2008

The Root of All Evil

I am opposed to the use of public funds for private education. –Jonathan Kozol

They say money is the root of all evil. In education, it’s lack of money that drives most of the serious problems and shocking inequities that really need to be corrected. With an educational funding system that is heavily based on local property taxes, schools in rich neighborhoods are rich and schools in poor neighborhoods are poor.

This is the reality in America today: Children from the suburbs can enjoy learning in clean, cheerful, well-equipped schools with plenty of books; experienced, well-paid teachers who have ample opportunities for professional development; and elective classes that help develop individual talents in the arts, academic clubs, or athletics. Many children in inner cities and rural areas go to school in unsafe buildings with inadequate numbers of outdated books; have little or no access to computers or other necessary equipment; spend their days in overcrowded classrooms staffed by underpaid, discouraged teachers; and enjoy no opportunities to participate in elective classes such as band, leadership, or PE.

How does this relate to the current national choice of political leaders? John McCain is in favor of extending this shameful system of educational apartheid; Barack Obama has good ideas for fixing it.

John McCain is in favor of school vouchers, charter schools, and home schooling. The fact is that all three of these initiatives—so popular among many who call themselves social conservatives—would only make matters worse.

A national system of school vouchers would channel public money for education not to the schools that need it but to parents who don’t. If a school is in trouble due to lack of money, a voucher system would simply allow families to take their support and their resources elsewhere. The poorer schools would continue to punish their children for being poor while those marginally more fortunate would become overcrowded. The sensible way to go about solving these problems is to provide adequate funding for all schools—and that’s something the current Republican leadership is reluctant to do.

Publicly funded charter schools are all too often another means of segregating the rich from the poor, allowing districts that have the resources to establish satellite schools that can be and often are selective and discriminatory in terms of which students are allowed to attend. Even the best charter schools tend to have a different philosophy from that which has always been the foundation of American education: educating the whole child. The curricula in many of these schools are narrowly focused on particular areas, such as science and engineering, performing arts, or business. It is certainly the prerogative of families to allow their children to “major” in particular subjects at the expense of others. However, just as with religious education, if parents choose to provide their children with alternative educational opportunities—those that differ from our agreed-upon public mandate for a broad, general education—then they should not receive public funds for doing so.

As an educator, I’ve known many home-schooled children. A few are fabulously successful—those who happen to have extremely well educated, highly motivated, and generally affluent parents who can provide their children with plenty of enriching experiences. Many others, however, arrive at adulthood handicapped by poor language, math, and social skills. Rather than encouraging parents to opt out of the public school system, we should fix the real problems in education that cause many parents to view all public schools as inherently inadequate.

Barack Obama’s focus in education would not be on making it cost-effective for privileged families to opt out but rather on helping all school districts meet the highest standards. His administration would focus on the two areas that research has shown to pay the biggest dividends in terms of student performance: early childhood education and reduced class sizes.

The biggest obstacle to improving American education in the past few decades has been a cultural problem that plagues every aspect of life in this country: a fundamentally oppositional, antagonistic taking of sides, which results in combat rather than collaboration.

This more than anything gives me hope that Barack Obama can help revitalize education: his ability to bring together people of many different persuasions in a spirit of respect and cooperation that focuses on solving problems, not defeating opponents. It’s the difference between seeking a win-win situation and a seeking a win-lose situation. In education, if anyone “loses,” it’s the children.


Idna said...

Dear Citizen Jane,

As an educator, you have very eloquently restated all the NEA talking points that get brought up every election cycle. These can be boiled down to basically two arguements: 1) the lack of money being the cause of poor education and 2) you don't want competition for that money.

As a taxpayer whose money you ultimately want more of, I have a few observations from the other side of the wallet.

You state, Ms. Jane, that "it’s lack of money that drives most of the serious problems." The Digest of Education Statistics reported that the United States spent $553 billion on public elemen­tary and secondary education in 2006–2007. That's a nice chunk of change, n'est pas?

Historical trends show that American spending on public educa­tion is at an all-time high.

Average per-student spending in public schools $9,300.
Federal, state and local spending per stu­dent has increased by 23.5 percent over the past decade and by 49 percent over the past 20 years.
Since 1985, fed­eral spending on K–12 education has increased by 138 percent. On a per-student basis, federal spending on K–12 education has tripled since 1970. Yet, long-term measures of American stu­dents' academic achievement have not seen similar increases.

As far as your calling the current system "educational apartheid". Did you know that two-thirds of all Federal education spending is going to "disadvantaged and special ed.?"

There is no evidence that simply increasing spending improves education.
Let's take one of the worst performing school systems, Detroit, Michigan. Per student spending is over $11,000 per year and Detroit leads the nation with average teacher pay of $47.28/hour. Yet only 25% of Detroit's students are graduating from high school. How much more money do you think would make Detroit a successful system?

So this brings me to a question. If there was a company that consistently gave you a substandard product, would you continue to buy its product and even pay increasingly more for it each year? Would you not go to a competitor?

Well that is exactly the situation with public education. But the problem is, they are trying to keep the industry as a monopoly. They don't want competition from private, charter and home-schooling and continue to blame the government/tax payer for the school's own failures.
Instead of simply increasing funding for a failing public education system, federal and state policymakers should look at what they should invest in to get the best student performance. Competition makes for better products, so some of that allocation and investment should definitely go to new, innovative type of education that has shown better results.

As a taxpayer, I am not happy with my current investment in education. I would like to see alternatives that would turn out a better product and bring a better return on my investment.

Anonymous said...

The entire educational system is a complex issue and I don't think there are any easy answers. I tend to disagree with you that the keys to successful reform are early childhood education and smaller classes. Yes, ECE is important in areas where low income, uneducated, uninvolved parents don't provide normal enrichment for young children; for middle- to upper-class kids and for the many lower-income kids with involved parents who do get the necessary stimulation at home, I believe the ECE dollars could much better be spent on other programs.

Likewise class size. My first grade class had 62 kids; one teacher, no aides. We all got individualized attention. I was never in a grade school class with fewer than 40 students, but we all got a good solid education. I don't think it was because we were in Catholic schools, because the class sizes and results from the public schools were comparable. In fact, friends in Seattle went all through high school on a split schedule (half days, like the Mormons do with their churches, so they could accommodate twice as many students in a building). I think the determining factor was that there was much less bureaucratic interference; teachers were allowed to teach.

Granted, there are a lot of societal changes that have occurred since the 50s and 60s, but there seems to be a consistent pattern in education: where expectations are high (this includes discipline as well as academics) and where teachers are treated as professionals and given autonomy in their classrooms, education takes place. This doesn't matter whether it's in well-financed suburban schools, inner-city schools, charter schools, or private schools. These are the schools that attract and retain dedicated teachers. Studies have shown that many of the best teachers are willing to take lower salaries for the sake of autonomy; where permitted, these schools also attract people from outside the "education" field who have good and important knowledge to impart even though they don't have teaching certificates.

Rather than spending resources to reduce class size, I think it makes more sense to focus on creating a "learning environment" in schools. This means that from the moment students walk in the door (or onto the school grounds) they know that this is a place where education is important, where all are respected, and where everyone's job is to make learning the norm. (This, incidentally, would also help the workplace; when those students got jobs they would know how to behave.) There are some key elements that have been proven to help create this kind of environment, including school uniforms, closed campuses, eliminating junk food dispensers, mentoring of younger students by older ones; peer monitoring of student behavior, parent and community involvement; even a fresh paint job. And, I think rather than smaller classes, smaller schools where teachers know the students, and eliminating Jr. High/Middle School or whatever you want to call it. I think kids at that age need to be in a smaller school environment where they are both known and are the "big kids" of the school.

As far as testing and funding go, I would hate to see a nationalized school system because I think it would foster more bureaucracy, but I think if there is going to be any accountability, any standardized tests need to be national. It's the only way to really measure how schools/school districts are really doing. And without some sort of equalized funding, we will continue to have rich-vs.-poor school districts. Frankly, I think the "Gerrymandering" of school districts is much worse than that of legislative districts. So maybe a nationally funded school system wouldn't be all that bad if it still allowed for local control of how broad policies and goals were to be accomplished. Easy? No. But we've reached an economic interconnectedness that precludes our continuing to allow some children to have quality educations while others are denied the basics.

My experience with the charter school approach has been good, and I wouldn't mind seeing the entire public school system as it exists replaced with a system that had charter schools and magnet school options. As long as all the schools had to demonstrate adequate learning levels (those national tests) in all academic areas, if they want to add classes in any specific area, more power to them. And to encourage that, I'd also extend the school day, eliminate homework, and run year-round classes. To change the results, we're going to have to change our approach. The sooner we get started, the better off the country -- and the students -- will be.

Citizen Jane said...

Dear Idna,

The problem isn't the amount of money spent on education--it's how it's spent. National averages don't mean a thing. The fact remains that with local funding, students in the affluent Mercer Island district in Seattle get a much better education than those in the inner cities.

Secondly, taking one school district, such as Detroit's, out of context doesn't illuminate the problem at all. Because of the disconnect between the federal Office of Education and local districts, it takes a good deal of research to determine how money spent actually benefits students. Unfunded federal mandates, such as the No Child Left Behind act, has resulted in untold millions being spent on development of tests and programs that have little or no relevance to real learning.

Much of the confusion about educational policies results from arbitrary attempts to take business and manufacturing models and apply them to the education of our children. Kids aren't "products," and the quality of education of each child in America--not just our own--affects us all.

For more on this subject, I recommend an excellent book entitled, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America's Public Schools.

Anonymous said...

Dear Citizen Jane,

Your original comment started out saying that "in education, it's the lack of money
that drives most of the serious problems." In my response, I pointed out the enormous amount of money being spent on education currently. You responded to that saying, "The problem isn't the amount of money spent on education--it's how it's spent." You sort of changed
your main premise from one comment to the next.

You suggest that students on Mercer Island do better because it's more "affluent" ...
meaning the school has more money. Yet you dismiss the example of Detroit, where per
student spending and teacher pay is way above the norm, nevertheless, results are
abysmal. Maybe a lot of other factors (how education is valued in the home, for
example) should be looked at. Clamoring for more and more money to throw at schools
where the students don't want to learn seems very foolish.

I disagree that schools would not benefit from a business model. (By the way, it's not
the kids that I referred to as the "product" of schools. I meant the education that the kids acquire as the product. Maybe I should have used the word "service."

Here's a little parallel example to the way public schools are run. What if the
government paid for your food by giving you a meal ticket? (This meal ticket, of course
is paid for by taxes.) Whoopeee, you think. Free food! Only catch is that you have to eat at "Uncle Sam's" chain restaurants. That's the only place that your meal ticket can be used.

Eventually, you find out that the food and service at Uncle Sam's is not that great. You heard about this little cafe down the street that has delicious food and much better service. But your meal ticket is no good there. You are welcome to spend your own money to eat there, but you still have to pay for the government meal ticket with your taxes ... even if you never eat at Uncle Sam's again.

What incentive does Uncle Sam's Restaurants have to fix more tasty meals? Or provide
better service? None. The cafe, on the other hand, will either give you the service and product that is better that Uncle Sam's, or risk going out of business.

Just as with businesses, schools should be much more accountable (the aim of No Child Left Behind)and a little competition would do wonders. Tax payers should be allowed to spend their tax money
at any school that gives them the best "service" and "product" that they can find.

I know you are too close to this subject, Jane, working for the public school system, but just try to step back and look at this issue as if you were a paying customer. And, after all, aren't tax payers basically paying customers of the school system? ... Except they have no choice where to spend their money.

Idna said...

The above comment got posted before I could edit it and put my name on it. The lines of text are kind of messed up.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Idna!

The lack of money I was referring to, which so often affects individual kids in specific schools, is money for books, teachers, technology, programs for students with special needs, building maintenance, and so forth. A lot of money is being thrown at public education, but some kids catch very little of it. So it is lack of money—for the neediest schools and students—that’s the problem. (Thanks for helping me clarify that point!)

In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol specifically discussed the Detroit School District. (That book is a bit out of date, though, so if you really want to know about the shameful inequities that still plague public education, I’d recommend his more recent books.) Detroit has roughly two hundred schools, and there as everywhere, there are huge discrepancies between the richest and the poorest. Regardless of the “per capita” expenditures, some kids go to school in unsafe conditions with few resources and teachers who would teach elsewhere if they could. (Often the poorest schools can attract only inexperienced, entry-level teachers, who are grossly underpaid by comparison with entry-level workers in almost any other profession,)

We can’t even begin to understand the problems in education with arguments based on “averages.” Judging a school district by the “average” test scores, for example, is like “averaging” the weight of the animals in a zoo. The “average” weight of a mouse and an elephant doesn’t tell us much about either one!

We can agree on one thing: Factors completely beyond the control of the schools often affect student learning—including “how education is valued in the home.” Social upheaval, poverty, job loss, mental illness, and many other issues can have an impact on schools. But that doesn’t translate into “students who don’t want to learn.” I personally have never met a kid who “doesn’t want to learn.” But I have met kids with many kinds of challenges—including conditions at home—that make it hard for them to learn without plenty of individual help and personal attention at school. It’s hard to provide that in a classroom with one teacher and 35 or more kids!

I do have a great deal of experience in public education. Your suggestion that I’m therefore “too close to this subject” to be objective is a great way to dismiss my observations and experience—an attitude that many critics of American public education have had for years. The people who actually work with kids are considered too invested in the system to be credible. That’s why so much of the public discourse on the subject makes little sense to those of us in the trenches. (I, too, am a paying customer, by the way, and my two sons got excellent educations at a public high school.)

For those who subscribe to the business model of education, I submit that it really is the kid, not the “education” that’s the product. Our school offers calculus, honors physics, and English for college. Not every kid in school, however, is prepared to “consume” those high-level, college-prep courses. Not every kid who learns well can prove it on a test—even assuming that the test meets the highest standards of validity. The notion that education is a “product,” like cafeteria food, over-simplifies the issue to the point of making it meaningless. “Competition” isn’t the answer to everything.

What we need to do—or at least try to do—is provide nourishing, complete educational “meals” that are adjusted to the needs of every child in America. We won’t accomplish that as long as the discourse continues to be adversarial and focused on assigning blame for the perceived inadequacies of education. And we won’t accomplish it as long as we have some kids on a gourmet budget and others on bread and water!