Monday, September 14, 2009

Education spending

Now, as we all know, if you don't spend lots and lots of money—increasing amounts, in fact—on public services, then they just won't get any better. And, by extension, if you cut spending then public services will get worse, right?

But the question is always—better or worse for whom? NuLabour has splurged vast amounts of cash on education, the NHS, etc. and yet there is very little indication that the quality of the outcomes has changed.

Sure, the people employed in those sectors have got handsome pay rises but then I don't see why the rest of us should be impoverished because the state is a shit employer—or because people were willing to work for less money than they might.

Whilst all nurses are angels and every teacher is a positive saint, but public services do not—in theory—exist for the benefit of teachers or nurses. No, the justification for the state's extortion is that these are public benefits—that the outcomes are a public good. These services are run for the education of children or the healing of the sick—the staff who work within these professions are entirely incidental and are absolutely fucking not the reason why such servives exist.

So, does increased spending increase the outcomes? Has, for instance, the massive growth of spending on state schools in the US—known there as "public schools"—increased the quality of the education?

Well, via the toothy clown, your humble Devil finds this interesting graph from the Cato Institute.
I blogged this morning that the research shows higher public school spending slows the economy, and explained that this is because spending more on public schools doesn’t increase students’ academic performance. Some readers no doubt find that hard to accept. With them in mind, I present the following chart:

If public schools had merely maintained the level of productivity they exhibited in 1970, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300 billion annual tax cut. Now THAT would stimulate economic growth.

So, in the US, a massive increase in education spending has not increased the quality of outcome. We cannot necessarily say that without the spending the outcomes would not have dropped—it may be that this huge wodge of cash was required simply to keep the outcomes roughly even. For what it's worth though, I severely fucking doubt it.

So, can we expect lots of public service cuts here—when the Tories get in, perhaps?

I wouldn't bet on it.


Martin said...

"I blogged this morning that the research shows higher public school spending slows the economy, and explained that this is because spending more on public schools doesn’t increase students’ academic performance."

I am not a slave to anything called 'the economy'. Many on the right, acculturated into the thought patterns of the 19th Century rather than the 21st (perhaps because their own educations were very narrow), seem to believe that they are slaves of the government. If they think that, they don't know what slavery is. I couldn't give a rat's backside whether 'the economy', whatever that might be, is doing well or not. In the good times 'the economy' doesn't do much for me, and I return the favour by not doing much for the economy. I would much prefer for my taxes to be spent on educating children properly, and attempting to instill a love of learning for its own sake into them, than on ideological bullshit like school vouchers and guff from the Cato Institute. The best way to do this is via properly resourced public schools.

That means those on the right might have to pay more - but as time passes, one is increasingly drawn to the attitude 'Who cares what they think'?

Southerner said...

Well, I disagree with everything Martin has just said. The schools here in America are always whining about how underfunded they are, and the "funding per pupil" numbers that they quote to the public greatly understate the actual cost of running the public schools because they fudge the numbers by not counting teacher/staff pensions, bond issues (the typical way that school facilities are built in the USA,) etc.

Starting in the late 60s, desegregation was the name of the game. Schools were integrated, and nearly everywhere, "ability grouping" (that's streaming to you) was eliminated in order to prevent low-ability minority students from being clustered in one classroom, while the top ability group consisted of whites and maybe a few Japanese/Chinese, etc. The "mainstreaming" movement that started about the same time means that most classrooms have at least one student who is handicapped or who has behavioral problems.

When you send your bright little Johnny off to school in America, he will be completely ignored as the teachers focus on getting the slow learners in the class to pass the state exams so that the school will not be flagged as a failing campus. Alternatively, Johnny might be used as a tutor for slow learners or non-English-speakers. As of the early 90s, the Los Angeles school district included children speaking 120 different languages, and had a huge transient population of families who moved multiple times during each school year. Increasingly, parents, and sometimes grandparents, are making severe cuts in the family budget to send children to parochial schools, or they are homeschooling.

The only thing that I see in Britain from this side of the pond that looks worse than our system are the individual hardship cases that are routinely reported in your press. The story of the identical twin boys, one of whom was born in the last few minutes of Aug 31, and one born a minute or two after midnight of Sept 1st being forced to begin school in different school years was beyond belief. Ditto the yearly stories of 12-year-old girls who apply to all five schools in their area, and are rejected at all of them, leaving them without a school. The school systems over here are capable of being shamed and humiliated for being unreasonable twits, while your top school people seem to glory in rigidly following every official rule, even if they make life completely impossible for some of the families that they are supposed to be serving.

Anonymous said...

Southerner - gang violence, metal detectors, school massacres - need we discuss the virtues of either nation further?

John B said...

@DK, I'm not sure the data's as conclusive as you say: for one, services inflation is vastly higher than goods inflation, so any service-based industry will show above-inflation costs just from staying still (US average real wages doubled from 1970-2003 - if you take that as a proxy for teaching costs, it accounts for all but about $750 of the increase in the - rather dishonestly scaled - chart).

For two, it assumes causation one way: maybe the reason it's more expensive to achieve the same result now compared to 30 years ago is that the conservatives are right about family breakdown and immigration eroding family values, or that the nannying faction of lefties are right about greed and joblessness (etc, etc).

@Southerner, on the 'individual hardships' point, you need to remember that almost all the stories in our tabloids are made up - there has *never* been a case where twins have been forced against their parents wishes to enter different school years, or where a child has been left without a school to go to (other than through multiple expulsions).

Anonymous said...

The teachers have all got better cars now......mind you the children can't read or write and arithmetic is unknown, but hey, you can't have everything.


Sam Duncan said...

“I would much prefer for my taxes to be spent on educating children properly, and attempting to instill a love of learning for its own sake into them”

Yeah, they should try that sometime.

Southerner said...

To the Anonymous who mentioned school violence, I would say that that is an increasing reason for people in the US to bail out of the public schools. Children as young as 8 or 9 years old are being beaten up in school bathrooms, or while waiting for their school bus, etc.

At least in your system there are often choices that parents can make, in that you can often choose a school run by Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims, or Jews, and there are grammar schools available in some areas, and also all-boy, all-girl, and co-ed schools.

Here, there is usually no choice at all other than that which occurs which you choose your housing. The school district decides which elementary, junior high and high school your child will attend. In many smaller, rural areas, there is one campus for kindergarten through the 12th grade. In the big cities that have some sort of choice, you often need some sort of insider knowledge to get your child into one of the few good schools, and sometimes you have to be willing to lie about your child's race. In the suburb in which my sister lives, she attempted to get a place for her son at a different school than the one he was assigned. It was technically "doable" on paper, but could not be achieved in real life. The bureaucrats had set up a system that did not let you apply until after the school year had begun, then wouldn't tell you for additional weeks whether or not there was room for your child. My sister did not want to have her first-grader put through such a disruptive experience, so she enrolled him in a parochial school instead.

JohnB -- I don't dispute your word, but the articles I have seen have had quotes from both the child and the parents regarding the schools to which they have applied, as well as the reasons for having been rejected by each. I wouldn't be surprised if the parents are not attempting to make the school system look awful in order to increase the chances that the school authorities will cave in and allow the child her first or second-choice school, but it would surprise me if the stories were COMPLETELY false.

Anonymous said...

The majority of my property taxes go to support the local school system. The schools get about the best results in the state, but this is probably not unconnected with their solidly middle-class catchment.

It seems that they spend most of their time building shiny new football stadia, auditoria and the like, rather than actually educating children.

John B said...

@Southerner, the only relevant 'twins' story I've found is about a mother who'd *just* given birth to twins separated across the school year, and hadn't (10 days after the birth) been able to get guaranteed confirmation from the school system that in four/five years' time they'd be allowed to start school together. See here. Given that I'm aware of plenty of people educated in the UK state system who're either summer-born and an academic year behind, or autumn-born and an academic year ahead, I'm entirely certain that when they actually go to school they'll be together.

On the secondary places one, it's true that kids sometimes get rejected from all the schools they apply to, but not that this means they don't have a school to go to (just, that they have to go to a school that wasn't one of their parents' top 5 choices). This happens in big cities where 1) there are more than 5 easily reachable schools, and 2) parents have picked schools which are far-away-but-good rather than in the local area.

Southerner said...

Obviously, there is a lot that I don't know about how the schools operate in your country, and I don't claim to be an expert on the schools in my own country (which are under local, state, and federal control, and vary enormously from one area to another.)

JohnB: obviously I should read British newspapers more carefully before commenting, but if the urban families are putting down the names of five schools and not getting accepted to any of them, why don't they increase the number of schools to which you can apply to 7 or 10? Bigger headaches for the parents, perhaps, but it would prevent the embarassing newspaper stories.

To Anonymous: Are you currently living in the US? I would agree that the state schools often gold-plate their facilities while the parochial schools and even most private schools usually focus on having the best possible teachers and curriculum, but this is in part due to the population that they serve.

The kindergarten age group in the US is now "majority minority" and black and Hispanic parents strongly prefer shiny new facilities to older school facilities, even if the older schools have a proven track record of high achievement. They are often resentful if new schools are not constructed in their areas of town.

The combination of union work rules and the way that the schools are funded here means that the schools cannot choose to "save" money on facilities and "splurge" on teachers' salaries in order to have better educational outcomes. The money for facilities typically comes from a 20-year bond issue, while the salaries are a yearly expense. Also, the schools are not allowed to save up tax money from one school year to spend in a different school year. In the US, the population is constantly growing and on the move, and huge new suburban areas are always under construction. When a new community is built, the majority of the people moving in have young children. Lots of schools are built to educate these children, with the schools becoming redundant 20 years later as the suburb's children grow up. The school district will NEVER rent redundant school buildings in a neighboring, older district to help them make it past the demographic surge that they are experiencing. A colossal waste.

Junican said...

I am not sure that your graph is not comparing two different things.

As regards the money aspect of the graph, has inflation been taken into account?

Generally speaking, the 'learning' that children can absorb is limited. Only a very few children can know their 'times tables' by the age of two years old. Very few Mozarts exist.

It follows that academic achievements, overall, SHOULD follow a consistent path. But this 'path' is very difficult to contour.

When I was a child (born 1939), we left school at age 16, mostly. We could write reasonably well; we could do maths to the level of multiply and divide; we could read well enough to understand the newspapers; we could play draughts (but not chess); we knew the history (roughly) of the Kings and Queens of Britain; we had a vague idea of the geography of the British Empire; we did sports (rugby league in my area of the country); we were fit and healthy.

The only problem with that scenario (which seems at first sight to be ideal) lies in that little bracket..."COULD NOT PLAY CHESS". That is, our education was ok, but extremely limited.

There is no doubt whatsoever that, compared with the educational conditions in those days, today's facilities are better far and beyond.

In my opinion, the HORROR of education today is that there are still young people coming out of school with less than the abilities which we came out of school - 60 years ago. There may not be as many, but they are still there.

I agree that the graph is frightening, but I am not sure that it tells the full story.

Anonymous said...

Southerner: I see you recognized my portrait of this little corner of the American idyll. It's not a minority thing though - our school district is about 85% white in all age brackets. It's more likely to be a keep-up-with-the-Joneses-look-at-my-shiny-SUV thing.

Southerner said...

Junican: My parents were from the rural South (of the US) and had gone to very basic (but all white) schools during the years of segregation. When they moved to the suburbs of the North they were overly impressed, IMO, by the magnificent facilities that they saw. But by the time I was going through school, ability grouping was gone, integration had arrived, and learning needed to be FUN to engage the students. My mother has a better knowledge of grammar than I do, even though I have a graduate degree. My siblings who are 5 years older also got a better education overall, as the decline in standards was continuous.

We moved to a top school district by the time I started high school, and my fancy high school had a both a small, but very nice theater AND an auditorium, each of which was used only a few times a year. When my children were in school, I heard parents complain that their child's elementary school had enormously expensive science kits, but that the teacher had to account for anything broken during the year, so they NEVER used the kits, and in fact really didn't teach much science of any kind. In troubled school districts, expensive equipment often walks out the door. In my youth, schoolteachers at the elementary level were generally widows from a middle to upper-middle class family background. By the time my children were in school, elementary teaching had become a dumping ground for people who did not have the brains to get any other type of degree, with the few talented graduates either taking a position at a private school OR leaving the profession entirely within a year or two due to frustration.

As far as the Devil's productivity chart goes, it should be pointed out that as corporal punishment was phased out in the 70s, and not really replaced by any other sort of workable disciplinary system, teachers began to demand smaller class sizes. This means more teachers, more pensions, and additional land acquisition and additional schools with additional classrooms, even though repeated studies have shown that once a classroom has more than 12 children, the teacher teaches to the class and not to the individual, so the smaller class size does NOT result in increased learning. In many cases, a large classroom of well-disciplined children in a narrow performance band can increase learning because it is a competitive situation even for the children at the top of the heap.

good grief said...

Graph looks pretty made-up to me.

But if it's true:

=If the NAEP is norm-referenced, then it's not supposed to go up or down.

=Some posters here are saying "Things got worse when..." but the graph shows nothing got worse, nor better.

=Some people should get over the fact that "black" kids go to school with "white" kids.

=In the UK, school results are mostly dictated by post (zip) code. Well-off kids go to well-off schools and do well; poor kids go to poor schools and do poorly. Spending money on the schools won't (in fact, hasn't) changed this.