Something New at School

Nancy Zimpher, Ph.D in teacher education and Chancellor of the 64 campus State University of New York (SUNY) said at a recent budget hearing on higher education that 53 percent of New York high school graduates are not “college ready.”  A full 77 percent of graduates from a New York City high school are “college ready,” she said.

Most incoming college students need basic remediation.  Most need basic remediation in more than one subject.  So great is the need to spend time and money on high school learning that community colleges in particular are jammed with students who need help and are progressing slowly.

At the same hearing Matthew Goldstein, Ph.D. in statistics and Chancellor of the 24 campus City University of New York (CUNY) revealed that at CUNY community colleges the three-year graduation rate (for a two-year program) is a mere 15 percent.

The conclusion is unavoidable.  K-12 schools are not doing their job.  Our public education system is an abject failure.   I have great admiration and affinity for both Chancellors.  Each is energetic, perceptive and a remarkable force pushing their respective systems to new heights.  Each is now watching as their higher education achievements are undermined by lower education failures.

Among the 30 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations the United States ranks 15th, 21st, 24th, and 25th for reading, science, problem solving, and mathematics respectively.  The problem is so bad that Obama Administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that “82 percent” of schools nationwide are not adequately educating students.

There may be a number of reasons for this but money is not among them.  If funding was the problem with education we would have solved it billions of dollars ago.

Adjusted so the dollars are constant, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that American per pupil spending in 1960 was under $2,800 annually.   By 1980 that number had doubled to $5,718, and continued climbing to $10,441 by 2008.  Across New York State that number is $17,173 with New York City a still higher $18,126.

Since 1980 – the year the cabinet-level Department of Education was established – the combined total of federal, state, and local spending on K-12 education has skyrocketed.  Again, in adjusted dollars, $150 billion was spent nationwide in 1980.  That became $300 billion by 1990, $400 billion by 1995, and over $700 billion by 2005.    Student achievement has been largely flat (with some slight improvement among reading scores for Blacks, though their numbers remain lower than White and Hispanic achievement) with some regression in specific disciplines and demonstrable losses in comparison to other modern nations.

Prior to 1980, achievement was increasing.  This means that the torrents of cash since then have been wasted, arriving just as the achievement of American students hit a peak “terminal velocity.”  Or, it might be that the tidal wave of funds has actually hindered achievement.

What have we bought with all that money?

Today we have smaller classrooms.  The NAEP reports that the typical classroom in 1970 had 23 students per faculty.  By 2000 there were 16 students per faculty.  This is fine, but it does call to question the argument that smaller classrooms are a prerequisite for achievement.

We also have more education administrators.  Many more.  Upon taking office New York Governor and Democrat Andrew Cuomo launched an effort to rein in the number of school officials.  He noted that in the 15 years prior to 2011, student population dropped 4.6 percent, but the number of administrators increased by 34.5 percent.  So again, here is another education project that failed to improve school quality.

Staff salaries have increased, which is sort of a good thing.  I tend to agree with Milton Friedman when he said that “Poor teachers are grossly overpaid and good teachers grossly underpaid.”  In 2008 the national average teacher salary was $53,230 – which does not account for the job protections, health and retirement benefits, and 10 month work schedules that are the envy of other workers.  Back in New York, the average teacher salary is $62,332, and according to the Governor, a full third of superintendents receive salaries in excess of $175,000 a year.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an average teacher earns more money than an average biologist, chemist, dentist, mechanical engineer, or computer scientist.   Besting dentists does not strike me as correct either but the statistic is there.  Regardless, those others do not typically have tenure and summer vacations.

In review, our schools stink and we have tried the prescribed remedies of the teacher unions.  That is, our schools stink, so we have washed them in dollars, reduced class size, and funded staff.

We have done everything union advocates scream for.  What we have not done is borrow best practices from our fellow OECD nations.   We have not fully tried competition via school choice, we have not tried merit pay for teachers and elimination of tenure, we have not tried to cut funding and reduce staff, and we have not tried to enforce stricter school cultures, longer days, and shorter vacations.

It is about time we try something new.


2 thoughts on “Something New at School

  1. I agree with much, though unsurprisingly not all, of what you’ve written here (well, that’s progress, ain’t it?). Leaving aside our differences, I wonder if you have you seen the essay on Finland by Diane Ravitch (you know, the former, fairly conservative critic of the American education establishment who has come to loathe NCLB and its legacy of homogenized test-prep) here: Note please that she anticipates the “no diversity there” counter-argument. All this says nothing either way about what you and I would surely agree on, regarding the critical importance of parental and community expectations in reinforcing what our schools try to do, however richly or modestly they are provisioned to do so.

  2. I tried not to touch the issue of parental involvement not because I think it unimportant, but because there is so little the educational establishment can do about it. Naturally I think parental involve is vitally important, but that cultural case seems best left to another post.

    Recently I came across a blog (I can’t seem to find it now) that advocated a new approach to evaluating school – as opposed to student – performance. The author devised a formula that had test scores and degrees attained by parents among its components. It birthed some very interesting results.

    Regarding the Finnish model, I think there is much to examine. It is certainly very compelling. The existence of a “Finnish” model, or any thing else that can be deemed more successful than the American model, I think supports my argument. Namely, that we need to try something else.

    Under the thumb of the teachers unions and their incessant drumbeat for more money, we as a nation are failing.

    Personally I am a big proponent of school choice via a method that ties funding to the kid, not the school, with the cash following the student wherever they go. There are specific ways to achieve this, and I have my favorites, but really, anything is better than the status quo.

    I would also remove the federal government from K-12 education. The federal role is justified by the much abused “commerce clause” since the Constitution clearly leaves education to the states.

    I have a few other preferred policies, but before anything, I firmly believe that the teachers unions are the greatest obstacle to student achievement. Since the education problem is at near crisis level, this puts the teachers unions as one of the biggest problems in the nation.

    To be clear, I don’t think our teachers are the problem. Those good teachers (and every school seems to have a few) need support and should be very well-paid and universally revered. However, in that teachers empower their unions, I do place a good portion of the blame before them.

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