Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Circling the drain

School budgets have been all over the news in the past few months. I must confess to being entirely unsympathetic - over the past few decades there has been a negative correlation between increased funding and academic achievement. Correlation, of course, is not causation. While it's true that money and the quality of education are inexorably linked, it's not in the way that most believe it is. You see, I've been to the promised land - a public school that not only worked, but excelled. But why was it better there?

I have some answers that are informed by my personal anecdotes. I went to public schools both in Texas and California. Back in the day, Texas had many "Independent" school districts that were funded by local property taxes. These property taxes were staggeringly high in the middle-class community we lived in - about 3% per year just for schools. The school districts were overseen by a locally elected board of parents and managed by the best administrators the boards could find. There was pretty much no secrecy. Waste was impossible to hide. Texas being a "right to work" state, anyone who didn't perform was shown the door. Teachers cared about education, because if they didn't produce results they'd be fired. Students cared because high standards were demanded and enforced. The overall attitude was that we were the best and if you didn't do your part teaching or learning then you were letting down the team, and you did not want to go there. The results were amazing. Three of the four high schools were ranked (academically) in the top ten in the country. National Merit Scholars had to be crammed into two pages on the yearbook. 98% of students who attended my high school would graduate from college (not just attend). Academic Decathlon teams didn't worry about placing at the district level; they worried about getting more than 50% of the golds at state. If a student missed more than 5 days of class in a semester (regardless of the reason), they would have to repeat it. If you didn't have cancer, your were in class. Students and teachers didn't just show up to learn and teach, they showed up to dominate. Keep in mind that this was not a particularly affluent area; it was middle-class (with maybe 5% upper-middle class). In my mind the key difference was the culture of excellence demanded by the board, who had the power to enforce this culture in the administration, teachers, and ultimately the students.

I absolutely hated that place as a student. As an adult, I can't believe how absolutely lucky I was to have been there for two-thirds of my high school career. You see, I moved to sunny Southern California for my senior year. Allegedly I was in one of the best high schools in the region. It couldn't have been a bigger waste of one year of my life. Yes, there were a few decent teachers (perhaps 15%) who cared and put in solid efforts teaching their students. Only one of them could have even held a job at my old school back in Texas. To the overwhelming majority, you were a warm body in a seat for so many minutes per day. If you happened to learn anything (assuming actual knowledge was even being offered) then that was nice (albeit unexpected). The culture was about meeting the minimum standards necessary to get by. I quickly discovered that the only thing they really cared about was your presence during 2nd period, because their attendance percentage during that time was what controlled the amount of money they would get from the state. Aside from 2nd period, I spent about 50% of my senior year at the beach and still managed to graduate. To this day I don't worry about having missed anything. This is the culture you get when standards are set by government bureaucrats at the local level, state, and federal levels. Nobody is actually, personally accountable for anything other than meeting some practically meaningless guidelines written in Government-Issue weasel-words. The local school district doesn't care about educating kids (they would deny this) - they actually care about meeting state standards so they can get their money. The teachers have a union so powerful that they have the closest thing possible to tenure the day they are hired - a few that are exceptionally motivated will put in extra effort, but the overwhelming majority do not. The state people care about getting as much money as possible to expand their fiefdoms and budgetary control. Ditto for the feds. Any learning that takes place above some absurd lowest-common-denominator is a happy (and incidental) side effect.

Just like business, schools benefit immensely from local control and the only way the locals have real control is if they control the purse strings. It's the Golden Rule - "whoever has the gold makes the rules." The larger an organization is, the more accountability is blurred. It's extraordinarily difficult to maintain high standards as they grow larger, and the rare people with the ability to organize and lead huge groups aren't terribly attracted to civil service paychecks. There aren't nearly enough of them to go around in the business world which is one of the reasons executive salaries have been "bid up" to such absurd levels. Our local-yokel parents in Texas had the sense to bring in (and pay for) six-figure management skills, and got the commensurate results. Sadly, that all went by the wayside in the early 1990s. Texas courts ruled, in a fit of egalitarian insanity, that it was unfair that some school districts wound up with more money than others. Never mind that certain communities decided to make huge sacrifices to have exceptional education - this simply wasn't fair to the communities that wouldn't or couldn't do so. They were given the choice to share their local tax dollars with other school districts (leaving them no better off than if they were state-funded) or subject themselves to funding (and control) from the state. During this court battle our schools could not collect local tax dollars or receive state funding, but they actually had sufficient cash reserves to keep the district (and the lawyers) going for two years before they ultimately submitted. I'm not sure how long state-funded schools would last if pulled from the teat but I'd imagine the time would be measured in minutes, not years.

Before it was neutered, this incident allowed my old school to provide me with one final lesson in life. Liberalism isn't driven by those looking for the greater good. It's driven by tiny people who are so obsessed with jealousy towards those who do better than them - even if those people make huge sacrifices to do so - they'll do anything possible to destroy that success and bring others down to their level. It's people who are too selfish and lazy to do well making sure that nobody else can either so as to protect their meaningless and ill-gotten self-esteem.

P.S.: I can see some people whining and crying about how I might have learned something from the few decent teachers available during my senior year. Nope, not the case - due to the deficient standards in the local schools, what was being taught my senior year was generally at the level of we were being taught as Freshmen and Sophomores in Texas. Even considering the options we had to take classes at the community college across the street the opportunities simply were not there. These problems were exacerbated by lazy administrators who were unwilling to adjust for the relative levels in areas where taking other classes may have made a difference.


  1. Education has the same problem as everything else anymore. Administrators. Top heavy.
    Non-productive. Most teachers I have run across do it because they love it, not for the money. Folks like to gripe about public education..but education involves parental interest and support and personal motivation.

  2. Great post, you make some great points here, I'm forwarding this to my wife, a teacher and always interested in viewpoints re: education.

  3. "...this incident allowed my old school to provide me with one final lesson in life. Liberalism isn't driven by those looking for the greater good. It's driven by tiny people who are so obsessed with jealousy towards those who do better than them - even if those people make huge sacrifices to do so..." - awesome