Fewer Children Left Behind – Update

In response to my post, “Fewer Children Left Behind“, I received some interesting comments from a regular reader. Please read Kagehi’s comments in their entirety before reading my response, which follows below:

Of all the standardized tests I’ve taken (and I’ve taken many), very few depend simply on rote memory. The increasing emphasis on reading comprehension, for example, seems to me to be a welcome development. Sure, it’s only multiple-choice, but it still forces people at least to learn decision-making skills, such as how to weed out obviously wrong answers; but even getting to the point of knowing which answers are obviously wrong requires some knowledge.

I would guess that there are a lot of folks who would then cry triumphantly, saying, “Aha! See? We shouldn’t do multiple-choice testing at all, as it doesn’t test anything real.” I have two answers to that:

  1. Most, if not all, people I’ve known who’ve scored above a certain percentile on most standardized tests tend also to be more than just book smart. My empirical evidence thus suggests that the rejoinder is at least flawed.

  2. The issue of testing almost always comes up primarily along with issues of funding. This is as it should be. The issue comes up because someone somewhere (usually taxpayers or politicans) want schools to justify government funding. While hard numbers might not be able to capture the entire scope of a school’s quality, it at least gives those asking questions some idea of where the school is at. And, typically, politicians and voters are forgiving enough to acknowledge that just one round of hard numbers doesn’t necessarily capture the entire package. Thus, NCLB doesn’t withhold funding unless there’s a negative trend over the course of two or three years (I forget which). This is a moving average, which gives those who hold purse strings a beter idea of performance.

Now I’m going to make the argument that liberals typically hate, and compare school results to real-world business results. In the real world, a business may have a fantastic idea for a product or service. However, if, after a reasonable amount of time, a start-up fails to reach its stated revenue goals, might investors not be justified in short-selling their shares?

The reason liberals don’t like this argument is that they are outraged that schools are being compared to private enterprise. Why? Isn’t the point of school to teach our children how to cope with the real world? Especially given your argument that our children aren’t learning anything useful. I don’t know what’s more useful than learning that even though we are individuals, our hard work can play an important role in outcomes that we might not have an immediate stake in.

Schooling is an educational service. Just as SAT-prep classes have the goal of training kids to take the SAT, so too does regular school have an obligation to teach kids how to approach problems whose answers must be expressed in certain ways. Meanwhile, as certain standardized tests increasingly move toward using writing samples, so too will schools have to keep up. That would address the anti-multiple-choice-test argument.

Lastly, you bring up the excellent point of intangibles such as physical education and performing as well as visual arts.

As far as I know, physical education in the state of California consists only in making sure that kids up to and including the 10th grade are getting their exercise, and are learning the concepts behind certain team sports. However, varsity sports are not mandatory. Moreover, increasingly, parents are footing the bill for everything from some equipment (particularly padding, jock straps, uniforms, helmets, etc.), to rides to the actual games. This is already not a new development, and was happening before NCLB. Given that all this is true, it would seem that not much would change. In fact, the redirection of federal moneys toward testing might actually help athletes, many of whom enter prestigious schools on athletic scholarships but are incapable of higher level scholastic achievement.

As for the arts, as far as I know, arts were never a major part of school curricula to begin with. The most obvious example of arts funding would have to be the marching band. Most members of the band, particularly the woodwinds, come aboard with their own instruments. Those hoping to continue with the band in college also habitually bring their own instruments. (The prospect of having to share any sort of wind instrument would unnerve any hypochondriac.) Most band members these days are also paying their own way to events, much as many athletes do, and have been since before NCLB. So, nothing new there.

The other major art is probably drama. Most of the costumes used tend to come from donations, and sometimes from discarded Home Economics. Thus, not much would change there either.

In other words, this last charge from the anti-testers doesn’t, in the context of NCLB, hold water. The federal government does not, in fact, contribute much to any particular school. The percentage of any public school’s funds that come from the federal government is spectacularly low. Most of the funding actually comes from state tax revenues. An argument thus might be made that some of those state funds might be diverted to satisfying federal funding contingents, i.e. testing. However, any school district that is redirecting more money toward testing than it gets from the federal government as a reward for attaining such goals has got a bigger problem with crooked or incompetent administrators than with federal funding.

Now, I’m not saying that NCLB is perfect. For example, given how small a portion of each school’s funding comes from the federal government, it might make more sense to restrict the Department of Education to adminitering tests and resuscitating failing schools, i.e. schools that fail to pass certain levels on the tests. This means that schools that have improved enough to sustain success levels beyond three years will no longer need the funding, and should they then backslide, they’ll again be eligible for help.

Let’s have a scenario, where $10,000,000 is available for distribution over 100 elementary schools. Let us then categorize the schools into consistently successful, consistently unsuccessful, transitional, and haphazard. Consistently successful schools always pass the test with more than 75% of their students. Consistently unsuccessful schools never have more than 75% of their students pass. Transitional schools are unsuccessful schools that have improved, but have yet to sustain the achievement over three successive years.

Now let’s assume that 20% of schools are consistently unsuccessful, and 65% of schools are consistently successful.

Under NCLB, all 100 schools get $100,000 each during the first year. After two or three years, 20 schools lose their funding because they have not ever passed. The remaining 80 schools will get $125,000 each.

Under my plan, which we might call “progressive” (as with income taxes), consistently successfully schools will lose their federal funding gradually, and the same defunding plan will apply to transitional schools, but any school that fails in a given year will be funded to the maximum allowed by budget. Assuming again that 20% of schools cannot improve enough to pass, this means that, even without a gradual defunding plan for transitional schools, after three years, the 20 unsuccessful schools and 15 transitional schools would be eligible for $10,000,000, which would be just over $285,700 each. If, in addition, the gradual defunding plan means that, on average, the transitional schools get an average of half funding, that means that each transitional school would receive over $181,800 (for a total of $2,727,000), while each consistently unsuccessful school would receive in excess of $363,600 (for a total of $7,272,000).

What this means is that money is going to where it is most needed. The drawback to this is that there is thus no incentive for schools to get better, at least in terms of federal funding. Under the current NCLB plan, the motivation is federal funding, scant though it may be. Perhaps, then, an incentive might come in the way of construction or land grants: If a school maintains its successful status after three years, the federal government can build a gym or a new wing, or donate some land (which would be good for physical education departments).

There is the cynical caveat, of course, that then teachers and/or administrators would take advantage of this by allowing a school to backslide into unsuccessful status, then moving it back toward successful, and then scoring another grant at the end of those next three years.

The answer is simple: The federal government then gets to reclaim the land or building, forcing the school either to pay rent, or to otherwise abandon its claim to usage.

These are just some possibilities, of course, but I stand by my disagreement with the party line that liberals tend to regurgitate, with respect.

I welcome, as always, your reactions.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

13 thoughts on “Fewer Children Left Behind – Update”

  1. What this means is that money is going to where it is most needed. The drawback to this is that there is thus no incentive for schools to get better, at least in terms of federal funding.

    It’s worse than that. It means there’s an active incentive for the school to do worse.

    Some people argue that the reason that 1960’s style welfare was a failure was because it was too generous. The 1990’s welfare reform changed the incentive structure, and seems to have reduced poverty.

    Some then pointed out a basic economic argument: when the government was willing to “buy” (pay for) at a good price a lot of unwed unemployed mothers, suddenly there were a lot of them. Once welfare “as we know it” was changed so that the government wanted to “buy” employed unwed mothers (and wed mothers with employed husbands) then there were a lot fewer unwed, unemployed mothers.

    Your plan repeats the fundamental mistake of 1960’s-style welfare. Your plan establishes a strong economic demand for failing schools by creating a buyer willing to pay a high price for failing schools. That’s actually worse than the situation we have now, where all schools are funded the same whether they’re failing or not, and an economist would expect that it would lead to more failing schools, not less.

    The “progressive” argument is that the money should go where it’s needed. The economics response is that this has the unintended side effect of perpetuating and expanding the exact problem that the progressive thinks they’re trying to cure.

    The economics counter-proposal is to shut down failing schools entirely and to terminate all the employees (i.e. to not transfer them to other schools). Then you build entirely new schools and restaff them from scratch. You reward good schools with more money and punish the staff at lousy schools by eliminating their jobs.

    That works really well in private industry. It’s one of the big differences between Europe and the US: in Europe there are all kinds of laws which make it difficult if not impossible for big companies to close inefficient money-losing divisions or to lay off unproductive staff. In the US those things are much easier.

    The result? The US has much lower unemployment. Because it is easier for companies to lay employees off, they’re more willing to hire. Because it’s easier for them to close unproductive divisions, they’re more willing to invest speculatively in divisions in new business segments.

    Thus is the “law of unintended consequences” demonstrated to be valid yet again.

    Why should we expect schools to respond any differently to that kind of incentive structure? If teachers get better pay if their students perform better, and if they get terminated if their students consistently fail, then would we not expect that this would “incentivize” them to make their students succeed?

    And if, on the other hand, teachers and schools receive more money when their students do worse, wouldn’t we expect more and more students to do badly?

    Of course, there are problems with the “economics” approach, too, and the biggest roadblock is the teachers unions. (Oddly enough, they’re also the most vocal opponents of standardized testing.) Anything which exposes the fact that some teachers are incompetent and shouldn’t be part of the profession is anathema to the NEA. And like all unions, they totally oppose any kind of merit pay or merit-based promotion.

  2. Steven, do you ever sleep? :O)

    Great analysis! I pretty much agree with what you’re saying, with a few minor nits:

    1. The Department of Education is here to stay, like it or not. While the “economics” approach might make the most sense rationally, the presence of the NEA and even local unions like the CTA means that nobody’s getting fired any time soon. About that more later.

    2. Given that the ED is here to stay, and given the fact that if it’s here to stay, it’s going to get some funding, how should the federal government, which ordinarily does not run education (which is correctly a state matter), allocate its money? In this context, ED might be better interpreted as a sort of educational FEMA, whose purpose is to dole out money to help fix broken schools. If school choice (even something as simple as choice of public schools) is ever possible, then there would be three agents involved: the seller (school and state), the consumer (parents), and the insurance agent (the federal government). If the product is no good, consumers will vote with their feet. In this scenario, the teacher’s unions would then be incentivized to work with the federal government. But like any insurance agent, the federal government has the right to demand certain types of monitorable steps. And like any seller, schools would be free to input additional funds, whether from the state government or from the local PTA. Given the dire state of some of our schools, the FEMA comparison doesn’t seem out of hand, with the difference being that FEMA is much more potent than state aid agencies, while federal education funding rightly pales in comparison to state funding.

    3. The unions. Ah, the unions. Unions are, in their very DNA, political creatures. And like all political creatures their raison d’être is simply self-sustenance and growth. They oppose merit-based measurements not because individual union members oppose them, but because that’s the only way to come close to guaranteeing that all members continue to have jobs.

  3. I did my tour in our public schools in the mid-50s to late-60’s. We didn’t have ‘technology’. We were stuffed 34-36 per classroom. We had books, mostly used. We had desks. And somehow, obviously only God knows how, 90% of my fellow classmates and friends made it to high school graduation with real 12th grade skills and knowledge. As long as there are citizen alive who have lived that experience, the ‘professional educators’ that rule the system today, will never be able to sell their excuses.

    The Kansas City Missouri School system is the model of modern education failure. In the 80s, interest groups sued the state and got a federal judge to levy a tax on the citizens of Missouri to fund reform in the KC school system. It would take years till the Supreme Court would rule that the judge ‘failed to use other means before implementing’ the tax [great, now the judiciary believes it has the power to tax when it deems all other means have been exhusted – goodbye republic]. The money was employed by the professional educators to do everything they claimed was necessary to solve the problem. Unfortunately, even with the funding, even with the ‘best and brightest’ plans implemented, the KC school district still failed, ending up unaccredited by the end of the 90s.

  4. I think the problem with the testing is that it tests the wrong thing. We test for data learned and skills mastered. What we should be testing on is how much each student is improving in their learning skills. Teach to that test and your teachers will be doing something usefull.

  5. The fact that something is a multiple choice test in no way implies that it just tests “rote memorization.” For example, you can ask a question which requires the student to set up a calculus problem, based on a word-problem, and then to solve the problem. (The multiple-choice answers may be either in equation or numerical form.) The student will be the question right (above the level of chance) only if he is able to derive the math from the real-word problem description..which I would think would be exactly what proponents of “critical thinking skills” would be looking for.

    Or not. Because in reality, I suspect that many of these CTS proponents would be quite unable to answer such a question themselves, and see no reason why they or anyone else should be able to. What they really want is to keep everything at the level of verbal mush.

  6. Personal experience:
    A) If we don’t test on content we often send a message that content isn’t important. It is.
    B) Teachers’ colleges encourage and so do the unions an anti-intellectualism. One of its numerous characteristics is an overvaluing of the emotional exception and undervaluing the general (partially because it is with the mind that the abstractiions are made and the heart sees the exceptions).
    C) Multiple choice tests do not necessarily reflect rote learning. We require pre/post tests that can be scantron graded. Put on committees to develop these, I developed a respect for how much these tests can do to test thought – not expecting regurgitated interpretation nor rote facts. Nor has it been my experience that the better a student does on the SAT or GRE the fewer the ideas – rather, the opposite. It is not just that the tests are more complex and thoughtful than that; it is also that ideas are prompted by facts (well ideas that are worth anything). Sometimes I suspect that the people who say rote learning and learning facts stifle thought are people who had lousy ideas and facts got in their way. It is also easier, I might note, to sympathetically grade someone who agrees with you if the tests are less objective.

  7. If we stipulate that a multiple choice test isn’t going to test for everything that students should learn at a good school, it still make sense to give the test anyway.

    Because if the students can’t even pass that test, it’s a pretty good bet that the other stuff is missing, too.

    Once practically every school has the basics down and can be differentiated on the more advanced stuff that those tests can’t really bring out, then it’ll make sense to drop the test. Maybe. If we can be sure that the schools won’t backslide. In the meantime, can we at least use the test until our schools have improved to the point that we can take it as given that just about every school will teach their students well enough to pass them? Or, if that never happens, can we keep them around so that we’ll know that the public school system isn’t even getting the basics right, and the present system needs to be abolished in favor of a system that has been repeatedly shown to relentlessly increase the effectiveness and decrease the price of various goods and services over time?

  8. Sometimes I suspect that the people who say rote learning and learning facts stifle thought are people who had lousy ideas and facts got in their way.

    Wow, Ginny! I enjoy seeing folks knock one out of the park but there’s nothing quite like the majesty of a Ruthian Blast.

  9. I agree with Ken. I always have thought that “teaching to the test” was crap and some of the math teachers at our jr. college laughed out loud when this was put out as a complaint – so, they said, they can’t pass the basics because they know the complicated stuff? That may be less true in my discipline, but it isn’t false there, either.
    (This is often phrased as “I spend so much time teaching to the test I can’t teach what I want to.” Personally, I hate teaching how to do MLA citations; I would not do it if I didn’t know that that was something they were actually supposed to learn. I didn’t think we were in this business to “teach what we want to” but to teach our disciplines.)

  10. The federal government doesn’t own the school buildings or property now. In almost all cases, the federal government contributed nothing to the purchase of the land or the construction of the building. Why should the federal government get the building? That provides a silly and draconian penalty to the local school districts, and a difficult-to-manage but easy-to-mismanage windfall to the federal government.

    Those schools most likely to be shut down are inner city schools serving poor neighborhoods. These are the schools from which students do not flee because there is no way the family could pay for transportation anywhere else. These are the schools that frequently are the foundation of the local neighborhoods for meetings, playgrounds, and social life.

    So your plan really is a hammer at inner cities and at poor families. What do you have against them?

  11. The DenBeste “plan” to knock down the schools is an economic model, both as useful and unrealistic as a frictionless plane in physics, a homogeneous distribution in statistics, or rational man in law. Let’s not pick nits in the model, let’s discuss what it reveals.

    What _I_ would observe it that the Den Beste model still leaves parents and students unmotivated to excel. While a good school, or a good teacher, is rewarded and their less-competent competition goes bust — the problem of educating a proscpective young citizen who doesn’t appreciate his opportunities remains.

    The POUNCER proposal, on the other hand, would pay lucrative awards to those who pass the tests. (We wave away the problem of constructing a “good, fair, comprehensive” test…) Now a kid who is bright and a self-directed learner who can pick up a book and master the material without a guide by her side– she pockets the entire amount. A different kid who struggles may hire a coach or tutor — up to (in theory) a dollar less than the value of the award. If the award is worth $5000, the average student is willing to part with half to a good teacher, and a good teacher can provide for say 20 kids in a classroom per year — the kids each pocket $2500 for passing the test while the good teacher gets (uhm, 20 times 2500, is that, uhm… ) $50,000.

    That’s not bad. Throw in lunch and airconditioning for the class room and maybe the kids will pay MORE than half the award. Squeeze in a couple more kids in the back row and the better teachers earn more …

    See how this model might work?

    OF COURSE it’s unrealistic and would never get thru a legislature. But as a concept we’re trying here to explore how incentives should be aligned. Note too that under either the DenBeste or Pouncer scenario — without huge payoffs to basketball stars, guitar players, and fashion models — sports, music, and dramatics will take a back seat to traditional education.

    Though perhaps a non-governmental source of rewards to athletes, musicians, and pretty girls might be discovered.

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