(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
[Editor’s note — See new post on “Broader, Bolder” here.]
P.J. O’Rourke once described the early Clinton administration as “running the country by dorm-room bull session.” Some recent ferment among education progressives makes me wonder if they too have fallen back onto some old college habits. Catherine Johnson over at Kitchen Table Math for instance wrote on Randi Weingarten’s first speech as AFT President. Weingarten engages in NCLB bashing, and then lays out a vision for the future of public education:
“Imagine schools that are open all day and offer after-school and evening recreational activities and homework assistance … and suppose the schools included child care and dental, medical and counseling clinics, or other services the community needs,” Ms. Weingarten said. “For example, they might offer neighborhood residents English language instruction, GED programs, or legal assistance.”
Personally, I’m trying to imagine a system of public schools that could teach 4th grade kids how to read after spending $40,000 or more on their education. In 2007, 34% of American public school 4th graders scored below basic in reading on the NAEP. If we can’t trust schools to teach kids how to read, just why would we want them trying to fix our teeth or attempting to resolve our legal issues?
Weingarten echoes the “bigger and bolder” crowd, who seem to believe that schools can become more effective by becoming less focused on academics. Given the AFT opposition to standardized testing, these schools social welfare centers will ideally be free to thrive without the burden of academic transparency.
This of course is precisely the wrong direction to take. Paul Hill recently conducted a series of studies for the Gates Foundation concerning the stubborn lack of academic progress despite increased public school spending. After a series of studies, Hill reached the conclusion:
“…money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results.” (Hat tip: Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Steven Miller)
Summarizing then, public schools have yet to do a cost-benefit analysis on the nearly $10,000 per year per child they are already spending. They therefore have a very poor idea about which of their activities help achieve the goal of producing a well educated child, and which do not. They, in essence, just do what they do, which certainly helps explain how a school system could burn through tens of thousands of dollars without teaching a child to read.
Let me be specific. In Arizona, 44% of 4th graders score below basic in reading. Despite that fact, we have elementary school days that include a regular coursework in art, music and physical education. These offerings are of course enriching and wonderful for many children. Why however would a 3rd grader who can’t read be taking courses in art or music? We know that children not gaining basic literacy skills in the early grades are all but doomed to academic failure.
Could it be the case that schools should reallocate their resources under the theory that one’s lifelong ability to appreciate music and art would be greatly enhanced by learning how to read?
We’ve got quite a problem to sort out here and I will submit that the last thing we would want to do is get schools even less focused on academic achievement. It isn’t hard to imagine burning through even more money while still failing to teach basic academic skills to large numbers of kids: schools have been doing it for more than 40 years.
(edited for typos)