Mitchell: How not to improve government schools

Daniel J. Mitchell

Whenever I discuss education policy with one of my leftist friends, it usually follows the same script.

They’ll ask whether I want good education for kids. I’ll say yes. They’ll then say we should devote more money to government schools.

I then point out that we’ve been following their approach for 40-plus years and that it hasn’t worked.

None of them has ever had an effective or coherent response.

I then point out that the United States spends far more than other developed nations, on a per-pupil basis. Yet our national test scores are dismal compared to other developed nations.

Once again, none of them has ever had an effective or coherent response.

The simple reality is that giving more money to government schools is a foolish gesture.

Today, we’re going to look at some additional evidence.

Research from the World Bank pours cold water on the notion that more money for teachers leads to better outcomes for students.

Researchers looked at the effects of a policy change in Indonesia, which doubled the base pay of eligible civil-service teachers, moving them from the 50th to the 90th percentile of the college-graduate salary distribution.

The good news, as you might expect, is that teachers were quite happy. But for those of us who actually want better education for children, the results were not very satisfactory. Researchers found that despite the improvement in teacher’s pay, and the resuling increase in teacher satisfaction, the policy did not motivate teachers to work harder, nor did it increase student learning. They write,

“Teachers in treated schools did not score better on tests of teacher subject knowledge, and we find no consistent pattern of impact on self-reported measures of teacher attendance. Most importantly, we find no difference in student test scores in language, mathematics, or science across treatment and control schools.” … “Finally, we use the school-level random assignment as an instrumental variable for being taught by a certified teacher in a given year, and find no improvement in student test scores from being taught by a certified teacher (relative to students in control schools taught by similar “target” teachers).

That is consistent with other studies that have found no correlation between public-sector teachers’ salaries and teaching effectiveness.

If giving teachers more money doesn’t work, is it possible that spending more money on facilities will help?

Let’s look at another academic study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, for some insight. Here, scholars compared the test scores of students affected by nearly 1,400 capital campaigns initiated by 748 Texas school districts over a 14-year period with scores of students not benefiting from the increased spending. Even when controlling for changes in student populations, they found “no evidence of achievement effects of major campus renovations, even for renovations that appear to have generated large improvements in school facility conditions.”

I’m not arguing that pay and facilities are irrelevant. I think the takeaway from these studies is that more money doesn’t help when the underlying structure of the education system is faulty. So long as we have a centralized monopoly, more money isn’t going to help.

Unfortunately, American politicians are part of the problem.

Under President George W. Bush, the federal government spent more money on education and grabbed more control of the sector as part of the so-called No Child Left Behind initiative. That didn’t yield good results.

Under President Barack Obama, the same thing happened. Thanks to Common Core, the federal government spent more money on education and grabbed more control of the sector. That didn’t yield good results.

Indeed, a report last year for the National Center for Policy Analysis notes the dismal impact of the federal government:

“Over the years, federal funding of primary and secondary education has increased, while students’ academic performance has flatlined. For instance, the high school reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress show that student performance has remained flat for the past 20 years… education reform initiatives by several administrations produced, at best, minimal improvements in student performance at a high price to taxpayers. Given its track record, the federal government should get out of the education business. Federal education reforms have failed to achieve their goals and failed to have a positive impact on education performance.”

Amen. The Department of Education in Washington should be eliminated. It’s part of the problem.

Daniel J. Mitchell, chairman of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, is on the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review.

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