Monday, January 25, 2010

Points off for efficiency

It is not all that common for me to defend Texas against some national or interstate education evaluation. But there is one thing in Education Week's report, Quality Counts 2010 that is grossly unfair to Texas, and it reflects what I consider to be an unhelpful way of thinking: Their overall scoring system actually penalizes efficiency.

If Alice gets result X by spending $1000 and Bob one gets the same result, X, by spending just $500 who is doing a better job? I would think that most people would agree that Bob is doing a better job. Bob is being more efficient by getting the same results as Alice, but he is using only half of the resources that Alice uses.

Apparently the editors over at Education Week doesn't see it that way. They take points off for those states that spend less money per student even if those states reach the same results in terms of achievement as higher spending states. Here are the report's ratings for Texas against the national average

Chance for Success C39C+
Standards & accountability A6B
Teaching profession C24C
School finance D+42C
Transitions & alignment B6C
K–12 achievement C13D+

While there is little here for Texas to brag about, being dinged (D+) for being more efficient at reaching a better than average achievement (C) is just silly. But thinking that way is a natural consequence of people valuing what they do.

What's good for GM …

It is perfectly natural for people who dedicate their lives to education to believe that what is good for the education establishment is good for education; and for the most part they are correct. It is perfectly natural for members of the fire fighters and police associations to believe that what is good for their members is good for public safety; and for the most part they are correct. It is perfectly natural for those in the air travel industry to believe that what is good for them is good for the traveling public; and for the most part they are correct. But getting into the habit of thinking that way can sometimes lead people to hold spectacularly wrong mistaken views.

It will be an interesting to observe, as I move deeper and deeper into this world, how much my thinking will be turned this way. Maybe if I'd read this article a year from now instead of today (just a week before I begin my student teaching) I would have noticed the problem I point out. But being married to someone trained in economics has a way of permanently changing the way one thinks (and for the better). So I hope that I will still be able to recognize when the interests of my group don't correspond to the public good.

On the other hand I probably am already ensnared by this way of thinking. I very highly value public education (otherwise I wouldn't be going into the field), and naturally I think that society should value it just as highly and should dedicate more resources to it. So while I am in it enough to want more money for public education, I am not in it so deeply that I fail to recognize the absurdity of penalizing efficiency.

A wrinkle in defense of Education Week scoring

I do need to acknowledge that the Finance and Spending category isn't entirely based on the amount spent. Texas also was correctly marked down in this category for its unequal spending around the state. None-the-less a component of the measure that did takes points away from Texas was its efficiency.

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