AFT Goes Up in Smoke

(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)

13 Responses to AFT Goes Up in Smoke

  1. KDeRosa says:

    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.

    Read? They can’t even reliably teach them to decode.

  2. I can just imagine the dorm-room bull session that produced the “broader, bolder” plan:

    “Like, kids need so much. We should totally give them everything they need in one place.”

    “Yeah, like there should be like a food thing and a health thing and a sleeping thing.”

    “Isn’t that what a child’s home is for? Shouldn’t we only step in to assume parental responsibilities for individual children when parents have demonstrably failed?”

    “No way, man. You’re a square. You and all of those square parents need to shut up and, like, get with the plan. Why should we let those square parents do stuff when we can do it, like, awesomely?”

    “Yeah, give me another hit. I know that me and my friends would be, like, super-awesome at the food stuff and the like caring for them stuff.”

    “But aren’t you guys already providing kids with meals and still you can’t teach them to read very well? What makes you think that you could handle providing more services when you can’t do what you’re already supposed to do.”

    “It’s like we need to change the whole system. We’re talking about a revolution here. We’re all so trapped in our bourgeois mindset that we can’t see how totally awesome it would be after we change everything. Then you’ll see.”

    “I’m having a bad trip, man. I think I’m the Lizard King!”

  3. Greg Forster says:

    I didn’t know that the marketing firms hired by the teachers’ unions to invent new slogans and publicity gimmicks to lure the public into giving them more money came up with their ideas by having bull sessions.

  4. Patrick says:

    Thanks for the tip of the hat Matt. Here is my wag of the finger to public education spending:

    I found that the inflation adjusted per-pupil spending on public education from 1961-2005 increased 247%. If gas prices had risen that fast we would pay $6.18 today. (Simply used NCES inflation adjusted estimates found here:

    (Controlling for inflation to 2008 and assuming NCES estimates including capital costs for public education the rise is 293% from 1961-2007 or, $7.34 a gallon for gasoline. So $6.18 a gallon is the very conservative estimate.)

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    Matthew, I was with you up until the point where you started attacking art, music and physical education. While the data is a bit hard to come up with–as you allude–I believe that there are districts who have earnestly ditched art, music and physical education in an effort to improve reading, and I am thinking that the results are only marginally improved. I also believe that somewhere way back when my district piloted an enriched arts program they did accumulate some data showing that scores in reading (this was way back in the dark ages before NCLB) did improve.

    My district also paid for a curriculum audit (again, prior to NCLB) to find out that it was very difficult to give any meaningful feedback on lots and lots of programs (that teachers liked and swore were “working” because there was typically no evaluation done.

    I am not impressed by bigger, bolder, for many fo the same reasons that you point out (they can’t teach and now they want to be doctors?)–as well as a basic belief that it’s a smoke screen that serves to avoid looking at some things that educators need to take on about what works and what doesn’t. But it is true (and there appears to be some solid research to demonstrate a connection) that in countries where such things and a basic child income, minimum level of health care, parental leave, early childhood education and child care are attended to that the kids on the bottom of the heap are doing better in relation to the ones at the top (and the ones at the top are typically ahead of ours).

  6. matthewladner says:


    I don’t think I was attacking art/music/pe but simply posing the question: in a state with 44% of 4th graders scoring below basic on 4th grade reading, should we really be having children who haven’t learned how to read taking such courses? You may be right that schools could focus more funds on early reading instruction without having positive results, but schools should not go on ignoring the problem. Time is a limited resource just like money, and a school should have no thought for an elementary school aged illiterate other than getting them to read while they still can, in my opinion. If an arts program can measurably contribute to that, I’m all for it. If not, I’d happily look to use those funds for something that could do so. One thing is for certain: when almost half of your 4th graders can’t read, you can’t afford any sacred cows.

    On your point about European social welfare states and education scores, it is true that Europeans score better than Americans on international academic examinations, but it is not necessarily the case that social welfare policy can explain the difference. Eastern European countries often outscore Americans without cradle to grave welfare states. A number of European countries have a per-capita income below that of the poorest American state, but knock our socks off in international scores, while spending less money per pupil.

    For a good read on what the Europeans seem to be doing right, and we seem to be doing wrong in education, see this report:

    Click to access Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf

  7. […] do Cheech and Chong and Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers have in common: According to Matthew Ladner, both are, umm, up in […]

  8. 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.

    Schools in the US must be doing something right, according to the CIA World Fact Book the US has a literacy rate of nearly 100%.

  9. matthewladner says:

    The CIA must have an awfully forgiving definition of literacy.

  10. Greg Forster says:

    I commented on the CIA’s 99 percent literacy claim here:

  11. […] Ladner [on Jay Greene’s site] ushers in some common sense about inadequate schools being trusted with the physical health of […]

  12. MTheads says:

    It’s easy to talk about how important art and music programs are, but why assume their quality is any higher than the school’s poor reading programs? Maybe the kids wouldn’t be missing much by dropping them. I get the feeling that for some people, “art and music programs” take on a religious quality where just saying the words is enough to enrich children’s lives.

  13. […] friends Matt Ladner and Jay Greene call this education reform by dorm-room bull session. They imagine the meetings to […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: