Advances in Public Education Science

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From an article in the March issue of Governing magazine, on why school districts tend to like building new schools, often far from the students who will be attending them:

Ohio is four years into a massive $10.5 billion school-building
program, which is expected to leave very few communities untouched.
For many school districts, the prospect of millions of dollars in
state aid has been enormously appealing; faced with the question of
whether to renovate existing schools, or to abandon them and build
anew–often out on the edge of town–they're opting for the new.
There's a reason for this, and that's where [Henry] Linn comes in. A half-
century ago, the Columbia University education professor wrote an
article for a trade magazine, American School and University, in which
he suggested that if the cost of renovating a school was more than
half what it cost to build new, school districts should swallow the
extra expense and build new. It's unclear how Linn arrived at this
disdain for the old, but until recently, his thinking appeared to hold
the force of scripture within school facilities circles. "If you track
the literature," says Royce Yeater, the Midwest director for the
National Trust for Historic Preservation, "it starts to appear in
footnotes, then one study refers back to another…. But still, it all
comes back to one man's opinion. If you look at the original article,
there's no studies, there's no nothin' behind this. It is clearly an
old wives' tale."

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  1. Jennifer, those books were probably not used by semi-literate farmers’ sons. Most people, even educated people, did not go to grades 9-12. The lucky few who did represented the elite of society. Comparisons to modern high school students is apples and oranges.

    BTW, you must have a concave forehead from banging against things by this point.

    Shannon, very profound.

  2. Shawn,
    My grandfather was born in the 19th c. in rural AL and didn’t get past the fourth grade. However, he was educated enough to travel around the US starting up new chemical plants. He taught himself higher math and was an insatiable reader.

    A lot of what you learn has to do with motivation. Once you can read and do basic math, the rest is really up to you. I didn’t think the movie was that good, but one thing in “Good Will Hunting” rang so true to me – when Will told the guy in the bar that a library card would give him access to everything he was exposed to at Harvard.

    Jennifer,
    I’m curious. In what state did you teach?

  3. “those children of semi-illiterate farmers ”

    The literacy rate of America was higher back in the one-room school house days. I seriously doubt most farmers were semi-literate. (In fact the term “semi-literate” doesn’t even mean anything. You can either read or you can’t.) Once you can read a little bit, you are on the road to being able to read more complicated material. In those one-room schoolhouse days, there was no radio or television or movies to compete with reading, so when farmers had the leisure time, more of it was spent reading. You make it sound like the average American 200 years ago was less literate than than today, which isn’t the case.

  4. Kent-I taught in Massachusetts. The school district used to have a sign in the school board building: “There are no failing students, only failing teachers.” After I knew my contract wasn’t going to be renewed, I suggested the addendum “There are no failing teachers, only failing administrators.”

    Joe-Yes, this truly exquisite old textbook I have here was not given to every student. But that’s another problem with modern ed! Schools today have this Harrison Bergeron idea that ALL students have equal potential and equal ability. Even the towns that do build Vo-Tech schools view them as some sort of inferior, punitive school. I heard a lot of “Behave yourself or else you’ll be sent to Vo-Tech;” I never heard “You like working with your hands and have a knack for fixing cars, so why not go to Vo-Tech and learn the basics of a good, enjoyable career for yourself?”

    I am relieved to be out of teaching, though I am still looking for a replacement career. Maybe my antiques business will take off. Get this: the new fad nowadays for kids eith poor writing skills is to let them be “artistic” instead. Translation: instead of demanding essays from certain high-school students, I had to let them make cut’n’paste magazine-picture collages.

    Tell me: what employers on the planet accept collages in lieu of resumes? For my resume, I guess I’ll have a picture of a woman refurbishing an old table, then a picture of a woman teaching a class, and then a picture of a woman working in a publishing house, and a picture of my graduate school. . . . .

  5. Actually, that sounds like a good transition strategy for kids who are behind. They’re expressing themselves through language. However, the old problem arises of taking the path of least resistance, and not doing the hard work of transitioning the kids into writing.

    Shades of deinstitutionalization/homelessness.

  6. Joe-
    I must specify that there were not elementary-school kids making collages in lieu of essays, but high-school juniors and seniors. If you can’t write, you have no fucking business in grade 12.

  7. True, but on the other hand, if you’re in that situation, being assigned to read “Moby Dick” and write six original pages on it isn’t going to do you much good.

  8. Amen, brother jc. FEE had an interesting video years ago promoting school privatization. It had quite a few historical anecdotes indicating evidence of almost universal literacy in early America.

    Nice Vonnegut allusion, Jennifer. “Harrison Bergeron” is by far my favorite KV story.

  9. Jennifer,

    No argument on any of those points from me. Just my typical peanut gallery comment. I might even go further about the “need” for computers and other technology, because once you know how to read and understand instructions, and have some basic math down, computer usage can be taught in less than a week.

    KentInDC:

    I think that was what Jennifer was pointing out. Most people who succeed in life (like your grandfather, apparently) tend to be motivated, and understand the value of work. If my step children lived with me and my wife, I would have no problem sending them to public school, in Nevada, no less, which consistently ranks near the bottom in national standings. While supplementing their education ourselves, my hope would be to encourage their desire to know more than the minimum required to “pass the class.”

  10. But cutting out pictures of whales from magazines will?

  11. Whoops, my comment was supposed to come right after Joe’s not two posts later. Let;s try again: Joe said that if you’re illiterate, being assigned to write six pages on Moby Dick won’t help, to which I respond: “But cutting whale pictures out of magazines will?”

    Much better.

    Kent-
    I used to like Harrison Bergeron, back when I thought it was fiction. Now that it’s prophecy I just find it depressing.

  12. Forgot to add, there IS such a thing as “semi-literate.” Literate people can easily read this; illiterate people can’t read at all. The semi-literate read slowly and laboriously, have to sound out the letters and can’t always get all the words. Look at a young child still learning to read; she can do it, but she needs an hour to get through “Dick and Jane.” An adult who does the same thing is semi-literate.

  13. Like I said, Jennifer, it’s a first step a teacher can build on. You’ll at least get them thinking about what ideas to communicate, and strategizing about how to do so.

    But in and of itself, no, it won’t do any good.

  14. Some free market think tanks & foundations should start a recruitment program for fed up teachers such as Jennifer, so that new private schools can be founded where they can practice their chosen profession according to their own lights, rather than the stultifying idiocies of the educationist Blob. In some areas, these could be eligible for existing voucher programs, but where they are not analagous private programs could provide partial or full scholarships to students. I’d suggest that the Jennifers of the world teach in the existing private schools, but finding a place that pays anywhere near what the government schools pay is tough, and if a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable working in a particular religious environment, that narrows things further. Heck, if I could get work teaching history in a secular, private school, I’d retrain as a teacher!

    Our state passed revenue caps and levy limits for local school districts a few years ago, as a condition accompanying increased state funding. One of the loopholes is that levy increases that bust the cap can be authorized by a referendum. So, in districts where the budget is already pinning the meter, new building is the only way to get more money. Opponents of some of these new temples of learning have accused the districts of hiding what should be operating costs in the capital budget to be voted on, in order to maximize the amount of matching state aid they will qualify for. When the referenda fail, the school boards restructure the plans and schedule new elections for slightly less ambitious versions. They inevitably schedule the ballot questions for the lowest turnout election days, counting on motivated union members and PTA types to show up, while anti-tax increase constituents may not even realize that the vote is upcoming.

    This has cost state taxpayers billions of dollars.

    http://www.wistax.org/news_releases/2003/0301taxpayer.html

    Kevin

  15. Kevrob-
    Diana Moon Glampers is coming for your ass.

  16. Thanks for the reminder about _Harrison Bergeron_… I had forgotten
    all about that story. Also reminds me of an episode of the “new” Twilight
    Zone, in which we see a mother and father encouraging their son not
    to try too hard on “the big exam.” The kid did really well… And was
    executed.

  17. Before you ‘toids get too fond of Vonnegut, the premise of his novel “Player Piano” is:

    Central planning has caused the American economy to run so efficienty that…

  18. . . .that life as a result is a meaningless Hell.

  19. I believe the logic goes something like this:

    Local public schools suck except in wealthier districts.

    School boards leverage their suckitude to ask for more federal money.

    To demonstrate that the problem is material (and therefore can be fixed by throwing money at it) rather than a problem at home, you need to show that your school is somehow materially worse off than some other schools. That way, you get to say, ‘you aren’t giving us a chance! Look at this old building!’ So you get a new school, which in turn helps the next district over get new schools based on the same comparison.

    Nobody ever compares performance in poor districts pre and post new school development, because when such an analysis showed next to no improvement after spending billions, people might begin to question the wisdom of throwing tax dollars at schools as a solution.

  20. I wrote a paper on this in grad school, titled “School Sprawl.” There’s a lot more going on here than one old position paper.

    First, old schools tend to be built on smaller parcels than is the norm today. State and federal building assistance programs are often competetive grants, and come with a set of recommendations, including the modern “standard” for acreage. For a school superintendant who wants his needed construction to be funded, there is tremendous pressure to conform to what you think will make your application score higher.

    Also, grants are often available for new school construction, but not for “maintenance.” This makes it easier to get money for a new building than to keep up the old one, or improve it.

    Another trick is, in expanding cities, a developer with lots of open land on the edge of town will donate a parcel for a school. What a great guy! The district then builds the utilities out to the school site, which sends the developer’s property value through the roof.

  21. It has long been my observation that school boards function primarily in two ways, and exist for those two sole purposes: Steering public monies towards their sponsors, primarily for new construction and “consulting”; and as a springboard to other, typically county, office. its rarely about ‘the children”.

  22. You mean we can`t rely on Old Wifes Tales to be factual anymore? If not, I`m kickin the bitch out.

  23. I don’t think that Linn’s rule creates the institutional imperative to build rather than renovate, instead the institutional imperatives created the prominence of Linn’s rule.

    Ideas are cheap and plentiful. Like mutations in a genome, the number of successful (widely regarded) ideas is dwarfed by the number actually proposed. Most ideas vanish into obscurity immediately, only a tiny handful get repeatedly cited.

    In the case of an idea like Linn’s rule, which has no empirical basis, the idea succeeds because it justifies a pre-existing institutional need. Educators have already decided that new construction is better than renovation, they just need some additional justification from an authority figure for political reasons. Repeated use of Linn’s rule in this way eventually elevates it to dogma.

    I think this happens a lot more often than we would like to think.

  24. Couldn’t you have done a little better job cutting and pasting the excerpt? I can’t read when text gets like that.

  25. Based upon my experience as a teacher, maybe one legitimate reason folks would want to buy new schools rather than rebuild the old is because, for some asinine reason, construction and renovation at a school are done during school hours, on school days. Have you ever tried giving a lecture on Beowulf and having to literally scream to make your voice heard over the sound of drills and pneumatic hammers? My entire first year of teaching was done during a reconstruction phase, and apparently the guys ended their work day just as school ended. I would be interested to see what grades and test scores were like for that year compared to quieter ones.

    Of course, even when the recon was finished, there was still the problem of lawn work, which ALSO was done during school hours. Our school had no air-conditioning, so on a 90-degree day I’d have the windows open while the kids and I had to yell to make ourselves heard over the sound of the lawnmowers outside. At a faculty meeting I asked if teachers could be given the construction-lawn schedule, so I could schedule tests on quiet days, but that was turned down.

    If I had kids I’d send them to McDonald’s Hamburger University before I’d send them to a public school.

  26. Ha ha! I see on the AP wires that my old place of employment had to spend six grand installing locks on the faculty restrooms to prevent kids from having sex in them. Sheesh. All the interesting stuff happens after I leave.

    At least they didn’t build a whole new school.

  27. On a related note:

    For years the number of tunnels and elevated walkways crossing busy streets from schoolyards to vacant lots in Alabama amazed me. Then I heard a presentation from a member of the state accreditation board in which he explained some of the criteria for accreditation.

    At that time, an accredited HS in AL had to be located on a 40 acre “contiguous” piece of land (Actually, older schools only had to have 25 acre lots.). A plot of land could still be considered “contiguous” despite a road passing through it if it either had a walkway or tunnel to the opposite side of the road and the school owned that land.

    It suddenly dawned on me why inner-city kids can’t learn – their schoolyards are too small! I also understood why most private schools in the state make no effort to become accredited.

  28. Kent-
    Yeah, the emphasis on sports over athletics is at the root of a lot of modern ed. problems. Forty acres is pretty steep, though. How many acres is a football field? A soccer field? A track?

    Maybe there’s also a mule somewhere.

  29. I guess I’d still like to ask the question of why everyone thinks that it’s better to spend almost twice as much taxpayer money on new schools rather than renovate. I think Jason Ligon’s first post above probably explains that for the most part.

    It irks me as a taxpayer that my neighbors (I’m pretty sure everybody’s neighbors as far as I can tell) seems to have a blank checkbook available for schools because they feel spending more and more money year after year will provide their kids a better education. Almost every millage increase for schools put before the voters, in my experience, passes. It is depressing that virtually no one ever questions the requests of school systems for more cash.

  30. “Have you ever tried giving a lecture on Beowulf ”

    Why I want to waste anyone’s time doing that?

  31. I have a couple of old nineteenth-century textbooks that I found at an estate sale. This was basic high-school level stuff, and more advanced than what most college kids get today! And yet the students who learned this stuff were mostly learning in one-room schoolhouses with no indoor plumbing or sports facilities.

  32. (“Have you ever tried giving a lecture on Beowulf ”

    Why I want to waste anyone’s time doing that?)

    To expand your horizons, and extend yourself beyond the sophomoric humor of writing “f@u.com” for your contact?

  33. In the neighboring town of Siloam Springs, Ark., the voters rejected a school millage increase. Shortly after the increase failed, the school district announced that, instead of the planned acquisition of new computers, it would get an upgrade that was almost as effective–at a fraction of the cost.

    See? Those bastards don’t even try to think of ways to economize, when they’ve got an unlimited supply of other people’s money.

    I never understood why the school system had to concentrate hundreds of kids into a central location, with a specially designed building on the most expensive real estate in town. Information is the cheapest thing in the world to move. It’s certainly cheaper to move information to a lot of dispersed locations, with smaller groupings of students, than it is to haul all the students to a central “knowledge factory.” Could it be that the industrial model of human resources processing has more to do with behavior control than with learning?

  34. Jennifer,
    I know it was a rhetorical question, but the playing area of a football field is about an acre and a third. However, you want to have plenty of parking for the games. The HS in my hometown (About 800 students in a city of 7,000.) drew 13,000 people to a football game a few years ago. The kids may not read that well, but they can always get football scholarships.

    Yet another anecdote:
    Same HS built a THIRD gym about ten years ago – not to mention that there is a rec center with gym across the street and a national guard armory (Armories double up as HS gyms in some small Southern towns.) a block away. When asked why it was being built, school officials responded that the state had offered the money and they had to use it or lose it. Turns out that the state only offered half the money. There was a referendum on whether to add a penny to the sales tax to pay for it. Of course it failed. Not only did people end up with a new tax for an unnecessary building, but they also had to pay for a meaningless election.

    I actually calculated once that the price of a new suburban school for 2,000 kids would have paid for 400 nice new homes on 3/4 acre lots – about five kids per home and a land area of 300 acres. How can a concrete block building on 40 acres cost that much?

  35. “It suddenly dawned on me why inner-city kids can’t learn – their schoolyards are too small!”

    You joke about it, but that seems to be the philosophy behind the regs. Can we have a few bucks to fix the heaters? No? How about a few million to kick some guy off his farm and build what looks like a strip mall?

    Kevin, the observation that school operations follow the employment for which the kids are being prepared is quite apt. Kids from blue collar familes tend to go go schools that are highly regimented, focus on repetition and memorization, and have lousy arts and music programs – preparation for the assembly line. Contrast this with the education offered at schools in wealthy suburbs.

    So it’s really not surprising that school buildings resemble those in industrial parks.

  36. …the students who learned this stuff were mostly learning in one-room schoolhouses with no indoor plumbing or sports facilities.

    Yeah, but most buildings didn’t have indoor plumbing, so there wasn’t a huge difference. If you survived to your teenage years (I would not have), you could be pretty sure of being able to take most of what life dished out. Also, having a high school education just wasn’t necessary to work on the farm.

    Times are different now, thankfully so, IMHO.

  37. Kent-Actually, my question wasn’t rhetorical. I truly don’t know jack about sports.

    Shawn-
    I wasn’t trying to say that we should go back to those days. I’m just saying that learning does not require bells and whistles. I do understand the need for computers and other technology, because kids NEED that information to make it in life. The thing is, Shawn, those children of semi-illiterate farmers got a better education than what is available today. How many modern sixth-grade texts feature Shakespeare sonnets which the children can easily read and understand?

    To improve education without spending ANY extra money, it’s simple: just adhere to the standards youi’ve set, end social promotion, and end this ludicrous idea that all kids have an inalienable right to go to school, even if they never do anything there except harass the teachers and students. Most important: realize that self-esteem is a BY-PRODUCT of achievement, not an achievement in and of itself.

    Hell, where I taught, we the teachers were not supposed to punish athletes by keeping them after school; if we did that, they’d miss their sports practice! And as an English teacher I COULD NOT inflict my values concerning spelling and grammar on the kids. ‘Twas against the law. No shit.

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