Education Policy

Two days ago, Gordo reported that Tom Vilsack is about to run for President. The Washington Post profiles him:

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a centrist Democrat seeking an early edge in an all-but-certain crowded presidential field, launched a long-shot bid for the White House Thursday.

(…)

“Americans sent a clear message on Tuesday. They want leaders who will take this country in a new direction,” he said in a statement. “They want leaders who share their values, understand their needs, and respect their intelligence. That’s what I’ve done as governor of Iowa, and that’s what I intend to do as president.”

At Yearly Kos, he spoke at the education panel, explaining eloquently about the problem with American education. I profiled him on UTI too positively to my taste now. At the time, I thought it was great that he was not afraid to say, “The United States is doing worse than other countries, so we should replicate some things other countries do to get better.” Now I just think it’s the same thing Thomas Friedman is saying in The World is Flat about education: more creativity, more hard academic knowledge, more enterprise, and so on.

The greatest problem of American education isn’t curricular, but economic. American schools are funded within districts, so schools serving higher-income students get more money than schools serving lower-income students, which is probably why the US is the second least socially mobile country in the first world.

From a social justice perspective, policy must first help those at the bottom. It’s bad that incoming Columbia students need to take calculus classes, while their Cambridge and University of Paris counterparts learned it in high schools. It’s worse that low-income schools receive too little money so that they are forced to use outdated textbooks.

Vilsack’s education ideas are good as a starting point for reformism. But the level of social injustice in American education is so high that without progressivism to first equalize school quality, it’s almost completely pointless.

From a more pragmatic perspective, anything that depresses income mobility is bad. The USA’s native body of scientists, entrepreneurs, leaders, writers, and artists comes from a pool of middle-class people, plus select few geniuses from poor backgrounds. So instead of producing 4 million potential inventors and discoverers every year, it produces 2 million. Valuing merit over privilege is good from a national dick-size point of view, too.

7 Responses to Education Policy

  1. SLC says:

    Just throwing money at the problem is not the solution. The District of Columbia has the highest per-capita student spending level in the nation and it’s school system is hardly one to be emulated. There have to be a number of reforms, including bringing teachers’ unions to heel, reducing the influence of education departments in training of teachers, making a requirement that a teacher must have majored, at least to the BA level, in the courses he/she will teach, holding principals responsible for the quality of education at their schools, and expelling students who disrupt classes and sending them to reform schools, as was done 50 years ago.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, throwing money is the solution. I don’t know the distribution of money in DC, but I know how it goes in New York state. New York state’s per-student spending is the highest in the US, excluding DC, but its performance is at best middle-of-the-pack. But it also has the most unequal distribution in the fifty states, so low-income schools don’t get more money than they do in other states. That’s why the solution I advocate doesn’t involve just more spending, but instead concentrates on national funding.

    The worst case scenario is that the problem is about the inequality rather than low funding of low-income schools. It’s entirely possible that inner city schools will be worse off if they get $7,000 per student to suburban schools’ $10,000 than if everyone gets $5,000: for example, funding disparities would cause teacher pay disparities, which would cause all good teachers to flee to higher-paying schools. NYC’s educational problems stem mostly from a shortage of teachers who’re willing to pay the enormous rents in the City.

    Some of the ideas you suggest will help, as part of a more reform-minded change. Requiring teachers to major in what they teach is probably a good idea, at least when it comes to science teachers (math and English are something else). I’m not sure what “holding principals responsible” means in practice, but if it means something like giving them financial incentives to improve school quality, I’m all for it. Sending students to reform schools will just get rid of all the creative types; the US actually had a worse education system in the 1950s than it does now because of its emphasis on conformity. I don’t really know about the teachers’ unions and the education departments; I’ve heard things about both, but I still don’t understand the main ways they’re supposed to hurt education quality.

  3. SLC says:

    1. The last I heard, the per-pupil spending in DC is $15,000 (this compares to some $11,000 in Fairfax Co., Virginia, a far better performing system).

    2. By holding principals responsible, I mean booting their asses out the door if their schools are failing.

    3. What would you suggest one should do with students who disrupt classes, bring guns and knives to school, etc.? I say boot them out. This is what used to be done until courts ruled that students have rights.

    3. Although I don’t go along with the notion that teachers unions are responsible for all the problems of the public schools, their union contracts make it too hard to fire incompetent teachers.

    4. New York City has some schools which are even worse then in DC. Excellent schools like the Bronx School of Science and Peter Stuyvesant are hardly representative of the system.

    In addition, I would add that politization of school boards is also a cause of educational problems. Just look at the situation in Ohio, Kansas, and Dover, Pa. This is also one of the problems in DC and PG County, Maryland where infighting between the superintendent of schools and the elected school boards is at least a partial cause of the problems there.

  4. It is a favorite argument of the conservatives that “unions must be brought to heel” but there is rarely any explanation about why that must happen. It is simply a matter of favoring the corporation over the workers. It is almost always exactly opposite of the truth.

    The strength of teachers unions is one of the things keeping U.S. education afloat. Paying teachers less will not improve education. Ruining teachers working conditions will not improve student learning. Union contracts do not protect incompetent teachers; they do protect teachers from outside political interference and bullying administrators.

    Schools of education are also important. NY state now requires that education students major in a subject area for some levels. (I believe the earliest levels are still majoring in education. We get a lot of education students majoring in sociology with the intent of becoming social studies teachers.) Knowing the subject matter isn’t enough. You also have to know about teaching and learning. That isn’t a trivial subject.

    Money does matter. It is easy to claim that spending more won’t help but if we are to make education a priority we will have to spend more: teachers will have to be better paid, schools will have to be better maintained and outfitted with ample resources, especially technology.

  5. SLC says:

    Re Mr. Shortell

    1. The notion that teachers unions don’t make it hard to fire incompetent teachers is complete rubbish. The default union position always is that the administration is prejudiced against the teacher unless proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt. Having said that, I have explicitly rejected the conservative position that getting rid of teachers unions will solve the problem. Clearly, teachers’ unions, like police officers unions, which conservatives conveniently don’t object to, are important in preventing abuses by management officials.

    2. My position is that, lacking reforms of the system, some of which I described in previous comments, throwing money at the problem will not solve it.

    3. My position on education courses is that a certain number should be required, especially for teachers going into the pre-high school level. However, I believe that the major in education should be eliminated. Teachers should major in the subject they will be required to teach, just like everybody else. In no case should a teacher who has not majored in a particular subject at least to the BA level be allowed to teach that subject. I don’t want to see education majors trying to teach mathematics or chemistry or physics or biology, or for that matter foreign languages.

    4. I am all for increasing teachers salaries, provided that reforms are made first. Just raising the salaries of all teachers, competent or not, is throwing money at the problem and not solving it.

  6. SLC says:

    Re Dr. Shortell

    The attached like describes the travails of a “teacher” in New Jersey. No sooner does he get into trouble over his clownish behavior then he calls for the assistance of the local teachers union to help him out. If that local union has any concern for the education of the students in that district, they will invite him to take a long walk on a short pier.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/11/whats_so_unusual_about_this.php#comments

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