Tough Lesson: More Money Doesn’t Help Schools; Accountability Does

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Letter Writer:

Peter Campbell of St. Louis, Missouri state coordinator for Assessment Reform Network, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Date:

April 13, 2006

Letter:

Rubén Hernández-Murillo and Deborah Roisman write, "But research in economics provides strong evidence that policies focused on increasing schools’ resources have little or no effect on academic achievement." This is simply not true. By "increasing schools’ resources," they mean direct expenditure in districts on a per pupil basis. I think it's very important to point out that Ladue and Clayton, two of the most highly regarded school districts in the St. Louis metro area, spend $11,500 and nearly $15,000 per student (in 2003-2004 dollars). Recall that St. Louis public schools spent $9,500 that same period. These expenditures are on top of the fact that median income in Ladue and Clayton was $84K and $71K, respectively, while in St. Louis city it was about $22K.

So, the $9,500 spent on St. Louis city schools is not only significantly less than what is spent in two of the most highly regarded districts, but that money pales in comparison to the expenditures that wealthy parents in these areas are able to make on their kids’ educations in terms of summer camps, after-school tutoring, ballet and piano lessons, etc. Mix this with the fact that the parents are likely highly educated and bring to bear a different relationship to schools, studying, reading and academic achievement that their St. Louis city school peers do not bring. Moreover, a disproportionately high percentage of St. Louis city parents are single heads of household—a far cry from the suburban soccer moms who stay at home and whose full-time job is to raise her kids.

The authors partially acknowledge these factors: "Where they really differ is that the high-score districts have much larger shares of households with a bachelor’s or higher degree (a proxy for the parents’ education attainment) and much larger median incomes for households with children. This suggests that student achievement depends more on family characteristics than on spending policies."

No doubt. But what the authors fail to recognize is that something needs to be done to make up for these disparities. Of course, what never ceases to amaze me is that critics who say "Throwing more money at education will not solve the problem" are invariably the same people who send their kids to expensive private prep schools or spend extraordinary sums of money to supplement their kids' education.

So, money doesn't make a difference, huh? The authors write, "Individual teachers’ salaries and the security of administrators’ jobs are not usually linked to students’ academic performance." Thank God, the teachers’ salaries and the security of administrators’ jobs are not linked to students’ academic performance! In those instances where they are linked, guess what happens? Teachers turn against one another, teach to the test even more than they already do and significantly impede the learning of students. (By the way, there is a bill in the Missouri House to tie teacher pay to test scores.)

The mindlessness continues: "This lack of accountability stems from a lack of competition among public schools." So, teachers and administrators are not accountable because they don't compete with other schools? And if they did compete, they would be accountable? This makes no sense. The idea is that introducing market-like competition into the public schools will make them better. How does that happen?

Let's assume that it does work. Let's assume that we need more private schools and that parents need more choice. What will happen?

Scenario No. 1:

  1. Parents are given more schools to choose from.
  2. On the basis of standardized test scores, parents determine which are the "poorly run" schools and which are the "good" schools.
  3. Parents who (a) are informed on these matters and (b) are willing to pay for and provide transportation to these other schools will do so.
  4. Parents who are not informed on these matters and/or parents who are unable to pay for and provide transportation to these other schools will keep their kids at the "poorly run" schools.
  5. Because the highly motivated parents abandon the "poorly run" schools, these schools are left with students who do not benefit from strong parental support.
  6. The test scores of the "poorly run" schools continue to plummet.
  7. These schools are eventually taken over by the state because they fail to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) for five years in a row.
  8. The state hands these schools over to private, for-profit educational management organizations, such as Edison.
  9. Public education in the United States amounts to approximately $400 billion per year; even if Edison gets only one-tenth of 1 percent of this pie, it will make $40 million per year.

Scenario No. 2:

  1. Parents are given more schools to choose from.
  2. On the basis of standardized test scores, parents determine which are the "poorly run" schools and which are the "good" schools.
  3. Eventually, all parents move their children from the "poorly run" schools to the "good" schools.
  4. The "poorly run" schools are shut down and demolished.
  5. The "good" schools become overcrowded.
  6. Faced with budget cuts and the unfunded federal mandate known as NCLB (No Child Left Behind) that has already drained funds out of schools and into the pockets of publishing companies/test developers, the "good" schools cram more and more students into already overcrowded classrooms.
  7. The quality of teaching and learning suffers at the "good" schools.
  8. Test scores go down at the "good" schools.
  9. The "good" schools become the "poorly run" schools.
  10. Repeat steps 1 through 9 ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Letter Writer:

Dr. Mark Enderle, superintendent of the Fulton, Mo., School District.

*This letter was originally written to an officer of The Callaway Bank in Fulton, Mo., who sent Dr. Enderle the article.

Date:

April 16, 2004

Letter:

I read it with equal parts interest and aggravation. Perhaps the point that most frequently gets lost when economists study public education is that we’re not producing widgets. If a company is making widgets, they have near total control over the raw materials that will go into their product. That is obviously not the case when we’re discussing public education.

We are doing our best to educate children who come from a variety of backgrounds. Many of our students come to us with all the advantages a privileged upbringing provides (pre-school, computers, engaged parents), while other children come to us not even knowing their colors, or the letters in the alphabet. Yet when they reach the end of our assembly line, the expectation is all of our students be suitably prepared to take on the challenges of an ever-changing world. All things considered, I believe we do a good job in accomplishing this goal, but also recognize that much work still needs to be done.

Perhaps the most unfair comparison that oftentimes gets made is to evaluate test scores of children who attend schools located in relatively upper/middle class neighborhoods to those of students who attend schools in lower socio-economic areas. Because these children often come from poverty, these schools are often funded at a higher per pupil rate than their counterparts in the suburbs. Also because these students come from homes of low privilege, their test scores don’t compare well to those of other students. The conclusion is then assumed to be that it doesn’t matter how much money is spent on each pupil. I believe this conclusion is incorrect.

If you were to study the expenditures of a hospital, you would find that the costliest department is the intensive care unit. The reason for that is obvious: the money is spent here because that’s where the need is the highest. That doesn’t mean they are all going to fully recover, or even survive their surgeries. It does mean these patients need the highest (and most expensive) level of care to be given a fighting chance. So it is for children of poverty.

My position on No Child Left Behind is diametrically opposed to that of the authors of this article; accountability standards alone will do little to positively affect the education of public school children. I also differ with their opinion on the sanction or rewards school districts will receive. Unlike the traditional carrot or stick approach, No Child Left Behind’s incentive system consists of being punished by either small sticks or big sticks. Proving my point is the following excerpt from the article:

Schools will be rewarded or sanctioned depending on the tests’ results. Schools that continually fail to achieve progress could be forced to provide students with supplemental programs, such as tutoring, or, if needed, options to transfer out of failing schools. On the positive side, teachers who receive academic awards will be eligible to obtain financial awards too.

I think a fair-minded person would recognize that the threat of sanctions is more likely than the possibility of rewards. And that assumes test scores are adequate to be the sole measure of student success. Does the Callaway Bank* evaluate the effectiveness of their staff based on your employees’ ability to do their job, or on the results of a multiple-choice & essay test. My father, who is one of the smartest people I know, accomplished all he did in life on the foundation of an 8th grade education. If you gave him a written test on how to repair an engine he probably would perform rather poorly, yet I guarantee you he could locate and fix any problem presented to him.


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