From the Economist
Choose your own misadventure
Apr 9th 2012, 19:34 by E.G. | AUSTIN
THE most salient critique of the “Texas Miracle” has always been that the state, in its mania for fiscal discipline and economic growth, has neglected the physical and human infrastructure that are necessary for any state’s future competitiveness and well-being. Manny Fernandez, in the New York Times, traces the effects of last year’s budget cuts:
For Hutto and the 1,264 other public school districts in Texas, this has been the year of doing without. Texas lawmakers cut public education financing by roughly $5.4 billion to balance the state’s two-year budget during the last legislative session, with the cuts taking effect this school year and next.
The budget reductions that districts large and small have had to make have transformed school life in a host of ways — increasing class sizes, reducing services and supplies and thinning the ranks of teachers, custodians, librarians and others, school administrators said.
The chickens, in other words, are coming home to roost. It’s fairly clear that Texas schools are not doing as well as one would like. Its high-school dropout rate, for example, is famously among the worst in the country. And the legislature’s approach to education spending has been ascetic. Dozens of school districts are suing the state on the grounds that current funding restrictions violate the Texas constitution’s promise of adequate educational provision.
There are, however, some holes in the plot. According to the 2012 rankings fromEducation Week, Texas’s “educational policy and performance” exceeds the national average. Chuck DeVore, at National Review, notes that Texas and California spend roughly the same share of their respective budgets on education, but that Texas manages to employ 17% more educators per capita than California. For some critics, the issue isn’t that Texas schools don’t have enough money, but that they’re not spending the money they do have efficiently, as Kate Alexander explains, covering a new report about financial transparency in state school districts. And where Texas lags in outputs, there’s always the confounding question of whether this reflects a problem with the process or a quirk of the inputs: Texas ranks dead last in terms of percentage of adult residents with a high school diploma, but this is partly due to in-migration of people without much formal education, rather than the schools themselves.
So how bad is the picture? We’re not going to fix American public education in this blog post, but there are several things we should keep in mind when trying to figure out what’s wrong with schools in Texas or in any other state, for that matter.
First of all, the trajectory of the schools is at least as relevant as their starting point. Maryland is deemed to have America’s best public-school system, closely followed by Massachusetts. Maryland and Massachusetts also, curiously, top the rankings for household median income (#1 and #6 respectively) and percentage of the adult population with a bachelor’s degree or higher (#4 and #1). You might therefore hypothesise that Maryland and Massachusetts are states that have historically had a high baseline with regard to both education and income, meaning that the parents sending their kids to public schools there are, as a group, differentially inclined to prioritize education and to support it by paying high taxes, making sure the kids do their homework, and so on. That’s great, but we can’t turn Mississippi into Maryland overnight or through pure will. It might therefore be relevant to look at a state like Alabama. That’s not an affluent state, or a highly educated one, or one that routinely does well in aggregate rankings. But it is a state that has tried some useful experiments—with distance learning, for example—that could be transferred elsewhere.
Related to that, if we’re trying to improve public education, it’s worthwhile to decompose the overarching goal into component questions, and look for examples of positive outcomes at a more granular level. Fixing public education is a classic wicked problem: we don’t even have a consensus about the scope of the problem or what it would mean to solve it. Is the idea that we’re trying to build a system where all the students have mastered trigonometry? To build the world’s most resilient workforce? To allow the geniuses to flourish, or to keep the stragglers from falling off the edge? This confusion over goals is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to assess schools. TheEducation Week rankings, for example, come with an online calculator that allows you to re-grade a state’s performance according to your preferred weighting of the inputs. So if you’re wondering, for example, why incentives for teachers carry as much weight as the actual status of K-12 achievement, you can re-do the report card accordingly.
Specifying the desired outcomes might help isolate the variables that lead in that direction. As a matter of equity, for example, we should be concerned about the achievement gap between black and white students. In that case, one place to look for inspiration would be the Department of Defence schools, which have one of the narrowest gaps in maths testing among 8th-grade public-school students, and relatively good outcomes for all students (as opposed to, for example, West Virginia, where the gap is also among the nation’s narrowest, but the baseline is significantly lower—seepage 33 of the PDF linked here.)
As a final point, it should go without saying, but if this is a competition, then it’s a pretty pyrrhic one. No one should take much comfort from a report saying that State A has better outcomes than State B. A couple of years ago there was a bit of a to-do on the right over the fact that a study found that Texas and Florida have the nation’s best public high schools. That is, of America’s top ten best public high schools, three are in Texas and three are in Florida. This is, of course, hardly something to get excited about. Texas has hundreds of high schools, and one should hope that at least three of them would be really good. The better question would be something along the lines of, “Are our schools preparing all students, or at least most students, to be productive and engaged members of society?” And by that standard, no state should be coasting on its laurels. Few of them would even get an A for effort.