Monday, December 20, 2004

You can call it wonkery if you like... 

...but I didn't agree with the decision during the third hour of NARN to steer the discussion of the Coleman-Westover-Maxfield controversy away from accountability and towards the media flap. The flap, of course, continued yesterday with Coleman referring to Westover as "Captain Fishsticks", so I guess I am going to go even further afield. Mitch and Fraters and the Blog of the Year will take that side of the debate, and good for them. I prefer to practice my comparative advantage.

I thought Brian "Saint Paul" Ward of Fraters had said something profound in pointing out that Coleman and Westover actually agreed over the state of Maxfield Magnet School. They agreed that it was wrong for there not to be books in the classrooms. I'll get back to this debate on textbooks versus "reading material", for therein lies a key point about the production of education, but that wasn't what Brian was saying. He puts Westover's point to be that the absence of books was not due to a lack of funds but due to budget decisions -- St. Paul schools are fairly well funded. Indeed, here are the per pupil expenditures for St. Paul public schools over the last three years for which I have data.

2000-01 -- $8,900
2001-02 -- $9,802
2002-03 -- $10,125

This data comes from the report card for Maxfield, which I would have hoped Westover and Coleman looked up. This was the data I was trying to read Saturday on the air before I got a look from Mitch that indicated I was being a bore. Maybe it's crappy radio, but it's the point Westover was making -- there's plenty of money in the St. Paul school district. For comparison, the same data for my neighborhood elementary here in St. Cloud is $8,078, $7,866, and $8,485.

The accountability problem that Westover describes is what I would call an allocation problem. In what do you invest these funds? The debate over textbooks or reading materials misses a key point -- books themselves do not produce education. They must be complemented with other inputs. Textbooks must be complemented with teachers (and could well include parents working with kids at home, but down that road lies homeschooling, something I'm sure Coleman would not support.) Reading materials for students to take home require a parent to be sure the material is read. My son brought home books from school, but he needed prodding to read them. LS brings home books and needs no prodding, but she's probably not the type of student you see in Maxfield.

Here's the question then -- what is Coleman assuming in thinking a book drive for extra books for kids to take home will accomplish? If the parents do not supervise, if the child's social pressures are such that academics is denigrated (Bill Cosby, call your office!), and if teachers cannot find creative ways to use those books, they may simply collect dust. Again: Just handing a child a book to take home and read does not guarantee better reading scores. A book requires a structure within which it is read, understood and discussed to help with comprehension, and along with it the development of a culture of learning. Otherwise it's no more effective than free condoms.

The allocation problem at Maxfield appears to be particular to it. I asked Mitch, who resides in St. Paul and has had a child at Maxfield, for a comparable school in the St. Paul district and he offered Galtier Magnet. Indeed they are. Their third and fifth grade classes look similar demographically, according to the information on the Department of Education's website. High share of kids on free or reduced-price lunch programs, similar share of students of color, etc. Here's a link on the Minnesota Department of Education website to a page that I believe will allow you to look at the two schools' performances on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. Pretty much across the board, Galtier outperforms Maxfield. I wonder, Mr. Coleman, is Galtier burning?

I come down squarely with Westover then that the question is one of accountability. Asking for it is why Maxfield Principal Zelda Wiley screamed bloody murder to the PioneerPress and gave the StarTribune a free pass (to answer a question Brian asked Saturday.) And Coleman has swung and missed three times now on the question. If Maxfield is burning, money isn't the answer. Indeed, it might be the fuel.

(Endnote: These pages from MDE are invaluable. Cheri Yecke told me once that these were the result of someone coming to her office and showing her the data that was being collected but shelved at MDE, and her reaction was "We have to get this out for people to see." The report cards are the result. Not bad for a "czarina", eh, Mr. Coleman?)