Rats Bite Children at Mismanaged Arizona District School

October 16, 2018

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Here’s a story you probably haven’t seen before:

The rodent problem was so bad at Alfred F. Garcia Elementary School in Phoenix, rats bit two students during the last school year.

As horrifying as that was, pest control takes up just one paragraph in a 26-page report detailing a laundry list of troubles in the Murphy Elementary School District.

In an unusual move, the Arizona State Board of Education took over the beleaguered Phoenix district in June because of serious financial issues, primarily a $2.2 million spending deficit. In March, class sizes swelled to more than 40 students in some district classrooms, prompting outrage from parents.

In Arizona, the average district school expenditure per student is nearly $10,000, and the Murphy district serves about 1,500 students. So where did all the money go?

The receiver also found “numerous” instances of wasteful spending, detailed in the report.

In one case, materials for a $500,000 curriculum sat unused in a classroom while Murphy spent $173,000 on a different curriculum. A curriculum details what students study day to day and how those lessons are taught. They often come with teaching materials to assist educators.

The unused curriculum at Murphy included textbooks, workbooks and other materials like science lab kits, Anderson wrote.

The classroom holding the materials also sat unused, save for as a storage space for the half-million dollar curriculum. The receiver sold some of the curriculum to recoup some of the lost money and opened up the classroom for future teaching uses.

“What I was most alarmed at was the degree of how mismanaged the district was,” Donofrio said after reading the receiver’s report. “I know a lot of people are kind of upset by the report.”

Other instances of financial mismanagement detailed in the report include:

  • Arizona Cardinals staff suspected that tickets left at district offices for Cardinals and Diamondbacks games were sold online by staffers instead of actually being used by students and educators to attend games, Anderson wrote.
  • Twelve district employees were issued a $4,500 stipend for “official use of their personal vehicles, whether or not travel between schools is required for their jobs.” It’s unclear if the stipend was annual.
  • The report notes a $12,000 performance bonus that then-superintendent Jose Diaz was awarded “in spite of declining student performance, decreased enrollment, and overspending at the district level.” Diaz retired from Murphy in February. 
  • The district spent thousands every month on cell phone plans.
  • Murphy didn’t reduce the number of administrative staffers even as student enrollment declined.
  • A company charged with maintaining the district’s HVAC system was not actually doing basic monthly maintenance checks under an $85,000 contract. The receiver terminated the contract after an investigation.

I highly suggest reading the full article. The district was spending $800 more per pupil in administrative costs than the state average. When confronted by angry teachers and parents, how much do you want to bet that the incompetent (and possibly corrupt) administrators pointing fingers at the state for supposedly not giving them enough money?

Clearly, a quality education requires a significant investment. But more money won’t solve the problems of districts like Murphy.



Narrow STEM Focus In Schools May Hurt Long-Term

October 16, 2018

Image result for charlie chaplin modern times

Education policy leaders have been obsessed with STEM for many years now.  They note the relatively high salaries of students who complete school with STEM skills.  And industry leaders repeatedly complain about the chronic shortages of skilled workers in technical fields.  If only our schools could produce more graduates with these technical skills, we could help address industry’s needs as well as launch students into lucrative careers.

Huge investments have been made to steer students into STEM fields.  Philanthropists have backed coding camps and embraced STEM-focused charters.  And policymakers have poured millions into expanding STEM programs in public schools and universities.  Arkansas has gone as far as requiring that every public and charter high school offer a computer science course so that all students can learn to code.

A fascinating recent paper by David Deming and Kadeem Noray, however, suggests that the payoff to students for pursuing STEM may be short-lived.  STEM workers initially experience elevated salaries and rates of employment, but the skills their occupations require change so rapidly that their training quickly becomes obsolete.  While most workers in other occupations tend to experience a significant rise in earnings as experience enhances their skills, STEM workers tend to have flatter career earning trajectories. As Deming and Noray put it:

We show that the economic payoff to majoring in applied STEM fields such as engineering and computer science is initially very high, but declines by more than 50 percent in the first decade after college. STEM majors have flatter age-earnings profiles than college graduates who major in other subjects, even after controlling for cognitive ability and other important determinants of earnings.

Like professional athletes or movie stars, STEM workers may make a lot of money right out of the gate, but their prospects fade quickly.  If they don’t have non-technical skills to make the transition into management or other occupations, they may suffer the fate of former athletes who couldn’t get an analyst gig or aging actresses who aren’t Meryl Streep.  It’s ironic that the same kinds of education pundits who cluck about how irresponsible it is to offer sports and theater opportunities to students for fear of encouraging them into such high-risk and short-lived careers remain blissfully unaware of the similar (albeit much less severe) career dynamics in many STEM fields.

And as to those severe labor shortages that the tech industry complains about, Deming and Noray say: “Faster technological progress creates a greater sense of shortage, but it is the new STEM skills that are scarce, not the workers themselves.” Tech companies are laying off older workers with slightly older skill sets at the same time that they are starving for new workers with the latest training.  If tech companies want to solve their shortage problem they may need to look in the mirror rather than expect the education system to fix this entirely for them.  They may need to invest more in retraining older workers to keep their skills current.  Or they may need to increase the pay premium for starting workers enough to entice more to take the risks of having a short-lived lucrative career.

While schools still need to do much to improve their efforts in math and science, they should avoid narrowing their focus too much on STEM.  Doing so may serve industry’s insatiable appetite for new, skilled workers, but it may do a long-term dis-service to their students who need a broader set of skills to prosper over their entire working careers (let alone cheating them of the broader education they need to be more enlightened human beings).

Nominations Solicited for the 2018 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 5, 2018

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It is time once again for us to solicit nominations for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

Last year’s winner of “The Al” was Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world from nuclear destruction by refusing to follow Soviet orders to retaliate against what he suspected (and was later confirmed) was a false warning of a US strike.  It’s not quite spicy chicken but it’s close. Petrov was selected from an excellent set of nominees, including Whittaker ChambersJustin Roiland and Dan Harmon, and Russ Roberts.

The previous year’s winner of “The Al” was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie LeagueRemy Munasifi, and Yair Rosenberg.  Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners.  It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.

The 2015 winner of “The Al” was the internet humorist, Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough).  His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.  Given how much time ed reformers waste on social media, especially Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona.  Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLeanGary Gygax, and John Lasseter.

The 2014 winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System.  To save a life DeComo had to trick border control officials to bring a model of his artificial lung machine into the US from Canada because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA.  DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,”  Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of “The Al” was Weird Al Yankovic.  Weird Al beat an impressive set of nominees, including Penn and TellerKickstarter, and Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of “The Al” was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheap and clean natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees:  BanksyRansom E. OldsStan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes.

In 2011 “The Al” went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon.  Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates.  Haas beat his fellow nominees:  Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010  winner of  “The Al” was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.  He beat out  The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

And the 2009 winner of “The Al” was  Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag.  She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing,  Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban,  Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee.  If I like it, I will post it with your name attached.  Remember that the basic criteria is that we are looking for someone who significantly improved the human condition even if they made a profit in doing so.  Helping yourself does not nullify helping others.  And, like Al Copeland, nominees need not be perfect or widely recognized people.

New Field Trip Study

October 1, 2018

The National Art Education Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors just released a new study examining the effects of student field trips to art museums.  The study looked at outcomes for students who went on a single field trip to one of six different art museums around the country.  Instead of going to the museum, some students received an art museum intervention typically presented by museum staff in their classroom.  And a third group of students received neither the field trip or the classroom experience and served as the control group.

This new study is a helpful follow-up to the Crystal Bridges study that my colleagues Dan Bowen, Brian Kisida, and I conducted.  We found that students randomly assigned to a single field trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art outperformed those randomly assigned to a control group on measures of tolerance, empathy, content knowledge and critical thinking about art, as well as their desire to frequent museums in the future.  This new NAEA/AAMD study was designed to see if similar results could be produced by single field trips to other museums or if our findings were somehow particular to Crystal Bridges.

Importantly, the new NAEA/AAMD study does not randomly assign students across their two treatment and one control condition, unlike our previous Crystal Bridges study which did employ a random assignment research design.  This undermines our ability to draw causal conclusions with confidence since any differences we observe between treatment and control students may be caused by un-observed, pre-existing differences between the types of students who were non-randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions rather than caused by the treatment itself.

Despite this limitation, the NAEA/AAMD study is an impressive accomplishment and gives us information about a broader picture of museum field trip programs than we could get by examining just one museum.  And this new study yields some results that are consistent with our earlier experimental work.  In particular, it finds that students who go on field trips to the museum are significantly less likely to agree with the statement: “All people should understand a work of art in the same way.”  Students who received the classroom experience were also less likely to agree with this statement than the control group, but not by as much as those who actually went to the museum.  So there seems to be something about field trips to art museums that make students more willing to accept different perspectives.

This result is consistent with the tolerance and social perspective effects we observed in both the Crystal Bridges and the live theater studies we have conducted. And it is very similar to one of the items we used in those studies as well as our current Woodruff Arts Center study that asks students whether they agree or disagree with the statement “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.”  While we are still collecting and analyzing results from Atlanta, I can report that we are finding students who receive three field trips in a single year — one each to the art museum, symphony, and theater — are significantly more likely to agree with this statement than students randomly assigned to a control group.  And amazingly, if students receive a second year of three more field trips, they agree with this statement even more.  It appears that this tolerance benefit of field trips to arts institutions endures and compounds with additional field trip experiences.

Another interesting finding from the new NAEA/AAMD study is that classroom experiences appear to be implemented with much less fidelity than field trip experiences.  It appears that museum educators have better ability to control conditions and do what they intended if the students are at museums rather than in classrooms.  This makes sense and may help explain why the classroom experiences, even when conducted by the same museum staff, have less of an impact.

Lastly, the new NAEA/AAMD study is inconsistent with our previous Crystal Bridges results in that it does not appear that students who go to the museum score significantly higher on a variety of measures that capture their interest in art and museums.  In the Crystal Bridges study we not only found that students expressed a stronger interest in visiting museums in the future, but we were able to track coded coupons that were given to all treatment and control students to observe that treatment students and their families were significantly more likely to attend the museum in the future.  On the other hand, in our live theater study, we only observed a weak effect of going on a field trip to see live theater on student interest in attending theater in the future.  And in the ongoing Woodruff experiment, field trips seem to produce positive consumption effects for some art forms right away but require additional exposure before becoming positive for others. It appears that whether field trips spur future interest in frequenting the arts is complicated and contingent on a variety of factors that we do not yet fully understand.

I applaud the NAEA and AAMD for conducting this research.  Only with repeated examination and attempted replication will we really gain confidence in our understanding of how cultural activity affects students.

(Update — This has been edited to describe the assignment of students to treatment and control conditions in the NAEA/AAMD study more accurately.)

Sending a Message

September 20, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As of FY15, school choice had already saved state and local taxpayers a cumulative total of $3.2 billion.

While improving educational outcomes across all metrics.

Pictured above: Marty Lueken, contemplating the government school monopoly.

Teachers Value More than Money

September 18, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I have a new blog post at OCPA reflecting on the fact that private school teachers are more satisfied than public school teachers, even though they get paid less, because on almost every other metric their jobs are better:

There’s a lesson in this for how we improve education. Unionization has raised teacher salaries, benefits, and job protections. But, in schools as in factories, unionization seriously hinders organic cooperation in the workplace, not only between the line workers and their supervisors but also between the line workers themselves. Workplaces begin to run much more by arbitrary rules than by what gets the job done. I remember being in a state legislative committee hearing once where a principal was asked why she quit running a district school to run a charter school. “Because I can hold a meeting” was her reply—union rules had prevented her from asking teachers to attend meetings when needed in her district school.

However, there’s also a lesson for school choice. The choice movement has historically invested far too much in the rhetoric of markets, competition, and material incentives. People are not money-maximizing robots. They care about getting their job done for the sake of the job, not just for the sake of the paycheck or to grow the size of their organization. School choice works because it sets parents, and teachers, free to focus on working together to get the job of education done in the way that works best for them. Yes, incentives matter, and we can say so. But let’s put the emphasis on cooperation, community, and freedom.

Let me know what you think!

Want More Art Ed? Decentralize School Control

September 14, 2018

I just came back from the National Convening of the Arts Education Partnership.  It was a fantastic gathering of arts advocates, researchers, and practitioners.  I was particularly struck by the comments during the opening session made by Eric Martin, who leads Music for All .  He noted that parents and communities tend to want more arts education than their schools often provide.  I suspect he’s right about that, but that raises a puzzle: if parents and communities want more art, why are their schools not providing what they want?

You might think the answer is a lack of funds, but that can’t really explain it.  The arts are not that expensive and if schools were more responsive to parental and community preferences, they would give greater priority to the arts in their budgets and schedules.  And then it dawned on me… schools are not more responsive to parent and community preferences regarding the arts because parents and communities no longer really control their schools.  Schools are increasingly answerable to distant bureaucrats in state or federal departments of education rather than to the parents and communities they serve.

This situation is a disaster for the arts.  Even if distant bureaucrats valued the arts as much as many parents and communities do, bureaucrats cannot give priority to the arts because that is not the basis by which the success or failure of their distant management is judged.  The only systematic, easily available information we have on schools is math and reading test scores.  Narrowing the focus of schools on math and reading test performance is inherent in the effort to manage those schools from a distance.  Parents and communities do not have to rely on math and reading test scores to judge school performance because they are close enough to gather a large amount of contextual information.  By contrast, the state superintendent has no access to this information about quality and is inevitably judged completely on the few bits of test score data we do have about all of the schools in their charge.

If this is correct, the most promising strategy for arts advocates to pursue to expand arts offerings in school would be to favor decentralization of control over schools to parents and communities.  If we want more art, let’s get out of the way of parents and communities that want more art.

The irony is that most of the people at this week’s Arts Education Partnership meeting are very focused on lobbying for policies at the state and federal level that they hope would advance the arts.  There was a lot of discussion of the importance of states adopting a set of national standards regarding arts education.  There were pleas for more funding and support from state departments of education.

All of these measures are sincere efforts by good people working hard on behalf of the arts.  But I suspect that the more arts advocates strengthen centralized control over schools, even if in the name of advancing the arts, the less likely we are to see priority given to the arts in education.  Centralized control requires evaluation by centrally collected metrics, which means an emphasis on math and reading test scores.  This is true no matter how many arts standards are adopted, how many state arts initiatives are adopted, or how many speeches in favor of the arts state officials give.

Arts advocates may want to shift their attention toward strengthening parent and community control over their own schools so those schools are more likely to deliver the arts education that folks really want.