Monday, June 26, 2006

You get what you pay for, College of Education version 

A retired professor of education at the University of Minnesota at Duluth (it dosen't say so on the article but does at the university's website) penned an op-ed in the local paper there that argues we've gotten about as much as we can get from public education in high schools. We don't spend enough, he says. He tries the following parable:

I have an Uncle Al who always admired race cars and dreamed of the day he could own his own and race with the big boys and girls. So when he retired as a high school principal in 1995, he bought a brand new Toyota Camry, the best-selling family car in America, as his race car. He had read in Consumer Reports the Camry was the most dependable and practical car sold in America. Plus, even though the company was Japanese-owned, the car was designed in California and built in Ohio.

Uncle Al took his car to Brainerd, Minn., home of a genuine high-speed race track, and entered his car. In his first race he got whipped. But Uncle Al was not one to be discouraged. After all, he had been a high school principal for decades and knew how to deal with disappointment. He took his car to a mechanic and said, "I want you to tune this car so it runs perfectly." The mechanic did, and Al entered another race. He got whipped again.

Al brought the car back to the mechanic and complained he got beaten badly and wondered what happened. The mechanic replied, "Your car is great for doing average things, but it is no match for automobiles that are built to race. You paid about $25,000 for your car. People who buy race cars spend more than $200,000."

"Ah-ha," thought Uncle Al, "I can tune the heck out of my Camry, but it just never was designed to race." So he sold the Camry, mortgaged his home, and bought a Ferrari. Now when he goes to Brainerd he brings home trophies.

The parable of Uncle Al says it all when it comes to why American high schools can't race with the world's big boys and girls. The American high school was not built to race but to be just good enough to take the family to the grocery store and back. It was designed to be cheap and dependable.

High schools built for racing have 240 school days a year. American high schools have 180 school days a year. Racing high schools have class sizes of 15 students. American high schools have class sizes of 35 students. Racing high schools hire teachers with salaries that match those of doctors and lawyers. American high schools hire teachers with salaries that match those of social workers.

Racing high schools enroll only selected elite and gifted students. American high schools enroll anyone who walks in the door. Racing high schools cost about $20,000 a year per student. American public high schools cost about $8,000 a year per student.

Nice try, professor, except before you make such statements it might help to check the actual data. How is it that you can make this statement when Germany, Japan, and Korea -- three countries that blow us away on TIMSS or any other internationally comparable test you wish to name -- spend less as a share of GDP than we do on secondary education? And if you simply put it in dollar terms per student, we would rank second. If we were spending the money well, how would we be spending 53% of time in eighth-grade math reviewing previously taught concepts, while Japan spends 60% of that time introducing new concepts?

Oh, and on the price of that Ferrari?
Among the nations reporting data for 2001, the United States paid the second-highest average starting salary ($28,806) to public upper secondary school teachers with the minimum qualifications required (figure 1a). Only Germany reported a higher average starting salary ($43,100) for public upper secondary school teachers with the minimum qualifications.