Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why it might be impossible to fix Education with Dollars

A short while ago, I had a fairly interesting discussion about Education policy reform with two people who were fairly qualified to discuss it.  It brought up some questions and certainly changed my admittedly idealistic perspective on how we can help our students suck less

One of my two friends is a Middle School Music teacher, (S) who attempted to provide more insight into the perspective of the publically funded school teacher in terms of education reform.  The other (R) works for a Harvard University-run think-tank which implements and experiments with policy decisions and incentive programs to help inner-city school children.   I am a private tutor/instructor for a test prep company, so I have a lot of experience working with wealthier and priviledged high school students.  Despite my evil corporate ways,  I really do care about teaching the students as well as possible to help them with their SAT scores.

Like many other far-left liberals, I had felt storngly indignant at the disatrously low amount our government budgets for education, and had like so many others, scoffed in that fashionably impotent way that young idealistic people do.  When we spend $515 Billion on Defense and only 11% of that on Education, it's not hard to see why. 

(Note: actual operating budget for Defense last year was even more than the proposed amount by over $200 billion)

There are obviously many factors that prevent children and teenagers in poor areas from receving a quality education: property tax rates being tied to school funding, social or familial issues preventing the child's investment in the process, etc.  It seems that with more funding, we could provide after-school programs to lessen gang involvement, or invest in community infrastructure through learning programs that benefit the community, or something.  

But after my discussion, I'm not so sure.

S teaches at our local middle school, which, thanks to the absolutely preposterous cost of living here, has an ungodly amount of money.  Our high school, despite having a terribly bad football team, had enough money in its budget to spend a million dollars on a new football field, becase the 3-year-old one was apparently not good enough.  Our school system is very well-ranked, and offers its students an incredibly competitive academic experience, to use the stupid jargon punched up in local newspapers.   S has mentioned to me how ridiculous the School's budget is, and that it gets misused all the time just to use up its generous provision.

R is in the middle of organizing extensive projects in Washington D.C. to see if it is at all possible to improve inter-city student participation by incentivizing good test scores.  The plan, which they have been implementing in NYC for over a year now--results still being analyzed, but the outlook is not great thus far--simply offers students cash for better scores.   She explained that the problem isn't money, it's that money doesn't necessarily do anything because no one knows how to use it the most effectively. 

While I still think that the tying of school budgets principally to local government property tax income is a socially stratiftying problem, R definitely taught me more than a thing or two.  NYC public school teachers make a comparitively huge amount of money, because it's hard to want to teach in NYC and do a good job while you're at it.  There are huge problems in Philadelphia and Camden, which includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, because federally assisted school budgets get assigned based on test scores (thanks to No Child Left Behind) which leads to cheating and misappropriation. 

As the ridiculous overspending of our rich district and the issues with these districts  seem to show, according to R, throwing money at a problem simply doesn't do anything useful.  The goal needs to be finding out exactly how to use such funding, which is exactly what R's research is designed to do.  The problem is that nothing seems to be universally successful, or even conditionally or locally successful.  I still think that NCLB is ridiculous, which according to S is the standard stance for almost all of our local teachers and that funds need to be distributed more based on need than proximity.  

So how do we spend money to improve schools?
Clifford Stoll thinks we should get computers the hell OUT of the classroom [though this talk is not directly about this, it's pure awesome and discusses some interesting things regarding education]

I personally think we should design learning projects to maximize how "useful" or "relevant" they seem to the students in question.  For example, designing curriculums that teach concepts through practical application, but I assume this is largely the goal as is.  I am still trying to find legitimate arguments and proposals for this, as I think Educational policy reform is completely necessary for the benefit of everyone.  Who knows what we can do, but typing random shit out about it is probably not a solution. Hah!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Greetings from the end

Gah, apparently if you don't immediately write things, Blogger thinks your blog is spam. D'oh.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The First One

Oi! Here it comes!