Sunday, September 11, 2016

Educating Ourselves on Education

I've been wondering: is discernment possible without examining evidence?

When we repeat unfounded, unfactual ideas, who pays the price?

A few weeks ago I helped buy back-to-school supplies for some children I know who live in one of Pennsylvania’s poorest neighborhoods.

The supply list sent home included the obvious school items: pens, pencils, paper, but also paper towels and Kleenex. 
Can more money fix America's schools? NPR, April 25, 2016

Weird, right?

Unless you know that in some schools even simple necessities like those are not available if teachers or parents don't supply them. 

A day or two later I had dinner with an acquaintance who spoke with passion about the money wasted by the Philadelphia schools.

“We keep pouring money into that system and it just disappears.”

Sometimes I bite my tongue.

But if votes are decided and policy put in place on the basis of generalized nonsense, inequity continues.

And grows.

And swallows whole communities.

Per pupil spending in Philadelphia is far less than in the school district my acquaintance’s children attended.

About half as much, in fact.

Apparently high-end wireless microphones for school plays for wealthy children are justifiable expenses, while school libraries and computers for poor children are not.

I’ve written before about Pennsylvania’s inadequate and inequitable school funding.

But the narrative of school failure continues, fed by politicians eager to privatize education. According to a video on Donald Trump’s Issues Page:  
We are rated 28 in the world, the United States, think of it – 28 in the world, and frankly we spend far more per pupil than any other country in the world by far it’s not even a close second.   So here we are, we spend more money and we are rated 28. Third world countries are ahead of us.   We spend far more per pupil than any other country in the world. By far. And if you look at education. Out of thirty countries. We’re last. We’re like 30th. We’re last. So we’re last in education.
Aside from the general incoherence of his statements, there's also a question of fact.

No, we’re not 28. Or 30. Or "last." 

And we don’t spend far more per pupil than any other country.

By one international standard, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), American kids rank 7th out of 42 countries.

On the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, America’s public school students rank 6th out of 53 systems tested.

On the most widely used, the Program for International Student Assessment, (PISA) 15-year-olds in 65 countries are tested in math, science, and reading. In 2012, the last available year, the US ranked 35th in math, 27th in science, and 24th in reading.
PISA Scores 2012, OECD, focus added by Business Insider, June 6 2015
So, it’s true that American students are not doing as well as we might like. 

But it’s not true that we spend far more than other nations. On per-student spending, the US average was $11,732 per full-time student in 2012 – behind Switzerland ($15,512), Norway ($13,611) and Austria ($12,164).  

Given differences in cost of living, a better comparison might be percent of GDP invested in education. By that measure, the U.S., at 3.6%, doesn’t make it onto the list of top 25 countries.

Trump’s conclusion that school choice would improve scores is contradicted by the statistics: nations with top results have strong, centrally-administered public school systems; consistent, equitable funding; focused attention on pre-K preparation for low-income, at-risk students; high public respect for teachers and schools.

For anyone really interested in understanding the numbers, it’s a complicated story.  But the question of which school systems waste money is far simpler to address for anyone who has even a small interest in the truth. The Commonwealth Foundation offers a website that allows comparison of districts on per pupil spending, money allocated for classroom attendance, special education and more. Here's how Philadelphia and neighboring Lower Merion compare. I've added Reading - one of the most underfunded districts in the country.

A quick interpretation: Lower Merion spends more than twice as much on its students, but a smaller percentage is spent on instruction. In other word, Philly and Reading are putting a higher share of their dollars into the classroom and doing their best to educate high needs children with less than half the funds. 
To put that spending in context: Philadelphia has the highest number of people living in “deep poverty” of any large city in the U.S. In 2015, the threshold for deep poverty was an annual cash income of less than $5,885 for an individual, $7,965 for a single-parent with one child, or $12,125 for a married couple with two kids. Nationally, one in ten children is now living in deep poverty. In Philly, that number is closer to one in four.  

People in deep poverty tend to be transient, living with friends, sometimes sleeping on the floor in a relative’s apartment. They frequently struggle with mental illness. Illiteracy is often a factor. Add in food insecurity. Inadequate child care.

Children in poverty, in addition to unstable home arrangements, often experience trauma from exposure to violence and crime. They are less likely to attend preschool, less likely to be exposed to books, games and enriching experiences in the home or local community. They start school less prepared than their wealthier peers, in systems less able to offer extra help or support.

On Tuesday, our state Supreme Court will hear a two-year-old lawsuit about school funding inequities. Six school districts, seven parents, and two advocacy organizations will again call attention to the vast disparities in resources among Pennsylvania’s schools. The suit describes Pennsylvania educational system as “the nation’s most inequitable and irrational,” with “’gross disparities’ in per-student funding”: 
the Commonwealth’s total investment in a child’s education can range from as little as $9,800 per student in low-wealth school districts to more than $28,400 per student in high-wealth districts. Those disparities exist not because highwealth districts have chosen to invest more in education; low-wealth districts often have property tax rates far higher than wealthier districts.
Nor are those disparities the result of differences in student need; students in lowwealth districts have needs that warrant more, not less, funding. Rather, the disparities exist because the structure of Pennsylvania’s funding scheme prevents low-wealth districts from ever closing the funding gap. 
I’ve heard, more times than I can count, that “throwing money at it” won’t solve the education problem.

There’s a difference between throwing money and investing wisely.  “Investing” is what we call it when we’re thinking of the future. “Throwing money” is what we call it when we simply don’t care.

Does money make a difference?

When you really consider, it seems a ridiculous question. 

Put it another way: 

Should low income children be provided high quality preschool? 


Certainly affluent parents who invest in preschool for their children must see some benefit. The benefit is even greater for children who grow up in households without books, games, educational toys, without educated adults with time and ability to to read and play and teach.

Are smaller classrooms and better-trained teachers helpful?


Small class sizes allow more individual attention, more help to students who need it. Put thirty already-behind kindergarteners kids in a room with no aides and no parent volunteers and they’ll be further behind by the end of the year. Every time.

And the more difficult the neighborhood, the more essential that teachers are experienced and well-trained. Too often the schools where excellent teachers are needed most are the schools that can least afford them.

What about money for school libraries? 

Yes. How will kids with little access to books develop a love of reading?

School nurses and therapists? Of course. Have you ever watched a child in pain, emotional or physical, struggle to focus or stay on task? 

When I dig into numbers, looking for evidence of waste, I see two things:

A pension problem primarily caused by legislators who undercut investment and now are reaping the fruit of that decision: “[i]n reality, based on actuarial need, the state continually hasn't kicked in enough money to cover its growing debt, the single biggest reason for the dire straits the state now faces.” 

The other major money drain is one Donald Trump has promised to expand: funds shifted from public schools to for-profit corporations through loosely regulated charter school schemes. The school where he chose to speak about education last week was a publicly funded, for-profit charter school that received an F on recent evaluations, compared to the surrounding school district, which received a C.

While public schools on average spend more money on instruction, charter schools spend more on administrative costs: high executive salaries and undisclosed profits.

This is true in Ohio, where Trump made his "school choice" speech. And in Pennsylvania, where 
inadequate oversight and a lax law have allowed a significant number of bad players to siphon millions of taxpayer dollars into their pockets, at the expense of Pennsylvania’s public school children.• Nick Trombetta, founder of the state’s largest cyber charter school (PA Cyber) has been indicted on multiple charges and is accused of siphoning more than $8 million from the school.• June Brown went on trial for allegedly defrauding the 4 Philadelphia charter schools that she founded of $6.7 million.• Recently the eighth Philadelphia charter school official pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges. 
Charter management organizations are permitted to spend unlimited taxpayer dollars on advertising, political lobbying, 7-figure CEO salaries and other expenses that are unrelated to educating children. 
I would love to see every child in our state and in our country attend a clean, safe, well-resourced school.

I can’ t make it happen.

What I can do:
  • Refuse to vote for legislators who villainize teachers and public education or who offer privatized “choice” as a solution to “wasted money.”
  • Push back – gently and politely – when people I know suggest we’re “pouring money away” in funding urban schools.
  • Applaud organizations working to inform voters and advocate for adequate, equitable funding. 
  • Pray for sight for the politically blind, wisdom for the willfully foolish and justice for those who without it will never reach their potential or find a way to flourish.

This post is part of a series on What's Your Platform 
Beyond the Party Platform July 24, 2016
A Different Way July 31, 2016 
Election Fraud and Rigged Elections, August 10, 2016 
How Long Will the Land Lie Parched? August 21, 2016 
Walls, Welcome, Mercy, Law August 28, 2016
Workers and Their Wages, Sep 3, 2016