The weird ideological inversion of the school reform debate

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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  1. Avatar Alex Knapp
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    says:

    I’d be willing to cut education dollars spent if:

    (a) the remaining education dollars were equitably distributed instead of the current system, where wealthy kids get more resources; and
    (b) the focus of cuts is on non-academic related activities. Why on earth tax dollars should go to pay for football and cheerleading is beyond me.

    Empirically speaking, though, when education dollars are cut:

    (a) the poorest districts are hit the hardest, diminishing their already limitied capacity to help out the students most likely to push past the culture into educational attainment; and
    (b) the programs cut tend to be the most academically related, such as the arts and debate, as opposed to meaningless ones like sports.

    If I ran the teachers unions, I’d trade merit pay for equitable distribution of education dollars and seniority tenure for getting rid of sports.

    Even marginal improvements are improvements! But as long as the reality of American society is that when education dollars get cut, it’s cut in the worst possible way, it’s tough to sell me on them.Report

    • Avatar Herb in reply to Alex Knapp
      Ignored
      says:

      You’re giving this Will dude way too much credit, Alex. He basically admitted he’s just going to assume liberals are arguing in bad faith until we do the truffle shuffle with just the right amount of jiggle and just the right amount of noise.

      At least after assuming Drum was opportunistically dodging public school accountability, he finally decided “to be fair.”Report

    • Avatar Aaron in reply to Alex Knapp
      Ignored
      says:

      I absolutely agree about spreading education dollars more equitably. When I grew up, I lived in a small, moderate-to-low income industrial city, squeezed between an affluent suburb on one side and a low income rural area on the other. The suburb spent nearly twice as much per student as my high school, and the rural school district spent even less than that. Why? Property taxes — the suburb had high property tax rates, and my school district kept getting its levies shot down. It’s absurd to see this much disparity in educational spending within a half hour drive of each other.Report

    • Avatar Dan in reply to Alex Knapp
      Ignored
      says:

      As a pencil-necked science nerd who got an honorary debate scholarship, I’d like to speak up a little bit for sports. They not only provide a good source of regular physical activity for kids who may otherwise be sitting around playing video games (not that there’s anything wrong with that, Jaybird), but they also can teach lessons about working with others, putting the collective good above one’s own glory, keeping commitments, personal discipline, etc.

      If it weren’t for sports, lots of my patients would be total slugs. I’d hate to see them cut, even if I personally find them intolerable.Report

      • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Dan
        Ignored
        says:

        Do Dan, by all means, do–a long suffering Lions’ fan–but hey, they did actually show signs of improving as the season wore on. And I shouldn’t complain–we still have the Red Wings and Tigers.

        I couldn’t agree with you more about the value of sports in grades 1-12. Well stated, and welcome to the Monkey House!

        Is it Dr. Dan M.D.?Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Dan
        Ignored
        says:

        But it’s possible to encourage students to engage in physical activity without spending superfluously.

        “we have a football team” is good. “we are spending school money to send the football team to the other side of the country so they can play in some kind of National Championship” is less good.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to DensityDuck
          Ignored
          says:

          You could. for example, set the dogs on them.Report

        • Avatar Dan in reply to DensityDuck
          Ignored
          says:

          No arguments here. Reasonable expenditure seems a good goal.

          And yes, Dan MD it is, HeideggerReport

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to DensityDuck
          Ignored
          says:

          Why athletics needs to be an appendage of education is beyond me. Let townships and counties field teams. Have intramural sports sponsored by local businesses, churches, etc.

          Perhaps one of the best places to start with school reform is to slowly take back responsibility away from schools and give it to parents, local associations, and communities.

          Why have a school newspaper (they aren’t allowed freedom of the press anyway and receive so little funding)? Let the failing local town paper pick up some interns and have a youth/student section.

          The same thing could be down with all kinds of other activities. Take away gym and lunch as well, and maybe we could get the school day down to 4/5 hours, and have the rest picked up by community organizations, whether they are fielding after school sports, or before school activities?Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Alex Knapp
      Ignored
      says:

      Fair enough, though I think the research Drum links to suggests that equalizing resources won’t overcome barriers to achievement that develop during early childhood.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Alex Knapp
      Ignored
      says:

      the remaining education dollars were equitably distributed instead of the current system, where wealthy kids get more resources; and

      Out of curiosity, does anyone have any good numbers on this? I’ve heard enough references to this that I don’t vigorously doubt it’s true, but it’s contrary to what I’ve seen where I grew up (the outskirts of a large city in the south). Looking at education-dot-com, my well-to-do district spends $7,400 per-pupil, another wealthy district that just built a huge athletics complex that seats over ten thousand spends $6900 per pupil. The local urban district spends $8500.*

      Which is to say, the problem at least in that neck of the woods is not that all of the money is going towards schools for the privileged, but rather that children of the less privileged cost more to educate. Even within Big Urban School District, the wealthy schools spend less.

      Where I’m from is a part of my anonymity, so I won’t divulge it here, but if there is skepticism of this I will gladly email it some links to one of the Gents who will verify it.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Trumwill
        Ignored
        says:

        To test and see what spending looked like outside of the urban/suburban dynamic, I looked at the school districts serving the two poorest counties in the state (among the poorest in the country) and they were $8500 and $9800.Report

      • Avatar Kitty in reply to Trumwill
        Ignored
        says:

        Before you assume that there must be waste in the urban district because they are spending more and getting less (I am assuming your urban district has poorly-performing schools), you may want to make sure that that number does not include restricted funding. We have this debate quite a bit in the district where my children go to school, which has a disproportionately larger population of socio-economically disadvantaged student than the surrounding wealthy districts. Our per-pupil spending appears quite high when you consider restricted and unrestricted funding together, and people argue against levies for this reason, saying that there must be waste. However, a good chunk of that money is restricted for use by programs that serve the large population of children receiving free and reduced-cost meals, health care (including counseling services) and transportation costs for low-income students, and costs to educate special needs students (of which we also have a disproportionately large share compared to surrounding districts). When you take away these funds and consider unrestricted funding, we have actually one of the lowest per-pupil funding rates in the county. I’d be willing to bet that your local urban district is in a similar situation.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kitty
          Ignored
          says:

          To be clear, Kitty, I was not intending to suggest that there was waste. Poor children cost more to educate. I was just objecting to the notion that “rich schools get all the money” because that doesn’t correspond with the statistics I have seen.

          Interesting point about restricted/non-restricted spending. If anyone has any good statistics on how much is spent on education rather than peripherals, that would be awesome.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kitty
          Ignored
          says:

          Another point of clarification the first poor district I mentioned is urban. The two I mentioned in the follow-up are rural.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Trumwill
        Ignored
        says:

        I can’t remember if the book Savage Inequality talked about the dollar amounts, but it did a fairly good job of showing the differences between schools and districts.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Rufus F.
          Ignored
          says:

          At the time Savage Inequality was written, I don’t doubt that there were some pretty big disparities. They existed in my home state for a while. But at some point the numbers started inverting (I think spending at urban schools started going up a lot while those at suburban schools were going up slower).Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    We need a school system more like Denmark’s.Report

  3. Avatar Jesse Ewiak
    Ignored
    says:

    Actually, you’re misrepresenting the argument on the liberal side. The point isn’t that educational outcomes can’t be improve, it’s we’re unlikely to change the gap between races and classes any time in the near future (ie. this generation) no matter how hard we try.

    The main purpose of the education system should be is to educate students as best it can. Ideally, that means everyone learns, but not everyone learns at the same rate.

    Now, the problem with the ed reform crowd is they propose judging schools only on whether they can consistently narrow the achievement gap. This research suggests that doing so is an impossibility, and that you’re simply setting public schools up to be judged as failures, thereby opening the door to further privatization. Which in the mind of conservative pundits, politicians, and intellectuals is a feature, not a bug.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jesse Ewiak
      Ignored
      says:

      Also, to add. Yeah, taking x amount of money from the DOE and shifting it to WIC, early childhood education, or prenatal care would be more effective. But of course, what would even be more effective is taking x amount of money from the DOD and doing that or closing tax loopholes so we have x amount more revenue.Report

  4. Avatar greginak
    Ignored
    says:

    Liberals have pretty much always pointed out how poverty affects education and until you address poverty its hard to fix schools in poor areas.Report

    • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to greginak
      Ignored
      says:

      Greg makes a good point. The problem isn’t about school funding. It’s the cultural atmosphere within poor communities. And those simply aren’t going to change unless poverty is lessened. Unfortunately poor people worry less about their kids’ homework and more about a dozen other poverty-specific issues.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
        Ignored
        says:

        And it’s cyclical, because communities that aren’t well-educated don’t value education as much, and don’t instill those values as widely, and then their children don’t become educated and don’t value education as much and don’t instill those values in their children who then don’t become well-educated and then don’t instill those values in their children…

        There’s exceptions to this rule of course. And spending money and getting good teachers in poor areas can help. But it’s a long process with no quick fixes.Report

        • Avatar Alex Knapp in reply to E.D. Kain
          Ignored
          says:

          It would help if the overall society valued education, because then it would at least be aspirational. But instead, the route out of poverty we’re sold is being a celebrity, not being a doctor.Report

        • E.D. , That’s why I am in favor of busing. Studies show that socio-economic integration of schools has positive effects on lower income students and zero negative effects on higher income students. Unfortunately it’s politically radiocactive and very hard to implement without pissing off pretty much everyone involved.

          I don’t quite follow this though:

          “And spending money and getting good teachers in poor areas can help.”

          You keep mentioning more school spending – are you talking about teacher salaries or something else? As for getting good teachers into poor areas – you can thank the unions for problems with that. School districts that are economically diverse should have the discretion to move teachers around as they see fit just like most large companies do with their employees. The best teachers should be dispersed across a district not bunched up in the most desired schools. Unions make that nearly impossible.

          If you’re talking about better teachers in districts that are uniformly poor (often in rural areas) then it’s much harder. Try convincing a quality teacher to move to Eastern Kentucky for five years to teach in a poor rural school in a county with a huge meth problem and an average education attainment of 9th grade. It’s like missionary work. Teach for America might be a good resource but you already said you don’t like those types of programs.Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to E.D. Kain
          Ignored
          says:

          Of course, as a nation we do seem to value economic utility and productivity above all else. Maybe if certain communities were given the authority to gut 8-12 and replace it with training aimed at skilled labor or professional development. We could have two diplomas, a GED and a GDD (general development degree).Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to E.D. Kain
          Ignored
          says:

          I had a girlfriend who worked in a very inner-city school while we were dating and I remember her coming home one day and saying, “One of my students (this was second grade) saw his Uncle get shot and killed this weekend at a backyard barbeque. Now what are the chances that he’s going to learn anything today?”Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
        Ignored
        says:

        What is implicated in the conclusion that education is a bad investment in terms of making social equity possible over generations are the very terms by which we attempt to justify socioeconomic inequity in society: the claim of equal opportunity. We claim that this is a society of opportunity, even equal opportunity, that equality of outcome is never guaranteed, but that if you work hard you can achieve a good life on par with those who had advantages over you. But for a half century or more now, this claim has hinged on our ability to provide those without social advantage the skills necessary to overcome that disadvantage by building up value in a knowledge and info-skills economy.

        I won’t make the direct connection for anyone else about the viability of whose political outlook is more dependent on this story being a plausible one (to say nothing of bearing out in practice). But I will observe that the more the bloom comes off that rose in terms of public credence in that story, the more pressure we can expect our political system to come under to address in direct ways the underlying inequality which we’ve relied upon the idea of equalizing opportunity through skills transfer to justify to ourselves and to those on the short end of it. And if the truth is that even the potential efficacy of formal or semi-formal k-12 education (which is the the actual existing mechanism on which this story is largely based in practice) for effecting equalization of opportunity is in fact greatly exaggerated or indeed essentially nonexistent, then a widespread acceptance of that truth will greatly hasten the wilting of this social fiction as a sustaining myth of our social fabric.

        Perhaps ultimately, because the ruling class has seized control of a sufficient 1 – (1/n) of the wealth, means of mass communication, resources, and other levers of power in society, the resulting political force will be so weak that no one not facing it as an obstacle will actually have to do anything other than merely “grin and bear” an inequality in their midst that is newly laid bare and against which they lack any convincing social justification. But perhaps it will not be only that weak. Either way, I am not at all sure that the author here has entirely thought through whose political bread is more buttered by the melted goodness that is the story we tell ourselves about the work done socially and politically by a notion of the potential efficacy of “education” against the actual material and social inequality that characterizes class relations in this country today, and against the potential political weight of the historical reality that put it into place.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP
    Ignored
    says:

    Educational reform, from this Liberal/Progressive perspective, says certain problems have emerged because the educational paradigm has not advanced much beyond John Dewey. In fact, they have regressed to a place not even John Dewey would accept.

    I don’t believe technology is the answer, but it is a fine replacement for pedagogy in certain rote material. Such subjects would include basic mathematics from the simplest addition up through the binomial theorem and perhaps farther. Let us concentrate there, for it is mathematical literacy which affects uptake of all the sciences.

    Math would be a computer program, where students would solve problems at one level, the first would be integer addition producing sums less than 10. Each answer would be logged: the teacher would watch each student as he progressed. Answer ten problems correctly at a given level and a reward is given. The student is publicly “promoted”. He progresses on to sums of less than 20, introducing the concept of carrying the ten. Thus it proceeds, with problems from previous levels periodically inserted as refresher material. On it goes, with subtraction, multiplication and so forth.

    When a student gets stuck at a given level, say, at fractions, a common barrier, the teacher will intervene, demonstrate how the solution may be obtained. Back the student goes, insight gained. Obviously some students will do better than others. In my scheme, they will not be held back by the slower students without the sociological problems associated with “skipping” a grade.

    Homework disappears in my scheme.

    A common complaint teachers have is “teaching the test”. Every such test can be reduced to a training program such as I have described, with learning material attached. Where the material is not reducible to right and wrong answers, the students are made to write brief essays, summing up what they have learned. Thus, state mandated material can be efficiently taught and teachers can respond as quickly as you and I respond to email.

    In mountain climbing, expeditions are composed of climbers of similar skills, led by a climber superior to everyone else on the rope. The current model of 30 eight year olds being taught by one teacher was the best we could come up with before the computer. But the One Room Schoolhouse worked exactly like this. Older students taught younger students. The current model is simply too slow and inefficient. If the proposition is value for money, the problem of time cannot be avoided: we are wasting time teaching a child who already knows. Worse, the student who does not understand what he’s being taught, having been hauled into algebra with an imperfect understanding of fractions, will always fail.

    More than stuffing your own head full of facts, the real world values the ability to transmit a skill to someone else. This, too, is learning.Report

  6. Avatar Sam M
    Ignored
    says:

    It’s interesting that Drum and Derb agree on the data with regard to K-12, but disagree so completely as to what the numbers say about early intervention. Derb thinks Head Start is a bigger sham than K-12 ever dreamed of being, and he says the numbers are on his side.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/194235/no-surprises/john-derbyshire

    What gives?Report

    • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Sam M
      Ignored
      says:

      My oldest did Head Start and Jump Start. I think it was a very good program and she got a big lead on her classmates. The problem as I see it is that there is no continuation once they get into first grade so everything levels out.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Sam M
      Ignored
      says:

      I think Derbyshire puts more weight on the heritability of intelligence. Early childhood intervention can’t help you if your parents were dumb, in other words.Report

      • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Will
        Ignored
        says:

        Agree, Will. I believe he’s also a big fan of Charles Murray. I never wanted to think God would be that cruel–deliberately creating an intellectual underclass, but he certainly does have the stats to prove his thesis. Regardless, I find it unacceptable. I’ve seen far too many exceptions and just can’t believe hard, tenacious, effort can’t produce extraordinary results. Am I being hopelessly naive?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam M
      Ignored
      says:

      Here’s what can be said about Head Start. It really does prepare children for learning. You can demonstrate the difference for about five subsequent years, each year, a little less. With at-risk kids, it makes a huge difference. Gets them through grade 4 pretty much on track.Report

  7. Avatar Robert Cheeks
    Ignored
    says:

    I like some of Blaises’ ideas.
    However, before we do the BlaiseP thing let’s go back to the fifties. Nothing more technical then paper, pencil, a workbook, and plenty of rote, and plenty of phonics.
    In my own case the Sisters of Notre Dame and their no nonsense approach provided the incentive to FOCUS, when my mind would drift to episodes of Captain Video and the Video Rangers.
    And, we don’t need to teach to no stinkin’ test nor have teachers illustrate how to put a rubber on a banana, or any of the other librul bs. We go back and do it the way it really worked.
    The problem is, of course, the under-society: the poor, the ghettoized, the drug addict/alcoholic parents, and single parent families. These are indicators of some form or another of social decline and good luck with that, because this is, pretty much, the problem. Deal with this bs and I think the vast majority of kids want to learn, want to achieve, and want to please their parents.Report

  8. Avatar Michael Drew
    Ignored
    says:

    What is implicated in the conclusion that education is a bad investment in terms of making social equity possible over generations are the very terms by which we attempt to justify socioeconomic inequity in society: the claim of equal opportunity. We claim that this is a society of opportunity, even equal opportunity, that equality of outcome is never guaranteed, but that if you work hard you can achieve a good life on par with those who had advantages over you. But for a half century or more now, this claim has hinged on our ability to provide those without social advantage the skills necessary to overcome that disadvantage by building up value in a knowledge and info-skills economy.

    I won’t make the direct connection for anyone else about the viability of whose political outlook is more dependent on this story being a plausible one (to say nothing of bearing out in practice). But I will observe that the more the bloom comes off that rose in terms of public credence in that story, the more pressure we can expect our political system to come under to address in direct ways the underlying inequality which we’ve relied upon the idea of equalizing opportunity through skills transfer to justify to ourselves and to those on the short end of it. And if the truth is that even the potential efficacy of formal or semi-formal k-12 education (which is the the actual existing mechanism on which this story is largely based in practice) for effecting equalization of opportunity is in fact greatly exaggerated or indeed essentially nonexistent, then a widespread acceptance of that truth will greatly hasten the wilting of this social fiction as a sustaining myth of our social fabric.

    Perhaps ultimately, because the ruling class has seized control of a sufficient 1 – (1/n) of the wealth, means of mass communication, resources, and other levers of power in society, the resulting political force will be so weak that no one not facing it as an obstacle will actually have to do anything other than merely “grin and bear” an inequality in their midst that is newly laid bare and against which they lack any convincing social justification. But perhaps it will not be only that weak. Either way, I am not at all sure that the author here has entirely thought through whose political bread is more buttered by the melted goodness that is the story we tell ourselves about the work done socially and politically by a notion of the potential efficacy of “education” against the actual material and social inequality that characterizes class relations in this country today, and against the potential political weight of the historical reality that put it into place.Report

  9. Avatar BSK
    Ignored
    says:

    “To be fair, Drum does suggest reinvesting K-12 funding in intensive early childhood education.”

    I second that!Report

  10. Avatar Boegiboe
    Ignored
    says:

    What are the numbers of inner city kids who believe in Creationism?

    What is the percentage of high school students whose localities pay into the national tax base (as opposed to withdrawing from it) who believe in Creationism?

    It really bugs me more and more that the states that encourage Creationism are the ones who suck the taxes from the states that understand reality.Report

  11. Avatar E.C. Gach
    Ignored
    says:

    Let’s face it, the main aim of all education reforms from the left are to get “at risk children” into the hands of state funded programs as soon as possible. The right’s response would probably say to that, you can’t substitute a village for a family, so let’s not waste funds on such a day dream.Report

  12. Avatar Rufus F.
    Ignored
    says:

    “I think modern conservatism often loses its way by indulging in a brand of superficial managerialism – perhaps best exemplified by Newt Gingrich – that holds any number of intractable problems can be cured by sufficiently bold and decisive reforms.”

    Is it wrong of me to miss country club conservatives? Where did they all go?Report

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