Monday, June 17, 2013

Educating the wealthy at public expense: what the United States is good at

This is a thought-provoking piece from NYT regarding trends in public education.

I do not agree with all of it, but it is filled with some very hard truths, such as this:

The familiar, one-dimensional story told about American education is that it was once the best system in the world but that now it’s headed down the drain, with piles of money thrown down after it. 
The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10 percent or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups. 
And while America does spend plenty on education, it funnels a disproportionate share into educating wealthier students, worsening that gap. 
And this:
Historically, the role of the federal government, which takes a back seat to the states in education, has been to try to close achievement gaps, but they have continued to widen. Several changes in federal education policy under President Obama have actually increased the flow of scarce federal dollars toward those students who need it less, reinforcing inequities and further weakening overall educational performance.  
Now the first thing I want to tell you before you decide not to read the article, is that it doesn't talk about charter schools AT ALL (which is a welcome relief in an education post these days).

The second thing is that I had a (certainly unintended) takeaway from this article, a semi-epiphany that I cannot (as yet) document, but that I hold out for your examination.



Take that comment above that "historically the role of the Federal government, which takes a back seat to the states in education, has been to try to close achievement gaps ..."

Now, holding that, fast forward to the article's observation about when achievement gaps were much less evident than today:
America’s relative fall in educational attainment is striking in several dimensions. American baby boomers ages 55 to 64 rank first in their age group in high school completion and third in college completion after Israel and Canada. But jump ahead 30 years to millennials ages 25 to 34, and the United States slips to 10th in high school completion and 13th in college completion. America is one of only a handful of countries whose work force today has no more years of schooling than those who are retiring do.
Curiously enough, this bracketed time equates to the period of the existence of the US Department of Education (which was spun off as an independent government entity in 1979).

I have, about a year ago, argued that the elimination of the US DOE would (a) not hurt public education in the slightest, and (b) would certainly not end the Federal role in education, but that's not the point here.

The point here is that over the thirty years of the US DOE's existence we have--according to the NYT--seen the government (led by the Feds) spend disproportionately more of our tax dollars on educating that portion of the population already best able to help itself.

Let's say that a different way:  during the existence of the US DOE the various governments involved in public education have been spending proportionately LESS on educating poor kids and non-white kids than we were before the department was created.  

When I think about Title I, Title III, IDEA, Head Start etc. etc, I wonder, how could this possibly be?

Then I come back to an argument that pandora and I have been making for what seems like forever.

Both of us are in at least the top 5% (if not higher), and both of us acknowledge that the first thing we have done--our first and inflexible priority--was to get the best possible education for our own kids no matter what.  We will argue and fight for all kids, but let's be honest:  our first responsibility is to our own children.

And (keep your fingers crossed) thus far we've both been successful because we had the resources for all those extra enrichment activities, we know how to play the "game" of education for our children, and we can afford to make certain strategic moves at critical times.

Interestingly, however, neither of us has had access to controlling large amounts of government education revenue, and while if we did I'd like to think we'd be even-handed in our management of those dollars, I read this NYT piece and suddenly I'm not so sure.

Suppose I did have the decision-making authority to funnel millions of dollars into the programs that I knew would specifically assist my kids and those like them (read:  those in the same socio-economic status)?  Would I do it, and work out the rationalization later?  I'd like to think that I wouldn't, but even if I were an angel (in the James Madison sense), I know plenty of people who aren't.

Now take a moment and think about Federal educational bureaucracy and who is in it, and who benefits directly from it.  The "revolving door" between elite government and elite corporate positions is almost completely restricted to people who are already the "haves" in American society.  They are well-educated and--like pandora and me--determined that their kids will be the same.

But unlike us, they control policy, and budgets ....

All complex societies generate managerial elites who live at an artificially higher level off the tax revenues of the population than the citizens.  It really doesn't matter if you are talking the US, the UK, the old Soviet Union, South Korea, or wherever.  With the singular (and cultural) possible exception of some Scandinavian countries, to be at higher levels of government or business means that your kids have access not just to more opportunities, but to more resources.  This managerial elite gravitates toward the infamous 1% as hard as it can go.

For years in American public education (leaving aside segregation for the moment), the great equalizer was that the bulk of the power and the bulk of the funding was not controlled by this elite.  Yes, in the States there was another elite hovering around that level of government, but that elite was significantly less far removed from the economic status of the average person and far more accountable to those average people than faceless Feds in Washington.

The real power was in local school boards, elected by the parents of the children in the schools.  Today lampooned as narrow-minded and needing to be subject to over-arching regulation, what we are really seeing is an all-out attack on the only level school governance that is actually not just answerable to, but often composed of people from the 99%.

I think about school board members I know in New Castle County, and--yes--a good number of them are from the economic elite of Delaware.  But there are also car sales people, insurance agents, unemployed electricians, construction workers, teachers, and a lot of other folks who actually represent the citizens whose children are being educated in our schools.

And they are under attack.  Just taking Delaware as a case study, Rodel/Vision 2015 set it out very clearly a couple years ago that in order for top-down reform to succeed, they needed to get the wrong people off of those school boards.

Remember that it was Paul Herdman of Rodel who said this:
“When teacher evaluation efforts start to have consequences attached to them, when school board elections are no longer controlled by the old power structure, and when we take on fiscal equity issues and the funding formula, we anticipate strong voices of dissent. Changing behavior and shifting resources is extremely challenging to the status quo. There must be an effective counterbalance, an equally strong set of voices saying we need to do the right thing for kids and to support the elected officials and school-level leaders who are going to be receiving most of the heat in this new environment.”
Oddly enough, it seems to me, that the greatest protection for the people who need the most from public education was the very de-centralized nature of the original US public education system, with local school boards having the greatest power, followed by the States, and the Feds bringing up the rear.

(Yes, I know local control is not some panacea.  School boards outlawing the teaching of evolution, yada yada.  But the point here is about aggregates and averages, and about the greater number of people closer to the communities having the greatest say about what goes on in their schools.)

If the NYT piece is correct, and if my own thought-construct is also viable (and I recognize that it is very preliminary) there may be an underlying truth here that is, at best unpalatable (but also strangely libertarian):

A centralized education bureaucracy at the Federal (and, also, arguably, the State) level will ALWAYS tend to make long-term structural decisions that disproportionately benefit the children of wealthier families because those are the families controlling the bureaucracy.

Which is, at least provisionally, matched by this corollary:

The best protection for the interests of poorer children and their families in public education is to invest as much countervailing power in locally elected school boards, which requires finding a way to try to insure that those elected school board members are truly representative of the interests of their community rather than being carefully selected tools of the establishment.

How do we achieve that?  Good damn question.

But I do know that the starting point is to begin reducing the scope and power of Federal intervention in local public schools.

3 comments:

Curt- said...

Public Choice economics applies just as much to school boards at all levels as it does to the career bureaucrats in any other field.

Curt- said...

Oh, and don't forget the bottomless sucking pits that are Teacher's Unions. All that money has to come from somewhere.

Steve Newton said...

Pandora's rescued comment:

First, you should really bump this post up to the top of the page! There's a lot of food for thought here.

My knowledge of the education system was thrust upon me; I didn't start out as a parent determined to understand the "game" of education. I was simply a parent who sent their first grader to their feeder school, and had that school been Linden Hill or Brandywine Springs I might have very well remained ignorant to what was going on. But my feeder school was Warner... which blew up in spectacular fashion.

And it was that experience combined with the guilt I felt at pulling my kids out (and having the luxury of placing them in a private school) while leaving all those wonderful kids behind that made me an activist.

Now, as Steve says:

"Both of us are in at least the top 5% (if not higher), and both of us acknowledge that the first thing we have done--our first and inflexible priority--was to get the best possible education for our own kids no matter what. We will argue and fight for all kids, but let's be honest: our first responsibility is to our own children.

And (keep your fingers crossed) thus far we've both been successful because we had the resources for all those extra enrichment activities, we know how to play the "game" of education for our children, and we can afford to make certain strategic moves at critical times."

THIS is Steve's and my advantage. This is why our kids would have succeeded at any school. And this is why I become so frustrated with the endless propaganda fed to parents.

It's really not about the school (altho, programs within the school matter). It's about knowing how to maneuver through the education system. Yes, sending your child to a low poverty school will make your job as a parent easier, but it will not guarantee success. Look around your low poverty public or charter and you'll find parents working that system to their advantage, as well. If you aren't one of them then don't expect your academic dreams for your child to come true.

The truth is... the system is set up to be manipulated by those who understand it. Beating Choice isn't really difficult, altho when you speak to most parents they have no idea how to do this and end up extremely unhappy because their choice was denied. They actually believe that all the parents that got their "choice" actually played by the same set of rules they did. Some did, but some didn't.

And this:

"Interestingly, however, neither of us has had access to controlling large amounts of government education revenue, and while if we did I'd like to think we'd be even-handed in our management of those dollars, I read this NYT piece and suddenly I'm not so sure."

I'm sure you would. Know why? Because you don't live in a bubble filled with stereotypes.

As far as the DOE, I see the point you're making and I'll think about it. Right now I'm in Fenwick for the summer (whole new world down here) and I'm having some trouble seeing certain districts doing the right thing for all kids. We might need a balance in educational oversight. I'll keep thinking about this...