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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Six Wrong Arguments for Growing School Budgets

Here are six arguments that school budget advocates just can't resist to raise money, but that we should:
  • Use case studies from disadvantaged schools as an excuse to expand school's reach everywhere. (i.e. "Pre-K is great for children in the poorest neighborhoods, so all communities everywhere should spend on Pre-K.")
  • Use "getting into college" (or grad school, or Ph.D. program) as self-evident proof of earlier success. The number of new graduates who are unemployed and 200,000 dollars in debt are a success only of the school industry not society.
  • Use "falling behind" grade level and the vague threat of "never catching up" as an excuse to implement any program. "Grade levels" are arbitrary sets of internal standards that inevitably and erroneously assume that students are the same. Different students have different strengths and weaknesses by subject. The clustering of Math + English + Science into rigid and lock-stepped "grade levels" is a weakness of school programs, not an opportunity for more extra hours.

    At the very least, schools grade on curves. 30% of the students will always be in the bottom 30%. If the bottom 30% of school children trigger automatic special help (because they are in the bottom 30%), schools have an infinite cash feedback loop.
  • Use test scores as broad proof of success. Tests measure a very finite set of skills. Anything extrapolation, specifically as a justification for school expansion, should be treated with suspicion. And then there is the paradox of: Test scores up? Spend more to replicate the program! Test scores down? Spend more to get them up!
  • Assume academic success as currently delivered by today's schools is a driver for economic success. Any statement from school lobbyists that falls into the broad camp of, "In order to be competitive in the global marketplace, we must give schools more power to..." is unsubstantiated. These statements are not backed up by our experience over the last few decades (there are no measured correlations between economic good times and previously enacted school programs), nor by highly responsive research between the new economic realities of the last few years with the new academic programs of the last few years (as this research not only doesn't exist but almost inevitably can't exist.) So at the very least, one can measure the intellectual dishonesty of education industry spokespeople by the forcefulness by which they make these claims.
  • Demand that childrens' experiences be 'fair' and standardized. Children have different starting conditions, home environments, and competencies. But factories and places where measurements are heavily used strive for consistent inputs. So when schools argue for activities that make "students equal" and everything "fair" (so that they can subsequently and aggressively sort and judge them against their own internal criteria), this means disintermediating parents and growing schools, inevitably fighting against authentic experiences open to students (such as family trips), and increasing their own budgets to pretend to replace what has been stripped away.
Our nation needs both broad competencies, and a diversity of world-class specialized talents which comes from passion, depth, and rigor across generations. The services that schools are structured to offer are able to help with this some of the time and for some people. But we all have to be smart, active consumers of education services seeking out the best options between real choices and working to unbundle offerings, and not just Soviet-style heterotrophs, consuming whatever our bureaucracies decide to paternalistically feed us for our so-called collective good.

My point of this piece is not that education budgets should be slashed or should be expanded. My point is that if we use the wrong arguments for growing school budgets, we will spend more and get less. And that hurts everyone.