A Very Disturbing Report on Education

Have you ever heard of the 1990s Kansas City desegregation case? If you haven’t, Paul Ciotti of the CATO Institute provides a remarkable summary of this little-known episode:

For decades critics of the public schools have been saying, “You can’t solve educational problems by throwing money at them.” The education establishment and its supporters have replied, “No one’s ever tried.” In Kansas City they did try. To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.

Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil—more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.

Everybody who is looking at this post should take a look at Ciotti’s full report after this post. It is very, very disturbing reading. The school district of Kansas City essentially had all the funding that it could dream of, and student performance utterly failed to improve.

Improving a country’s education system, as the example of Kansas City shows, is something in which no easy answers are available. It is perhaps one of the most complicated tasks out there. Even the full might of the American government has had little effect on improving American education throughout the decades.

It does seem, however, that simply putting in more money does not solve the problem. Indeed, the United States spends a lot of money per student on education relative to other countries in the world:

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The results, however, are decidedly mediocre. Despite all the money spent on education, American students generally score in the middle and lower end when compared to other wealthy countries.

If more money is not the solution, then what is? That’s a very complicated question, of course. It’s a question which nobody has really answered satisfactorily in America to this day. I have written several modest suggestions and thoughts on the problem in previous posts. But I personally cannot even dream of finding a comprehensive solution if decades of experts have also failed to do so.

And here, in suggesting what Kansas City should actually have done, Paul Ciotti and the CATO Institute fall short. They do great in diagnosing the problem and in showing how one proposed solution – better funding – does not work miracles. But in suggesting a solution himself, all Ciotti has to say is this:

In the meantime, they [the Kansas City School district] ignore ideas that might work. They might fire poor teachers and reward good ones with merit pay, give parents vouchers so they could send their children to private schools, or stop trying to solve the problem of dysfunctional families after the fact and look upstream for a solution–the elimination of welfare to end the resulting social chaos.

For a thirty-five page report, this is a surprisingly short list. Let’s take a look at each one of them:

Merit Pay – This is being tried extensively today; it is the “hot” new trend in American education. We shall see how it works in a decade.

Vouchers – Studies have indicated that voucher schools don’t work. Students who go to charter schools do academically just as well or badly as students who go to public schools.

End Welfare – This sounds more like rhetorical blather than an actual proposal. In fact, the welfare reforms of 1990s did substantially reduce welfare. School districts aren’t doing much better today than they were then.

So two out of three of Ciotti’s proposals have already been experimented with and failed.

This leaves us in a rather depressing place, with a bunch of unsuccessful solutions to a seemingly unsolvable problem. How to get out of this rather depressing place is, alas, beyond the sight of me and many, many others.

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6 Responses to A Very Disturbing Report on Education

  1. Dylan Nguyen says:

    Money clearly isn’t the main influence over the educational quality of schools. But lack of money can inhibit schools from fully developing their curriculum or getting the materials needed. A student’s teachers, as the ones who instruct and interact with students, are the main factors in making education great again. Then again, the measuring variable (test scores) itself may be a poor indicator, given that it covers the tangible and quantifiable academic benefits a school gives, not the intangible social benefits.

    @Richard Allman: Would hard-working parents spend their limited leisure time socializing, having fun with their kids, or being lectured on how they fail as parents and what they can do to improve? Educators mainly have jurisdiction and sway over students, not parents. How would educators change the culture or parents? If a culture change is what it will take to improve kids, then increasing funds to schools will hardly help.

  2. Richard Allman says:

    I forgot to mention one thing. KCSD has tried every new reading and math programs to come down the pike. The teachears endure new training every three or four years but changing the method does not seem to have any effect. As I said change the culture towards education, not sure failure.

  3. Richard Allman says:

    Sorry about the mistakes!! Your intentions sound good but you you have a strategy about discouraging people to support public funding in the schools. I suspect you are a non-educator and a Republican. You haven’t done any research about what is going on in the KCSC in the last 10 years without the funding. The District is no longer accredited, the Secretary of Education has called the KCSD the “worst districts in the country. The District is in danger of being dissolved, broken up, or turned into a Charter Business haven. Educators will be powerless until the culture changes. Educate the parents!

    • Inoljt says:

      Actually, I was very much of the opinion that a major problem towards K-12 education in America was the lack of funding, and that if we could just fund some of the weakest school systems they’d improve. Reading this report came as an enormous shock to me.

      As for culture, that’s a subject that I’m very reluctant to approach. What’s the point, anyways? There’s nothing you can do about culture; might as well improve and change the things that can be changed.

  4. Richard Allman says:

    Your intentions are sound good but you sound like you have a strategy about discouraging people to support public funding in the schools. I suspect you are a non-educator and a Republican. You haven’t done any research about what is going on in the KCSC in the last 10 years without the funding year and especially the last two years. The District is no longer accredited, the Secretary of Education has called the KCSD the “worst districts in the country. Educators will be powerless until the culture changes. Educate the parents!

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