“Blacks are great!” they proclaim. “I just don’t want my kids to ever interact with one.”
Today we’re talking about school myths:
1. The schools are failing.
“The schools are failing” is a political talking point, a scare tactic designed to drum up votes. It bears little relation to reality.
If you are reading this, then chances are someone taught you to read, and that person was probably a public school teacher.
People come from all over the world to study at American universities; few Americans scatter abroad to study at other countries’ universities.
Our economy has, for the past century or so, been among the most advanced in the world. We’ve created or contributed significantly to the development of cars, airplanes, atomic bombs, computers, vaccines, etc. Oh, and we PUT A MAN ON THE MOON.
And everyone who worked on space program (immigrants excluded) started attending US schools back around 1910-1940. (I suspect our schools have gotten better since then.)
People make a big deal out of US students not scoring #1 in the world in international-comparison tests. What of it? There are lots of countries with smart people in them, and we can’t all be first.
But even granting this, the reports of American under-performance are massively overstated. Let’s compare the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading scores for the US and 64 other countries (graph thanks to Steve Sailer, who spent two days combing through PISA data to make it):
Counting only countries that are actually countries (ie not Shanghai,) the US comes in #14. We scored better than 24 European countries, and significantly better than all of the Muslim, Latin American, and “other” countries in the data set.
“Above average among first world countries,” is a perfectly respectable place for a first world school system.
But you may have noticed the red bars in our graph. Yes, the US data is broken down by race, because the US is a significantly more diverse country than, say, Finland. Or Japan.
Asian Americans outscore Asians in Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. (and Taipei and Macao.) The only people on earth who are scoring better than our Asians are Shanghai’s Asians.
European Americans outscore Japan and every European country but Finland.
Latino Americans outscore every single Latino country in the dataset.
No African countries are represented in the dataset (though I hear Trinidad is half black,) probably due to the severe poverty of African countries. Nevertheless, just as African Americans outscore Trinidadians, I am confident that they would also outscore continental Africans were they concluded–there’s a pretty clear correlation here between development level and PISA scores.
Can we do better for our blacks and Hispanics? Perhaps, but any set of reforms that start out based on the notion that “the schools are failing” is highly unlikely to solve the problem of “blacks score worse than whites.”
(With thanks to reason.com for the charts.)
3. But we’d do even better if we spent more.
From the National Center for Education Statistics report, Disparities in Public School District Spending, way back in the dark days of 1995.
“Actual” in this graph means what it sounds like: the actual amount of money districts spent per student.
“Multivariate Cost- and Need-Adjusted” controls for factors like the number of ESL and special ed. students in a district, (who are counted as multiple students because they cost more to educate;) local cost-of-educating differences, (eg, land for building a school on is more expensive in urban districts than rural ones;) and SES, (so that poor blacks are compared to equally poor whites.)
The authors summarize their findings:
More money is spent in districts with the highest percentages of minority students compared to districts with the lowest percentages of minority students ($4,514 versus $3,920). Although minority students in poverty are often viewed as those least served by current systems of public education funding, these findings suggest that while inequalities may remain for students in poverty, they do not appear to be driven by minority status. …
The distribution of public education resources is substantially more nearly equal than wealth measured by housing values, and somewhat less varied than wealth measured by household income.
State public education allocation systems are the primary equalizing factors of education resources, with some additional equalization resulting from the various federal funding programs. …
When socioeconomic status is measured by cost-adjusted median household income, however, and all other factors are held constant, the expenditures per student between the highest and lowest income groups differ by only $186 ($4,382 versus $4,196). …
Controlling for other school district characteristics, only school districts in the category with the fewest children in poverty spend substantially more per student.
But this is all very abstract. Let’s get a little more specific, with the Kansas City, Missouri (yes there is a “Kansas City” in Missouri,) inner-city school district:
To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.
Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil–more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.
The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.
The project ran from roughly 1985 through 1997. The article gives more details on everything they tried:
Once Clark decided for the plaintiffs, he didn’t ask them to do things on the cheap. When it came time to fill in the plan’s specifics, he invited them to “dream”(15)–to use their imaginations, push the envelope, try anything that would both achieve integration and raise student scores. The idea was that Kansas City would be a demonstration project in which the best and most modern educational thinking would for once be combined with the judicial will and the financial resources to do the job right. No longer would children go to schools with broken toilets, leaky roofs, tattered books, and inadequate curricula. The schools would use the most modern teaching techniques; have the best facilities and the most motivated teachers; and, on top of everything else, be thoroughly integrated, too. Kansas City would show what could be done if a school district had both the money and the will. …
By the time he recused himself from the case in March 1997, Clark had approved dozens of increases, bringing the total cost of the plan to over $2 billion–$1.5 billion from the state and $600 million from the school district (largely from increased property taxes).
With that money, the district built 15 new schools and renovated 54 others. Included were nearly five dozen magnet schools, which concentrated on such things as computer science, foreign languages, environmental science, and classical Greek athletics. Those schools featured such amenities as 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.
To entice white students to come to Kansas City, the district had set aside $900,000 for advertising, including TV ads, brochures, and videocassettes. If a suburban student needed a ride, Kansas City had a special $6.4 million transportation budget for busing. If the student didn’t live on a bus route, the district would send a taxi. Once the students got to Kansas City, they could take courses in garment design, ceramics, and Suzuki violin. The computer magnet at Central High had 900 interconnected computers, one for every student in the school. In the performing arts school, students studied ballet, drama, and theater production. …
For students in the classical Greek athletic program, there 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.(18)
The ratio of students to instructional staff was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.(19) There was $25,000 worth of beads, blocks, cubes, weights, balls, flags, and other manipulatives in every Montessori-style elementary school classroom. 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.
Now you know why my parents thought it was a great idea to send me to a ghetto school. One year was more than enough.
It was more than the district could handle. District expenditures took quantum leaps from $125 million in fiscal year 1985 to $233 million in FY88 to $432 million in FY92.(21) There were too much largesse, too many resources, and too little security. A woman in the Finance Department went to jail for writing checks to her own account. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and supplies were lost to “rampant theft” every year.(22) …
Perhaps the worst problem for what one school board president called the district’s “modestly qualified” administrators was the sheer volume of paperwork.(24) When the judge started building schools and inviting school principals to order whatever they wanted, purchase orders flooded into the central administrative office at the rate of 12,000 a month. Clerks were overwhelmed, devastated, and too ashamed to admit they couldn’t handle the crush. The system just collapsed.(25)
In other words, ghetto districts with falling-apart schools get that way because they have incompetent ghetto administrators who take the money for themselves instead of investing it in school maintenance. Giving them more money does not suddenly make them realize that stealing from little kids is immoral; it just means they steal more money.
And the honest ones among them were too dumb to run a school district to start with.
To outsiders, it appeared that the KCMSD had gone on a spending binge. At $400 million, Kansas City’s school budget was two to three times the size of those of similar districts elsewhere in the country. The Springfield, Missouri, school district, for instance, had 25,000 students, making it two-thirds as big as the KCMSD. Yet Springfield’s budget ($101 million) was only one-quarter to one-third the size of Kansas City’s ($432 million at its peak).(27)
Everything cost more in Kansas City.(28) Whereas nearby districts were routinely building 500-student elementary schools for around $3 million, in Kansas City comparably sized schools cost $5 million to $6 million. Whereas the nearby Blue Valley district built a 1,600-student high school at a cost of $20.5 million, including furniture and equipment, in Kansas City the 1,200-student Central High cost $33 million (it came with a field house larger than those of many colleges, ubiquitous computers, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool).(29) …
With some 600 employees for a district of 36,000 students, the KCMSD had a central administration that was three to five times larger than the administrations of other comparably sized public school districts. It was also 150 times larger than the administration of the city’s Catholic school system, in which four people–one superintendent, two assistant superintendents, and a part-time marketing manager–ran a school district of 14,000 students.(32) The KCMSD was so top-heavy that a 1991 audit discovered that 54 percent of the district’s budget never made it to the classroom; rather, it was used for food service, transportation, and, most of all, central administration.(33)
…44 percent of the entire state budget for elementary and secondary education was going to just the 9 percent of the state’s students who lived in Kansas City and St. Louis.(34)
So how did the schools do? Did test scores go up?
But despite a $900,000 television advertising budget and a $6.4 million special budget for door-to-door transportation of suburban students, the district did not attract the 5,000 to 10,000 white suburban students the designers of the desegregation plan had envisioned. The largest number it ever enrolled was 1,500, and most white students returned to their old suburban schools or to local private schools after one year … By the 1996-97 school year, only 387 suburban students were still attending school in the KCMSD.(71) … the cost of attracting those suburban students was half a million dollars per year per child.
Genuine question: Why even bother trying to attract white students? Why not just focus on making a great, outstanding school for the black kids? There is nothing special about sitting next to a white kid in class that makes black kids suddenly get better test scores. We don’t exude magic education rays. The best you can hope for is either 1. The districts’ test scores go up because they now have more high-scoring white students, which seems rather beside the point if your goal is to help black kids get better test scores, or 2. The white students help the black kids with their schoolwork, in which case the district is exploiting children as unpaid teachers.
And having been one of those kids exploited as unpaid teachers, my opinion of that is best expressed in all caps cursing. Children are not teachers; making one kid teach their peers results in their peers hating them and increased bullying and violence toward the kid.
Don’t make little kids do your job for you just because you can’t.
Year after year the test scores would come out, the achievement levels would be no higher than before, and the black-white gap (one-half a standard deviation on a standard bell curve) would be no smaller.(81) Although the initial gap was small, by the 12th grade, blacks’ scores on standardized tests were about three years behind those of whites (10.1 vs. 13.1).(82) At Central High School, which tended to attract suburban white computer hackers, white males were five years ahead of black males on standardized tests.(83) …
The average black student’s reading skills increased by only 1.1 grade equivalents in four years of high school.(89) At Central High, complained Clark, black males were actually scoring no higher on standardized tests when they graduated as seniors than they had when they enrolled as freshmen four years before.(90) …
In perhaps the biggest surprise, Armor’s studies found that black elementary students who go to magnet schools (which have the highest percentages of whites) score no better on standardized tests than do blacks who go to all-black nonmagnet schools.(97) In short, Armor found that, contrary to the notion on which the whole desegregation plan was founded–that going to school with middle-class whites would increase blacks’ achievement–the Kansas City experiment showed that “integration has no effect.”(98) …
Finally, the district had discovered that it was easier to meet the court’s 60/40 integration ratio by letting black students drop out than by convincing white students to move in. As a result, nothing was done in the early days of the desegregation plan about the district’s appalling high school dropout rate, which averaged about 56 percent in the early 1990s (when desegregation pressures were most intense) and went as high as 71 percent at some schools (for black males it was higher still).(109)…
Although Kansas City did increase teacher pay a total of 40 percent to an average of about $37,000 (maximum was $49,008 per year for Ph.D.s with 20 years experience), test scores for the district were consistently below state and national averages.(121) Parochial school teachers, in contrast, earned an average of $24,423, but their students’ test scores were consistently above state and national averages.(122)
In fact, the supposedly straightforward correspondence between student achievement and money spent, which educators had been insisting on for decades, didn’t seem to exist in the KCMSD. At the peak of spending in 1991-92, Kansas City was shelling out over $11,700 per student per year.(123) For the 1996-97 school year, the district’s cost per student was $9,407, an amount larger, on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis, than any of the country’s 280 largest school districts spent.(124) Missouri’s average cost per pupil, in contrast, was about $5,132 (excluding transportation and construction), and the per pupil cost in the Kansas City parochial system was a mere $2,884.(125)
Oh, does anyone remember that time Zuckerberg gave the Newark School District 100 million dollars in 2010, and it completely disappeared and did absolutely nothing?
As for the district schools forced — or incentivized — to compete with charters, those involved with the Newark effort point to green shoots of change. Graduation rates are up. More higher- rated teachers are staying than lower- performing ones. Still, on state tests of third- to eighth-graders, math and reading proficiency went down in all six grades between 2011 and 2014.
5. The teachers are incompetent.
This seems to be the conservatives’ favorite response to cases like Newark and Kansas City. Oh, if only we could just fire all of the teachers and replace them with different teachers, then test scores would go up! And we need some kind of standardized, “Common Core” taught in all of the schools so that incompetent teachers can’t get away with not teaching their students!
I find this attitude really hostile to teachers, the vast majority of whom are genuinely hard working and dedicated folks. I’ve attended plenty of schools, had a wide variety of teachers, and all of them did a perfectly good job of teaching. (I did have a couple I didn’t like personally, but I still learned from them.) Student performance has a lot more to do with the students than with the teachers:
In summary: teacher quality probably explains 10% of the variation in same-year test scores. A +1 SD better teacher might cause a +0.1 SD year-on-year improvement in test scores. This decays quickly with time and is probably disappears entirely after four or five years, though there may also be small lingering effects.
If teacher quality explains 10% of the variation, then student quality (and random chance) explain 90% of the variation.
Some kids, when you hand them a standardized test, take one look at it and say, “NOPE.” Young boys, in particular, do not seem well suited to sitting still for long hours every day doing worksheets, reading books, or taking tests. Young girls, by contrast, are much better at simply being still and concentrating.
This is not the teachers’ fault.
Some kids get substantially more help at home than other kids. Homework help, tutoring help, breakfast, lead levels in their environment, etc. Regardless of what these things do to long-term outcomes, they certainly make a short-term difference on standardized tests in fourth grade.
This is not the teachers’ fault.
And some kids are just plain smarter or harder working than other kids.
This is also not the teachers’ fault.
I’m sure there are bad teachers; there may be significant impediments to firing them. But they are not some sort of massive, nation-wide problem that requires us to pour millions of dollars into dictating the curriculum, (which, ironically, prevents them from teaching “above grade level” material to students who would benefit from it,) and scrutinizing their every move like some sort of educational panopticon.
Remember, teachers back in 1910-1930 managed to educate their students well enough that they sent a man to the moon.
What about these findings of long-term financial gains from having a superior kindergarten teacher, or having three great teachers in a row vs. having three terrible teachers in a row?
I’m going with data is confounded all to hell.
Well-off parents buy outrageously expensive houses in all-white districts in order to send their kids to schools with other whites (and Asians.) “For the test scores,” of course. Since teacher quality is determined by test scores, which is in turn determined by the intelligence of the other kids in the class (or at least how much they’ve crammed for the test,) all this is telling us is that slightly dumb rich kids do well financially later in life because they come from well-off families.
The only kids who are enduring three of the worst teachers in a row are the absolute poorest kid whose parents either don’t give a shit about their educations or have zero ability to get them transferred to a different school or classroom. And after three years of bad teachers, I bet I’d stop bothering to fill out the standardized tests, either, and would just spend the time doodling dragons all over the paper. That kids with zero educational support and extremely impoverished backgrounds end up doing badly in life really shouldn’t surprise us.
But because we are talking about having three particularly good or bad teachers in a row, only 1/125 students fall into either category. The vast majority of students–over 99%–get a variety of different teachers, and most teachers are decent.
Could bad teachers be concentrated in ghetto school districts? Perhaps they are–though remember, these districts are still paying their teachers more than the average Catholic school, so I doubt teacher pay is really the problem. And I’ve yet to hear anyone espouse an explanation for why ghetto schools supposedly attract bad teachers besides “bad pay.”
To be clear: we’ve denigrated and cast all teachers under suspicion and greatly interfered with their ability to run their classrooms all because teachers in the ghettos can’t raise their students’ test scores.
If a particular teacher is a real problem, let the parents of the students in that teacher’s class present their troubles to the school board and let the board make a determination.
6. SAT scores are just a product of your parents’ income.
Sorry the graph is small. The Y axis is SAT scores and the X axis is parental income.
The top line, dark orange, is Asian math scores. Dark blue = white math. Light blue = white verbal. Dark red = Mexican math. Black = black math. Light orange = Asian verbal. Pink = Mexican verbal. Grey = black verbal.
The richest black kids in the country have worse math scores than the poorest whites and Asians. The richest Mexicans have math scores on par with the poorest Asians and only slightly above working class whites. On verbal scores, blacks at all income levels score worse than their similarly-monied peers for whom English is most likely a second language.
And as we’ve already seen district funding doesn’t actually vary that much with parental income. Rich people do indeed pay for more tutoring and better teachers for their kids, but this is heavily confounded by the fact that smart people tend to go to college, get degrees, go into high-paying professions, and then have kids who are also pretty smart, while dumb people drop out of highschool, get shitty jobs, make very little money, and end up with kids who are similarly dumb.
7. More education will jump-start the economy and solve all woes.