Elementary Excuses

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

If school boards across the country find themselves at war with parents, they might be under siege because of the bullseye that they have metaphorically painted on their backs.

“New arguments on behalf of local control, and new evidence that school boards effectively serve the needs of children, have never been needed more,” William G. Howell writes in the May 2005 edition of the American School Board Journal. “Distressingly, both are now in short supply.”

Howell is an assistant professor of government at Harvard. Certainly, the well-documented stagnant test scores, barely-disguides dropout rates and out-of-control classrooms that too-often characterize public schools today give credence to Howell’s conclusion. But who is to blame?

“Surverying California’s school board elections, for instance, Stanford University’s Terry Moe [pictured] found that teachers’ unions are far and away the most important factor influencing who is elected and which policies they support,” Howell wrote. “By Moe’s account, the combined influence of parents, religious groups, businesses and other community organizations pales by comparison.”

“Rather than providing an open forum for community members to convene and jointly deliberate about the purpose of schooling, and most school boards in Moe’s study favor one constituency—namely, people who work in public schools—at the expense of almost every other.”

A 1997 survey by Public Agenda showed that while discipline and basic skills ranked high as concerns for parents, they were a much lower priority for the education professors who train teachers. More recent research by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless shows that the program officers at foundations that make grants to both public and private schools have priorities similar to those of the education professors surveryed by Public Agenda.

And this, by most accounts, is not a good thing. For one thing, they just do not make teachers the way they used to about 30 years ago before illiteracy surged and standards plummeted.

One-half the female teachers graduating in 1962 to 1966 scored above the 80th percentile, while only 10 percent did so if they graduated between 1984 and 1985,” Andrew Leigh and Sara Mead report in a study for the Progressive Policy Institute. “Among male teachers, the fraction percent to 10 percent.”

“These findings suggest that the intellectual aptitude of teachers fell relative to other professions during this time.”

The PPI is a left-of-center think tank that former Democratic President Bill Clinton helped to start. In their PPI study, Leigh and Mead rebut a familiar claim of both Democratic politicians and the National Education Association teachers’ union, specifically that an increase in teacher salaries carries with it a corresponding growth in the quality of instruction that they provide/

“Unionization compresses pay dramatically, so that all teachers at a certain level of education and experience earn the same salary, regardless of how well they perform on the job,” according to Leigh and Mead. “As a result, less skilled teachers tend to earn more than they otherwise would, while higher-skilled teachers earn less.”

Increasing government spending on education, then, at least on teacher salaries, does not seem to have a noticeably positive impact on the quality of education. If anything, such expenditures seem to lead to the perhaps unintended consequence of, at best, mediocrity in education.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.