Monday, April 07, 2008

Utah's (Still) #51 and Getting Worse

The “news” about school funding in Utah remains perpetually dismal, as I noted in this May 2006 post. Nearly on schedule, we have the regular quarterly hand wringing about Utah’s failure to make adequate sacrifices to the gods of per-pupil-funding (see D-News, SLTrib).

As I noted nearly two years ago, there are only so many golden eggs that can be gotten from the taxpayer goose before we succeed in killing the goose. Over the last three legislative sessions, the legislature has dumped nearly $1 billion into the public education industrial complex on top of regular funding. But we’re still in dead last (51st) place in per-pupil funding. We’d only need another half billion to tie with 50th place Idaho.

A big part of the problem is demographic. The D-News article notes that “one in five Utahns are public school students compared to one in seven nationally.” Apparently Utah has been less successful than other states in getting its citizens to kill off their unborn progeny — you know, all those people that are supposed to generate enough money in the future to cover Social Security and Medicare costs for the currently living population.

But there’s another component to the funding situation. In 1995, Utah was in fifth place nationwide in amount of education funding per $1000 of personal income. By 2004 we had slipped to 27th place on that scale. We haven’t been keeping up with the Joneses. Other states have been increasing their education expenditures (with pretty lackluster results) at a much quicker pace than Utah has, while Utah has had the temerity put some money toward other pressing matters. No figures are available on where Utah currently stands on this scale after three years of unprecedented spending increases.

Comparatively speaking, Utah can boast some pretty decent returns on its educational spending, but there are some warning signs. The vast majority of our eighth graders can’t write proficiently. As might be expected, the problem is much worse among minorities and students for whom English is a second language.

While this latter issue pops up anytime there is immigration, the former issue means that the average student is underperforming. When compared with other states with a similar demographic profile, Utah’s overall student performance is the worst in the nation (see 11/5/07 post).

But let’s face reality. Utah is never going to win the per-pupil-funding race. In fact, given demographics and income levels, Utah will likely never make it out of 51st place. The folks in the education industrial complex will forever flog us for failing to properly worship the gods of per-pupil-spending. So I guess we’d just better get used to being harangued about it.

If we can simply accept this reality, we can get on with understanding that we have to innovate without having a lot more cash to do it. And for that, we may need to go back to the future. How in the world did we manage to teach students to read, write, speak, do math, and understand history back in the bad old days when we had superior educational outcomes while spending only a fraction (in real terms) of what we spend today?

Frankly, this isn’t rocket science. There are tried and proven methodologies. But we long ago scrapped them in favor of more costly modernized approaches that accrue power and money while simultaneously worsening educational outcomes (see 3/6/08 post). We know what works, but doing what works threatens ingrained power structures.

Utahns balked last November when asked to challenge those power structures. At least some folks believe that November’s voucher vote means that they have a mandate to punish those that seek to alter the current power framework (see 3/26/08 post). Apparently it’s not a good thing to threaten a caged animal.

On a related note, a friend of mine recently had a discussion with an educator that was very angry about the whole voucher thing. On top of that, the educator wondered how Utah can continue to pay teachers so poorly while simultaneously experiencing a teacher shortage. (As I noted in a 5/29/07 post, shortages exist for only certain types of teachers, but that was apparently not brought up in the discussion to which I am referring.)

My friend asked the teacher if it had ever occurred to him that teacher wages were low because there was no serious demand for these skills outside of the current educational monopoly. Thus, the monopoly is free to set wages very low. If there were real market based competition for K-12 teaching skills, asserted my friend, teacher wages would reflect what the market was willing to bear and there would be fewer problems with shortages. The angry educator was stunned. Such a line of thinking had never occurred to him, but it made sense to him.

As we consider Utah’s K-12 education challenges, it seems that we all too often are likewise locked into limited thinking patterns. This is especially true for those that build influence via the education industrial complex. It seems we are suffering not so much from a shortage of educational spending as from a shortage of imagination — and a shortage of willingness to do what is known to actually work.


Jesse Harris said...

A sure indicator that money isn't the real answer should come from the numerous OCED countries that under-spend and out-perform us year after year. Many of them do not try and force every student into an academic path of learning, instead opting to give students the option to pursue vocational paths more appropriate to their abilities. This results in less wasted educational effort and a substantially better-prepared workforce. After all, an auto mechanic can make a good living and doesn't need to take four years of literature to do it.

Anonymous said...

We would be well served to imagine that per-pupil spending is not a measure of educational outcome. (I know, preaching to the choir here.)

What's wrong with our educational outcomes reaches far outside our schools and into our neighborhoods and homes. Throw all the money we want at it and we will still be fixing the wrong symptoms rather than the actual problem. Unfortunately we all know the old UEA adage "No other failure can compensate for the success of spending more money per pupil in the public schools."

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jesse, this is exactly why it bothers me that there is a massive push to get more and more students into college. The purpose of this is to increase the power of the educational establishment. But it is not clear that this will actually help prepare people to function well in the job market.

David, there is no doubt that defective family lives mess up plenty of students. But objective studies show that this accounts for less than 12% of the deficiencies in student performance. By comparing demographically similar Texas school districts that have implemented hard core curriculum and teaching methodology reforms (i.e. going back to old school) with those that haven't, researchers have shown that the vast majority of eductional performance amazingly has more to do with school district policies than any other single factor -- or even all other factors combined.

Reforms of this nature are resisted because they break down power structures and deny educator unions power to control curriculum and teaching methodologies.

In short, the bad family, uncaring parent argument is largely a red herring. But it is effectively employed as a smoke screen to avoid addressing meaningful reforms.

Jeremy said...


You've sparked one of the more interesting education discussions I've seen in Utah since the end of the voucher election.

Do you have a link Texas studies you mentioned in your last comment?

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jeremy, I am embarrassingly empty handed on the link at the moment. The study actually included research about school districts in New Mexico as well. The study is a couple of years old, so I am having difficulty finding the link. I will continue to search.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in that link as well.

My reference to problems extending outside the school system were not pointed at academic performance, which I'm sure is where those studies show improvement by returning to "hard core curriculum." I was thinking more of the fact that schools are not where children learn a good work ethic, and other such important skills for entering the workforce. The lack of those skills is more detrimental than poor reading scores - although both are important in developing good and productive citizens.

Cameron said...

Reach, you write:

There are tried and proven methodologies. But we long ago scrapped them in favor of more costly modernized approaches...

What are the tried and true methodologies, and what are the new ones?

Also, there was discussion of why we push students towards college. I think it's because we have a general belief that college = good job. We've all seen those statistics of the earning potential of high school grads vs college grads. White collar jobs are more prestigious, and offer higher salary potential. The American Dream is to become "rich". Welders and other trade school grads don't generally become rich.

Also, we feel that having a lot of college graduates makes us all smarter, more well rounded. When we go to college we have a set of general ed classes we have to take, most of which don't directly relate to our chosen major. When I was at the U they added an "intercultural communication" requirement. It obviously wasn't designed to teach me more about accounting. But I liked the class and felt it had value for me. I still remember some of the discussions we had, and it has shaped some of my views on things.

I think that's what education has become. It's not just job training. In fact, in a real sense job training has become secondary. I found it incredible that I spent hours and hours learning accounting in college and not once did we look at any software. Guess what every single job posting required when I graduated - experience with software.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Cameron, you are sadly mistaken if you think that good jobs almost always require a college degree. The U.S. economy has many highly paid positions that require no college degree.

While you like the -- um -- holistic aspects of a college education, the ultimate arbitor of the economic value of such broad courses is determined by what the market will pay. While a person might find these courses personally fulfilling, it is questionable whether the market places any value on whether an accounting major attended Theater Arts 101 or not.

If you want to read more on the necessity of college, consider my 1/19/07 post and the referenced articles.

We have dumbed down college entrance requirements and curriculum so that more people can add a B.S. or B.A. to their resumés. But this has diluted the value of such degrees for all. Thus, you now need a master degree to achieve what a bachelor degree used to achieve. While this has grown the higher education industrial complex, it is questionable whether this actually helps credentialize workers.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Oh, and go check out this Jesse Harris post as well.

Cameron said...

I apologize if I sounded like I was endorsing the idea that only college grads can get good jobs - I don't. But I think that idea is why our society pushes students towards earning a degree.

Also involved in this college vs specific-skills-training issue is that we think we need education beyond just the specific skills necessary to succeed in a chosen career. We think our educational systems should provide well roundedness in addition to job skills. That's why it takes so long to get through college. Just about every class I took for the first two years was more designed for well roundedness than it was for teaching me accounting skills.

Now, many of those classes were great. I enjoyed philosophy, intercultural communication, music, and movies (yes, I took a movies class). But it is arguable whether or not those should have been part of my college education.

While you deride the "holistic" aspects of these types of classes, I think they did provide value to me personally. That's why I enjoyed them.

However, that doesn't necessarily answer the question of their necessity for a degree. Nor does it take into account the "holistic" classes I thought were a complete waste of time and money.

You bring up the market value of that education. The market pays me first and foremost for the degree I put on my resume. Then it takes into account my experience and my interviewing skills. Once I'm on the job, my performance is what keeps me around and puts me in line for pay raises and promotions.

The question is, is my performance and ability to excel increased by those gen ed classes I was required to take in college? Does being a well rounded individual increase my ability to work? I don't know. For those that work for me, I just want them to do the job right and play well with others. I'm not sure what it is exactly that'll train them to fulfill those two requirements.