Friday, December 01, 2006

Educational Movement Myths in Michigan by Akindele Akinyemi

When Gov. Granholm was running for re-election in this year's she brought up how she increased spending for education. I kept telling people that spending is NOT the problem. I cannot recall how many times I was telling Black people in Detroit that she was duping them into voting for her.

The liberal side of the arguement is that we need more money in the schools. Many people who live in the inner cities assert with conviction that schools are in desperate need of money. Liberals duped us time and time again thanks to the teacher unions. We have no idea how much schools actually receive. Average federal and state spending is almost $500 billion each year for public K-12 schools, or about $10,000 per pupil per year. In other words, it is more than the $430 billion we spent on national defense in 2004. And while we always hear about school budget cuts, per pupil spending—adjusted for inflation—has doubled over the last three decades.

We are asking for more money but we are not turning out the grade in the cassroom. Math and reading test scores for 17-year-olds are the same today as they were during the Nixon administration, and science test scores have fallen, along with graduation rates. Without stronger incentives for schools to use money more effectively, there is little reason to think that the next doubling of per pupil spending will produce anything different from the last doubling.

This is the reason why we need more educational choices in our inner cities. Breaking the cap off charter schools and instituting tax credits for parents are an excellent start. The designation of educational empowerment zones are necessary to help re-populate local areas like Detroit.

Another thing that Granholm was talking during her re-election bid was about reducing class size. This is an teacher union argument. According to Princeton economist Alan Krueger he found that reducing class sizes in a small pilot program in Tennessee led to improved student achievement, but adoption of similar policies on a large scale has produced no benefits. When schools go on hiring binges to satisfy class-reduction mandates, they are forced to dip deep into the labor pool. Intuitively, one imagines that the reduction in teacher quality could offset the benefits of smaller classes. This is exactly what an evaluation by the Rand Corporation of California's statewide effort to reduce class sizes found: Students in smaller classes experienced learning gains that were no greater than those of students in larger classes.

If you listen to Gov. Granholm carefully you will find code words in her speech on reducing classroom size by increasing something else. She (or her liberal allies) never give you a clear reason of how to reduce classroom size or increase productivity in the classroom.

If teacher quality, instead of class size, really matters to us, should we not raise the meager salaries many teachers receive, to recruit better-qualified candidates? Like other education myths in urban areas, this seemingly plausible argument does not stand up to close scrutiny. Teacher pay, computed on an hourly basis, is not all that meager. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average elementary-school teacher in 2004 made $30.75 per hour. That is considerably more than other public servants, such as firefighters ($17.91) and police officers ($22.64). It is even more than highly skilled professionals, such as biologists ($28.07), mechanical engineers ($29.76), and chemists ($30.68), and just shy of computer scientists ($32.86), dentists ($35.51), and nuclear engineers ($36.16).

Teacher pay is based almost entirely on the number of years taught and the advanced degrees held, not on teachers' effectiveness. Until we connect salaries to performance, with meaningful merit-pay systems that identify and reward excellent teachers, raising teacher pay is unlikely to have any meaningful effect on teacher quality.

More importantly, educational policies is dominated by organized interests, such as teachers' unions and school-board associations. These organizations masquerade as advocates for the well-being of children when in fact they are no different from most interest groups: They will advance their agendas with evidence if they can and myths if they must.

Urban conservatives need to stop these interest groups by coming up with solutions to the educational crisis. Myths certainly help the adults in the respective interest groups, but they do real harm to children by misdiagnosing our schools' real problems—and by steering us away from real solutions.

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