Measure schools by results, not spending - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Measure schools by results, not spending

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Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009 7:19 pm | Updated: 12:46 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Tom Patterson: In the world of public education, New York is the big spender. Even in these tough times, per pupil funding in the Empire State tops $14,100. Yet in a recent test of math skills, 90 percent of high school graduates enrolled at City University of New York couldn’t do the most basic algebra.

In the world of public education, New York is the big spender. Even in these tough times, per pupil funding in the Empire State tops $14,100. Yet in a recent test of math skills, 90 percent of high school graduates enrolled at City University of New York couldn’t do the most basic algebra.

One third couldn’t translate a decimal into a fraction. Mathwise, they were still in grade school.

Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., show similar depressing results. But Arizona has no room to gloat. Arizona’s fourth-graders scored nine points below the national average on the 2009 National Report Card (NAEP). That’s almost a year’s worth of learning.

Eighth-graders were five points behind.

Arizona’s minority students are also having a hard time closing the notorious achievement gap. Our black students were six points above average in 1992, but now are just even with other blacks. English language learner students were four points below the national average in 1992 but now are fully 17 points behind their counterparts in other states.

According to the state Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Arizona’s per-pupil spending increased 20 percent after adjusting for inflation from 2000 to 2009. In most fields of endeavor, delivering an inferior product with rising prices has consequences. Ask GM or Chrysler.

Yet the public school establishment remains defiant. They still insist that if we pour yet more money into the same failed system that someday, somehow we will get the results we desperately need. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

The really frustrating thing is that we know what works to improve academic achievement. This isn’t like curing cancer or even the common cold. Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economist, recently showed that charter schools in New York City academically outperformed district public schools.

In fact, the inner city children in charter schools scored almost as well as those in the affluent Scarsdale school district.

But Hoxby also drew correlations between various school policies and the probability of academic success. She found that high-performing charter schools emphasized academic achievement in their mission statements. They also spent more time on learning with longer school years, longer school days and more minutes spent on basic subjects like English.

They didn’t tolerate minor classroom misbehaviors but employed a small rewards/small penalties discipline policy.

Successful schools didn’t pretend to teach analytical thinking to students with nothing in their heads to think about. Instead, many used core knowledge or other fact-based curricula.

Furthermore, they utilized the direct instruction method, in which teachers explain the material to students, rather than “exploratory learning,” “discovery learning” or other favorites of the lazy.

Performance pay for teachers also correlated with academic achievement (surprise, surprise). Among factors which failed to affect learning in Hoxby’s study were class size, uniforms, student advisers and parents on the school board.

Unfortunately, as well done as this study was, there’s nothing new here. Study after study of excelling schools — and there are many around the country that do a great job of teaching the “uneducable” — show basically the same thing. Schools of choice with accountability for results tend to come up with similar strategies to stimulate learning.

So why don’t Arizona schools look like this? Why are our schools not improving? Florida is showing that it can be done.

Gov. Jeb Bush initiated comprehensive reforms a decade ago based on standards, accountability and school choice. Merit pay, instruction-based learning and elimination of social promotions (passing students who hadn’t learned the skills) were also parts of the package.

The results were startling. Florida’s achievement scores had been in decline, but today Florida’s low-income Hispanic students score better than the statewide average in Arizona and 12 other states. Black students showed similar gains, outscoring the statewide average in two states.

How can we justify pandering to interest groups and clinging to the past when it is so critical that we provide opportunity for all?

Make no mistake. If you believe that disadvantaged groups within our society can continue with 50 percent dropout rates and high school graduates with eighth-grade educations yet somehow turn out to be as financially successful as the others, you are in a state of delusion. It’s not going to happen.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.

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