March 2011
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Cutting the future away…

So I’m going through Facebook tonight and I see the following:

Way to go Gov. Kasich cut 132 million from the schools and laying [off] many teachers…just keep cutting the future away…

So what are the actual facts? Let’s start with something I heard Huckabee say a while back. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was that governors spend 90% of their budgets doing three things: educating, incarcerating, and medicating. A quick look at the Ohio budget shows this to be entirely accurate. When you add up education (32.2%), health and human services (52%), and justice/public protection (6.2%), you get 90.4% of the state’s budget. The cuts have to come from somewhere. While $132 million sounds like a huge cut, it actually amounts to 1% of the state budget for primary and secondary education. That’s right, 1%. If you can’t cut 1% from a budget, you’re just not trying.

Remember, the State of Ohio does not educate anyone. Local school districts do that. So money is collected from citizens all over Ohio, sent to Columbus, then redistributed among the school districts. Why do local dollars have to go to Columbus first? So it is the local school districts that are going to lose state money, and this might result in some layoffs. Oh well. All over private industry, workers are facing layoffs, or, if they are lucky, just pay cuts. So why not teachers? Or janitors? Or local administrators?

Of course, there are other considerations here as well. First, there is no correlation between the amount of money that governments throw at something, and the efficacy of the solutions. Americans spend over $9300 per pupil for public education, an increase of 23.5% over the past 10 years. This has not resulted in anything like a 23% increase in test scores. In terms of real dollars (that is, adjusted for inflation), spending since 1970 has doubled 1 in terms of dollars per pupil. American students are not twice as bright as they were then. In fact, if you look at the percentage of college freshmen requiring remedial courses (over 20% on average, as high as 75% at CUNY’s community colleges), it’s easy to see that primary and secondary education are failing our children despite these huge increases in spending.

This leads to two really obvious questions: Why does it cost so much and why are we getting so little?

The first thing to look at is how teachers are paid. They are paid not on their results, but rather on two things, years of experience and years of education. For each year a teacher teaches in a district, their pay increases. However, those increases are not equal. A teacher moving from their first year to their second will see an increase in the neighborhood of about 1% – not even enough to keep up with inflation. However, a teacher will see an increase of about 5% per year in the last few steps of a contract. The net result is that a teacher at the highest step makes about twice what a teacher at the lowest step makes. For instance, looking at the Mt Lebanon collective bargaining agreement, a first year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree will make $45,000, while a teacher with 17 years experience and the same degree will make $89,600. All things considered, not a bad rate of pay for a job with summers off (as well as long breaks at Christmas and Easter). Excuse me – a spring break and a winter break.

This defies rationality on so many levels. First, let’s consider other union workers – specifically, the building trades. While there is a substantial difference in pay between apprentices and journeymen, once an apprentice becomes a journeyman, those differences disappear. A journeyman pipefitter of 10 years makes the same as one with 5 years or 20. The differences, when they occur, are the result of increased responsibility (foremen make more than journeymen, and general foremen make more than foremen) or from differences in environment (construction tradesmen make more than those in fabrication shops). These differences seem reasonable and rational.

Yet why should a teacher moving from year 16 to year 17 get a 5% increase, while one moving from year 1 to year 2 sees only a 1% increase? If anything, the greatest marginal improvements in teaching skills are likely to come early in a career rather than later. And why, as a parent, would I want my child in the rookie’s classroom as opposed to the veteran’s? If there is really that much of a correlation between pay and performance, then why would I allow my darling angel to suffer the indignity of learning from a rookie when the veteran is right down the hall?

Why is a Master’s degree worth only a $2,000 pay boost to a rookie, but almost $5,000 to a veteran teacher? Is there really any evidence that says your child is getting a $65-150 more in educational value because of that master’s degree2? I have yet to see a study that says teachers with master’s degrees are that much better than those with just a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the one factor most correlated with the attainment of educational outcomes has nothing to do with the educational level of either the students or the teachers – it is the infectious enthusiasm of the teacher for the subject. Anyone from Monroe who took any class from Mr. Straub can attest to that.

Ever since the days of Alfred C Marshall, economists speak in terms of margins. You may have heard of the phrase “diminishing returns.” The correct wording is “diminishing marginal returns.” Basically, this means that if I spend 10% more money, am I getting 10% more value? If I get 12% more value, than it’s worth spending the 10% more money. If I get only 8% more value, than it is not worth it. This is something businesses deal with every day. But while the decision process in business is affected by the bottom line, in the public sector it is a question of politics. No rational businessman would keep someone on the payroll who will cost 5% more unless that person can deliver at least 5% more value. Yet public institutions do exactly that. One of Governor Kasich’s proposals is to get rid of the LIFO (last in first out) principal in determining which teachers should be laid off. These layoffs, should they become necessary, should be based on the marginal cost of keeping an employee versus the marginal value they bring to the job, instead of the seniority based system that is currently in place.

The simple fact is that teacher pay has little or nothing to do with teacher performance, which should at least partially answer the question of why education costs so much. As to the second question I posed, why are we getting so little?

That question is a little more complicated. Let me start with an illustration. I have a friend who went to Texan A&M University, and started as an Education major. She soon became fed up with the pop psychology and labor relations (read: pro-union drivel) that was being taught in her required courses, and changed her major to engineering. She was fed up with bullshit.

Here is an uncomfortable fact: Among college students, education majors have the highest GPA’s and the lowest standardized test scores of any major. The highest standardized test scores are found in the hard sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.) and in areas like Math and Economics. The only area that approaches Ed majors in terms of low test scores are some of the Business majors (specifically, those in Human Relations).

Here is another illustration: At Robert Morris University, as well as most other universities, many courses come in three distinct flavors. Let’s take statistics (as an example). First, there is real statistics. This involves an intimate knowledge of calculus, and is beyond most students except for those majoring in Math, Engineering, and Economics. Then there is Business Statistics. This involves knowledge of algebra only, and is within the grasp of anyone taking accounting or working on an MBA. Finally, there is Stats for Ed majors. There the students read stories of how statistics work and answer questions about the stories. And most of them struggle with the course.

Finally, one last illustration. My mother, who went to Columbia University, described 120th Street in New York as the “Widest Street in the World,” because it was the street that separated Columbia University from Columbia Teacher’s College. And that was 50+ years ago. It’s only gotten worse.

The reasons for this are more complex than the fact that we are saddled with dumb teachers in public schools. Part of the reason can be found in a Stanford University study that has this to say:

The roots of this lack of connection between K-12 and higher education reflect the fact that they were created as two separate systems. In 1900, the educational systems were briefly, if loosely, linked because the College Board set uniform standards for each academic subject, and issued a syllabus to help high school students get ready for college entrance subject-matter examinations. This K-16 academic standards connection later frayed and then broke open…. This is an American phenomenon: there is a much greater disjuncture between secondary and postsecondary education here than in most other nations.

In other words, American high schools seem to be unaware of the requirements of American colleges and universities. To say the least, this is a little bizarre. Is this the fault of under-prepared teachers? Or is it because of administrators whose decisions regarding high school curricula are screwing the students? I can’t really tell, yet. I will delve more into this in the next post, when I have had a chance to do more research.

fiat lux!

1. U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, Tables 102 & 171.
2. This figure is obtained by dividing the differences in pay by a classroom of 30 students.

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