Saturday, March 28, 2009

On Throwing Money at the Problem

"To give away money is an easy matter ... and in any man's power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, for what purpose and how, is neither in every man's power nor an easy matter. Hence it is that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy and noble."
- Aristotle

Was Aristotle ever wrong?

In 1993 Walter H. Annenberg made a $500 million gift to public school education in the U.S. At the time, a 30-year veteran of the Detroit school district said the money would make no difference. He was right. Here’s the word from a year 2000 analysis listed by ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center): “…these grants did not accomplish more…because the idea on which they were based, that public schools lack expertise and that talented and motivated outsiders working with the system can provide it, is wrong.”

And alas, equally wrong is to expect school systems themselves to change (quod erat demonstrandum, I believe, in the video “Stupid in America.” For more on that, see my March 24 post, "Dumb as Dirt," below).

Barack Obama came to the presidency promising education reform, and he continues to promise it. Yet “reform” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders President Obama seeks to please or appease are the leadership of the National Education Association and education school gurus. Take a minute here to read the response of Kevin Ryan, professor emeritus at Boston University, to the president’s plan on Mercatornet, an ezine that you would do well to bookmark: And indulge me and read also my comment to Ryan’s piece.

Now when that wise Detroit teacher predicted Walter Annenberg’s philanthropy would be wasted, he said further that, from his experience, three things are necessary for learning: a [good] teacher, a blackboard, and willing students. The easiest of these to provide is the blackboard.

A 2007-2008 survey of new school costs in Virginia ( pegged these as averaging $20,554 per pupil in elementary school; $36,701 per middle school pupil, and $26,776 per high school student. And of course there is a costly yearly maintenance budget for facilities.

Contrast these expenditures with the cost of charter school facilities, often housed in rented store fronts or closed public schools. In Oakland, CA, Ben Chavis took over a Native American charter middle school, housed in an old church, and doubled student achievement (listen to an NPR report, While stressing academics, Chavis required students to work. He didn’t hire maintenance staff; he had his kids clean up hallways and set up tables for lunch etc. Lacking a gymnasium, his students took timed jogs around the block.

There really is not a direct relationship between the cost of an education, the money spent per pupil, and the quality of learning. Last April, Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute pointed out that the annual per pupil cost in the abysmal District of Columbia public school district (about $24,600 per pupil) exceeds the average tuition cost of private schools in the area by about $10,000. Go to to check this out.

And then there is Kansas City, and the saga of how not to spend money. The following comes from a Cato Institute policy analysis,

“In 1985 a federal district judge took partial control over the troubled Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) on the grounds that it was an unconstitutionally segregated district with dilapidated facilities and students who performed poorly. In an effort to bring the district into compliance with his liberal interpretation of federal law, the judge ordered the state and district to spend nearly $2 billion over the next 12 years to build new schools, integrate classrooms, and bring student test scores up to national norms.

“It didn't work. When the judge, in March 1997, finally agreed to let the state stop making desegregation payments to the district after 1999, there was little to show for all the money spent. Although the students enjoyed perhaps the best school facilities in the country, the percentage of black students in the largely black district had continued to increase, black students' achievement hadn't improved at all, and the black-white achievement gap was unchanged.”

And doubtless the Kansas City School Board was amazed to realize amenities such as an Olympic size swimming pool do not increase learning. Spending money foolishly on new and “up-to-date” school facilities is, to paraphrase Aristotle, as easy as passing a school bond issue (even it if takes a few election rounds to get approval), but it doesn’t guarantee money well spent. Most American public schools have more than adequate physical facilities, but most do a poor to mediocre job of fostering learning. The old one room school house with a blackboard and a minimal play yard did as well or better. One reason may well have been dedicated teachers, which will be the subject of a later post.


  1. When was the last time you tried to teach a room full of undisciplined, unmotivated, products of an unnurturing mother? Children of drug dealing gang members? Children who get off the school bus angry and ready to fight with anyone? I do it every day. I'm fed up with outsiders who think teachers are overpaid freeloaders who don't care about the children. When American culture finally decides to take responsibility for it's social ills, teachers will never be able to properly educate the young. America needs to face up to the fact that teachers can only do damage control for a failed culture. We do our best to deal with whatever untended flower breases through the school house door.

  2. Always perplexed, first off, thank you for visiting and commenting. Please note that the criticism in my post was directed at school administrators and ed school gurus, not the typical classroom teacher. Also, I absolutely agree that along with a "good teacher," "willing students" are essential to learning. I plan to comment on these topics in a later post.

    What qualities would you list for a good teacher? I'd list content knowledge, particularly in the upper grades, as essential: along with enthusiasm, particularly in the lower grades, and always a genuine concern for student learning.

    I have taught a few high school students and many who are just out of high school, with a variety of attitudes. As a community college instructor, I didn't get paid a whole bunch, but I think pay is a side issue. I'm willing to bet most teachers would rate independence in their classroom, the freedom to choose their own teaching style, above pay in ranking job satisfaction. This is a great advantage that teaching at the community college level has over teaching in the K-12 public school classroom. Although there are guidelines at the college level, there are no lesson plans or rigid methods imposed. Also, it is possible to remove unruly students who violate behavior standards outlined in a course description.

    I think there are many frustrated and worn out teachers in American classrooms...along with a number of inadequate teachers. The latter should find other employment; the former should be supported in establishing a better teaching and learning environment.

  3. I once heard educator Marva Collins speak. I was so taken with her I bought several copies of her book Marva Collins' Way, Returning to Excellence in Education and gave them as gifts.

    You can read a brief biography of this amazing woman here:

    She wrote, "I have discovered few learning disabled students in my three decades of teaching. I have, however, discovered many, many victims of teaching inabilities."

    My granddaughter is in her second year of college, still taking the "electives," politically correct classes, required by the University. Classes that have nothing to do with her major. Classes in which she is told how and what she must think in order to pass the exams.

    This same school offers several classes in remedial English and math for their incoming freshmen. (I'm not sure how college-prep students got through high school -- or even grade school! -- needing this kind of remediation.)

    I've seen a few really good teachers here locally in the public schools, but their hands are tied by government mandate to teach to multiple choice tests (publishers' tests) the students must take to pass. Tests that never go home, that the parents are not permitted to see except by appointment. Tests that do not test the student's ability to think, but their ability to mimic.

    I taught many years ago -- but I would not teach in a public school today. I'd much prefer to teach the student than the text. And I think that's been lost due to big government, huge unions and their rules. (I refused to belong to a union when I taught.)

    B. Obama's plan is another payoff taxpayers will be billed for. Again. I disagree with his approach, but then I'm a fiscal conservative. I don't spend what I don't have. And I certainly don't spend it and then ask you to pay for it!

    As always, your post is well-thought out. I did read your comment at MercatorNet. Excellent.


  4. I'm not an expert on this, Barb. But I do know that good teachers are good because they care that their students learn and because they work very hard to reach each student. They are not parroting educational method; they are searching for what works.

    A number of years ago, I administered a teacher ed branch program offered by a college with a good reputation. I attended a program at which senior students presented their research papers. One young woman's thesis boiled down to "don't drill and kill" or in other words, don't stifle elementary school kids by requiring they learn the basics of, say, multiplication tables. Now, I also had the opportunity to read that research paper, and it was replete with grammatical errors up to and including sentence fragments. Quite frankly it was written at the remedial level. This future teacher, who is undoubtedly teaching now, was sincere in her desire to work with kids, but sincerity alone is not a foundation for effective teaching.