On Education, Asking The Wrong Questions (CJ)

https://i0.wp.com/www.hpgop.com/images/carolinajournal.jpg Another good column today from the John Locke Foundation’s John Hood over at the Carolina Journal. Hood discusses why familiar questions continue to be asked every election cycle with respect to education, and why we continue to be disappointed when we throw up our hands when we don’t know how to fix the problems:

On Education, Asking The Wrong Questions
By John Hood

January 29, 2008

The image “https://i0.wp.com/www.johnlocke.org/images/authors/screen_3e6a6da92887d.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. RALEIGH – We are about to see nomination battles heat up for several state offices, including North Carolina’s governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and state legislature. In all of these cases, look for education to be at or near the top of the list of debated issues – and for the candidates to assert with great passion answers to the usual, wrong questions.

Listening to the political rhetoric, North Carolina voters could be forgiven for believing that the state’s mediocre educational performance is caused by teacher pay that is lower than the national average, school funding that is too inequitable, a school year that is too short, and school leadership that is too diffuse. What are we to do about these problems?

The truth is that it doesn’t much matter, as these are really not pressing problems.

North Carolina’s teacher pay, for instance, is hardly low by national standards. The teacher union claims otherwise, but it fails to adjust nominal teacher salaries for differences in living costs, experience, and non-wage benefits. If you were making $40,000 in Lexington, North Carolina and someone offered you $45,000 to move to Lexington, Massachusetts, would you simply assume that you would be getting a $5,000 raise, or would you check to see how much more it would cost you to buy a home, drive a car, or purchase goods and services? Of course you would do the latter.

As my John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops has demonstrated in a new report, accurate reporting of average teacher pay puts North Carolina 10th in the nation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that North Carolina policymakers ought not to raise pay in the future, especially if they do so in ways heavily weighted to retaining the best teachers and giving them incentives to take on difficult challenges. But it does argue for halting our fruitless fixation with across-the-board raises “to the national average.”

Another commonly held misconception is that school funding differs dramatically across North Carolina school districts. It’s just not true. Unlike most other states, North Carolina primarily funds public schools with state income and sales taxes, not with local property taxes. Furthermore, to some extent the quarter or so of school funding that comes from property taxes serves to equalize real investment by accounting for local differences in hiring and building costs.

Still another theme in our all-too-superficial education debate is that our schools are hampered by a calendar that is too wedded to our old agrarian culture and too short to impart core academic content to distracted kids. The real distraction is this debate about the school year. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with adjusting the calendar, either to eliminate the lengthy summer vacation or to add instructional days, the best-available data suggests that the educational benefits are likely to be scant, at least for most students. Schools in other countries don’t outperform ours because they are open longer.

Finally, one of the old standbys of North Carolina political talk about education has returned recently: the notion that governors should appoint the state superintendent of public instruction, rather than keeping the post elective. I’ve always favored the change, let me first say, but to be frank it doesn’t matter much anymore. Years ago, governors and state lawmakers took over education policy from superintendents, who now lack much in the way of formal power. The State Board of Education, appointed by the governor, makes most of the policy decisions. It even hires someone to run the Department of Public Instruction, though without the proper title. The General Assembly sets funding levels, mandates teacher pay scales and class sizes, and legislates major changes in accountability mechanisms.

Local school superintendents matter a great deal, but they are hired by local school boards, not DPI. Sure, let’s clean up the state’s organizational chart and shorten the state’s ballot, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the change will have much of an effect on educational outcomes.

North Carolina politicians ought to be asking different questions. Why have massive increases in taxpayer funding for public schools resulted in modest improvements, at best, in student achievement? Why do the state’s best teachers make little more than the state’s worst teachers? Why is it so hard to shove the latter group of teachers into professions for which they are better suited? Why does North Carolina continue to administer tests that are unreliable, too easy to pass, and impossible to compare across state boundaries? Why should bureaucrats, rather than parents, decide where children attend school?

And most of all, why do we continue to waste our time talking about the wrong things?

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.


E.C. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: