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.

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Tom W
Tom W
14 years ago

Oh, and speaking of “apples to apples” comparisons, let’s not forget that being a teacher in a public school is largely a part-time job.
So their compensation package is proportionately higher than 40+ hour week / 48-52 weekers.

Crapwell Crook
Crapwell Crook
14 years ago

if the teachers just worked harder and smarter there would be no education crisis. TomW is right about teaching jobs being part time. i would like to get paid what they get paid for working part time.
Crapwell

johnb
johnb
14 years ago

kudos to Justin and TomW for their insightful takes on this issue.
As someone who benefited from a union-free public school system with small class sizes and dedicated teachers, Rhode Island’s educational environment is totally foreign me.
However, just like former Justice Stewart said when asked to define pornography, “I know it when I see it” so too may I not be able to comprehensively describe the problems of RI’s education woes. But when it comes to identifying union abuse, “I know it when I see it.” And I see it all over RI’s public education problems

John
John
14 years ago

If the RI Republican Party is on the ball this year (and we all know that is not guaranteed) they should go out of their way to heavily publicize those Democratic candidates, especially for the General Assembly, who have been endorsed by the RI teachers unions. I’m convinced it has become the equivalent of having George Bush come to campaign for you.

Tom W
Tom W
14 years ago

Looks like this is going to be rerun on this Friday’s show (how appropriate at the start of a new school year):
John Stossel – ABC 20/20: “Stupid in America” is a nasty title for a program about public education, but some nasty things are going on in America’s public schools and it’s about time we face up to it.

Tom W
Tom W
14 years ago

Re: the Stossel “Stupid in America” piece, there are some video excerpts and other information on it at this link – his response to “angry teachers” after the first airing is quite good as well:
http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Stossel/story?id=1500338

SusanD
SusanD
14 years ago

It’s even worse, JohnB. We HAVE small class sizes. The classic example is South Kingstown, where the teacher to student ratio is down to nine to one and the staff to student ratio is at six (yes, 6) to one. And by all standards, the return on that investment is no better than anywhere else.
Rhode Island has exploded the last myth about education: the necessity of low teacher to student ratio to provide a good education. The teacher unions have used this excuse to turn our schools into a massive job fair. But now that they’ve accomplished this, they’ve been caught out in the lie.
Most of the problems with our education system have been very well articulated on this blog (TomW and others). One I have not seen mentioned is the loss of authority of the principal. In South Kingstown, an excellent principal, Donna Sennett, was hounded out of her job because she dared to hold teachers accountable. (Silly things like, if you need to meet with your union shop steward, don’t do it during class time.) And this has occurred throughout the state. Dan Yorke saw this first hand when he visited a school in Woonsocket.
Sure the bad and undisciplined teachers are a relatively small percentage of the total. But they are all it takes. And they are the reason that, regretfully, we are losing respect for all teachers. Good teachers need to stop being afraid and take their profession back.

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear SusanD,
I’m sorry, but all I see is union hating. That does not well articulated make.
The moment someone posts that teaching is a part time job, they lose all credibility.
One fact is undeniable because it comes from the nonpartisan office of management and budget:
No Child Left Behind was underfuned in fiscal 2002 by $6 billion, in fiscal 2003 it was $11 billion and had gotten worse since. You cannot run a system if you choose not to follow your own mandates.
You can all return to union hating now. By the way, before giving advice on how to win elections, you might want to a.) put your name on a ballot; b.) have enough candidates to fill all the slots; and/or c.) get your facts straight first.

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Tom W,
Yes, federal aid is up. However, so is federally mandated cost. If aid does not catch cost, where do the money comes from? That’s right, your property tax. The Founders never had this in mind.
Unions have produced the following:
safer work environments
weekends
overtime
benefits
end of child labor laws
overall higher wages throughout the marketplace
What do any of these things have do with competence? Last time I checked, professional athletes had unions. Are they slackers too?

Tom W
Tom W
14 years ago

1) I’m all for getting the feds out of education, including disbanding the Department of Education.
2) It’s 2006, not 1936. Harping on what the unions “accomplished” way back when is not particularly relevant today.
Today unions are associated with higher pay accompanied by job loss. Airlines, autos, steel – pick your industry.
One reason is that unions introduce and institutionalize mediocrity into the workplace – so that in competitive environments their employers (over time) wither, if not die. The only exceptions seem to be police / fire, airline pilots and nurses – probably because the union mentality doesn’t overwhelm life and death situations (particularly when it is the union members own butt on the line – even unionized pilots don’t want an incompetent copilot to be protected by contract).
As for sports figures – they’re more “free agents” than unionized. In fact, the high performers make more than the others – the very antithesis of the union “seniority is everything” model.

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Tom W,
We might actually agree on something. Point 1 might well be worth some pursuit.
However, point 2 is not so wonderful. Within the last calendar year, we have seen the GOP Congress move against overtime. Without unions, we would be back under 1936 conditions within months.
Your point about job loss has more to do with globalization of products and services without globalization of workers’ rights happening at the same time.
No one intentionally instutionalizes medocrity. However, it is fair to say that some working groups self police more effictively than others.
As far as your athletic point goes, need we run down the list of bench warmers making mega millions, especially in the NBA, just because?

Tom W
Tom W
14 years ago

I don’t buy the “without unions we’d be back to 1936 in months” scare tactics. Free markets raise living standards. The conditions of factory work in the 1930’s was primarily a result of an excess supply of labor due to large-scale immigration and the federal reserve botching 1929.
It’s interesting that today organized labor is pulling the rug out from under its current members by supporting mass (and illegal) immigration in return for the quick-fix of dues income by organizing janitors etc.
As for globalization, that is a red-herring. Airlines jobs aren’t “offshorable” and yet unions have driven many out of business – Eastern, Pan Am, Braniff, TWA …
Ditto the UAW – its membership is down by half because the “Big Three” can’t compete with the products assembled in transplant factories in right-to-work states such as Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama.
Unionization hurts competitiveness, and in competitive environments, over time, unionized companies shrink (if not disappear). Therefore unionization leads to job loss.
That is a big reason why the only sector in which unions are thriving is the public sector, which needn’t fear “going out of business” nor feel any compulsion to deliver a necessary product, much less a quality one. Hence we get the Registry of Motor Vehicles and public schools.
That is why NEA / AFT so vehemently oppose vouchers, for that would introduce some modicum of competition.

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