The Other 82%

From the FightingBob website comes this piece by a Milwaukee school teacher:
His thesis: “Education spending alone cannot eliminate the educational advantages that affluent children have over poor children, but that does not mean we should not try.”
I sympathize with him and admire his dedication, but wonder still if there are reliable data to tease out the connection between dollars and performance. One thing I noticed in his arguing that we get good value for our teacher salaries and other per pupil spending was a reliance on the high ACT performance in this state, a statistic often touted. But I’d like to see an honest accounting of who these high scoring students are who actually take the test, out of the general student population, as well as where they attend school and what the per pupil spending is there and what the demographics are. In other words, I think that the use of the ACT statistic is a bit misleading.
I am certainly not advocating throwing in the towel on kids who come to school less prepared than those more fortunate, but I also think it’s time for an honest discussion on just how much difference our public school system can make. In a world of infinite resources, we would spend unlimited funds to reach just a few, but that’s not our reality. I would hope very much that we could have this conversation without labeling or name-calling.

Education spending alone cannot eliminate the educational advantages that affluent children have over poor children, but that does not mean we should not try.
The other 82 percent
By Jay Bullock
In a recent post about state Superintendent of Public Education Libby Burmaster, conservative blogger Lance Burri actually made a point with which I, a teacher and not a conservative, whole-heartedly agree. But he’s still wrong.
Lance used the hypothetical example of a child who grows up in a house full of books with two educated parents versus a child who grows up in a home with a single parent who did not finish high school, who works two jobs and does not emphasize the importance of schoolwork or higher education. If we spend $5,000 on the first child and $20,000 on the second, the first child will still likely grow up better educated.
“There’s a limit to what the schools can do,” Lance blogged. “The rest has to come from us, as students, as the parents of students, and as adults–just getting that diploma, even the one from college, isn’t enough to ensure success. Neither does school. School is an opportunity, not a solution. It’s us, ourselves, who make or break our chance at success.”
Lance is right. The fact is that students, believe it or not, only spend about 18 percent of their time with us teachers in their first 18 years. Goodness knows it often feels like more–I would imagine as much for them as it does for me–but that’s it. Eighteen percent.
What happens in the other 82 percent is just as important, if not more so, than what happens within school walls. Small schools would not be any better at solving the problems of urban education overall because the problems of urban education often begin and end in the community. In Milwaukee we have staggeringly high unemployment, appalling rates of teen pregnancy, and the kind of segregation that most of the country only reads about in history textbooks.
If that is the 82 percent, I cannot fix it in the time a student is in my classroom.
Problem is I want to. I want to use every last resource available to me to do every last thing I can to provide the students I teach with every opportunity available to them. Call it quixotic, call it white liberal guilt, it doesn’t matter. It is how and feel and what I do. If I wanted to only teach Lance’s “first child,” I would look for a job in the suburbs. With my resume, I could probably get one. But I don’t.
Here’s the thing: When you have to make up for the challenges that the other 82 percent of a child’s life provides, it does, in fact, cost more than it does to teach students who do not have the kind of challenges most of my students do. There are facts that may make anti-tax and anti-public education people uncomfortable, especially if they are observing these facts from the comfort of their college-educated, book-reading households. When a child does not speak English, it takes more public education resources to teach that child. When a child has lead poisoning, it takes more public education resources to teach that child. When a child comes to school hungry, it takes more public education resources to teach that child.
And so on.
One of my big problems with deposed state Superintendent of Public Schools candidate Gregg Underheim’s platform, such as it was, and Governor Jim Doyle’s big “school funding reform” panel’s recommendations, is that they all asked for a “study” to see what makes low-spending, high-achieving school districts so great. The answer, of course, is duh, accompanied by a big smack in the face: Low-spending, high-achieving districts are not, by and large, burdened by those students who require the additional public education resources to get their students up to standards.
In the same post, Lance takes the requisite rightwing jab at teachers. “We’re also near the top in total teacher compensation and spending per student,” he writes. This is not said boastfully, mind you, but underhandedly in that he connects Wisconsin’s apparently extravagant spending to your high property taxes–the rest of that paragraph is all about taxes. Let’s look at facts:
Wisconsin currently rates, depending on whose estimate you choose, either 25th or 27th in the nation for teacher salaries. (We’re 35th for starting teachers.) Our total compensation–including health benefits (won in part in exchange for these lower salaries)–puts us at 16th in the nation. If by “near the top,” Lance meant “at the bottom of the top third,” then he’s right. Otherwise, he is mistaken.
As to per-pupil spending, according to the Census Bureau, we rank 12th of 51. So, yeah, top quarter and all. But remember three things: One, we consistently rank in the top five for educational quality–ACT scores and whatnot–so we get a good return on that investment. Two, we spend less than $1,000 more per student than the national average, or about 11 percent. Is it worth 11 percent for the higher outcomes we get? And three–if we are 12th in per-pupil spending but 16th in compensation–27th in salary–that extra money is not all going into our (or our doctors’) pockets, now, is it?
But here is the other way Lance blows it, and kills any chance he and I had to agree on something for once: “We need to [. . .] agree that our task is to offer the opportunity–not to ensure that every student takes it. We will provide the buildings, classrooms, blackboards and computers. We’ll supply university-trained professional teachers, free transportation, and a curriculum that teaches, at a minimum, the basics of what it takes to succeed, so students will have more opportunities throughout their lives. We’ll provide tests to gauge achievement, and we’ll let those who fail at first keep trying.”
What it sounds like Lance is advocating here is stripped-down, bare-bones education. That probably would make the anti-tax and anti-public education crowd of his happy. But notice what else he is talking about here: He is advocating that we stop being proactive in our approach to public education in this state, that we let the chips fall where they may and if the (cough white cough) kids from college-educated, book-reading households get further ahead faster, then so be it. We save, in his example, $15,000 for each poor kid.
If Lance wants to abandon Wisconsin’s 82 percent problem children in the name of saving money, then his conservative heart is colder than I could have imagined.
July 19, 2005
Jay Bullock is a teacher in Milwaukee and he maintains the “folkbum rambles and rants” and Sensenbrenner Watch Web logs.