Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Class and the Classroom: Does Money Matter?

Why does it seem that money matters everywhere but in public education? Corporations spend lavishly to recruit the best workers and provide the most luxurious perks. The best places to live are in the wealthier suburbs that can pay for clean, safe streets. High end cars have the latest gadgetry and safety features.

But public education? In the most important industry we have to promote learning, culture, and democracy we race to the bottom to find out who can spend the least and cut the most, then lament that we don't get the best people to teach or the highest test scores in the world. Politicians want to break teacher's unions under the pretense of saving money and are working to create evaluation systems that will use bad data to punish educators and pay them less. And the biggest fraud is the old saw that schools can ameliorate the effects of poverty and raise all students to above average academic levels, a claim that any mathematics teacher will tell you defies the bell curve.

This particular lie is uncovered in the opinion piece, Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It? by Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske in Monday's New York Times.  The findings should not surprise anyone: 

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students. 

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates. 

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty? 

George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act was meant to address this correlation, but it only showed how faulty the logic was behind the law. 

As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.

We've wasted billions of dollars trying to achieve results using the wrong measurements and the wrong strategies, from relying on standardized tests to using scripted curricula to cutting money for vocational and technical training for students who do not excel at academic subjects. Then came the devastating budget cuts precipitated by the recession and the rise of Republican governors who don't understand that competition within schools does little other than to destroy the collaborative atmosphere that enables successful schools to thrive.

What works?   

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities. 

Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course. 

Of course, you can't replicate the middle class experiences by implementing policies that hurt the existing middle class while protecting the wealthy, but that's a minor detail.

As always, though, there's more.

Another article sheds more light on the relationship between quality education and money in a less obvious realm; the military. That's right. According to Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students by Michael Winerip, children in public schools on military bases are performing better than the general public school population on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and are narrowing the income gap at the same time. 

At the military base schools, 39 percent of fourth graders were scored as proficient in reading, compared with 32 percent of all public school students. 

Even more impressive, the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools. 

On the NAEP reading test, black fourth graders in public schools scored an average of 205 out of 500, compared with a 231 score for white public school students, a 26-point gap. Black fourth graders at the military base schools averaged 222 in reading, compared with 233 for whites, an 11-point gap.

In fact, the black fourth graders at the military base schools scored better in reading than public school students as a whole, whose average score was 221. 

Now, I'm not saying that a 39% reading proficiency rate is something to crow about, and there is the matter that military people must be high school graduates and pass an entrance exam to get into the service, but the results do show an improvement over other public school children. And they succeed without doing most of the things that busybody state governments want their schools to accomplish. Military base schools do not use standardized tests to evaluate teachers, but only to identify students' strengths and weaknesses, and the principal can decide how many times to observe their teachers. Average class size is lower than regular public schools and there seems to be a positive relationship between the teacher's union and the administration.

But the real lesson is that economically and academically, the students get the support from home that they need in order to succeed. All of the families have health care, housing and necessities because they serve in the military, and at least one parent in the household has a job. These are the basic middle class advantages that are missing from many communities across the country, but ones that politicians are ignoring in their race to blame teachers and demonize their negotiated benefits. They are also what Ladd and Fiske refer to as the absolute minimum that less fortunate students need to compete with upper middle class schools.

Excellent public schools must be available to all students, but they won't be as long as know-nothing politicians and would-be reformers concentrate on the wrong remedies and research that advocates privatization and cuts to social programs. We need to replicate what actually works for children, families and communities.

Find out what else works at www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives


  1. It makes sense to treat schools like any other business...when the raw inputs that aren't up to par can be discarded in a landfill like bad blueberries or a defective bumper.

    By the way, if money doesn't matter, why do the very top schools charge upwards of $40K/yr?

    Poverty (financially or otherwise) is usually at the root of the problem.

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