Wichita Eagle’s school cheerleading isn’t helpful


Now that Mark McCormick is no longer with the Wichita Eagle, I think we can say that Rhonda Holman has taken over the role of chief cheerleader for USD 259, the Wichita public school district.

Not that she needed much of a push in that direction. But claims made in a recent opinion piece of hers (Hard times forcing hard choices) deserve some examination.

After praising President Obama’s stimulus spending — claiming that it will keep things from becoming worse — she writes this: “And thank goodness that school district voters had the foresight in November to approve a well-timed local economic stimulus plan — the $370 million bond issue for athletics and fine arts facilities, technical education and new schools.”

There’s so many untruths in this statement that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s try.

First, did the school district know that we’d be in a recession this year? If so, they foresaw something that no one else did.

Second, does government spending stimulate anything except the school system? It’s true that there will be spending going on that probably wouldn’t have happened had the bond issue not passed. But right now Wichitans pay millions of dollars each year to retire the bonds from a past school bond, and soon we’ll have to start paying for this bond. These payments are a drag on the local economy. See Wichita school bond issue economic fallacy and Wichita school district economic impact for more.

The future tax burden is worse than the Wichita school district would admit to, and Holman doesn’t either. That’s because besides the capital expense of building new schools and more classrooms, there’s the ongoing cost of running the new classrooms. The bond issue doesn’t pay those expenses. Wichitans can expect the school district to propose tax increases as these new classrooms and schools come online.

Third, if we were getting something truly worthwhile from this extra spending, that might be one thing. But the Wichita school district’s goal — smaller class sizes — is not a goal worth pursuing. Well, it is if you’re part of the public school bureaucracy or the teachers union. But the narrow self-interest of these groups shouldn’t count in this debate.

If you’re interested in improving the prospects of Wichita’s schoolchildren, this extra spending is a distraction.

I wonder if Holman has read research like this: “Surprisingly, the data show that academic achievement cannot be accounted for by any of the measures of public investment used in this study (pupil-teacher ratio, per pupil expenditures, teacher salaries, and funds received from the federal government), either singly or as a blend.” It’s in the post Wichita-area school superintendents make flawed case.

Here’s some reporting by Malcolm Gladwell on what education researches are starting to realize about the effectiveness of class size, one of the goals of the bond issue:

What’s more — and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world — the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast. … Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

That’s reported in my post Wichita public school district’s path: not fruitful. In that post, you can also read that the current ways that teachers can advance their careers and salaries (longevity and obtaining extra education) aren’t relevant to their teaching effectiveness:

The problem is that the current standards for teachers don’t “track what we care about.” The path to increased pay as a teacher — longevity and more education credentials — doesn’t produce better teachers. But because of union contracts that govern pay, that’s the only way to earn more as a teacher. This is one of the reasons why teachers unions are harmful to schools.

Yet according to the contract with the teachers union in Wichita, longevity and more education credentials are the ways to earn a higher salary.

Innovations such as differential teacher pay and charter schools are being promoted by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a way to improve our nation’s schools. But in Wichita, the existing public education bureaucracy and teachers unions are firmly opposed to these reforms. It’s too bad we don’t have opinion writers at the Wichita Eagle who are willing to look past these entrenched interests and consider what’s best for Wichita schoolchildren.


One response to “Wichita Eagle’s school cheerleading isn’t helpful”

  1. Kevin Streeter

    Bob, I have talked to you about this before. The solution is not better training, more technology nor even better teachers. The countries that are beating us in education have less of this than us. 30 years ago and before students were learning and teacher training, techology and teachers were no better than today. Note that home-schooled students many times do better than public schooled students. Parents are no better at teaching.

    When parents and students look at the school as the students job and the student is thought to be working for the teacher, then student achievement will increase. The biggest obstacle to high standards are administrators and parents. Having high standards is the quickest way for a teacher to have problems at work.

    I do think not of vouchers as a cure-all, but they can give us the same poor education at a lower cost

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