Sunday, July 17, 2016

When Government Schools Weren't Nearly So Bad

Robert Higgs remembers.  I have similar recollections from the late 50s and early '60s.  See also here

I do not speak Spanish fluently. Indeed, I am often at a loss for the right words, not to mention a proper conjugation of the verbs, and I frequently fail to understand what people say to me. Yet all in all, I am astonished that, living in a part of Mexico where few people speak English, I get by as well as I do. And whenever I spend a day in Chetumal, as I did yesterday, dealing successfully with one sort of business or another, I never fail to remember with gratitude my high-school Spanish teacher, Mrs. Tocher, who taught me at least 90 percent of the Spanish I know today. She will always hold a cherished place in my affections.

How did I manage to acquire such an excellent education from a government school, the sort that nowadays performs so badly?Nor is she the only one of my high school teachers I revere. Above all, I am indebted to Mrs. Raven, my 9th grade English teacher, whose instruction in English grammar has carried me through a fair degree of success as a writer and editor over a span of fifty-five years or so. She and my other English teachers introduced me to some of the timeless works of English literature, especially several of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, along with books such as Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, among others.

Mrs. Malm, my 12th grade English teacher, began to hone my skills as an essayist. Several math teachers did a creditable job of teaching me algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and elementary calculus, and “Prof.” Silver, an elderly science teacher, gave me a decent grounding in chemistry and physics. Mrs. Hume, in a semester of the 9th grade, taught me how to type and write proper business letters, skills that I have been putting to good use for nearly sixty years. To all of these dedicated and competent teachers I remain deeply indebted.

Now, I ought to mention that these teachers worked for a government school, Dos Palos High School, a rural institution in California’s San Joaquin Valley, about 50 miles west of Fresno, that drew its students from an area of perhaps 40 miles or more in diameter, employing a fleet of buses to carry us to and from school five days each week. I lived in the outer reaches of the school’s service area, and because I remained after school for athletic practice, I normally did not get home until 6 o’clock or so each afternoon. So I spent a lot of time on the bus, reading novels about short boys who against all the odds ended up making the winning shot from the half-court line as time expired in the state championship basketball game—you see, I had dreams of my own in those days.

Old School

How, one might ask, did I manage to acquire such an excellent high school education from a government school, the sort of school that nowadays performs so badly? Several reasons suggest themselves. First, the public schools in those days — I attended high school between 1957 and 1961 — were pretty much local in their management, control, and operation. No doubt they had to adhere to some state guidelines, yet they were largely free to provide the kind of schooling that their local “customers” found to be valuable (including a great deal of vocational as well as academic instruction). Second, teaching was still a respected profession, especially for talented women, who had fewer professional alternatives in those days. Third, because the school teachers and administrators enjoyed a substantial measure of community, respect, and trust, they were able to maintain enough discipline and control of the often-rowdy students to make learning possible for those who wished to learn. My parents would never have dreamed of quarreling with the school authorities. If I had got into trouble there, they would have backed the school all the way. (Fortunately I managed to stay out of serious trouble at school.)

Decentralization had been the saving grace of the government schools, and once that was effectively destroyed, no such grace remained.Of course, once the conditions I’ve just described began to change in the latter half of the 1960s, the government schools began to go to hell, and they went there remarkably quickly between 1965 and 1975 or so. They have never recovered, and in some important respects, such as serving as dispensers of trendy, politically correct propaganda and bogus science (especially in regard to “the environment”), they have become much worse. When federal funding and its associated red tape intruded onto the scene from the latter 1960s onward, poor performance was well-nigh guaranteed, and the character of the schools changed irrevocably for the worse insofar as the children’s learning was concerned. Decentralization had been the saving grace of the government schools, and once that had been effectively destroyed, no such grace remained: only a mass — and a mess — of rule-following, with many of the rules being more or less stupid or merely political in their instigation.

Well, that’s progress, they say. But I don’t see it that way. In my view, the developments in public schooling since my days as a student there more than fifty-five years ago have been overwhelmingly regrettable, and I doubt that many students today, even in the better suburban schools, come away with as valuable an education as the one I received in that long-ago time in a “backwoods” (in my case, back desert) high school.


The Travesty of Teacher Tenure

The mills of justice grind slowly, but life plunges on, leaving lives blighted when justice, by being delayed, is irremediably denied. Fortunately, California’s Supreme Court might soon decide to hear — four years after litigation began — the 21st century’s most portentous civil rights case, which concerns an ongoing denial of equal protection of the law.

Every year, measurable injuries are inflicted on tens of thousands of already at-risk children by this state’s teacher tenure system, which is so politically entrenched that only the courts can protect the discrete and insular minority it victimizes. In 2012, nine Los Angeles students recognizing the futility of expecting the Legislature to rectify a wrong it has perpetrated asked California’s judiciary to continue its record of vindicating the rights of vulnerable minorities by requiring the state’s education system to conform to the state’s Constitution.

After 10 weeks of testimony, the trial court found the tenure system incompatible with the California Supreme Court’s decision, now almost half a century old, that the state Constitution, which declares education a “fundamental” state concern, guarantees “equality of treatment” to all K-12 pupils. It “shocks the conscience,” the trial court said, that there is “no dispute” that “a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers” — perhaps more than 8,000, each with 28 students — are doing quantifiable damage to children’s life prospects.

Technically, California teachers are granted lifetime tenure after just two years. Actually, they must be notified of tenured status after just 16 months. (Thirty-two states grant tenure after three years, nine states after four or five. Four states never grant tenure.) When incompetent or negligent teachers gain tenure, dismissal procedures are so complex and costly that the process can take up to 10 years and cost up to $450,000. The trial court called the power to dismiss “illusory.” Each year approximately two teachers are dismissed for unsatisfactory performance — 0.0007 percent of California’s 277,000 teachers.

Instead, school districts are forced to adopt what is called the “dance of the lemons,” whereby grossly ineffective teachers are shuffled from school to school. Another facet of the tenure system — the teachers last hired are the first fired when layoffs are required — reinforces the powerful tendency for incompetent teachers, who must teach somewhere, to accumulate in schools with the most teacher vacancies. These are disproportionately schools attended by low-income minority children.

Abundant research demonstrates that teacher quality is the most important school variable determining academic performance. This is why there is more variation in student achievement within than between schools. This variation is especially dramatic among students from educationally disadvantaged families. A single grossly ineffective teacher can deprive students of a full year of learning, with consequences that include lower graduation and college attendance rates, and lifetime earnings more than $250,000 lower than for pupils without a single incompetent teacher. Because teachers' unions insist that financial appropriations are the all-important determinants of schools' successes, they are perversely reluctant to acknowledge the importance of quality teachers.

The appeals court responded with a judicial shrug to the trial court’s factual findings. It said California’s tenure system does not constitute a denial of equal protection because the identifiable class of people being injured have no “shared trait.” Oh? What about their shared injury? The injured pupils share a susceptibility to injury because of their shared trait of being economically disadvantaged. This trait concentrated them in schools that themselves have a shared trait — disproportionately high numbers of bad teachers.

The appeals court breezily said the injured were merely an “unlucky subset” of pupils, a “random assortment” produced not by the tenure laws but by the administration of them. This, however, is a distinction without a difference: The tenure laws' purpose is to dictate outcomes by depriving administrators of discretion. Systemic results cannot be dismissed as “random.” Even if the tenure laws were neither written with a discriminatory motive nor administered with a discriminatory intent, the system is now known to produce — not invariably but with a high probability — predictable patterns of disparities.

Liberal and conservative legal luminaries, from Harvard’s Laurence Tribe to Stanford’s Michael McConnell, have urged California’s Supreme Court to do what the appeals court neglected to do — apply heightened scrutiny to the tenure laws that prioritize teachers' job security over pupils' constitutional right regarding education. California’s Supreme Court will have national resonance if it affirms that public schools are established to enable children to flourish, not to make even dreadful teachers secure.


Making college ‘free’ will only make it worse

LIKE SANTA CLAUS and time travel, “free” college tuition sounds great in theory but doesn’t actually exist in real life. For much of the past year, Bernie Sanders’ promise to make public higher education free for all attracted multitudes of enthusiastic supporters to his presidential campaign. Last week, Hillary Clinton embraced most of the Sanders proposal, paving the way for him to endorse her formally on Tuesday and, she hopes, to convince voters who #FeltTheBern in the primaries to back her in November.

Under Clinton’s new plan, in-state tuition at public colleges and universities would be abolished for students from families with incomes up to $125,000. The campaign estimates that that would make higher education tuition-free for more than 80 percent of American families.

If only.

The hard truth, alas, is that higher education cannot possibly be free. In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble — but no politician’s promise or electoral mandate will ever make the costs of providing a college education vanish. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. That has always been the first pillar of economic wisdom.

Even Clinton acknowledges that “free” tuition will be expensive. Her campaign puts the 10-year price of implementing the proposal at roughly $450 billion. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities tells Time magazine that $520 billion would be closer to the mark

A promise of “free” tuition is merely a promise to stick someone else with the tab. At half a trillion dollars or more, the tuition tab is already pretty enormous. But if there’s anything we should have learned from 40-plus years of government efforts to keep higher ed affordable, it is that the more Washington pours into holding down the cost of college, the more expensive college becomes.

Uncle Sam has tried everything — grants and loans, subsidized work-study jobs, tax credits and deductions. Result? The price of tuition, room, and board at an in-state, public college has soared from $1,405 in 1971 to $19,548 today — an increase of 1,300 percent. Unlike food, clothing, and energy, the cost of college has raced far ahead of inflation. As economic studies, including recent work at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, have repeatedly shown, the government aid meant to quell the flames has succeeded only in fanning them. If the Clinton/Sanders pledge becomes law, it is virtually certain that college will become even more costly. Perhaps that explains why 20 out of 22 economists surveyed by NPR judged Sanders’ proposal a bad idea.

Of course, Washington can formally shift the cost of college from students and their families to the taxpayers. But that won’t let students and their families off the hook. For one thing, their families are taxpayers too. And as students join the workforce and become taxpayers themselves, they will really feel the burn — from tax rates that had to be raised to accommodate the half-trillion-dollar cost of their “free” tuition.

Besides, making any good or service free encourages people to waste it. No product was ever valued more highly by being given away for nothing. Enact legislation that lets anyone go to college on the taxpayers’ dime, and we’ll see more unmotivated college students whose time would be far better spent elsewhere.

The overconsumption of higher education is already pronounced. Just 59 percent of college students at four-year institutions manage to earn a degree within six years. “Today’s college students learn a lot less than college students once did,” writes economist Thomas Sowell. “If college becomes ‘free,’ even more people can attend college without bothering to become educated and without acquiring any economically meaningful skills.”

“Free” K-12 education is replete with problems. To turn a famous Hillary Clinton phrase, it requires a willful suspension of disbelief to conclude that “free” tuition will improve higher education. It may be good for politics, but making college free will only make it worse.


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