Sunday, August 16, 2015

Starting a conversation about education

Garfield School in Cedar Rapids, where my boys attended and where I still volunteer, will have a new librarian on staff this fall. As was the case with several of her predecessors, she will spend only part of her week at Garfield; however, for the first time, Garfield will share a librarian with two other schools, not just one. Surely this is driven by a search for savings by the school district. Having one-third of a school librarian is particularly awkward for schools like Garfield, where 67.6 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. But why should even upper middle class students be shorted?

This led me to a series of questions about American education, because I am guessing, although confidently, that such staffing exigencies are not unique to Cedar Rapids.

The education system's ongoing struggle for funds sends me back to the question with which Strong Towns begins its Curbside Chat: Why, despite all the growth America has experienced, do our cities struggle financially just doing the basics? The same question can be asked about our public school systems. So... I'm asking it. I understand this is inviting frustration: there's no standard for how much education spending is "enough," or what specific mix of expenditures is optimal, and public education has become fraught with ideology in a way that it was not when I was growing up. To make matters even more frustrating, there surely is a complex set of causes.

And there are the longstanding issues of educational outcomes, as well as a recently emerging shortage of teachers. These are also complicated, and may be related to budgets. My question here is not why schools don't "perform" better, or even whether more resources would improve performance, but why schools have such difficulty mobilizing resources at all.

Today my ambition is limited to articulating what is known about education in the United States, as well as the questions that I'm currently stuck on. After that I'll be keeping my antennae up for usable information, while I hope that accessing and sharing a variety of perspectives will be somehow productive.
Whittier School, Wheaton, Illinois, where I attended 4th-6th grade

What We Know

Education in America, unlike health care or the macro-economy, has a long history as a government responsibility. Public schools predate American independence, though the rationales for positive externalities have changed over time. Democratic governance was seen to rest on a certain level of citizen competence, which made education a public problem, and in the predominantly Calvinist-Protestant culture being able to read the Bible was seen as essential to a sound understanding of God. As waves of immigration in the 19th century brought more ethnic and religious diversity, public schools came to be seen as a bulwark of American culture: whatever bad thinking their parents brought with them from the old country, children could be properly socialized through the school system. (Roman Catholics understandably bristled at these assumptions, and by the mid-19th century had evolved an extensive set of parochial schools.) Eventually, and particularly as the economy transitioned from a local basis in agriculture to a global basis in services, education was seen as essential to develop the skills individuals needed to support themselves and the country needed to stay ahead of international competition. Throughout this period, what remained consistent throughout this period was the view that there were positive externalities, so education was a societal responsibility.
Today's educational environment is different in many ways from the one I grew up in 40-50 years ago. Most if not all of these complicate the financing of today's schools:
  1. Overall costs have exceeded inflation: per-pupil expenditures in 2011-12 were about 2.5 times what they were in 1969-70 (in constant dollars, of course... what do you take me for?). Like health care, education is a labor-intensive industry, and professional labor to boot, while consumers are not price-sensitive and may even consider costs and amenities as markers of quality. Education remains a distinctively un-remunerative professional degree, but at the same time schools no longer can take advantage of a large pool of women with few other career options. The average teacher salary roughly doubled between 1950 and 1990, and even then relatively low starting salaries were highlighted by Derek Bok in The Cost of Talent (Simon and Schuster, 1993).. Average salaries have been about constant since.
  2. Instructional technology now exists, and at a non-trivial cost. When I was in elementary school, instructional technology was projectors, screens and blackboards.
  3. Education was considered a local concern when most people worked and died in the same town where they were born. In today's highly mobile, global society, it's less clear what are the stakes to residents of a specific community in the education of individual students who happen to live there.
  4. The acceleration of suburban sprawl through the mid-2000s has created some districts with relatively enormous tax bases, while leaving areas of concentrated urban poverty where needs have overwhelmed neighborhood schools, as well as new developments so spread out that neighborhood schools were no longer possible. (On the latter point, see Strong Towns posts by Ben Oleson (2011) and Nathaniel M. Hood (2014).) More than half of students are transported to school at public expense--this has been the case since 1973-74--with transportation expenditures more than tripling since 1970.
  5. The consensus on the basis skills that needed to be taught ("readin', ritin' and 'rithmetic," and such) has broken down. The ability to memorize large number of facts turns out not to be very valuable in the real world, which I say with some wistfulness because I used to be exceptionally good at it. Even so, assessment of students, teachers and schools by multiple-choice testing has exploded since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.
  6. Important changes in the 1960s undercut political support for public education. I say this wistfully, too, because I support all of them : creation of a means of national government funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a series of Supreme Court decisions barring school sponsorship of religious indoctrination, and mandates for racial desegregation. While increasing public expenditures for public education was supported by 61.7 percent of respondents in the 2012 American National Election study, the proportions were only 48.6 percent of white born again Christians, 42.7 percent of white conservatives and 43.8 percent of Republicans. Perhaps that emboldened Iowa governor Terry Branstad to item-veto the legislature's bipartisan education budget compromise? Or accounts for more aggressive budget-cutting in states like Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin?
  7. Private schools and home schooling have emerged as alternatives to public schools. About 3 1/2 percent of K-12 students are home-schooled. Even so, public school enrollment as a proportion of the total hasn't varied much over the last few decades.
  8. Potshots at teachers' unions and "government schools" have become de rigeur for conservative politicians. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who wants to punch unions in the face, might use the most incendiary rhetoric, but he is hardly alone in his sentiments.
What I Don't Know

Since 1970, spending on public schools (as reported by the NCES) by all governments has consistently been between 3.5 and 3.75 percent of GDP. This is about the average of OECD countries. What do the countries that spend significantly more on public education--including Britain, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries--spend less on to compensate?

While American public education spending has been stable overall, transportation costs have increased, and surely health insurance coverage and instructional technology as well. At the same time, average student-teacher ratios have dropped, from 22.3:1 in 1970 to 16.0 in 2012. Does this mean actual class sizes have dropped, or does this reflect additional personnel for students who need special help (because of severe autism, for example)? This suggests there have been reallocations within a relatively fixed education budget. Are there potential additional reallocations, either within the education budget, or from other areas of spending by governments (which total has been fairly constant at 30-35 percent of GDP)?

In other words, what would we have to trade to get a full-time school librarian?
SOURCES: The National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, is an excellent one-stop shop for data, whether at the national, state, district or individual school level. Data on the overall economy and government spending come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce, and from the Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2015, and are reported in The World Almanac and Book of Facts. James W. Fraser's book Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999) covers the cultural history of American public education.

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