The piece belongs to the genre I think of as Befuddled Mysteries of Failure, in which reformsters scratch their heads at how reformy ideas have not worked. Hanushek's meditation on the intractability of the "achievement gap" (I air-quote "achievement gap" because it's a euphemism for "standardized test score gap") ends in typical bemusement.
Vastly more jarring is that the central goal of the report—the development of an education system that provides equal educational opportunity for all groups, and especially for racial minorities—has not been attained. Achievement gaps remain nearly as large as they were when Coleman and his team put pen to paper, even when better research has suggested ways to close them and even when policies have been promulgated that supposedly are explicitly designed to eliminate them.
"When Coleman and his team put pen to paper" is fifty years ago. But I tweeted that the mystery of why we hadn't yet closed the gap -- well, here, read for yourself the exchange that followed
And a whole bunch of people just loved that response. Liked it, retweeted it. And I realized, watching the retweets pile up, how tired I am of this particular argument.Perhaps. One of those policies was to increase per-pupil spending by 4x since 1954. @palan57 @boardseyeview— Dmitri Mehlhorn (@DmitriMehlhorn) January 18, 2016
Because it always starts with talking about the achievement gap and the non-wealthy, non-white students who are being denied as good an education as the burbians get, but then it ends up with insistence that we fix this problem on the cheap.
How could it possibly be cheap? Seriously-- we're talking, particularly if we go back to pre-Civil Rights segregated Jim Crow America, about a system that has systematically and deliberately provided low socio-economic students with underfunded, understaffed, under-resourced schools. How could it possibly NOT involve lots of money to fix that?? I don't honestly know if the 4X figure is correct or not, but if it is, there's another explanation for why we've failed to close any gaps-- because 4X 1954 education spending strikes me as not nearly enough of an increase.
You have two children sitting at a table. Pat is regularly eating full healthful meals packed with nutrients and all the food groups. Chris is eating bread and water and an occasional cup of cereal. Somebody comes in and says, "Well, this is clearly wrong. Chris is starving, while Pat is doing well. Chris should get to eat just as well as Pat does."
The dining room chief comes in and says, "Yes, you're right. But we should only spend as much to feed both of them as we are spending just to feed Pat." How does that even make sense.
This has been the reformster mantra for decades-- we should have better schools for everyone, but it shouldn't cost any more than what we're paying now. Possibly even less. After all, we've already been spending more money every year and it hasn't fixed everything yet. We've quadrupled spending since 1954!! How could we possibly spend more??
Many of the reformsters know better-- particularly the charter boosters. "Send your child to our charter school. It's located in a crumbling shell of a building, and we have no books or computers or other facilities because we understand that schools don't need any of that," said no charter operator ever. No-- charters know several secrets of success and one of those secrets is money. You spend money for a nice building and you spend money for nice resources and you spend so much money that you use both the public tax dollars that "follow" the students plus venture fund investment money plus contributions from well-heeled supporters.
But somehow, the reformster call is still for combating the effects of poverty on the cheap. "We'ver increased spending and that's been a huge waste," is the refrain, based on any one of several theorries, some crazier than others.
Crazy theory number one is that all the money has been stolen by teachers and their unions. People become teachers for the cushy job and the big bucks and to become teachers, they enter into a dark conspiracy with the union, in which the union and teachers agree to make each other rich and powerful while bilking the taxpayers with a bunch of smoke and mirrors and quite possibly refusing to unleash the Secret Methods they know for making students learn. The problem with schools is teachers (just as the problem with health care is doctors and the problem with marriage is husbands and wives). And there are people who fully believe this and I would just as soon argue metallurgy with a 9/11 truther as try to convince them otherwise.
But what about the non-crazy proponents of this theory? What's their theory?
There's the theory of huge waste, that schools are spending money on the educational equivalent of the Pentagon's thousand-dollar hammers. There's the theory of widespread incompetence, and that so much money is just being pissed away by so-called experts who don't know any better. There's the theory that by turning teaching into low-wage piecework, millions of dollars can be liberated (even if that results in a crappy educational "product"). There's the theory, popular among many who work in education, that government regulations have increased the number of non-classroom employees that a district needs (e.g. even a smallish district has probably added in the last fifty years at least one employee whose job is basically to take care of government paperwork). And there is certainly a theory that many things have gotten more expensive since 1954, or even 1984, which dovetails nicely with the theory that schools are asked to provide far more services that they were decades ago. Plenty of us would also agree with the theory that a ton of money never actually makes it to the classroom at all, increasing the per student cost but not actually affecting the students. Plus, as always, the theory that there are many other complicated factors involved, too.
And you know what? I'm a taxpayer in my own district, and I have no desire to see my property taxes ramped up just so we can hand my district a giant pile of money and say, "There you go. We trust you'll do something swell with it." There has to be oversight and accountability.
But it's still not rocket science. If I'm feeding a hundred kids, and I spend $75 on fifty of them and $25 on the other fifty, and I want everyone to be fed the way I'm feeding the high-side fifty, I can't do it with that same hundred dollars. I can't do it by trying to use a slice of the money to fund several other separate charter cafeterias while still running my original one-- there is no economic efficiency in running multiple duplicate services.
Can you look at the pictures coming out of Detroit schools, look at those, scratch your head and say, "Gee, I don't know what these crumbling decaying broken down unrepaired buildings could possibly need. Certainly not any more money. They already got some money."
In 1954, there were all sorts of cost-cutting measures baked into the system. Black kids? We don't really need to educate Those People, so we can do that cheap. Forty kids in a classroom? Sure, why not. It's cheaper than hiring another teachers. Students with any kind of special needs? We don't need to educate Those People, either. Just let them flounder in a regular classroom, or warehouse them in a back room somewhere. In 1954, the graduation rate was 60%-- any students who had problems could just stop being students. That was also a major savings. And teachers, because we are by and large dedicated and clever people (and not part of a dark money-sucking conspiracy) have done great things with small resources, thereby contributing to the illusion that money shouldn't matter.
But how can you possibly hope to bring equity to a system whose major problem has always been a systemic underfunding and underserving or some groups without fixing the financial inequities stuck in the heart of the system. I am tempted to say the true cost of guaranteeing each child an excellent school in his or her neighborhood is impossibly daunting, but then I remember that we somehow "found" a few trillion dollars (I air-quoted "found" because we actually use a combination of time-travel and theft) for war-waging purposes. But that was irresponsible, and I'm not going to advocate for irresponsible spending for anything, even something as essential as education.
Do we want education cheap, or do we want it excellent?
No, you can't say "both." We can't have both. We aren't made of money, so we can't have the caviar-covered Lexus of education for the whole country, and we can certainly make better use of the money we have in some places, and there are certainly areas where we need to discuss aims and goals and systems and equity and proper full funding and all the rest. There are many things about finances and excellence that we need to discuss as a nation.
But we can't have that discussion if we're going to keep lapsing into fantasy mode and suggesting that we should be able to have a new caviar Lexus and used peanut butter Kia prices. We can't say we're going to buy winter coats for everyone, but we'll do it with the same money we used to use to buy winter coats for just a few. We can't keep insisting that setting up cost-inefficient mediocre charters that serve a small percentage of the population are anything like a solution to anything.
If we really want excellent education for everybody (and not just "access" to it-- everybody on the damn Titanic had "access" to a lifeboat), we have some hard choices and some real thinking to do, and right now we've got a bunch of magical thinkers, conspiracy theorists, and cynical profiteers hogging the "conversation" (and I airquote "conversation" because people who are actual lifelong experts are rarely listened to or even invited to speak).
Don't order the steak and then bitch that it costs more than a Big Mac. Don't buy a mega-mansion and complain that it's more expensive to keep than a shotgun shack. And don't insist that you want an equitable education system for all students, then complain that it can't be done for the same amount as the problematic 1954 version.