Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Maine Schools – Making the Grade?”

Last week I attended a Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) luncheon in Portland.  The featured presentation was titled the same as this blog post, and it was an eye-opening brief given by Steve Bowen,  Director of MHPC’s Center for Education Excellence.

You can find a copy of the presentation here, and I highly recommend that you link to and read it.

If you pay attention to the annual school budget process, and follow what goes on in the related “negotiation” of teachers contracts every two to three years, you know that the school professionals relentlessly cite the need for additional spending and smaller class sizes “for the children.”  And there’s always a well-trained chorus of ‘schoolies’ to back up their demands.

The good news from the presentation is that spending more and more on education turns out to be very effective.  The bad news is that it’s not effective at what you might wish for.

Based on compelling nationwide data, the virtually unstoppable annual increase in per-student spending is very effective at increasing the income/benefit packages of the teachers unions, and not much else.  And in almost all cases, including here in Maine and Brunswick, these increases are guaranteed in advance, by contract, and there are absolutely no performance measures involved.  The worst teachers gets the same as the best.

Conversely, the relentless increase in spending, coupled with steadily declining pupil/teacher ratios, has no meaningful effect on student outcomes.  Which repudiates the feel-good rhetoric about “for the children.”

How would you like to get generous, guaranteed salary increases for the next three years or so, without any requirement on your part to maintain or improve your performance?  Does this really sound like a success oriented system to you?

(As an interesting side note, we were told that in the early 70’s, Maine had about 250,000 children in the public school system.  We’re now at less than 190,000, and declining at a significant rate.  What does that tell you about Maine’s demographic outlook and future economic and population growth???)

(The following 3 charts use data from the U.S. Census Bureau formatted by MHPC.)

This first one shows that per-pupil spending in Maine is increasing at well over twice the rate of inflation.  You can only stretch fuel prices so far to explain this kind of growth.
In response to such figures, we’re often told that other states spend far more, and perhaps many do.  But let’s look for a moment at how much of Maine’s GSP goes to pay for our schools, meaning what share of out total economic output in goods and services is used in this way.  On this basis, Maine ranks 3rd among the 50 states; surely a very generous sum given our circumstances.
Now as to class size, or as usually measured, pupil/teacher ratio.  The chart below shows a steady decline in this measure as well; about 20% in recent years.  And while I don’t have the figures handy, I seem to recall that Maine has one of the smaller such ratios in the nation overall, so declining from that basis doesn’t leave much room for complaint.
The next chart comes from Maine Department of Education data, and depicts 11th grade MEA scale scores over five recent years. They show either flat or declining trends; an embarrassing state of affairs given the information provided above.  It’s clear that more and more spending in smaller and smaller classes is yielding less and less in the way of outcomes.
In recent years, SAT scores have been used to measure 11th grade results, with similarly unimpressive results.  The chart below uses College Board data formatted by MHPC.
Is it any wonder that the unions fight tooth and nail against any thought of measuring teacher performance and tying pay to it?  One has to wonder, of course, what the thought process on the part of the finest teachers is.

How can we possibly tell ourselves we’ve got a system designed “for the children” when we completely ignore the realities presented here?  How can those responsible look themselves in the mirror?

If you take the time to read the entire presentation, you’ll find various other national reports cited that compare the 50 states.  Maine does not do itself proud in such rankings, and some scores are downright troubling.

Keep this all in mind as you listen to the inevitable scripted run-up to this year’s budget deliberations and a new teacher’s contract.

1 comment:

  1. The eye of the beholder might be in order here or maybe listen up to the Allan Parsons Project rendition of "Eye in the Sky".

    Schools are funded by property taxes which is to say that school funding can not be traced directly back to parents of children in the schools. Res Ipsa Loquitur.

    That said, how could anyone, parent or otherwise, argue that any amount of money is not enough because you see the argument is on it's face fallacious.

    Value judgement is not possible without a shared sacrifice and a shared belief in outcome.

    Sad but oh so true.