The new book from Rick Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses, is a remarkably comprehensive and accessible review of K-12 education reform strategies. It’s a must-read for education policymakers, advocates, and students — at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Even experienced researchers will find this to be an essential reference, given its broad sweep and extensive citations.
The book basically makes four arguments. First it establishes how important K-12 educational achievement really is to economic success and how far we are lagging our economic competitors in this area. Second, it demonstrates the dominance and utter failure of input-oriented reform strategies, including across-the-board spending increases and class-size reductions. Third, it describes how the court system has perpetuated failed input-reform strategies after having bought intellectually dishonest methods of calculating how much spending schools really need. And fourth, it makes the case for reform strategies that involve “performance-based funding,” including merit pay, accountability systems, and choice.
None of these arguments is original to this book. But to the extent that others have made these arguments, they have drawn heavily on Rick Hanushek’s research. In this book you get to hear it directly from the source and you get to hear it all so persuasively and completely.
If I have any complaint about the book it is that they are too restrained in their criticisms of the methods by which adequate school spending has been determined and the “researchers” who have developed and profited from those methods. These fraudulent analyses have justified court decisions ordering billions of dollars to be taken from taxpayers and blown ineffectively in schools. And the quacks promoting these methods have made millions of dollars in consulting fees in the process.
Those methods include the “professional judgment approach,” which essentially consists of gathering a group of educators and asking them how much money they think they would need to provide an “adequate” education, Naturally, they need flying saucers, ponies, and a laser tag arena to ensure an adequate education.
Another method is the “evidence-based approach,” which selectively reads the research literature to identify what it claims are effective educational practices. It then sums the cost of those practices while paying no attention to how many are really necessary for an adequate education or whether any of them are really cost-effective.
There is also the “successful schools approach,” which looks at how much money a typical successful school spends and calls for all schools to spend at least that much. This of course ignores the fact that many successful schools spend less than the typical amount and are still successful. One would have thought it impossible for them to be successful with less money than that deemed necessary to succeed.
And lastly, there is the “cost-function approach.” This approach takes the conventional finding that higher spending, controlling for other factors, has little to no relationship with student achievement, and then turns that finding on its head. It does this by switching the dependent variable from student achievement to cost. The question then becomes: how much each unit of achievement contributes to school costs. Switching the dependent variable does nothing to change the lack of relationship between spending and achievement. If you hide behind enough statistical mumbo-jumbo you can hope that the courts won’t notice that there is still virtually no relationship between spending and achievement controlling for other factors.
The Hanushek and Lindseth book lays all of this out (see especially chapter 7), but they are remarkably restrained in denouncing these approaches and the people who cynically profit from them. I don’t think we should be so restrained. The promoters of this snake oil are often university professors with sterling national reputations. They’ve cashed in those reputations to market obviously flawed methods. We shouldn’t let them do this without paying a significant price in their reputation.
The University of Southern California’s Larry Picus, and the University of Wisconsin’s Allan Odden, are both past presidents of the well-respected American Education Finance Association. They shouldn’t be able to sell the “evidence-based approach” to 5 states for somewhere around $3 million without people pointing and laughing when they show up at conferences.
I know that Rick Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth are too professional and scholarly to call these folks frauds, but I’m not sure what else one could honestly call them. Rick comes close in his Education Next article on these school funding adequacy consultants, entitled, “The Confidence Men.” But in this book,perhaps with the tempered emotions of his co-author, he adopts a more restrained tone. Perhaps this is all for the best because the book maintains the kind of scholarly temperament that strengthens its persuasiveness to those who would be more skeptical.
This has been a great year for education reform books. Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses joins Terry Moe and John Chubb’s Liberating Learning, released earlier this summer, as members of the canon of essential education reform works.