Posts Tagged ‘Public Schools’


Austerity II

February 13, 2012

It’s been over a year now since I first wrote about austerity measures in Greece (read post here).  Now, to borrow money to avoid default, the Greek Parliament passed further austerity measures required by the EU to obtain the funds.  Again, Greek citizens rioted in the streets[i].

Here, in the United States, we need to take special note of the results of this economic experiment, as calls for the same sort of austerity measures continue to gain traction.  As necessary as frugality in spending is, cutting basic services and postponing infrastructure maintenance and improvements will send us into the same downward spiral Greece is experiencing.

In this politically-charged election year, do not let short-sighted rhetoric undermine the fragile economic recovery underway.  A sound business practice is to look at the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and Return on Investment (ROI) before undertaking a project.  Politics rarely explains either when proposing cuts in spending or changes to programs.  Look at it this way, a typical county spends as much as $250 million per year on public schools.  In taking it to the extreme, all that money could be saved by closing the schools and leaving education to individual parents.  What would be the result of such a decision, or what are the TCO and ROI of such a move?

While TCO and ROI are used primarily for physical equipment purchases and systems like transportation, they are useful tools in estimating the true cost of any decision, even decisions of a social nature.  Getting back to the school, what are a few of the positives of eliminating public education?

  1. Lower property taxes.
  2. Smaller government.
  3. Non-tax producing property returned to the tax base.
  4. End of violence in schools.
  5. Reduce children’s exposure to drugs and bad behavior.

Sounds pretty good so far, but what are the negatives?

  1. No standards for primary education.
  2. Most parents lack resources to home school.
  3. Parents bare full cost of private education.
  4. Over time, the workforce education level declines.
  5. Workforce productivity decreases and cost of goods and services increase.

In looking at TCO, it costs more to own and operate a school building than its construction cost alone.  Staff salaries and maintenance add to the mix, as well as its portion of the administration costs distributed out by the school district.  For each year of the schools useful life, these additional costs need to be accounted for as part of the TCO.  Once the TCO is understood, the question of return becomes obvious.  Just what did we get for all this money?  In other words, what is our ROI?

Measuring ROI requires a performance metric.  Simply put, a performance metric is a way to judge a large dataset (in this case – school performance) against a standard index, making things “apples to apples” so to speak.  While many systems exist, looking at graduation rates gives a good bottom-line measurement.  After all, it is the goal of attending high school. Nationally, the United States has an on-time graduation rate around 72%[ii].  In other words, 28% of high school students fail to graduate on-time, if they graduate at all.  With over one quarter of high school students missing the mark, people’s frustration with the education system is very understandable.  Even under the most liberal of goals, a 1 in 4 drop-out rate must be viewed as a failure and a poor return on tax dollar investment.

Regardless, that does not mean we give up on the other 3 to make it 4 out of 4 failure rate.  Schools need improvement.  Improvement takes change and change often requires money.  This is the rub, how to make change that works and not waste the money.   In this sense, austerity measures that cut school budges with have a negative impact on graduation ROI.  Cutting the budget will make matters worse and further degrade our investment.

While it is easy to focus on the positives, it is the negatives that drive the process.  Any tax saving would be spent on home education.  Most likely, much more would be spent for the same lever of education.  The long-term impact on society is where the greatest effect comes in.  This is where we must balance TCO and ROI against the needs for an educated society.  On that score, supporting education by fixing its problems sounds like a much better solution.  It is where the true ROI is found.

While cutting budgets is not the answer, neither is throwing more money at the problem.  This is where austerity has a point, spending must be validated and produce a measurable result.  We are better served when money produces the result it was intended to produce.  Otherwise the TOC continues to rise.  For instance, when Harold McStudent fails to graduate other programs centered on adult education are offered to make up Harold’s deficiency, programs that cost real money.  So now, taxpayers are spending extra money to bring Harold up to a minimum standard increasing the total cost of education and reducing our return on investment.   Having said that, spending more money, to bring Harold up to speed, is better than doing nothing.  The return then is zero.

In the end, by cutting public education rather than fixing it, the effect on society is extremely harmful.  We will debase our workforce and condemn our children to low-wage jobs.  This is exactly the problem with austerity programs.  They save money by gutting the very fabric of society government is there to promote.   We need roads that are drivable, schools that educate, a military that defends, fire and police that protect.  None of that is free.  While there are programs and expenditures that can be cut or put off, the majority of governmental business cannot.

Of course, education is just one example to illustrate the problem with austerity.  The solution comes not in the form of European-style slash and burn austerity, but in frugality.  Each organization, department and government entity must be responsible for ensuring no wasteful spending is allowed.  If people are in place that lack the will to do that, they have to go.  Regardless what a union says, regardless of tenure, regardless of political interest.  It’s too important and our future as a nation depends of getting it right.  Our spending is off the rails and we must return to the tracks.  People who refuse cannot stand in the way of the needs of the nation.

We cannot save our way out of debt; therefore, austerity will not work.  We must encourage growth and grow our economy out of debt.  It is the only way it’s ever worked.  That does not mean government has a blank check, just the opposite.  Every penny must be justified before it’s spent and results must be verified to ensure the spending had the desired effect.  Just because austerity is not the answer, it does not mean the people supporting it do not have valid points that need to be addressed.  It is not in our best interest to have draconian cuts across the board on spending.  No, we must spend wisely but spend nonetheless.  We simply need value for each tax dollar spent.  Perhaps, just perhaps, if we did that, we would not have such animosity towards our government as the country would naturally be in much better fiscal shape.

[i] Maltezou, Renee, and Harry Papachristou. “Violence Offers Glimpse of Greece’s Reform Challenge.” Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News | Thomson Reuters, 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <>.

[ii] “Graduation in the United States.” Education Week American Education News Site of Record. Editorial Projects in Education. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.



If We Punished Adults Like Kids

May 8, 2010

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Imagine you’ve had a hard week at work with lots of overtime, it’s late on a Friday night, and you are finally heading home.  You get into your car, turn the radio on, and play it loud for the ride home.  You hope the music along with the breeze of the top being down will help put the stress of the week behind you and you start to drive.

Maybe it was because you were tired, perhaps the music had a beat that demanded a little speed, whatever the case, there they are behind you – the ubiquitous flashing blue lights that say the local police department does not share your enthusiasm for going home so quickly.  As soon as the officer approaches your car, you can tell your taste in music volume is even less appreciated.  Needless to say, your stressful week has just been capped off with a stressful speeding ticket – 50MPH in a 35MPH zone.  You sign the ticket and drive the rest of the way home in disgusted silence.

Rather than do the simple thing and pay the ticket, this one’s gotten under your skin.  You decide to fight it in court; surely, the judge will listen to reason and at the very least reduce the fine.  After all, there is insurance to think about.  In court, you make your plea with passion and reason, you feel good about the whole thing.  That is until the judge begins to speak.  Rather than being impressed by your logic, he’s angry with you wasting the courts time and intends on making an example out of you.  Instead of a monetary fine, he sentences you to a whipping by his bailiff right then and there.  Next thing you know, there you are bent over a table receiving twenty strokes from a paddle that looks more like a boat oar to you.  As painful as it was, it was your pride that hurt worse; it humiliated you.

If ever such an event took place, who among us would not feel abused?  Who would not feel their civil rights had been violated and the punishment was both cruel and unusual?  In fact, the Constitution states, “Excessive bail shall not be required… nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.[i]”  For a speeding offence it would seem unusual at the very least as most motorist pay a monetary fine.  Certainly, if the corporal aspect of it left a permanent mark it would be cruel.  Maybe that’s why courts don’t use corporal punishment in the United States.

Though the circumstances are somewhat different, it is the same sort of dilemma children face in the twenty states that allow corporal punishment in their public schools.  A minor rule infraction can bring swift retribution in the form of a spanking at the hands of an administrator or teacher.  Everything from chewing gum in class to talking back is eligible for such treatment.  What qualifies a person to do this?  It is doubtful than any university included in their various teaching programs the proper technique for inflicting just the right amount of pain without damaging the flesh.  It all depends on the school personnel involved on how much is enough.  How is it we allow our children to receive a punishment at the hands of government officials we see as abusive for adults?

If your boss were to paddle you at work for talking back, it is a crime called assault.  How is it any different in a school setting?  Your boss has other tools to use, everything from a warning to outright firing you.  Schools need other tools, better tools.  We need to engage students rather than beat them.  School systems respond to discipline in various ways with a wide-range of results.  We need to see what works best and replace the draconian response of paddling with something better suited to the twenty-first century.

Our nation has grown morally since the days when corporal punishment was part of everyday life.  Our laws have grown with that morality.  We simply need to extend that thinking to the classroom environment.  We don’t brand adulterers with an “A” in the center of their forehead, nor should schools raise welts on the rump of a gum-chewing child.

[i] “The Constitution of the United States,” Amendment 8.


Corporal Punishment – Does it Add Value to Education?

March 31, 2010

Corporal punishment, as a means of discipline in public schools, is currently employed in twenty states.[1] In 2006, over 223,000 students received some form of corporal punishment.[2] Using a national average of 180 school days, that works out to be over 1,200 spankings each day.  Even if you believe in the “spare the rod” statement from the Bible,[3] it does not say you get to delegate that authority to the public school system.

Proponents of spanking point to the need for discipline in our school systems as justification for the practice, while opponents see it as child abuse.  To avoid the argument, it helps to look at the effectiveness of  the practice as it relates to discipline in educational settings.  First, there can be no question for the need of discipline as it promotes a healthy learning environment.  Second, rules must have consequences when they are broken or they effectively do not exist.

Much debate takes place over what constitutes a healthy learning environment and just how to enforce rules to promote education.  Again, avoiding entanglement in the argument and looking at results sheds some light on the effectiveness of corporal punishment.  Figure 1 shows the states allowing corporal punishment.

Figure 1 – States Allowing Corporal Punishment
(click for larger view)

In looking at the states involved, several stereotypical “theories” are often put forward as to why these particular states allow it:

  • Only “Biblebelt” states can justify corporal punishment, it is part of their evangelical teachings
  • States that employ it are run by backward thinking people
  • States with right-wing agendas use corporal punishment to control the young population
  • Only states with large minority populations use it

The list goes on and on.  There is little use in addressing the veracity of the points as doing so does not address the problem of discipline in education.  Truthfully, the one thing the points have in common, they are all irrelevant.  The reason for the use of corporal punishment has little, if any, bearing on its effectiveness.

In the end, looking at the results of systems that use corporal punishment against those the do not puts its effectiveness into perspective.  Using data from U.S. Department of Education’s  2009 National Report Card[4], on the performance of eight-graders, one of two grades tested, state results can be averaged and ranked.  Figure 2 shows the states shaded with regard to that performance.

Figure 2 – States Ranked by Performance Percentage
(Click for larger view)

The states are shaded yellow to red with yellow representing the top 20% and red the bottom 20% and the others scaled between.  No state that allows corporal punishment scored in the top 20%.  In fact, 60% of states that allow the practice scored below average or worse.  In fact, 12% scored in the bottom 20% of all states.  Figure 3 shows the same data only for states allowing corporal punishment.

Figure 3 – Only States Allowing Corporal Punishment
(Click for larger view)

While there is no direct correlation between the use of corporal punishment and poor performance (as densely populated states that do not allow for it, like New York and California also scored poorly), there is correlation that corporal punishment does not enhance the educational performance of students – no state that allows corporal punishment scored in the top 20%.  Of course, many other factors come into play, but if corporal punishment does not add to education, just what purpose does it serve?

While it is hard to object to a parent giving a little hand a quick “pop” as its reaching for the hot stove, applying the practice to the normal disciplinary actions of our public school system seems extreme.  The use of such practices well illustrates the duality within conservative groups that argue for individual rights and responsibility while promoting a state sanctioned punishment that should not exist beyond the realm of parenthood, if at all.   Of course the other side is just as guilty of duality by not acknowledging a lack of parental control feeds the problems of discipline but screaming to high hell when a child is punished.  Both sides are wrong and prove that dealing in extremes is never the preferred course of action.

Our system of education needs improvement.  A reasonable path involves looking at that top 20% , the states in yellow, and see what they do differently than the bottom 20%, the ones bleeding red.  Only then will we begin to understand how to improve.  Even the top 20% need improvement, but until we reach a level of parity,  it seems the best actions are to follow their lead.

[1] “U.S.: Corporal Punishment and Paddling.” The Center for Effective Discipline. Ed. Nadine A. Block and Robert Fathman. The Center for Effective Discipline. Web. 31 Mar. 2010.

[2] “2006 National and State Projections.” Civil Rights Data Collection. U.S. Department of Education. Web. 31 Mar. 2010.

[3] Proverbs 13:24. New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1976. Print.

[4] “Reading 2009 Report Viewer.” NAEP – Nation’s Report Card Home. Ed. Richard Struense. United Stated Department of Education, 19 Mar. 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

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