Public Education Finance

Last week, my department hosted two prominent economists who do research on public education finance to speak to students, faculty, and local teachers regarding how we’re going to finance public schools and improves US student outcomes in the coming decades. By international standards, school performance in the US lags behind other countries in math and science, in particular, which is largely heralded as expected to bring about the eventual demise of out economic and geopolitical advantage.

This is certainly not my area of expertise, so I’m speaking a bit off the cuff here, but I thought I’d summarize a bit.

Andrew Reschovsky, who is a professor in the policy school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asserts that we’re not paying teachers enough. His argument wasn’t entirely clear to students, it seemed, but his ultimate prescription is to bring more money to the problem.

Eric Hanushek, of the Hoover Institute at Stanford, presented an argument that many of my students found much more compelling. Firing the bottom 5-6% of teachers from each school and replacing them with an average teacher, he says, would raise math and reading scores dramatically. And, if we could only get to Canada’s level, it would add trillions to our GDP.

One teacher rightly asked, where do you expect to get these teachers, particularly when you’re cutting their salaries left and right? Hanushek replied that there are a lot of unemployed teachers, but mostly ignored the distributional problem. There are a lot of unemployed teachers in Michigan, where salaries are high and applicants far outnumber openings. There are lots of openings in places like Arizona, where salaries are low. It’s as much a problem of getting people to move to Arizona as it is replacing those teachers that get fired.

Neither side got too much into the question of how we measure student outcomes (for more on this, see Dana Goldstein, who is also moderating an event on the same at the New America Foundation tomorrow evening at NYC). Though Hanushek was fairly convinced that some measure of value-added by teacher seemed to be in order through rigorous testing, by his own admission, principals and colleagues all seem to know who the bad teachers are. In that sense, amending the system to allow teachers to evaluate each other might lead to more efficient outcomes than administering tests that hamper the ability of teachers to teach, and could be racist or biased in different cultural situations. We know testing is problematic, and yet, right now, it seems to be all we have.

As a teaching moment, I wanted to highlight how two people, coming from rather different sides of the aisle, could use the exact same information to come up with very different policy prescriptions. I’ve heard some students remark lately that econometrics seems like a science without answers. But I think the better description is that there are many answers, and we’re tasked with finding the best ones. I also had a long discussion with a colleague and my students about how teacher quality over the past fifty years has likely changed dramatically as more opportunities for women opened up in different fields.

I find it all really fascinating.

I was really hoping to outsource this post by linking to my students’ blogs, but none of them wrote about it (though many¬† have some interesting thoughts about Moneyball). Even for extra credit. Guess it’s going to be a required assignment next year. I will update here if I notice any posts about it in the next week.

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