A Neutral Education Investment Strategy (or something)
Within the past week, my wife had to drop my niece off at Tiverton High School (of which town both we and my brother-in-law are relatively new residents), and she returned with this commentary: “That school is a dump. I hope they improve it before our children have to go there.”
It is with that recent context that I read National Education Association Executive Director Bob Walsh’s simple and direct comment to one of Andrew’s recent posts:
National average Math SAT: 518
Rhode Island average Math SAT: 494
Barrington average math SAT: 580
East Greenwich average math SAT: 575
Central Falls average math SAT: 383
Working on the issues related to poverty will help teachers help students. It is as simple as that. And yes, it costs money, and to the extent you wish schools to be a partner in addressing the impact of poverty on students, it will require more money for schools. If you care about kids, or the future of our country (hopefully both), you will agree.
At first look, even the most free-market anti-unionists among us would have to admit a complex argument — which is not to say that resolution of the complexity would be amicable to the NEA. (N.B. — If Bob, or anybody else, has better data for what follows, I welcome it.) Comparing SAT scores and median household income for selected towns might, indeed, lead one to agree with Mr. Walsh:
Assuming, then, that the matter is “as simple as that” — that household income correlates with SAT scores — the ensuing question must be, “Is the impact of income the same as the ‘impact of poverty’?” Well, considering that Tiverton (PDF) and Barrington (PDF) have pretty much identical percentages of families living below the poverty level (2.9% and 3.0%, respectively), the answer appears to be “no.” In other words, “working on the issues related to poverty” would have to actually imply an effort to make everybody equally wealthy.
However, wealth being relative (and the market tracking to its scale), even a simplistic understanding of economic reality ought to be sufficient background for one to conclude that such leveling is simply impossible, least of all when forced through government policy. To the extent that government can affect household income at the middle-class range and above, it is mainly through the fostering of a healthy business environment that encourages entrepreneurship and the importation of existing businesses (e.g., by means of reasonable taxes, respect for businesses’ freedom and rights, and a light hand when it comes to employment regulations).
Whatever the strategy, of course, towns must work with finite resources. Subsidizing one area of the town’s affairs requires a decrease elsewhere. Granting exemptions and aid to businesses requires that money be redirected from some other area of municiple investment. So, since we’re dealing with Bob Walsh, the NEA, and SAT scores, let’s throw a specific municiple invesment — that devoted to teachers’ salaries — onto the same chart:
The first thing to note is that, if it’s class strife that Walsh seeks to foment, honesty should compel him to admit that step-10 teachers — most of whom need only to have been teaching for just 10 years, as I understand — make more than Tiverton’s median household income. With even a modest spousal contribution, their households would easily surpass Barrington’s.
More importantly (and less contentiously), note that teacher salaries do not appear to correlate with either median income or SAT scores. In fact, the salaries vary only negligibly from town to town. While median income may in fact be a measure worth considering when devising strategies to raise SAT scores, teachers’ salaries appear not to make a difference whatsoever. On the limited basis of these statistics, therefore, a town such as Central Falls (or Tiverton, for that matter) would be well advised to lower teachers’ salaries and redirect the savings toward such improvements as will increase average household income — and with the emphasis not on welfare-style poverty programs, but on working/middle-class economic activity programs.
Not to be flippant, but the most effective way to ensure that “schools [are] a partner in addressing the impact of poverty on students” might just be to decrease the degree to which they — as costly departments of the public corporation — contribute to the circumstances that perpetuate poverty. That, if one were to ask my wife, might involve investments to make the facilities encouraging to students, comforting to parents, and inviting to potential residents.