This is the model for new school construction. (HT: Arkansas Project)
I understand why House Democrats included $20 billion for school construction in the $819 billion stimulus package they passed last week. They need to throw money out the window as fast as the printing presses can make it. That way they can say they are doing something to “help” the economy. And as long as they are doing something they might as well help their friends in the educational industrial complex.
What I don’t understand is why some normally smart people feel compelled to justify this school construction spending by claiming that it will help students or that it is badly needed. There is no evidence to support these claims. That’s why I was surprised to see Sara Mead, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, write:
“But perhaps the most important reason to invest in school construction is that our students need it. Just as Americans have underinvested in our bridges, roads, and other infrastructure, we’ve also underinvested in our education infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure report card gives our school buildings a grade of D — lower than grades for bridges, rail, or public transit infrastructure. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it would cost $127 billion just to renovate and repair crumbling or outdated school facilities to good condition. Poor school facilities don’t necessarily prevent students from learning, but, it’s unconscionable that we currently ask students to learn, and teachers to work, in buildings that are overcrowded, inadequately heated and ventilated, poorly maintained, and in some cases literally falling apart. The contrast between schools and other buildings sends our most disadvantaged children a devastating message about the value we place on their education.”
As readers of JPGB may recall, the research literature finds no relationship between school facilities and student achievement (outside of developing countries, where a grass hut and mud floor may be a hindrance in bad weather). To repeat: “In the Handbook of the Economics of Education, Eric Hanushek reviews all of the research meeting minimal quality standards regarding the relationship between school facilities and student performance. He identifies 91 analyses on the issue in the U.S. and finds that 86% of them show no statistically significant relationship. Of the remaining 14% of analyses that did show significant effects, 9% were positive and 5% were negative. ”
If the evidence generally fails to find that better school facilities improve student outcomes, it’s not clear how Sara Mead can support claims like “our students need it” or that current facilities send “a devastating message about the value we place on their education.” If it has no effect on their learning, how devastating could it be?
Perhaps Sara Mead relies upon the assessments from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to support her claims. Let’s look into those references a little further to see whether we should believe them or believe the research reviewed by Rick Hanushek.
The ASCE grade of D- for school infrastructure is in a report card issued by the interest group representing engineers who design public infrastructure. To determine the grades ASCE “assembled a panel of 24 of the nation’s leading civil engineers” who then reviewed other reports and surveys of civil engineers. I would be more specific about their methodology, but they provide almost no information about their methods or standards. Their entire description of the methodology consists of 5 sentences. You can read it yourself to see.
In the 2009 report card they actually gave school infrastructure a D. But don’t worry, that is the average grade they gave to the 15 categories of public infrastructure they graded, which ranged from C+ to D -. They also determined that we need to spend $2.2 trillion (with a T!) on public infrastructure. How exactly did they determine that? Again, the five sentences describing their methodology didn’t exactly explain all that. But since they are a lobby group representing engineers who work on public infrastructure projects, I’m sure we can just trust their expert judgment that we urgently need to spend $2.2 trillion on what they do.
Using the NCES to support a need for $127 billion in school construction spending is hardly more persuasive. To be precise, the NCES did not determine the amount that needs to be spent on schools. They just surveyed school district officials and in the survey asked the school officials how much money they thought needed to be spent on their schools to bring them to “good” condition. The NCES does not represent this result as their own opinion; they portray it as the opinion of the people they surveyed.
Again, asking people who are the potential beneficiaries of public spending whether they need more money without any standards to define their “need” is unlikely to be a reliable method.
To illustrate the point, I’ve conducted a survey of “experts” on JPGB – the regular contributors — to determine the resources we would need from the federal bailout to bring the blog “into good overall condition.” One respondent identified the need for martinis, cigars, and a few Vegas junkets to improve our creative process. Another identified the need for a board game marathon only interrupted by Indian food buffet binges to sharpen our intellect. And another agreed with the first two and added the need for a spaceship, pony, and a lifetime supply of spicy wings and candy. (You can guess who’s who.)
I think I’m going to trust Hanushek’s assessment of 91 analyses that meet social science standards over the self-serving assessments of school officials and and a construction lobbying organization. If you disagree, then I expect that you’ll support our demands to add JPGB to the bailout since, after all, the “evidence” clearly demonstrates our need.