Tag: school performance

We Have Too Many Teachers Already!

A story yesterday on CNNMoney.com describes the plight of Jenny Frank, who is young and eager to begin a career in teaching but hasn’t been able to land a job. It’s always sad to hear of people failing to find work in their chosen field, but the article in question completely misses a staggeringly important national story. As I mentioned this morning on Fox ‘n’ Friends: we have about 1.5 million too many teachers already!

Since 1970, public school enrollment has barely budged–up just 9 percent. Over the same period, employment has doubled. We’ve added 3 million new government school jobs. Half of those are teachers, another quarter are teachers’ aides, and the rest are service personnel and bureaucrats. This hiring binge has contributed to a quadrupling in the real, inflation-adjusted cost of a k-12 education: from $38,000 to $150,000 (constant 2009 dollars). It has not contributed to improved student achievement which, at best, has been flat at the end of high-school over that entire period.

If we went back to the staff-to-pupil ratio of 1970, we’d save something like $200 billion annually. And since achievement didn’t go up with the hiring boom, there’s no reason to expect it would fall if we pared back the government school rolls. And if staff reductions were focused on the lowest-performers, we would likely see student learning gains as kids were pulled out of the classes of bad teachers and placed into the classes of better ones. Our classes are currently much smaller than those of other nations that outperform us anyway (about 22 to 24 students per class in the US, versus an international average of 29).

Alas, none of that is going to happen while the education of American children remains focused on serving the adults employed by the system rather than kids. But imagine if education were part of the free enterprise system, in which quality and efficiency are handsomely rewarded and failure is penalized. The right-sizing of America’s education labor force would happen automatically, as parents shunned inneffective, expensive, overstaffed schools in favor of those that hired and retained only competent teachers–and only as many as are actually required to effectively reach children.

Isn’t education important enough to do what actually works?

“What Do You Do, Sir?”

Brandon Dutcher of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs recently wrote a commentary for The Oklahoman featuring (in the print edition) a chart I created of percent change in the state’s ACT scores and per pupil revenues over time. (Hint: one line’s pretty flat, the other goes up lots.)

Some folks didn’t like what this chart reveals, and so offered a variety of excuses for it in today’s letters to the editor. I’ve just responded with a letter to the editor of my own, reproduced here:

It is an unfailing characteristic of human nature that, when faced with evidence undermining their accomplishments or beliefs, people look first to excuses in the hope of deflecting the blow. So it’s no surprise to see a letter to the editor discounting Oklahoma’s relatively flat ACT scores despite rising spending on the grounds that the ACT “was never meant” “as a tool for evaluating the success of the common education system.” The only problem with this claim is that it’s absolutely false. According to the official ACT publication ”The Sensitivity of the ACT to Instruction”:

Consistent with [its co-founder’s] intent, the ACT is an educational achievement test that measures the typical content and skills learned from college preparatory curricula. Consequently, the ACT can … provide direct feedback to high school teachers about the effectiveness of their teaching.

Another excuse offered for Oklahoma’s education productivity collapse is that student achievement is limited while “the amount of money that can be potentially spent on education has no limit.” Oklahoma taxpayers will be pleased to learn they have limitless financial resources, but this is no defense of the status quo. If it was foolish to think in 1990 that spending 40% more on a state monopoly school system would substantially improve student learning, then the same is presumably true today. That, it seems to me, was the point of Mr. Dutcher’s op-ed.

To answer that same letter-writer’s question about the initial year of comparison for the chart’s percent change calculations, it is 1990 (as could have been surmised from the fact that the reported changes for 1990 are both zero). 

That’s the end of my letter, but I can’t help adding an observation that would have exceeded the word count. While everybody likes to be right all the time, the strategies for approximating that desired state vary considerably in their effectiveness. The best is the one most famously touted (though not necessarily followed) by John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The sooner we adopt an education system that is actually effective and efficient, the sooner people can stop being wrong defending the current profligate monopoly.

School Choice Advocates: Beware Washington

The Brookings Institution will release a new school choice policy guide on February 2nd, and from the sound of it, children, parents, taxpayers, and the authors themselves should be concerned.  The guide will provide:

a series of practical and novel recommendations for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including national chartering of virtual education providers; expanding the types of information collected on school performance; providing incentives for low-performing school districts to increase choice and competition; and creating independent school choice portals to aid parents in choosing between schools.

The goals these recommendations are meant to achieve are entirely laudable, but there are three reasons for serious concern:

1)  The Constitution delegates to the federal government no power to provide or regulate education services, except in the execution of its explicitly enumerated powers. So the Supreme Court can ensure that state education programs abide by the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, but Congress cannot “charter virtual education providers.” Of course the federal government has been transgressing the limits on its education powers for more than half a century, but no one who supports the rule of law can condone that transgression, much less its expansion.

2)  From a regulatory standpoint, Washington is the worst level of government at which to implement an education program. National education programs impose a single set of rules on every participating provider in the country. Get those rules wrong – either up front or down the road – and you not only hobble the effectiveness of every single provider, but you eliminate the possibility of comparing outcomes between providers operating under different sets of rules. In essence you lose the ability to distinguish between different “treatments” – to determine what helps and what is harmful to the service’s overall success.

3)  We have ample evidence about the quality of education programs implemented by the federal government. For example, after 45 years and $166 billion, Head Start has just been proven entirely ineffective. (See also the NCLB paper linked to in “1)”, above). Once again, this problem is exacerbated by the all-encompassing nature of federal programs. Get them wrong and you get them wrong for every participating student, everywhere in the country. With variation in programs among states, by contrast, we not only have the ability to compare the merits of alternative approaches, we have powerful incentives for states to get their programs right. Just as tax competition drives businesses from one state or nation to another, so, too, can education policy competition. States with better policies will attract businesses and more mobile residents from states with worse ones, eventually compelling the inferior policy states to redress their errors.  We’re just beginning to see the prospects for this now, as school choice programs proliferate and grow at the state level, and introducing national programs that might well interfere with this process would be a disastrous mistake.

I hope that school choice advocates, including those who have contributed to the forthcoming Brookings report, will weigh these concerns.