A tale of two states

June 15, 2017

Republicans claim excess government spending hobbles the economy and fosters dependence.  Lower taxes will stimulate the economy and benefit everyone.  Democrats claim that investment in the public sector will raise all boats, and those in the educational establishment are always claiming under funding.  Both, it appears, are wrong.

This story shows that, as of a few years ago, New York maintained its standing as first in the nation — by a large margin — in per capita school spending.  While some argue that the spending is not evenly distributed, per capita spending in the New York City is even higher.  Results are nowhere near the top.  By most measures, New York ranks mid-pack among the states, or even below.  How, then, can education in New York be under funded?  I would like to see a direct response from one or more of the teachers’ unions or their lobbying arm, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

This story, among many others, details how the tax cutting experiment in Kansas failed so badly to stimulate the economy, and in doing so, hurt the most vulnerable, that the legislature there repealed it and overrode the Governor’s veto.  No comment from the Koch brothers or any other conservative think tank.

What do these stories have in common?  They both prove that conventional wisdom of whatever ideological bent is likely wrong.  Simple solutions simply don’t work to solve complicated problems.  They prove that we need to hear less from special interests on each side of the aisle and more from moderate, thoughtful people who will seek to apply tailored, empirically based solutions to societal problems, and not continue policies that have proven to be ineffective.

Health care conundrums

February 17, 2017

As I advance in age, I am exposed more and more to the health care industry, despite having enjoyed relatively good health until recently.  As a retired New York State employee, I am blessed with excellent health insurance that covers most doctor visits, medical tests and procedures, as well as prescription drugs, with only a relatively modest co-pay. Here are a few observations:

First, it appears that many of our health problems are what a friend of mine calls “diseases of affluence.”  More appropriately, they should be called “diseases of lifestyle,” since they affect people of all socioeconomic strata.  A lot of these are directly influenced by government policies.  For instance, our auto-centric physical infrastructure minimizes the opportunities for and pleasures of walking and cycling, and cannot help but contribute to obesity and other problems based on lack of physical activity.  Our government subsidies to cane sugar and corn (the main ingredient of high fructose corn syrup) help make junk food and sugared soft drinks attractively priced.  This is especially so for the poor, since the SNAP program (formerly known as Food Stamps) allows their purchase with SNAP benefits.  If we collectively spent more on complete streets that were friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as cars, how much could we save on health care (not to mention on school transportation)?  How about if we stopped subsidizing sugar?  I think it would be worth a try.

For all the criticism leveled against it, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has achieved something great — it has shifted the dialog from whether health care insurance should be extended to many of those who don’t have it to how the present system should be replaced or improved.  Neither Trump nor his minions are suggesting that those who obtained health insurance through Obamacare should lose it, meaning that they recognize that there is no going back on government’s commitment to growing numbers of its citizens.  Whether things actually get better or worse remains to be seen, but at least no one is talking a bout a pre-Obamacare “reset.”  To me, that is yuge.

Traffic management

January 21, 2017

The delays occasioned by traffic jams, red lights and other things that slow our automotive travel are a major source of frustration to most of us.  As individuals, we can mitigate this frustration by choosing our home and work locations, and the times at which we work.  We may be able to telecommute, walk or bike, or take public transit (which has its own frustrations).  But in today’s automobile-dominated society, most of us have to use the private automobile for most of our travel, much of which must be done on a rigid schedule.

We deal with this frustration with fancy sound systems, luxury seating and blue tooth connections that allow us to use some of our automotive downtime productively.  However, those measures do not address the tremendous waste of oil-based fuel and its concomitant pollution. Government, on behalf of us all, can do more to manage traffic and its related delays, but in our geographic area it has largely failed to act.

While I was driving down Washington Avenue in Albany recently, hitting red light after red light, my frustration triggered some early memories — from the 1960s — of driving up and down avenues in Manhattan with my father, watching each light turn green as we approached it.  My dad explained to me that the lights were timed so that you would rarely have to stop, if you maintained a steady speed at or around the limit.  I am aware of nowhere in our area that employs this proven (and by now, probably more affordable), technology.

Another local failure, on the part of the Thruway Authority, is its lagging behind the Mass Pike in eliminating toll plazas at exits and entries to its highways, with all tolls being tallied by gantries over the road that read E-Z Pass transponders without the need for cars to slow down (a few such gantries do exist on the Thruway, most notably near the Harriman exit, but they have not replaced the toll plazas at the entries and exits).  Although the demolition of the toll plazas and barriers on the Mass Pike is not complete, travel time savings already have been noted.

While we now do have electronic signs on many of our primary roads advising of travel time to various points, these signs do not offer alternatives when delays are indicated, and in most cases no alternatives exist.  While information may reduce frustration during times of congestion, expenditures aimed at reducing congestion would be a better use of taxpayer funds.

Money spent on reducing traffic congestion, as well as on things like bike paths and libraries, benefits everyone by making the area a more attractive one in which to live.  Unfortunately, in New York, “everyone” is not a special interest, which may be why government under-spends in many of these areas.

More on charter schools

November 6, 2016

This recent column in the New York Times summarizes some studies on charters, and sheds some interesting light.  Apparently, the charters that do the best (and not all even do well) are those that stress the basics — longer days, more support for teachers and students and imposition of high standards.

Aside from reflecting what appears to me to be common sense, these values contrast with those present in many conventional public schools, where shorter work days and more insulation from accountability are the goals of the teachers, as expressed through collective bargaining and political action (many individual teachers put in extra time and strive for excellence, even after achieving tenure).  While I understand teachers’ perceived need for some job protections, and while I believe most tenure “abuses” are caused by management that does not terminate probationary teachers who are unlikely to be successful, there still is a disconnect between the positions of advocates of traditional education and those of the best, successful charters.

If competition produces better results for all, and if charters are to fulfill their original mission as laboratories in which successful teaching methods can be developed and tested, both systems need support.

Charter school success?

August 3, 2016

This New York Post story suggests that NYC charters have worked a miracle — closing the heretofore intractable racial achievement gap, and outperforming even affluent conventional public schools.  If this is true, why haven’t other news outlets picked up the story?  If it’s not true, in whole or in part, why hasn’t anyone refuted it?

I don’t think charters are miracle workers, and I am somewhat skeptical of reports of huge successes.  But I also think they do a lot of things better than conventional public schools (which are adapting to meet the competition), such as providing greater support and a longer school day and year.  Charter students are also more likely to come from more supportive homes, since parents need to take many affirmative actions to have their children attend charter schools.

So where does the truth lie?


Further on the testing debate

May 19, 2015

I am not a big fan of Michael Mulgrew, the president of the New York City teachers’ union.  Although I think most teachers and, by extension, their union, want to do the best they can for their profession and for their students, the union often takes positions that are contrary to those goals, albeit in the interests of at least some of their members, and cynically couches it in terms of what’s good for “our kids.”  How perpetuating a hyper due-process tenure system that protects incompetent teachers or worse. and how negotiating a contract that cuts classroom instruction time are good for kids is beyond me.  Yet here is Mulgrew, in a piece in the New York Daily News,  making a lot of sense and taking a moderate, thoughtful stand on the testing issue.  Of course, what he doesn’t address is what happens when, under the evaluation system he proposes, a teacher still does not produce results.  But this column is a step in the right direction.

To test or not to test

April 14, 2015

Education, like health care, is one of our most intractable problems.  We spend more and get less than other states and countries, and it’s hard to pinpoint why.  The teachers blame lack of parental support, poverty and other social ills.  Others blame the teachers, especially as represented by their unions, and the tenure system, which they claim concentrate inordinately on protecting bad and ineffective teachers.  At the center of this debate is so-called “high stakes” testing, which teachers claim is being used to punish them for conditions beyond their control and which, they further claim, requires them to “teach to the test” and to take valuable time from higher-level pedagogy. Those favoring testing believe it can be used to establish before and after scores that can measure a teacher’s “value added” effectiveness and therefore can differentiate between more and less effective teachers.

I hope we all can agree that public school teachers in general deserve our respect.  They do not get to choose their students who, especially in high needs districts, can present challenges to keeping order and conveying information that most of us would not know how to deal with effectively.  Most are dedicated, and spend time beyond the contractually mandated minimum and money from their own pockets buying supplies they feel are needed but the school district doesn’t.  As in any profession or occupation, there is a small number of bad actors, and it is on those that most of the controversy centers.  But all teachers, and particularly those who face the challenge of teaching high needs students, fear that factors beyond their control may be used to jeopardize their job security and otherwise “punish” them.

I come down in support of testing, if done intelligently, and if the results are used correctly.  As one who was a manager for much of my career, I heartily subscribe to the adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”  Testing, if valid, provides some information needed to effectively manage schools and teachers.  It does not provide all the information needed to effectively manage schools and teachers — such as the reasons for the results it reports — but it does provide an objective snapshot of how well a teacher or school is performing based on objective standards.  It is common sense that an average class score in the South Bronx that may be lower than an average class score in Scarsdale does not mean the teacher in the South Bronx is ineffective or that the Scarsdale teacher is a star performer.  But it does show where improvement is needed.  How that improvement is to be achieved, and whether substandard teaching is responsible to any degree for poor test results, must be determined by more nuanced, subjective measures.  Having test scores represent half a teacher’s evaluation score recognizes its role and importance, and seems to me reasonable.

A Daily News column by Erroll Louis raises two very good additional points about testing.  One is that the interests of parents and teachers on this issue are not completely the same.  Some parents resent the time spent “teaching to the test” and to  administering the tests, which they may feel could better be spent on other educational activities. Though the teachers agree, the difference between the concerns of parents and teachers is that the “high stakes” of test scores are used only to evaluate teachers.  Students’ test scores do not impact their grades, though perhaps a test score indicating a lack of basic understanding of reading or math should trump a passing grade in those subjects.  The other point Louis raises is that testing, like it or not, is a fact of life in this society, and performing satisfactorily on tests is necessary for admission to institutions of higher learning and many trades and professions.  In other words, teaching to the test may impart a practical life skill.

While I am sympathetic to a limited point with teachers who feel bad test scores will be used unfairly against them, that sympathy is tempered by two factors:  first, no occupation has stronger legal and contractual job protection, union representation or political clout.  Second, it seems pretty clear to me that teachers do not have a better answer for improving schools.  In a state that spends 70% above the national per-pupil average, throwing more money at the problem cannot be the answer, especially in a labor intensive enterprise like teaching, where most additional resources will go to increasing teacher compensation or administrative overhead.  $20,000 per child should be more than enough to provide a clean, safe school environment, necessary supplies and equipment and reasonable class size.  If it isn’t, administrators are not doing their jobs.  Blaming conditions outside the schools for poor student performance, if taken to its logical extreme, is really an argument that providing public education, at least in high-needs areas, is an exercise in futility.   Since teachers cannot make a meaningful difference, why bother at all?

I am not an expert on education, but I think it’s hard to argue with success, as demonstrated by the better, more successful charter schools. What they do is not magic.  A lot of it boils down to time on task, meaning more school days per year and more hours per school day.  I was shocked to read that the most recent New York City teachers’ contract actually decreased classroom time (in exchange for an increase in parent-teacher contact time).  I also understand that the mere fact that charters are populated by students whose parents entered lotteries is a form of pre-selection that indicates better home support for those students, but I’m not sure how much of the performance difference between the better charters and public schools can be accounted for by that difference, and studies suggest that such factors are not statistically significant.  No question, improving out-of-school social services can improve students’ academic performance, as programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone have demonstrated.  But the public schools can and should do better, even though some face difficult challenges. Using valid tests in an intelligent way to establish a baseline from which progress can be measured with reasonable accuracy is a necessary first step toward that goal.