Politics & Policy

Everything’s up the Spout in Kansas City

There is nothing new in education theory, ever.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from John Derbyshires upcoming We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, to be released Sept. 29, 2009.

Okay, you’re probably thinking that when politicians and edbiz theorists talk about spending more money on education, they don’t have leafy suburbs and ivy-clad universities in mind. It’s those inner-city schools that are “failing our children.” That’s where we should be spending more money, right?

The optimists’ faith that spending oodles of money will solve any problem is quite touching. In the case of education, though, the spend-more-money theory has actually been tested to destruction in several places.  The Thernstroms cover two of these tests in detail in No Excuses: Kansas City, Mo., and Cambridge, Mass.

Kansas City is the more interesting case. The Thernstroms give it a page and a half, leaving out some of the juicier details. There is a much fuller report on the Cato Institute website, written by education reporter Paul Ciotti.

In 1977, when the story begins, Kansas City’s schools were in simply terrible shape. The city, like most others of its size (pop. 460,000), had experienced white flight from the 1950s on, and the school district even more so, even whites resident in the city pulling their kids out of the public schools. By 1977 enrollment was 36,000, three quarters of them racial minorities (which at that point meant mostly African Americans). The voters had not approved a tax increase for the district since 1969. In 1977 litigation commenced, members of the school board, district parents, and some token children suing the state and some federal agencies on the grounds they had permitted racial segregation. Federal judge Russell Clark, a Jimmy Carter appointee, got the case.

After eight years of litigation, Clark gave the plaintiffs everything they wanted, and then some. He in fact ordered them to “dream” — to draw up a money-no-object plan for the Kansas City school system.

Dreaming is no problem for educationists. The plaintiffs — education activists and their lawyers — duly dreamt, with an initial price tag of $250 million for their dreams. This was twice the district’s normal annual budget.

It proved to be only a start, however. Over the next twelve years the district spent over 2 billion dollars, most of it from the state of Missouri, the balance from increased local property taxes. Fifteen new schools were built and 54 others renovated. New amenities included, Ciotti tells us:

an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room; a robotics lab; professional quality recording, television, and animation studios; theaters; a planetarium; an arboretum, a zoo, and a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary; a two-floor library, art gallery, and film studio; a mock court with a judge’s chamber and jury deliberation room; and a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability. [Students] could take courses in garment design, ceramics, and Suzuki violin. . . .  In the performing arts school, students studied ballet, drama, and theater production. They absorbed their physics from Russian-born teachers, and elementary grade students learned French from native speakers recruited from Quebec, Belgium, and Cameroon. . . .  There were weight rooms, racquetball courts, and a six-lane indoor running track better than those found in many colleges. The high school fencing team, coached by the former Soviet Olympic fencing coach, took field trips to Senegal and Mexico. . . .  Younger children took midday naps listening to everything from chamber music to “Songs of the Humpback Whale. For working parents the district provided all-day kindergarten for youngsters and before- and after-school programs for older students.

The whole project was a comprehensive failure. After twelve years, test scores in reading and math had declined, dropout rates had increased, and the system was as segregated as ever, in spite of heroic efforts to lure white students back into the system.

Kansas City did all the things that educators had always said needed to be done to increase student achievement — it reduced class size, decreased teacher workload, increased teacher pay, and dramatically expanded spending per pupil — but none of it worked.

The great C-130-loads of money being air-dropped on the system also brought about waste and corruption on a heroic scale. Theft was rampant. So was overmanning: The project became a huge jobs and patronage program, with the inevitable mismanagement and scandals.

I have just (late 2008) been on GreatSchools.net, looking up Kansas City’s Central High School. That’s the one with the Olympic-size swimming pool; the school was rebuilt from scratch at a cost of $32 million under Judge Clark’s supervision. Nine percent of students are testing “above proficient” in math, against a state average of 46 percent. For Communication Arts the corresponding numbers are 6 percent, 39 percent.

(The Cato report has a postscript on the Sausalito, Calif., elementary-school district, which serves not the prosperous white liberals of that Sausalito, but a mostly-minority public housing project close by. Same limitless expenditures, same results. Kansas City is by no means the only case.)

With some honorable exceptions like the Thernstroms, who, as I have said, give the Kansas City experiment a page and a half in their book, this dismal story has mainly been flushed down the memory hole by education theorists. They would rather not have it mentioned. A decade after the whole thing collapsed in grisly and obvious failure, politicians and edbiz bureaucrats are still routinely calling for more money to be spent on schools as a way to improve student achievement.

Barack Obama, for example. On the 2008 campaign trail, the day before the Martin Luther King birthday holiday, Obama told a swooning congregation at King’s old church that: “We must push our elected officials to supply the resources to fix our schools. . . . We can’t pass a law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind.”

Money is the answer! More money! That’ll fix the schools! That’ll close those pesky gaps!

Education theorists are great forgetters, and were even before Judge Clark came along. The first of the big modern government-sponsored papers on school reform, James Coleman’s 1966 report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” (but almost always referred to as “the Coleman Report), surveyed 645,000 students in over 3,000 schools nationwide. Coleman found almost no relationship between school quality –  spending, newness of facilities, teacher credentials — and student achievement.

If you rank schools from worst to best by these measures of quality, then work your way up the ranking from low to high, logging student achievement as you go, once you get above a tiny proportion of really, really bad schools, nothing much changes. A truly excellent school with terrific facilities does somewhat better by its students than a mediocre school, but the difference is not great. What makes the difference is family background.

All this was discovered, at considerable effort and expense, in 1966. Apparently nobody told Judge Clark.  Who knows? — perhaps some future government will commission some new study to find out how student achievement relates to school quality. Then, a decade later, perhaps some new federal judge will order some new spend-a-thon, beggaring the taxpayers of his state to no effect at all. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It is not quite true that there is nothing new under the sun, but there is nothing new in education theory, ever: just the same truths, revealed again and again, then pushed down the same memory hole by the same lying careerists, the same wishful-thinking fantasists, and the same parrot-brained politicians.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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