A Good Education For All

We like the words of conservatives — they focus on what’s good.  Progressives make us angry because when advocating change, they tell us what’s bad.  Many compound the problem with their tone — they feel, deep down, that what’s wrong never will be fully righted.  Robert Reich is an exception:

“This Saturday, May 17, marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling overcoming “separate but equal” school segregation that the Court had approved in 1896.  The Brown decision helped fuel the civil rights movement, but it failed to have a lasting effect on school segregation.  America’s schools today are almost as segregated as were southern schools before Brown.  That’s because the neighborhoods where most black and Latino children now live and attend school are nearly all black and Latino.

We’re segregating geographically by income and race, more dramatically than at any time in the nation’s history.  Entire cities are now mostly poor and black or Latino, even though bordered by cities or counties that are largely middle class and white (consider Detroit and its neighbor, Oakland County, Michigan).  But as was the case in the 1950s, separate is not equal.  In order to integrate our schools we need to integrate our cities and communities.  Housing policy is critical to education.”

In fact, it’s hard to see how the problem Reich describes can be overcome under our Constitution, and the problem is broader than he describes.  His solution falls short but it is a good basis for discussion because his principal focus always is on a better future.

Our schools are indeed segregated by race but the deeper segregation in our society is by wealth.  Schools in poor and affluent white communities look similar because both sets of kids are white.  The quality of education, however, is very different.  That means so also are the outcomes.

Because almost half the funding for US public schools depends on local taxes, there are inevitable large differences in education between wealthy and impoverished communities.  The difference compounds over time because better educated children become higher income adults who choose to live where high property taxes fund good schools for their own children.

Looked at the other way, communities where student poverty is rare have well-funded schools, those where student poverty is rampant get much less funding.

Ours is the only first world nation that funds education based on local wealth.  Other nations equalize funding or provide more for students in need.  Dutch schools, for example, are funded based on the number of pupils and get almost twice as much funding per minority child and 1.25 times as much per low-income child as per middle-class child.  In the US, we do the opposite.  Schools for our lower-income and minority students typically receive less funds than those for middle-class white kids.

When our government structure was established by Constitution in the 18th century, most schools were financed by voluntary contributions.  By the end of the 19th century most schools were funded with local property taxes.  That was OK because people in most communities then had similar standards of living.  But urbanization in the 20th century created ever-growing differences between affluent suburbs and poor inner cities.  Parents in affluent communities could pay for better schools.

Does that differential funding make a difference?  US schools with high funding and few impoverished students got achievement scores comparable to those of Hong Kong, Japan, and other top-scoring countries in a 2001 study by the International Association for the Advancement of Educational Achievement.  US schools with the lowest funding and many poor students got achievement scores similar to the worst-scoring nations, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.

This severe inequality is not likely to change soon.  Most parents in affluent communities do not want to pay higher taxes to improve education in poorer communities.  They certainly do not want funding to be taken away from their local schools.  And in its 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez ruling, the US Supreme Court found that our Constitution does not require equal funding among school districts.  Today’s Court would rule the same way.  That decision foreclosed federal remedies for inequitable school funding.

Nevertheless, as pragmatist philosopher and educator John Dewey’s wrote more than a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.”

Most people believe better education leads to a better future.  An America where every child and teacher goes to a good school would be better.

I have a dream that we will overcome the obstacles to a better education for all our children.  We will get there faster by ranting less about what’s wrong with our institutions, leaders and neighbors and focusing instead on achieving what is better.



8 comments on “A Good Education For All

  1. Angelo responded on Facebook: “Martin, because of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS decision, I’ve read a bunch of these screeds this week, and as far as I am concerned, they are pure crap.

    Why do I believe that? First and foremost, they all defend the tired argument that “more money” will improve education; and that the “inequality” in spending across school districts is adversely and disproportionately affecting various minority groups.

    In reality, we have had about five decades of inflation-adjusted (i.e. “real”) increases in education spending, and the results have been negligible. Also in reality, unless you don’t believe in our own nation’s Census data, per-pupil spending in many of these “racially segregated” school systems are among the highest in that nation. DC leads the nation in this regard.

    For more of the actual facts, please refer to this article: http://washingtonexaminer.com/d.c.-schools-outspend-nation-per-student/article/2500339

    Now in my own experience in my tony town of Westborough, MA, we have the “idyllic” education system that is lavishly funded by astronomical property taxes, which are paid largely by a reviled demographic known as the “McMansion-ites”, which unfortunately includes my neighborhood.

    To put it in succinct terms, we have a rather mediocre school system comprised largely of very nice but rather average teachers and administrators. In addition, many of the folks that taught my children when I moved to the town 19 years ago are contemporaries, and most have now retired. Unlike those of us in IT, it is rather common for educators to retire with lavish benefits at around the ripe old age of 55. In general, the average teacher in my town has about a 30-year career, followed by a 30 year retirement.

    Regarding Mr. Reich, he is a longtime friend of some of my wife’s relatives. I’ve met him and have had the opportunity to debate him 1-1. He is a smart man though he has his biases. For example, his article omits the fact that nearly all nations, including those that have achieved better results spend far less per student than we do. Once again, if money was the solution, then our outcomes would be the best, and they’re not.

    Also, keep in mind that Mr. Reich did not send his own children to government-funded “public” schools. Like many of his like-minded “progressives”, he believes that these schools are fine for people other than his own children. Related to this, I used to laugh at Caroline Kennedy-Schlossberg’s “advocacy” of the NYC Public Schools, while sending her own children to fancy private schools.

    Speaking of NYC, the folks that are really making a difference, particularly with disadvantaged minority students are Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz. It comes as no surprise to me that they have been attacked relentlessly by the education establishment, including Satan-incarnate Randi Weingarten. I am also truly disgusted by the antics of Mayor DeBlasio who is selling out to the politically-powerful and well-funded teachers unions through his attacks on the charter schools in Harlem.

    In summary, it is clearly and unquestionably the “progressives” whose policies have put public education into its current sorry state, and it’s the “progressives” who are the ones that are fighting any meaningful and substantive reforms.

  2. I replied: “Hi Angelo – To your fundamental point, the statistics do in fact demonstrate that more money results in higher achievement – this was among the most non-crap research I found: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may02/vol59/num08/Unequal-School-Funding-in-the-United-States.aspx The D.C, schools piece doesn’t prove anything.

    I do, however, share your frustration over the return we get from our education system. We seem to see pretty much the same existing situation. I believe a better system would be what I described where all schools are funded equally on a per-student basis, with per-student supplements based on socio-economic situation. What I do not at all understand is what we should do so that money gets better spent.

    I do not condemn Reich or anyone else for sending their kids to the best available school. Different schools do deliver different outcomes and, on average, the difference in quality results from differences in funding. You agree about that, right?

    We sent our kids to our local school system, which was sadly similar to yours. It felt like a trade-off between acculturating them to a diverse population or giving them a better education. What tipped the balance was that my wife and I grew up in England. We wanted our kids to interact with folks from many different American backgrounds. I hoped tthey would get at least a few excellent teachers who would inspire them. It worked out OK but it could have been a lot better. As I said, I just don’t know how to make it better and I hope some of our teacher friends will make suggestions.

    But I have to reiterate my key beliefs – differences in per-student funding do, on average, deliver different achievement outcomes, and we’ll get a better education system by focusing more on its attributes and less on the people we could blame for flaws in the system we have now.

  3. Angelo responded: “Martin, while I do not necessarily agree with all of your commentary above, I recognize that your comments are intellectually honest. On that basis, I appreciate you sharing your ideas and experiences.

    Now WRT some suggestions for improvement, I’d like to see a “funding follows student” paradigm whereby there is a choice of school available to all, not just the Robert Reich’s and his ilk. Class warfare aside, the benefit of this model is that it shifts the empowerment from the school system to the students and their parents.

    You can rest assured that Randy Weingarten is Hell-bent (pun intended) on making sure that this never happens — and she’ll spend every last dime of her organization’s union dues if necessary.

    Thanks again for the commentary. Hopefully some of the folks that clicked “like” on your original post [will] contribute informed and constructive commentary.

  4. Paul commented: “Angelo, You seem to be defensive about the idea of putting more money into education. Fair enough. Part of the issue is that educational spending is somewhat orthogonal to the debate. Most of the “progressives” in the debate regard favorably the idea that school outcomes have something to do with the larger social context. And in fact (and you might not disagree) all the national school systems that do well with less all spend more on social services generally. So maybe the spending on schools is not the place to improve outcomes but poverty (and inequality) does matter. And when you exclude poor school districts from the data, US schools perform almost indistinguishably in the international comparisons.

  5. Angelo responded: “Paul, my position pertaining to the prospects of putting more money into education has been influenced by the shenanigans that go on in my town, which is the entity that “bills” me quarterly for the education they provide. It suffices to say that I am resentful rather than defensive, but enough about me and my zany town.

    Now regarding your comments about poverty and its effect on educational outcomes, I generally concur, though I would submit that there are multiple factors in play. Case in point, given what I’ve observed with the outcomes at the various Charter Schools in Harlem (and some in both Boston and Worcester) that cater mainly to a core group of economically disadvantaged children, there is evidence that where there is a combination of a home environment (regardless of income or race) that values the importance of education, plus the opportunity to be educated in an academic environment that delivers, then you will see a high degree of success. Take away one or both, and there is failure.

    I have very strong and negative opinions towards the Reich’s of the world, because I believe that they understand this, but refuse to advance this narrative out of concern that it will offend the powerful political forces that are fighting all meaningful reforms. They much rather prefer to make this about “inequality” and “racial politics” so that they can justify extorting more money from tax payers, which in turn personally benefits them both politically and economically. To them, it is much more convenient and personally beneficial to package a convenient lie in a “moral high-ground wrapper”, than it is to speak the truth about the real cause and effect of the current problems in our education system – and THAT is why I have such disdain for the so-called “progressives” in this country.

  6. One of many reasons I want a better education system is my belief that democracy requires voters who see and think clearly. But there is another view.

    Larry Bartels, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, doubts that spreading ignorance is a uniquely American phenomenon. “If your vision of democracy is one in which elections provide solemn opportunities for voters to set the course of public policy and hold leaders accountable, yes. If you take the less ambitious view that elections provide a convenient, non-violent way for a society to agree on who is in charge at any given time, perhaps not.”

    There are many interesting statistics in the associated article: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/america-dumbs-down/

  7. Angelo wrote: “More food for thought – http://blog.heritage.org/2014/05/19/federal-government-hasnt-improved-education-trying-50-years/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social

    I replied: “Thanks, Angelo. What strikes me as the most important statement in the article is: ““[S]tudent achievement at the high school level has been flat in recent years. Just as troubling, achievement gaps among ethnic groups have not narrowed,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in response to the report.” There are two problems, education results are not getting better, which is a problem because they were bad to begin with, and smart kids from poor backgrounds are still getting a worse education than smart kids from wealthier families.

    Neither of the problems was caused by or ameliorated by “federal intervention in education.” The only thing we know for sure is our existing education system delivers astonishingly poor results for the enormous amount it costs.

    I agree wholeheartedly that our educational system is badly flawed. What I do not believe, among other things, is that getting the federal government out of education is the answer. Neither do I believe that getting them more intimately involved is necessarily a good idea – it could be a very bad idea.

    My original point was that the way we fund education tends to increase the relative advantage of kids born into wealthier families and the relative disadvantage of those born into poor families. I wasn’t saying we should spend more on education because I don’t know what’s wrong with the way we educate so I don’t know if a better way would cost more or less. All I was saying is that I believe we should invest per student, not per school and that we should invest more per student in those from disadvantaged families.

    The education system when I was in school in England seems to me a more promising approach. Most kids went to a state school through 5th Grade. An exam determined whether they graduated to a more academically- or trade-oriented school. Family situation was irrelevant. The only criterion was how well the child did in the exam. Passing it was what gave me the opportunity to work for and achieve a better life.

    The school I happened to be assigned to for 6th Grade and beyond was an undistinguished private school until it was taken over by the State a decade earlier. It pretended it had been the chosen place for upper class families, which in reality it never had been and snce I was very much not from an upper class family, I disliked that intensely. But I did get a pretty good education there despite all that bullshit.

    So I’m skeptical about charter schools. If I knew the recipe to make a good school, which presumably operators of charter schools believe they do, I’d rather apply the recipe to every school so every kid could get a good education.

    I think we should require the federal government to provide a good education system architecture and we should hold school principals and teachers accountable for the results they deliver.

    And, responding to your point about the importance of family, I completely agree. The question is what to do about kids from dysfunctional families. I don’t know how it could be institutionalized but it seems to me those kids need a mentor who will give them the confidence and guidance their parents do not supply. Even the very best school cannot help much if that’s missing.

  8. You wrote: “Ours is the only first world nation that funds education based on local wealth. Other nations equalize funding or provide more for students in need.”

    California has changed its state-level formula for allocating money to local schools, giving more money to districts with higher needs. It will be interesting to follow the results.

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