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Public Schools: Spending Money in all the Wrong Places

Opinion Editorial
September 5, 2002

By Linda Gorman

In school reform, the chasm between establishment advice and what the data show keeps on growing. In exchange for a “Performance Promise,” voters approved a $20 million bond issue for Jefferson County Public Schools to be used on projects that, according to the Districts web site, “have been proven to increase student achievement smaller classes, classroom coaches, staff development, extended learning and individualized attention.”

But contrary to Jeffco’s claims, reducing teacher workloads does not improve student achievement. Between 1950 and 1994, the pupil-teacher ratio in American schools fell by 35%. Student achievement deteriorated. The achievement decline is not explained by changes in family structure, poverty, special education, or increasing numbers of immigrants. Some studies suggest that class size reductions may result in small achievement gains in special situations. In general, however, the more thorough the study, the more likely it is to find that class size reductions produce no gains in student achievement.

Project STAR, which followed Tennessee kindergartners assigned to classes of different sizes through high school, is often cited as proof that small classes raise achievement. A re-analysis of the data by Princeton professor Alan Krueger suggests that any class size effect was limited to kindergarten and first grade. Unfortunately, the quality of the underlying data is suspect. More than 50% of the children in the initial kindergarten classes had dropped out of the experiment by the end of the first 4 years. Project Star also did not control for variations in teacher quality.

Teacher quality, not class size, is what school districts should improve. Especially teacher quality defined in terms of increases in student performance, rather than by years of teacher education or experience. In one large city school district, good teachers have raised student performance by 1 grade equivalents in a single academic year.( Bad teachers got only of a grade equivalent.) At this performance level, 5 excellent teachers in a row would erase the standard performance level difference between children from high and low-income families: excellence in teaching can overcome less fortunate family circumstances.

Jefferson County Public School officials would say that the Performance Promise addressed teacher quality by funding staff development. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the kind of training endorsed by Schools of Education, public school districts, and teachers’ unions, does anything to improve student achievement. According to the Jefferson County Public Schools web site, staff development courses include such gems as “Making Sense of Algebra, Grades K-2” and “Gender Equity in the Mathematics Classroom 4-8.” Given that second graders ought to be mastering their multiplication tables, and that gender studies have never helped anyone master fractions or decimal equivalents, Jeffco money would be better spent on bonuses to teachers with high verbal abilities and deep knowledge of the academic subject they teach. These attributes, not certification, masters degrees, or continuing education in education, best predict individual teacher productivity. The best predictors of teacher productivity are good communication skills and strong subject matter knowledge.

Another thing that improves student achievement is school choice. Independent, private and charter schools are less likely to hire certified teachers than the public school system and more likely to hire teachers from high quality colleges and universities who are first of all knowledgeable in the subjects they teach. They may work them harder, reward the good teachers, and get rid of the bad. They pay salaries that reflect market conditions. Because public schools appear to respond to surprisingly small competitive threats by raising student achievement, public schools in districts pressured by traditional forms of school choice–open enrollment policies, private and charter schools–have higher student achievement. According to Harvard professor Caroline M. Hoxby, “if all schools in the United States experienced high levels of the traditional forms of choice, school productivity [as measured by student achievement] might be as much as 28 percent higher than it is today.”

Jefferson County Public School officials say that they are facing budget cuts of $17 to $20 million. In true dot com style, they anticipated revenues from the Performance Promise in their operating budget. The student achievement failure requires immediate cuts of $3.5 million. Taking advantage of the budget cuts as an excuse to limit competition, school officials say they are considering limiting or suspending new charter school applications. That this may lower student achievement is just too bad. “Tough budgets, call for tough measures,” they say. The teachers, and their union, will do just fine. A 2002 story in The Rocky Mountain News reports that in the next school year the Jefferson County Public Schools expect $11.3 million in new revenues from the state, Amendment 23, and an enrollment decline. Projected new costs, which far outstrip the revenues, include $3.4 million for utility costs and $1 million for a new school. The rest, $26.5 million, is for cost of living increases, staff “experience” increases, and employee benefits.

Copyright 2002, Independence Institute

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.

LINDA GORMAN is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES on this subject can be found at: www.i2i.org

NOTHING WRITTEN here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

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