Friday, November 6, 2009

You Don't Always Get the Education You Pay For

Last week I had the chance to go see The Cartel, a documentary by New Jersey media man Bob Bowdon (a movie, in a theater, by myself - worth the price of admission and popcorn!). The film is about corruption and failure in the New Jersey educational system, primarily in inner-city and underperforming districts. For anyone who cares about children, education, and democracy, this film is a must-see.
Bowdon shows convincingly that, despite the fact that New Jersey spends more money per student than any other state in the nation except New York, our schools are performing miserably. With only 39% of eighth graders proficient on reading tests, and 40% successful on math measures, it is pretty clear that we are not getting much bang for our bucks.

More money in schools sounds like a great idea. Better funding means better facilities, smaller classes, motivated teachers, and greater resources - so goes the argument. According to Bowdon, during the recent state budget crisis spending was cut nearly across the board, but was increased for education. The White House posted on their blog on October 19 that tens of billions of dollars will be invested in education as part of the ARRA (American Recovery and Renivestment Act) as part of
the overall goals for education in the ARRA...to stimulate the economy in the short term and to invest in education advancements to ensure the long-term economic health and success of our nation.
It all seems to make sense. Right? Yet many charter and private schools (with Wellspring among them) have great success with a fraction of the $15,691 spent per student, on average, in New Jersey in 2007. $15,691 is a lot of money - that's over $6,000 more than the national average and over $10,000 more than Utah, the lowest spending state.

Which begs the question: what is the problem, and how can it be fixed? Greater oversight and better efficiency seem to be a good start, but in my opinion these measures are just that - a start. Throwing more money at a defective system is not going to fix the system. Where schools are innovative and encourage active learning and respectful relationships they succeed, as shown by some of the examples of extraordinary schools in Bowdon's film. Where schools follow the status quo of Teachers Teach, Students Learn, it sets the stage for apathy, disinterest, absenteeism, and even violence.

No amount of money is going to fix a system where young people are forced to sit and spit back to an authority figure boring, unimportant and irrelevant facts and figures - or at least are forced to do so until they are old enough to drop out of school altogether. Much like the therapeutic relationship, where patients need a trusting and respectful relationship with a therapist to be able to progress in their personal work, students cannot thrive unless they are treated with respect and consideration of their needs and interests. The lessons they learn about self-esteem, initiative, and creativity are not separate from (some might argue they are, in fact, more important than) the lessons learned about history, math and reading.

This is not to say that teachers are not wonderful, giving and committed to their students - almost all of them are, at least the ones I've met. This is simply to say that there are limits to what they can accomplish no matter how amazing they are, because they must conform to the expectations of administrators and politicians who believe that "education" is separate from "life". It is odd that in a country that prides itself on an ideal of rugged individualism, we have set up our public schools to be hotbeds of homogeneity, and this needs to change. Instead of the usual easy fix - namely, an infusion of cash - it is time to consider that perhaps the answer is more fundamental and difficult than we previously thought.
For another perspective on the connection between money and quality education, check out In Education Reform We See the Real Change that Was Promised from change.org.

~KCD

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