National Public Education

“Endangering Prosperity” by Eric Hanushek

Eric Hanushek et al. have written an excellent book on the economic implications of our weak public education system.  The authors put to rest many of the popular misconceptions about the schools.

First, just to review what everyone knows, on an international test of student achievement, such as the PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment), the US ranks 32nd out of the 68 countries tested in math in 2011, in other words, just about at the bottom of the list of developed European and Asian countries.  The results are only slightly better for English skills.  All this is well known.

What is not so well known is that this poor showing is not caused by our diverse population.  All our students do poorly, rich and poor.  Among white students whose parents are college educated, less than half are at a proficient level in math, putting them below all the students, minorities included, in 16 other countries.  Our best students are nowhere near as good as the best students in many other counties.  Among white students in the US, only 9% performed at an advanced level, putting us, again, at the bottom of the developed world.  The problems of our educational system are not limited to our poor and minority communities.

As Hanushek points out, the US is not the only diverse country.  Canada, for example, has a similar level of diversity, but does much better than us educationally.  They also are a big country spread over a wide area, yet still seem to find a way to educate everyone.  It is not just the small homogenous countries that do well.

What Hanushek is worried about is that there is no doubt that these educational problems will affect our economy.  There can be no argument that educational level does not have an effect on economic growth.  The chart is right there on page 24 of this book.  All the countries with high test scores also have high rates of economic growth from 1960 to 2009.  And those with low test scores have low rates of growth.  The US is, again, about in the middle, below most of the wealthy countries in the world.

The authors also show that it is not simply the amount of money spent on education, or even the number of years of schooling offered, that makes a difference.  Strangely enough, it is how much the students actually learn that matters.  This is what is correlated with economic growth.

All this bodes ill for the future of US prosperity.  We are in trouble.  As Hanushek points out, many of our economic gains over the past two centuries have been linked to non-educational factors, such as our natural resources and our traditional support for new and innovative businesses.  And we also had an educational system that included a higher percentage of our population than any other country.  But none of this is still true today.  The rest of the world has caught up with us, and they have done so by educating their children to a higher level.  That is what we need to do if we want to continue to grow.

All this needs to be read by a wider audience.  The data in a book like this, written by professional economists, ought to be read by every state legislator and every member of the state departments of education, not to mention the federal Secretary of Education.  They are the ones in charge of our schools; it is up to them to find a way to improve them.  If they cannot do this, they need to be replaced by someone who can.

The only problem I have with this book is that Hanushek then blames teachers and particularly the teachers’ unions for these problems, saying that teachers have uniformly opposed innovations in public education, such as vouchers and charter schools.

This may be true, but they oppose them for good reason.  Is there any evidence that these quasi-private schemes will ever improve the public school system?  Can we really make a public program better by making it more private?   Does that make sense?  Regardless of how well each one does, these schemes cannot solve the overall problem, since they have no way to address the entire public program.  They only work because they are separate from the rest of the program.  That is not a viable solution.

Still, I am thankful that Mr. Hanushek has written such a good book on the realities of the link between public education and economic prosperity.

Peter Dodington

September 9, 2017









Soccer Scores and Test Scores

The other day (8/5/12) the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Carrots and Sticks for School Systems."  In it they urge the states to:

create rigorous teacher evaluation systems that not only judge teachers by how well their students perform but also -- when the results are in -- reward good teachers while easing chronic low performers out of the system.

They argue that the best teachers, those who scored in the top fifth of teachers, judged by the improvement of their students' test scores in a recent survey of 20,000 teachers, were no more likely to be given more pay, promotion, or even recognition than their low-scoring peers.  The "costs" of such practices, they say, are that many good teachers leave the profession each year.

I have been a fan of this newspaper most of my life, so it is particularly distressing to see them support such a flawed policy.  Tying student scores to teacher evaluation is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin.

First, we might note that, at least according to the editorial, the authors of the original survey did not recommend such a link between test scores and teacher evaluations.  As quoted by the Times, they simple say that "School systems need to create explicit policies aimed at retaining high performers...[and] offer higher earning potential to excellent teachers."  Just how these good teachers will be identified is not specified. They might well use the standard methods common all over the world, such as classroom observations, student comments, word of mouth, etc., not the test scores of the students.

The Times tries to argue that judging teachers by their students' test scores most be right because the kids agree.  They rate these better scoring teachers as more caring, fun, demanding, etc.  But the problem is not that the test scores are inaccurate; there is no doubt that they do identify teachers who are good at what they do.  The problem is that linking these scores to teacher evaluations causes more problems than it solves.

As I have frequently noted elsewhere, the best evidence of these other problems is in the practices of the private schools.  Where is there a private school that links students scores to teacher evaluation or pay?  There are none.  How can this be, though, if this is such an accurate way to judge the teachers?  The answer is that the parents who are paying a small fortune to the schools would never put up with a scheme that is obviously so harmful to their children.  They are not going to pay the school so that the teachers can, in effect, use their child to get a certain pay level or promotion.  The whole concept undermines the trust and caring that has to be at the heart of everything to do with education.  Yes, test scores can find out which teachers have succeeded at certain aspects of their job, but they are absolutely toxic to the overall education process.

A good comparison can be made with the "scores" students get in athletic events, such as soccer.  We all know that kids and coaches take these scores very seriously, but most parents realize that the point of the whole process, the reason why we have soccer teams at schools in the first place, has to do not with the scores, but what else is happening on that field.  These goals include the learning of such concepts as teamwork, how to deal  with defeat, the fact that what you do in practice does matter in the game, and other such indications that steady work eventually pays off.

In order to get the kids to buy into these goals, then, we allow them to think that the score of the game is what it really is all about, since that makes it fun for them.  That's fine, and everyone benefits.

The scores on tests in the classroom, then, are like these soccer scores.  They are a necessary part of the process, but by no means the most important part.  What the kids are there for is not to get high scores.  We put them into schools to show them how the world works and what they can do about this, so that they can go out into that world and succeed.  The goal is not scores; these are just the means we use to implement the other, more serious, goals.

So where is the New York Times is all this?  They are down there with the kids, believing in the value of the number of points scored, blissfully ignorant of the deeper goals of the process.  They are the children; we are the adults who have to help them understand what is really going on.

Peter Dodington

August 16, 2012


Problems with Merit Pay for Teachers

In my years of teaching I have seen proposals for merit pay come and go.  It is always tempting to suppose that the intensity and vigor of the business world can somehow be transferred to public education.  And it seems quite logical to try to base merit pay rewards on what is, after all, the point of the whole process: the achievement of the students.  What could be more reasonable than to judge the effectiveness of teachers by looking at the test scores of their students?

Yet there are very good reasons why such proposals are rarely, if ever, adopted.  One is that the “product” in this case is not some new item for our shelves, or a better way of making something, but a child.  Children are not things, or ideas, or a form of wealth; they are humans, like us, who can be harmed as well as helped by our actions.  Once you take the possibility of harming the child into account, you have to let go of the idea of merit pay in education.

Why is it, after all, that private schools, with all their freedom to pay their teachers anything they wish, with no interference from unions or state regulators, won’t touch merit pay?  Isn’t it because parents aren’t paying a small fortune so that their children can be, in essence, used by the teachers for their own personal gain?  Who is going to get these merit pay rewards?  Not the fun-loving math teacher who puts on plays using math symbols.  Won’t it be the most cynical, self-centered teacher who, like some character out of “Glengarry/Glen Ross”, knows just how to manipulate the process for his own gain?  Is this who we want for our child’s teacher?  What, in the most general sense, is he teaching them?

The reality is that we don’t just want our children to get good grades.  We want something much more complicated for them.  We want them to grow up, and learn how to love, and work, and find themselves.  Would we ever hire a Little League coach and pay him according to the success of the team?  Or even a high school coach?  (Yes, we pay coaches of professional teams according to their wins, but that’s because they are working with adults, not children.)  We want something much less definable from these people; something that has to do with their overall relationship to our children.  To pay them for anything else would be dangerous to the child.  Would you pay a babysitter by how quickly she got the kids to sleep?  Not a good idea.  The risk that merit pay might actually harm the children makes it a non-starter for schools.

Another reason merit pay doesn’t make sense is that public schools are not businesses; they are public programs.  As such they are supported by the general public, not an individual who is in need of a product or service.  If you go to the cleaner and he does a bad job, fine, you don’t pay him.  He is in this business to make money, so when he fails at it, it is reasonable to withhold that money.  But public programs are not set up to make money.  They are trying to provide a public service, such as safety, garbage pick-up, transportation, or education, that can be best accomplished through collective action.   The whole point of the public sector is that it works at things that are not easily bought by individuals, such as safe streets, or an educated work force.  It doesn’t make sense, then, to treat it like a private business.

The proponents of merit pay are always talking about how the schools need to be more like a company, where productivity and initiative are rewarded.  A more apt comparison, though, would be with the other public programs already in place, such as the police, firemen, public health nurses, etc.  Do any of these use merit pay?  Should we pay a police officer according to the number of tickets he writes, or criminals he catches?  Or a fireman by the number of fires he puts out?  And if we did, what would be the result?  I can hear an old police sergeant telling his colleagues, “You know, the wrong guys always get that thing.”

They are the wrong guys because they are not working for the goals that the program was set up to accomplish: the community betterment that is at the core of any public program.  We pay firemen and policemen a flat rate because we don’t want them worrying about their own pay and their own benefit.  That’s not the job.  The job is to solve some complex community problems that, by definition, cannot be solved through the private sector.  The last thing we want is to encourage them to act like private businessmen, focused on their own gain, not the community’s.

The real question, then, is why do these merit pay proposals keep coming up in public education but not in other public programs.  The answer is because public education is a broken system in this country, and so draws to itself all sorts of outlandish solutions simply because nothing else seems to work.  What makes it broken is, in my view, the decentralized, state-centered nature of it, but that is a discussion for another time.  For now we just have to agree that merit pay will work neither in education in general, nor in public programs in general, and so has no place in the public schools.

Peter Dodington

January 18, 2012