Arnold Kling  

Fixing Montgomery County Education

PRINT
Poorer than we thought?... Notes for a Debate...

A commenter asked what I would do differently. Here goes:

1. Make sure that when teachers move into administrative jobs (other than principal), they take a huge pay cut. I do not mind paying a classroom teacher a big salary. They work long hours. But the administrators work 9 to 5, and they do not face the emotional wear and tear that a classroom teacher faces.

2. Get rid of administrative layers. If there is one employee for every 7 students, and one teacher for every 25 students in the classroom, then the administration is bloated. A lot of that is bureaucracy to "manage" and "co-ordinate" across schools. The school system is more than 10 times the size at which economies of scale are realized. Breaking it into 8 to 10 school districts would help.

3. Get rid of special programs that help rich kids. For example, many decades ago, the County used "magnet" programs to try to attract white kids away from all-white schools and mix them in with other schools (in segregated environments). Today, there is a natural racial mix in all schools, albeit with different proportions. The magnets survive because the parents of the rich kids that get into the magnets love all the extra resources and prestige that come with having their kids in the magnet programs.

In addition to magnet programs, there are "gifted-talented" and "foreign language immersion" programs that mostly help rich kids. Yes, I am sure that there is the odd poor kid here or there who takes advantage of one of these programs. But mostly, they represent private schools in the guise of public education.

I think that if we are going to have public education, it should be geared toward kids who don't already start out with tremendous advantages. The "gifted and talented" children of affluent parents can take care of themselves.

The fear is that without these special programs, these precious kids and their demanding parents will be "lost" to the public schools, as they go to private alternatives. I say fine. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (28 to date)
The Engineer writes:

As the father of a kid in a G&T program, I felt a tinge of outrage as I read this.

But then I thought about Arnold's point, and I think that I agree with him. I could afford to send my kids to a private school.

Is it possible that the G&T kids are cheaper to educate that the median?

Floccina writes:

I think that we need to find a way to get middle class and rich people to pay directly for their childern's schooling. As Bryan Caplan says, it makes no sense to rob Peter to pay Peter. Or rob Peter to pay for Peter's children's schooling. If people saw the cost they might find cheaper schooling or opt for less schooling and more education (home schooling).

OneEyedMan writes:

Are you sure that gifted and talented schools are resource sinks?

NYC's Stuyvesant high school is probably the most famous American magnet school and spends less than the city average per pupil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuyvesant_High_School). Even including fund raising is only about $100 per student. Prestige may be free or come at the expense of private schools or those in other districts.

granite26 writes:

1. What percentage of school funding is coming from (the property taxes of) actual parents?

2. What you are suggesting sounds a lot like teaching to the lowest common denominator. Forget rich and priviledged, special programs provide an opportunity for the motivated. Removing those who can afford to get out leaves a gap of motivated kids/parents that can't afford it. If you sincerely believe that gifted is the same as rich... Well, thats a whole other set of issues

Liberal Roman writes:

I agree with everything granite26 wrote above.

Sometimes, when I read Arnold I would not know that this is supposed to be a libertarian blog.

I would also add "paying teachers more than administrators because they face higher stresses" doesn't sound much different than paying assembly line workers more than CEOs.

John writes:

I think a certain amount of tracking would make sense (so long as kids aren't stuck in the track and are able to move up or down every year or something. If the signal theory of education is true, then for an equal level of IQ, rich kids will be able to purchase more education than poor kids and have higher returns from education through signaling. However, the opposite question is trickier. For a given level of wealth, are the returns to education higher/same/lower for kids with high innate IQ? From a public policy perspective, I would argue that there are benefits to nurturing the education of the smartest 5-10% of the population's that would outweigh the cost of relatively less education for the remainder. I would argue that including that 5-10% with the rest of the students significantly slows their development.

Steve writes:

Because No Child Left Behind focuses on the proportion of students who score passing grades on exams rather than the mean score, there is already a natural tendency to focus resources at the lower end of the ability spectrum. G&T is the last bastion of some sort of resources being directed toward high ability students. Assuming that G&T programs do provide a benefit to these students, it seems reasonable to assume that they may have a very high return on investment to society relative to the massive sums of money that are thrown at the lower end through special education.

If everyone were focused on equally to begin with, maybe I'd buy the argument that G&T is a handout to the rich. Reality is, though, that the lower ability are heavily subsidized relative to the higher ability even in the presence of G&T. Removing G&T only furthers this inequality.

tom writes:

Arnold,

You are finally talking about something I know.

Do you have any recent data that says (1) the magnets are used mainly by rich kids, (2) they are a meaningfully big budget item?

I think you don't. And I think that the most disproportionately represented group is Asian/Indian, from the eastern half of the county, where they put many of the magnets.

Last, I'm not sure what your goal is. But it sounds disturbingly like Warren Buffet's utopia:

"I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education's power to reverse generational poverty," Rhee wrote. "But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today's problems in urban education. 'Make private schools illegal,' he said, 'and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.' "

I think this is what you are saying, just with "illegal" replaced by "impossible unless you have a minimim post-tax $25k/per year per kid extra for twelve years".

Am I right? Because Buffet's statement is probably the most anti-libertarian thing I have ever read.

wapo link:

Seth writes:
I would also add "paying teachers more than administrators because they face higher stresses" doesn't sound much different than paying assembly line workers more than CEOs.
-Liberal Roman

I'd think of it more like paying professional basketball players more than professional basketball coaches.

Les writes:

Arnold suggests: "The school system is more than 10 times the size at which economies of scale are realized. Breaking it into 8 to 10 school districts would help."

I'd go much further: why do we need school districts at all, or public schools?

It would be more efficient to have just private schools. For indigent parents, a voucher could be provided to the private school of their choice for each child.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Want to just save tons of money?

1. Break the district up into individual schools.
2. Fire all the staff that don't work directly in the local school already. (And possibly some other local school staff)
3. Outsource to a private company any "district" functions that benefit from shared work. Plenty of school support companies in the U.S. that do this sort of work inexpensively for Charter schools and the like.
4. Sell all the "district" buildings, etc... except the bus yards.

Districts in other states do fine with 1/2 the money of Montgomery County, even adjusted for COL. Perhaps start there with what they do?

Of course, Les's solution is the ultimate one, because it not only saves money, but allows for full parental empowerment. The "elite" don't trust the parents to properly take care of their own children, though. They might not get all the right state indoctrination.

Clay writes:

Separating elite and mediocre students (as with magnet schools) generally helps the elite students, but hurts the mediocre students. Mixing elite and mediocre students (which is the aim of many cross-neighborhood bussing and redistricting programs) generally helps the mediocre students, but hurts the elite students.

Clearly, our society does both. I don't see how one would objectively determine an optimal trade off.

I'm shocked that Arnold is advocating eliminating magnet schools, which is a highly controversial move that would hurt our most talented students, without any clear rationale.

Li writes:

Are you suggesting that the number of high-IQ kids with non-affluent parents is low enough to not be worth considering, or that their needs will be met well enough by regular classes? Because putting high-IQ kids in normal classes is not a neutral act: it permanently stunts their social skills and intellectual curiosity, the same way putting a normal kid in a sub-70-IQ class would.

Noah Yetter writes:

I was a G&T student for about half of my public school life. There can be no doubt that we cost more resources than the average student (mean or median, take your pick). In 1st and 2nd grades we took standardized tests at around 6 times the rate of normal students, presumably for some kind of study or tracking purposes. Our class was much smaller than a standard class of the same grade level and had a much higher quality teacher. Both then, and later in 6th-8th grade we took far more field trips than normal classes. At all grade levels G&T students place disproportionate demands on extracurricular programs.

Even better than all that, is that G&T forced me to repeat the 8th grade. The way Denver G&T worked, was you got the curriculum for (your grade)+1. So in 6th grade I did 7th, and in 7th I did 8th. But the G&T program ends before high school, and middle school teachers either couldn't or wouldn't or weren't allowed to teach 9th grade curriculum, and it would have been crazy to let us actually go to high school a year early. So the path of least resistance was to have us do 8th grade again. I don't see how any sane person can see this as anything other than pure waste.

And as Arnold suggests, we just didn't need all that. What sets G&T students apart is that they are smart enough to educate themselves, which is wonderful since the school sure as hell isn't going to do it. It's probably true that the handful of lower-income kids, possibly with less-than-perfectly-supportive home environments, got something out of it, but that's hard to observe, and even harder to replicate.

Noah Yetter writes:

@John
For a given level of wealth, are the returns to education higher/same/lower for kids with high innate IQ?
@Steve
Assuming that G&T programs do provide a benefit to these students, it seems reasonable to assume that they may have a very high return on investment to society relative to the massive sums of money that are thrown at the lower end through special education.

I argue as Bryan does, both from theory and experience, that the return to education (by which we mean schooling, in this context) is indistinguishable from zero in almost all cases. Extra resources spent on smarter kids are just wasted.

@Clay
Separating elite and mediocre students (as with magnet schools) generally helps the elite students, but hurts the mediocre students.

This is half true and half nonsense on stilts. To use your terms, "elite" students are helped by being separated, or more accurately they are hurt by being mixed. But mediocre students benefit not at all from being around elite students. Remember, cooperation is prohibited in almost all forms of schooling in the US. To put it bluntly, there simply is no mechanic available for smarter students to help dumber ones. On top of that, the smarter students carry a heavy social stigma, which means that the dumber students neither want nor would accept any help that could be offered.

Clearly, our society does both. I don't see how one would objectively determine an optimal trade off.

In a free market, "society" wouldn't have to make that determination. It would emerge.

joecanuck writes:

"I think that if we are going to have public education, it should be geared toward kids who don't already start out with tremendous advantages. The "gifted and talented" children of affluent parents can take care of themselves."

Arnold, that's a terrible, terrible assumption to make. What evidence do you have that if schools don't push smart/bored kids, they'll push themselves? won't they just coast on their ability until it bites them in the ass in university?

The American education system is a global joke. Diverting yet more resources away from kids with ability will only make it worse.

David S. writes:

I used to teach at a very well known and expensive private school. At this school, the student body has been capped for decades at the same size. One of my colleagues was fond of getting out some old yearbooks from the library to point out the dramatic increase in the number of non-teaching positions over the years. It closely followed Parkinson's exponential law, and of course it was impossible to explain it away due to growth in the number of students.

Probably the easiest reform would be just to cap the number of non-teachers per student at the level it was in 1971. Montgomery County had great schools in 1971 and I'd cheerfully bet without doing any research that this would cut the number of non-teaching positions by more than 50%. It would also improve the overall performance of the teaching staff by ridding them of overbearing micromanagement and pointless paperwork.

You might even get the teacher's union to get behind such a reform!

Guy in the veal calf office writes:

I don't mind that Arnold wants to take perks away from rich parents, and I don't mind that private schools are accessible to rich parents. I just mind that Arnold thinks I'm rich and the private schools' tuition don't.

Rochelle writes:

I disagree that magnet schools benefit the rich disproportionately. My family was not "rich"--more solidly lower middle class, but our city's public school system had a good system of school choice set up and I went to a magnet school for elementary school and then into Pre-IB for middle school and IB for high school. The magnet school was simply school choice---you signed up for the schools you wanted your kids to attend and either got in or went on a waiting list. The other two were merit based and I definitely got a much better education than I would have otherwise since there's no way our family could have afforded private education. If poorer families benefit less from special programs I'd say it's more a result of them not knowing or not caring how to apply than the system being designed to attract the well off.
Additionally, the rich also pay their property taxes--why shouldn't their kids benefit from an equivalent public education since their parents are paying for it (and usually pay much more into the system since their houses are nicer).

Floccina writes:

The empirical evidence that I have seen shows that good students do well in "bad" schools and bad students do bad in "good" schools.

mattmc writes:

The problem is too little differentiated instruction, not too much. The fundamental failing of traditional instruction methods is that they take kids who are similar in age and put them randomly in a classroom, and the teacher has to teach to a group that often spans 4 grade levels of ability. They also differ in the pace of learning, so a 7 year old at a 3rd grade level in math is learning faster than a 10 year old at a 3rd grade level.

Individualized instruction, where each student is taught at the level where they are, is the future that is already here. 25 years ago, in Texas, I had elementary math education where you started the year by taking a series of pretests, and then you studied only the topics which you didn't test out of. Topics were usually taught in two week block. You kept taking the topic until you could pass a test on it at the 90% level. Crucially, for a building subject like math, it made sure that no one escaped without mastering a topic. For the teachers, there was a large normal distribution of kids in the middle who could be taught en masse, the kids that were stuck behind got a lot smaller class size, and most of the advanced kids just worked on our own, taking tests whenever we were ready, sometimes after absorbing simple topics in a single hour. Many of us advanced two or three grade levels worth of topics in a single year. Of course, the teachers complained about the amount of organization they had to do, but it was pretty telling when they would get to the end of the topic and if half of the group didn't pass, that half would have to do it over again while the other half would advance.

As far as administrators go, I watched my Dad as he went from being a teacher, to an Army career where he just missed General, and then back through the admin ranks to superintendent after getting a couple of masters degrees and finally his EdD (and then to being a charter school consultant). Being an assistant principal had somewhat bad hours because of the ridiculous number of sporting events that are held at the schools. Nearly every night of the week he had to stay late for a sporting event. Other nights he had to attend school board meetings and parents' meetings. He had to go to court all of the time for cases involving criminal acts by students at school. It wasn't a cakewalk. Principal was a little better, because he could appropriately delegate many of those duties and focus on the broader objectives of the schools.

Tracy W writes:

The blog d-reckoning has some statistics on this.
Firstly, the poor versus rich smart kids thing - while there is a relationship between socio-economic status and educational performance, on an individual level it's not that strong.
Over the OECD, "only 17.9% of the variance in student performance is accounted for in the variance of SES."
... "This means that 82.1% of the variance in student performance is not accounted for by the variance in SES. Other factors, such as school quality, account for this remaining 82.1%"
...

"the R2 for SES effects in the U.S. is 23.8%"

In other words, there's likely a lot of kids from poor backgrounds but good school performance.

http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/2008/03/statistical-illiteracy.html

John: For a given level of wealth, are the returns to education higher/same/lower for kids with high innate IQ? From a public policy perspective, I would argue that there are benefits to nurturing the education of the smartest 5-10% of the population's that would outweigh the cost of relatively less education for the remainder.

I'm a bit puzzled. Rather than saying you would argue this, how about you argue this? What is the evidence that supports, or doesn't support, the idea that the returns to education are higher for kids with high innate IQ? Are the arguments for this purely theoretical, or do you have some empirical studies to back this up?
I have to say, the fact that you say "I would argue" in this hypothetical way makes me suspect that you don't have any empirical evidence one way or another.

Noah Yetter What sets G&T students apart is that they are smart enough to educate themselves,

What I missed in my schooling, was learning things that I struggled with. I got to university totally used to being able to understand anything with hardly any study, which made engineering school a big surprise. It's one thing to educate yourself on the easy stuff, but a good teacher is important for pushing.

Frost writes:

Make schools cater even more to the hopeless bottom quintile, with the goal of driving away the high-achievers? Sure. Anything that saves smart, curious, hard-working kids from the public system is alright by me.


Colin K writes:

How does US spending on SPED compare to other countries, in terms of the percentage of students in some program and the average per-student spend? My impression is that GnT programs are practically a rounding error by comparison, and a non-trivial amount of SPED is upper-middle class parents looking to wrap their little darlings in cotton wool, with the help of the legal system....

tom writes:

I don't understand what point Arnold is trying to make.

1. Is he saying that he wants everyone in public schools of the same age to be in the same classes, without any tracking for ability:

a. for the socialist/paternalist Warren Buffet reason of forcing upper-middle class parents to improve the schools generally and lift all boats?

b. for the nihilist/Caplanist reason that tracking makes no difference because the public education product is meaningless anyway?)

c. for the 'heighten the contradictions' libertarian reason of forcing parents who care out of the system and reducing the quality of public education so that it becomes a more obvious welfare program?

2. Arnold lives in Montgomery County but I don't think Arnold understands Montgomery Count 'rich' or private schools generally. If you have 3 kids, you would probably spend at least $75k per year for 12 years ($900k), just for pre-college. That's probably about $150k per year ($1.8 million over 12) in pre-tax income. There are an awful lot of people in Montgomery County who are not poor but cannot afford that and afford college and/or retirement.

3. I would love for Arnold to describe his advice for people under his system who think they have bright kids but don't have a lot of extra money or time to educate their kids themselves. He thinks this group is an afterthought; I would guess that in many schools it is a big majority of participants in special programs that cost money.

4. Would Arnold make the same recommendation for kids with lesser abilities? Right now the County spends (and disability laws etc... require it to spend) huge amounts on integrating people with learning and physical disabilities into regular classes. Does Arnold embrace all that spending, or want to try to limit it?

So, is Arnold really a socialist/paternalist, a nihilist/Caplanist, or a sneaky libertarian?

buckydent writes:

[Comments removed for supplying email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Clay writes:

@Noah
"To put it bluntly, there simply is no mechanic available for smarter students to help dumber ones."

The benefit of a classroom of smart, well behaved kids isn't direct classmate tutoring or cooperation but the tone and the social environment.

If you put an on-the-fence child in a classroom of serious, well behaved students, the on-the-fence child will often rise to the challenge.

If you put the same child in a classroom of obnoxious problem kids that are constantly fighting, jumping on the tables, and not taking academics seriously at all, the on-the-fence child often sinks to that level.

And secondly, of course the smart, well behaved kids of the nation generally come from wealthier families. Society needs to give the underprivileged kids a chance, but at the same time, I don't think it's right to hold back our nation's brilliant kids in the name of equality.

Noah Yetter writes:

Clay,
That's true but it's not relevant. There is never an occasion when one bad student is placed in a class of good students and thus given the opportunity to be pulled up by the atmosphere. It is invariably the other way around.

As to your second point, your mistake is in thinking that special programs for the gifted are helpful, and a first-best way to help such students. I question whether such programs have any effect. And whatever effect they have does not mean they are the best option.

If I could make one and only one change to the American system of public education, it would be to end compulsory attendance. This allows both the smart kids who don't need school and the stupid and vicious ones who don't want it to leave the rest in peace. Of course this will never happen, because public school is not an institution of learning, it is a jail for children.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top