Thursday, August 14, 2008

On Asses and Carts

Every once in a great while, the intuitively obvious answer is the correct one. For example, if you took two schoolchildren from the same race, and stipulated that one came from a home where the parents' educational attainment and household income were less than that of the other, you would predict that the child of the ill-starred family would have lower educational outcomes that his more fortunate peer.

We also assume that factors such as a stable home environment, minimal exposure to television and having a two-parent family can impact a student's educational outcomes. Furthermore, we can rightly presume that all of these things would impact cross-racial comparisons, particularly between African Americans and whites. And indeed, we see evidence of race-based educational disparities as evidenced by the much-vaunted "achievement gap."

It's a good thing (he says tongue grafted to cheek) that Rev. Al Sharpton has distracted himself from other matters such that he can turn his attention to the education of black pupils. Predictably, Rev. Sharpton has directed his preponderance to advocate for the one thing that has been repeatedly demonstrated to have zero impact on school performance: namely, per-pupil spending (PPS). Over the weekend, Sharpton added his voice to those calling for a boycott of Chicago public schools on the first day of class next month.

Sharpton's fulminations aside, PPS has exactly no bearing on children's school performance (as discussed ad infinitum elsewhere.) Even the definition thereof is sufficiently nebulous as to account for funding of activities that are well upstream of what goes on in the classroom. Everything from plush retirements for bootlicking bureaucrats to "educational" seminars for administrative pogues to filling the hog troughs of teacher's unions with the swill of new property tax dollars can be accounted for as per-pupil spending.

And as mentioned elsewhere, if PPS had a direct impact on education, we would see evidence of improvements in academic achievement.

While not entirely surprising, the most disturbing fact is that these sorts of abysmal performance outcomes come with an exorbitant cost. According to data from the website of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), over a relatively brief timescale - 1961 to 2003, to be precise - expenditures per pupil for primary and secondary education have more than tripled, from $2,507 to $8,468 in 2004-05 dollars. And according to the IES' Common Core of Data, for the 2004-05 fiscal year, per student expenditures ranged from $14,117 for students in New Jersey to $5,216 for Utah students, with absolutely no correlation between per pupil spending and educational outcomes.
Everywhere we look - from the Abbott districts in New Jersey, to the hardscrabble streets of South Central Los Angeles to the killing fields of Chicago - we have seen no return whatever for this level of investment in education.

I've also noted that what besets African Americans vis-a-vis education is only minimally about economics, and reflects more of a poverty of culture rather than material goods. (So as not to seem to self-obsessed, I am loathe to reference posts to that effect.) In reviewing the situation here in Chicago, a fellow blogger cites a Schott Foundation for Public Education study, and concludes that "African American males in Chicago's public schools are less than half as likely to graduate as their white peers." Dennis Byrne surmises that culture - particularly that embraced by young black males - is the predominant factor contributing to any observed gaps in achievement between the races.
[I]f resource inequities account for the poor performance, why don't their white male, Hispanic and black female counterparts do as badly? After all, they are going to the same public schools in Chicago... Is it part of the state funding formula to somehow apportion less funding to black males? Are black males forced to use 20-year-old textbooks, while everyone else gets new ones? What precisely is there about how money is spent that mainly leaves black males so dismally out of it?

Maybe a complex of factors, other than funding disparities, explains the troubling performance of black males, and thus, a large part of the schools' problems. Perhaps the same thing that accounts for the decay of neighborhoods at the hands of black male gangs, or for the absence of fathers in the unraveling African-American family. These are symptoms of a cultural climate—corrupted by loosening morals, radical individualism, materialism, Hollywood's adulation of violence and parental irresponsibility, among other strands—that converges on African-American males in particular with all the focused and destructive force of a tornado... What is needed is not so much a change in the school funding formula, but a fundamental change in attitudes about family and society.
Even as Al Sharpton and his confederates bray for more money for their student constituents, it is curious that they never specify a dollar amount that would bring black students up to par academically with whites and Asians. The cry is always for more, with PPS serving as the perfect bogeyman to explain black underachievement. More accurately, it is a tool with which to deflect attention away from the singular shame of African Americans. As long as other races outperform blacks academically, our innate equality remains an open question. In a convoluted sort of way, Sharpton is performing a service of sorts as a champion of the idea of black intellectualism. But his "good" intentions do not make up for the fact that the cart remains before the donkey.

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