• The right education reform
    March 25,2014

    I’m no rocket surgeon, but I have spent much of my life either as a student, a teacher or a father paying for an education for my son. This

    qualifies me to have an informed opinion, but I have found that my perspective is not the most commonly expressed about education. I just want to try to keep it real.

    One research study found that it is nearly impossible to assess the quality of education within any country

    using standard metrics common to that country. This is based on the idea that education is one of those topics that is nearly impossible to evaluate without injecting the bias of politics, national pride, money or other self-interests that will skew the results, making the metrics considerably less than objective. An objective, third-party assessment is necessary to allow comparisons of a variety of parameters across the entire spectrum of the educational system. The National Center for Education Statistics calls the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study “the most extensive and far reaching cross-national comparative study of mathematics and science education ever attempted.”

    Measuring education is like asking a politician for an honest answer. What you get back may be technically correct, but you can bet it is a carefully crafted answer that probably is not what you think it is. Getting a truly objective analysis of education is easier if the data collected are kept as simple as possible without caveats and exceptions. For instance, educational efficiency could be defined as the score on an international standardized test, like the TIMSS. Educational productivity is the ratio of student performance to spending.

    We in Vermont and in the entire U.S. educational system, in general, achieve a lower score in these areas than you might expect based on the rhetoric and self-backslapping of recent news stories. This is largely a response to the No Child Left Behind federal initiative that has mandated nonstop improvement in efficiency and productivity. Many schools accomplish steady improvement by constantly lowering the standards on local and national tests, but the true result is evident in tests like the TIMSS.

    The following is a collection of determinations and conclusions derived from the analysis of international tests and related sociological data focusing on educational efficiency and productivity:

    Studies of TIMSS data found that in science, American fourth-graders outperformed all other countries except South Korea and scored above the international average in mathematics. However, by eighth grade, U.S. students barely scored above the international average in science, and in math they could only outperform a handful of nations. Scores for 12th-graders were dismal. In mathematics, the students could outperform only two nations — Cyprus and South Africa — and in physics, they finished dead last.

    Analysis showed that our system has the unique concept of middle school as the culmination of elementary school. The result is that kids in middle school are just expected to continue elementary math and science. In other countries, middle school students move into the formal disciplines of algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry. There is a shift there that we don’t make. It is in middle school that American students fall behind their peers in other countries. They fall farther behind in high school and never make up that deficit.

    Another unique aspect of American education is the degree of involvement of the teachers unions. The aim of any union is to promote the interests of its members and to defend them against the interests of other groups. They can also exert collective bargaining power. The unions, therefore, will focus on the interests that are not advanced by other interest groups — mainly, increasing teachers’ pay and decreasing their workload. In doing so, they advance the interest of the median teacher, favoring a leveling of salary scales instead of differentiation by merit.

    Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby’s research has shown that teacher unionization helps explain why schools can perform worse when given more resources. Hoxby found that unions act to increase school resources but reduce the productivity with which these resources are used. The cumulative effect is a reduction in school productivity (the ratio of student performance to spending). Specifically, in schools where unions had a lot of influence over the curriculum, students performed 32 points worse in math, 18 points lower in science.

    By contrast, in schools in which teachers act individually; apply their deep, personal knowledge of the students’ needs; have an influence on the curriculum; and are able to influence the choice of their specific textbooks, the students performed 12 points better in math, 11 points in science.

    Numerous domestic and international studies have repeatedly shown that increasing salaries, equipment, facilities and teaching aids have only a marginal effect on student grades — despite the demands and claims by the teachers unions to the contrary, these areas of expense have consistently shown up as the most expensive portion of the total educational costs while producing the least impact on educational efficiency and effectiveness. There are, however, cost-cutting measures that consistently do not affect student performance:

    1. Although costs increase with school size, the economy of scale yields increasing savings up to about 1,500 students per school. Below 750, cost savings are negligible. The ideal mix has been shown repeatedly to be larger school districts and smaller schools.

    2. Studies also show that administrative costs are the one expense variable that does not have any direct proportional link to student performance. Excluding daily operational management of school activities, most other administrative functions have benefited significantly from technology and consolidated or shared resources, resulting in substantially lower costs. These technologies include: centralized student accounting; centralized teacher accounting including payroll; consolidated financial management; synergistic collaboration through networking; shared lessons learned and improvement feedback; student-teacher and teacher-parent networking; online textbooks, lesson plans and help files; and carefully managed and controlled wireless networks on school campuses.

    Producing a 21st-century educational system does not mean we have to adopt the latest technology or the latest fad teaching remedy. We don’t need to be spending more per student than any other state in the United States — which we are now doing. We need to look at what has been proven to work and then be smart enough to use it.

    Tom Watkins lives in Montpelier. He can be reached at KeepItReal@21vt.us.

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