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Bad Title, Mind-Changing Book

We education writers receive many books in the mail with terrible titles, real slumber-time stuff. Here are some on my bookshelf: “Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools";| “Rethinking High School Graduation Rates & Trends"; and “SREB Fact Book on Higher Education."

Those volumes proved to be pretty good, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t throw them out. I mention this because on top of that stack is a new book that sets the record for largest gap between quality of work and liveliness of title.

It is “Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools” by Eric A. Hanushek and Alfred A. Lindseth| I forced myself to read it because it was on the agenda of a conference I was attending.

I’m glad I did. It is enlightening, maddening, hopeful, frustrating and amazingly informative, all in just 411 pages. I don’t like admitting this, but it even changed my mind on a hot issue, the connection between U.S. schools and U.S. economic success.

I probably would have read “Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses” because Hanushek is one of the bad boy economists who have been providing some of the most provocative education research. I don’t know Lindseth, an attorney and national expert on school finance law, but the chapters on that subject were very good, and comprehensible, so he also deserves some credit.

Note to Princeton University Press: I know you are an academic institution, serving scholars who resist flashy come-ons, and just want to say what the book is about, but you failed in even that mission with this title. “Why We Are Stupid About Fixing Our Schools” would have worked better for me, as long as you kept the helpful subtitle.

The book provides a terrific summary of how the U.S. education system has changed since World War II. It makes a telling argument about how much our well-being depends on our schools. It eviscerates the policy-making that has ruled public education for the last half century. And it buries for all time the notion that getting the courts to fix our schools has any chance of success.

By page 18 I realized it would be a great read. Hanushek was summarizing arguments he had made in earlier magazine articles I found somewhat dense. This time his language was so polished I could see what he was getting at.

He acknowledged my side in the schools and economy debate: “Almost certainly the most important factor sustaining the growth of the U.S. economy has been the openness and fluidity of its markets.” But his data also show productivity growing at the same pace as the rising education level of our work force, and international comparisons reveal a consistent pattern that strongly reinforces the notion that rising student achievement can make us all richer.

Here is his main point (excuse the jargon): “According to the existing evidence, each one standard deviation difference on test performance is related to a 1 percent difference in annual growth rates of per capita GDP.”

Our freewheeling political, social and economic culture has the biggest impact on our living standards, but the education system also plays a part, something I will have to admit next time I get into an argument on this topic. The Chinese and the Indians are still not much of a threat to us by that measure. Their education systems are still bad. They don’t dare let the international testing organizations get near their woebegone rural schools. But the book convinces me that, just looking at the United States, we would be doing better economically if our schools were improving more.

I warn you: this is a book full of bad news. It only qualifies as entertainment because reading it can work you into a rage, which is enjoyable to people like me. Smart lawyers armed with state laws and state constitutions that guarantee an adequate public education for all have persuaded many judges to order more money spent on schools. The results have been disappointing.

“While court-ordered dollars have bought a host of services and facilities for schools--programs for at-risk students and preschoolers, smaller class sizes, additional support staff and other personnel, better school buildings, extended day programs, and full-day kindergartens, to name only some--these appear not to have generally boughtÖ the improved student performance so long sought and so urgently needed,” the authors conclude.

The judges in these cases haven’t had much experience in improving school achievement. They accepted what the experts told them, a big mistake. The authors describe the professional judgment method of guiding courts in determining how much money is necessary to raise achievement. “With a few nuances, the approach involves asking a chosen panel of educators--teachers, principals, superintendents and others--to develop an educational program that would, in their collective opinion, produce certain specified achievement outcomes,” the authors say.

It is a triumph of conventional wisdom--accepting programs that, if they had ever worked as well as the experts predicted, would have greatly narrowed the achievement gap the courts were trying to repair.

In these behind-the-scenes calculations, budget realities are thrown to the winds: “Professional judgment panels generally are instructed not to consider where the revenues will come from to pay for their model schools, or any other possible constraints on spending,” Hanushek and Lindseth explain.

Apparently having exhausted themselves analyzing the excruciating failure of court intervention, the two authors go slightly batty, and express the hope that future courts will admit their errors and insist on imposing methods, like higher standards for teachers, that have some demonstrated success. That’s not going to happen, but the book ends with more realistic scenarios, such as legislatures finally realizing how bad their approach has been and paying more attention to the methods of schools that have produced academic success, even for low-income students.

Maybe we can, as the authors suggest, learn from our disasters, and do better next time. I suggest they write another book telling us how. But please don’t let the publisher smother good work with another loser title.

By Washington Post editors  | September 25, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Mr. Matthews,

Have you learned nothing about Campbell's Law from your challenge index?

Once a proxy (i.e the way attempt to measure an underlying construct) becomes too well known or rewards are too tightly tied to the measurement of the proxy, it begins to lose whatever correlation it might have originally had.

You Challenge Index is facing this problem, as you well know.

Achievement data in this country now has the kind of pressure on it that leads to the same problem, yet again.

So, historical analysis of achievement's correlation with economic growth may be quite robust and provide us with good insight into the links between education and economic prosperity. But given the well known effects of Campbell's Law, to proclaim that that *acheivement*data* will retain that kind of tight correlation in THIS country moving forward seems foolish.

Posted by: ceolaf | September 25, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

ceolaf---I get yr second point, but I don't see how it applies to the Challenge Index. I have never tried, at least consciously, to correlate the Index ratings with anything, so please enlighten me. They were designed as a journalistic, not scholarly exercise. I wanted to expose the fact that many schools thought to be good restricted access to AP and many school thought to be bad did a great job exposing kids to these challenging courses. I also wanted to give some recognition to educators who realized that the widespread denial of access to AP was a bad idea.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 25, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews,

You have posited that (AP+IB)/enrollment is highly correlated with a challenging curriculum. (And we both know that a challenging curriiculum is one of the keys to a hgh quality school.)

However, the attention pay to your index has made AP and IB exams a goal in and of themseves, rather than the same reliable indicator of challenge that they perhaps once were.

You may term your index and "excercise," but that excercise is appears each year on the cover of Newsweek and people take is seriously as a measure of high school quality. Moreover, your published intend them to do so. Surely, undoubtedly, you know that.

Posted by: ceolaf | September 25, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

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