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Saturday, November 28, 2009

From We Are Doomed

I brought home John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism to peruse not so long ago. It has its high spots and low spots, places that are funny, and places where I agree and places where I disagree. There are two spots that especially, in my opinion, demand attention, and I will type fairly lengthy excerpts (if I miss a typo, you'll just have to bear with me) on the assumption that some of the folks reading them will follow the link to Amazon and buy a copy. Here's the first, on a certain problem with government education:
The optimists' faith that spending oodles of money will solve any problem is quite touching. In the case of education, though, the spend-more-money theory has actually been tested to destruction in several places. In No Excuses, the Thernstroms cover two of these tests in rdetail: in Kansas City, Missouri, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kansas City is the more interesting case. The Thernstroms give it a page and a half, leaving out some of the juicier details. There is a much fuller report on the Cato Institute website, written by education reporter Paul Ciotti: Go to and seach on "ciotti."

In 1977, when the story begins, Kansas City's schools were in simply terrible shape. The city, like most others of its size (population 460, 000), had experienced white flight from the 1950s on, and the school district even more so, with even whites residing in the city pulling their kids out of the public schools. By 1977 enrollment was 36, 000, three-quarters of them racial minorities (which at that point meant mostly African Americans). The voters had not approved a tax increase for the district since 1969. In 1977 litigation commenced, members of the school board, district parents, and some token children suing the state and some federal agencies on the grounds that they had permitted racial segregation. Federal judge Russell Clark, a Jimmy Carter appointee, got the case.

After eight years of litigation, Clark gave the plaintiffs everything they wanted, and then some. He in fact ordered them to "dream"--to draw up a money-no-object plan for the Kansas City school system.

Dreaming is no problem for educationists. The plaintiffs--education activists and their lawyers--duly dreamt, with an initial price tag of $250 million for their dreams. This was twice the district's normal annual budget.

It proved to be only a start, however. Over the next twelve years the district spent more than $2 billion, most of it from the state of Missouri, the balance from increased local property taxes. Fifteen new schools were built and fifty-four others renovated. New amenities, Ciotti tells us, included:
an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room; a robotics lab; professional quality recording, television, and animation studios; theaters; a planetarium; an arboretum, a zoo, and a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary; a two-floor library, art gallery, and film studio; a mock court with a judge's chamber and jury deliberation room; and a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability. [Students] could take courses in garment desgin, ceramics, and Suzuki violin...In the performing arts school, students studied ballet, drama, and theater production. They absorbed their physics from Russian-born teachers, and elementary grade students learned French from native speakers recruited from Quebec, Belgium, and Cameroon...[T]here were weight rooms, racquetball courts, and a six-lane indoor running track better than those found in many colleges. The high school fencing team, coached by the former Soviet Olympic fencing coach, took field trips to
Senegal and Mexico...younger children took midday naps listening to everything from chamber music to "Songs of the Humpback Whale." For working parents the district provided all-day kindergarten for youngsters and before- and after-school programs for older students.
The whole project was a comprehensive failure. After twelve years, test scores in reading and math declined, dropout rates had increased, and the system was as segregated as ever, in spite of heroic efforts to lure white students back into the system.
Kansas City did all the things that educators had always said needed to be done to increase student achievement--it reduced class size, decreased teacher workload, increased teacher pay, and dramatically expanded spending per pupil--but none of it worked.
The great C-130-loads of money being air-dropped on the system also brought about waste and corruption on a heroic scale. Theft was rampant. So was overmanning: The project became a huge jobs and patronage program, with the inevitable mismanagement and scandals.

I have just (late 2008) been on, looking up Kansas City's central High School. That's the one with the Olympic-size swimming pool; the school was rebuilt from scratch at a cost of $32 million under Judge Clark's supervision. Nine percent of students are testing "above proficient" on math, against a state average of 46 percent. For communications arts the corresponding numbers are 6 percent, 39 percent.


A decade after the whole thing collapsed in grisly and obvious failure, politicians and edbiz bureaucrats are still routinely calling for more money to be spent on schools as a way to improve student achievement.
The reality is that the number one predictor of academic success is parental involvement. If parents care about their kids' education and are involved with it, they typically do better. Need I point out that in most homeschooling situations, parental involvement is at its maximum?

And as far as you ladies and gentlemen who are trusting your offspring to the tender mercies of government education are concerned, I think you are whistling past the graveyard.

1 comment:

  1. National test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

    Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

    The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting tht students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

    Project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

    Alan Cook