Up a floor from the publishing offices of the Journal of Obvious Conclusions, we find the Journal of Dumb Questions, which probably wants dibs on this working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research-- "Investing in Schools: Capital Spending, Facility Conditions, and StudentAchievement."
I should probably be less hard on these guys-- after all, they are economists. And this is exactly the kind of stupid question we'll waste time on as long as we think the purpose of schools is to "raise student achievement" (aka "get higher test scores").
Here's the premise:
Public investments in repairs, modernization, and construction of schools cost billions. However, little is known about the nature of school facility investments, whether it actually changes the physical condition of public schools, and the subsequent causal impacts on student achievement.
Yup. The roof in your school may be leaking, the bathrooms may be crumbling, and the heaters might not work, but before you go throwing a lot of money at the problems, let's ask the important question-- will fixing any of those things raise test scores?
The answer is, apparently, no. Now, I don't know how you pretend to research this. I could buy the paper on-line, but I can think of almost anything that might be a better use of my money (though I guess spending it on school improvement would not be on that list). The suggestion of the summary seems to be that they studied only schools that underwent big capital spending programs and looked to see if their students suddenly got better test scores. In related research, studies show that food does not make people healthy because today I ate a meal and I'm not any healthier than I was a week ago, so clearly eating food doesn't improve my health.
In other words, not only research that addresses a stupid question, but which "researches" it in a stupid way. Kudos to you, NBEC. But they persevere to arrive at this conclusion:
Thus, locally financed school capital campaigns – the predominant method
through which facility investments are made – may represent a limited
tool for realizing substantial gains in student achievement or closing
Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves.
Yes, I can imagine school boards across the country, meeting in emergency session. The superintendent tells them that the students are cramped, the floors are sagging, the pipes have burst, and there are alligators in the basement. "We need to make some major improvements to the building," she says. But now, armed with this research, the board members will be able to look her in the eye and ask, "Yes, but will repairs raise test scores."
This is the kind of foolishness you get when you start using one bad metric for your measure of success. Should we buy a new book series? Should we paint the crumbling walls? Should we offer ice cream in the cafeteria? Should we lower class sizes? Should we let teachers wear blue jeans? Should we make an effort to be nice to students? Should we have a new anti-bullying policy? Should we have an art show? Should we take a field trip? Should the principal let me send Alice to the office when she's having trouble getting over the death of her grandfather?
There are so many questions that a school needs to answer, and so many questions for which "But will it raise test scores" is not a useful part of the conversation. This research may be a big slice of stupid, but it's a big slice of stupid that is right in line with the times.