The Magazine

End Them, Don’t Mend Them

It’s time to shutter America’s bloated schools.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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The average IQ in America is—and this can be proven mathematically—average. Logic therefore dictates that National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth grade “at or above proficient” reading and math levels should average 50. This is true in only one of the 50 states. National averages are 29 and 31 percent. Either logic has nothing to do with public education or that NAEP test is a bear. Which I doubt. I have been told by the third grade teacher that my daughter Poppet is reading at middle school level. Yet if I leave Poppet a note in block letters telling her to feed the dogs I will come home to find the dogs have been .  .  . given a swim in the above-ground pool, dressed in tutus, provided with hair weaves. What I will not find is that the dogs have been fed. “I thought you wanted me to free the dogs,” says Poppet whose school district is not spending quite what D.C.’s is, thanks to voter rejection of the last school bond referendum.

The District of Columbia is an extreme example of disconnect between financial input and educational outcome. Unfortunately extreme is not the same as abnormal. Comparing the Statistical Abstract’s 2007 ranking of states according to per-pupil public education spending with state-by-state NAEP 2007 eighth grade proficiency levels is an exercise that produces little information about the relationship between money and learning. In fact, if you stare at the figures long enough you will find information being sucked out of your brain.

Massachusetts (fifth in spending per student) and Vermont (first) do lead the reading proficiency list with 43 and 42 percent respectively. But there’s not much to choose between that and 25th-biggest spender Montana’s 39 percent. Montana, in turn, is tied with third-most-expensive New Jersey. And the four states with 37 percent proficiencies on the NAEP are sixth-in-spending hyper-literate Connecticut, 19th-in-spending rube Minnesota, eighth-in-spending canny Yankee Maine, and 43rd-in-spending hayseed South Dakota. 

The NAEP math proficiencies are no more illuminating. Massachusetts leads with 51 percent. Second is Minnesota at 43 percent. Third place, with 41 percent, is shared by North Dakota (37th-in-spending) and champion spender Vermont. And both lavish New Jersey and 23rd-ranked middling Kansas have math proficiencies of 40 percent. 

Looking at the bottom of the heap is just as confusing. Perhaps it’s possible to spend too little on public education, and 47th-ranked Mississippi is trying to prove it. The District of Columbia aside, Mississippi’s proficiency levels are the worst in the nation—17 percent in reading; 14 percent in math. However, the state that spends the least, Utah, slightly exceeds national averages. Meanwhile the second-worst state, New Mexico, is completely average in its school spending, ranked at 24. Tenth-in-spending Hawaii, with 20 percent in reading and 21 percent in math, is marginally inferior to 31st-in-spending California with 20 and 24 percent. And 49th-in-spending Arizona is a few points better than either. The only thing that can be said for sure is that the illiterate kids who have to take off their Crocs to add six and five have mostly been out in the sun too long.

There are other numbers that make better sense. As of 2006—of course the numbers are out of date—4,615,000 people were employed full-time by some 13,000 school districts (although if school districts used the same definition of “full-time” as the rest of us the number we’re talking about would be zero). Of these 4,615,000 there are 300,000 “clerical and secretarial staff” filling out No Child Left Behind paperwork and wondering why 64,000 “officials, administrators” aren’t doing it themselves, which they aren’t because they’re busy doing the jobs that 125,000 “principals and assistant principals” can’t because they’re supervising 383,000 “other professional staff” who are flirting with the 483,000 “teachers’ aides” who are spilling trail mix and low-fat yogurt in the teacher’s lounge making a mess for the 726,000 “service workers” to clean up, never mind that the students should be pushing the brooms and swinging the Johnny mops so at least they’d come home with a practical skill and clean the bathroom instead of sitting around comprehending 29 percent of their iPhone text messages and staying awake all night because they can only count 31 percent of sheep.

“Classroom teachers” number 2,534,000. That makes for a nationwide student/teacher ratio of 15.4:1, which compares reasonably with the 13.3:1 ratio in private schools and is an improvement over the 22.3:1 public school ratio in 1970, when kids still occasionally learned something. But the people-doing-who-knows-what/teacher ratio is getting close to 1:1.

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