Cheap, Good Better Schools

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Via San Diego's Richard Rider comes a tip about this Diane Ravitch op-ed in the NY Post.

Ravitch, an NYU prof and prolific historian of education, notes that the courts have ordered New York City schools to boost the $12,000 a year they spend per pupil to around $20,000. Then she asks us to "enter an alternate reality"–St. Joe High in Brooklyn:

Founded 100 years ago by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the school's mission is to serve poor and working-class girls. A generation ago, St. Joseph enrolled 1,400 girls, mainly the children of European immigrants. Now it enrolls 330 children of African-American, Caribbean and Hispanic families.

The tuition is $4,400. Nearly half the students receive reduced tuition. The actual cost of educating each girl is $6,400….

Although many come from stable families, the student body includes girls who live in desperate poverty; daughters of incarcerated women; girls with a parent living with HIV/AIDS; students in foster care; and refugees from Africa, Latin America and China. Some 55 percent of the students are black; 40 percent are Hispanic, with nearly 5 percent Asian and less than 1 percent white.

The school's results are remarkable. An amazing 98 percent of the girls complete high school, and 90 percent of the graduates attend college.

Whole thing here. I don't necessarily agree with all of Ravitch's policy proposals–and lord knows, as a Catholic school grad myself, I would never suggest them as the model to follow–but Ravitch's piece is another reminder that money not only can't buy you love; it also doesn't necessarily secure much in the way of education.

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  1. Does anyone have any examples of secular schools that have performed at this level?

  2. You know, I’m willing to believe that a lot of NY City schools are actually in dire need of more funding. No sarcasm here.

    I just don’t know that stuffing more money into the administrative pipeline will result in more money reaching the schools and being spent there in a manner that improves education.

    And as a proud product of Catholic education (8 years of elementary school), I’d just like to say that every time I read about public schools run by judicial decree I’m even more glad that publicly-funded vouchers can’t be used at Catholic schools. That’s the last thing the Catholic schools need.

  3. The children in this school succeed because of one main thing: their parents. Good teachers and administrators mean nothing if the child comes home to abuse and neglect. That the parents are willing to sacrifice out of their own pocket to pay for their kid’s tuition (even at reduced rates), shows me that they are probably also likely to be involved in other aspects of their development outside of school. These parents might be poor minorities, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to instill discipline and values at home.

  4. More likely than not, selection bias goes a long way in explaining these results.

  5. No doubt selection bias is a big factor. But prudent spending is undoubtedly another big factor. It’s kind of like the Pentagon: Troops in the field lack critical things items, but meanwhile they buy airplanes that the Pentagon doesn’t even want simply because they were built in the home district of a committee chairman.

    A well-run institution with a lean budget will always out-perform a bloated and inefficient institution with a huge budget.

  6. “out-perform” – if you mean outcome per dollar, then certainly

  7. For what it is worth, the academic literature
    in economics suggests that the catholic school
    effect is not all selection bias.

    Jeff

  8. $20,000!!!

    $20K per kid!? And that’s from the city. Add in state and Federal spending, and who knows how much it is per child in NY.

    Sigh. Even 12K per kid seems ridiculous.

    We spend more per-pupil than any other country, and it hasn’t made a difference.

  9. I’m not all that impressed. The school is inexpensive in its per pupil costs because it gets unbelievably cheap labor and doesn’t educate special education students. So a small school is able to recruit mission-oriented educators willing to trade wages for a particular work environment. I doubt it could be replicated at a large scale. For 330 students there are 35 teachers, 4 counselors, 1 social worker, and a principal. No mention of cleaning, accounting, and maintenance staff so who knows how those figure in. There’s a lot more being donated here than is accounted for in the school budget.

  10. Does anyone have any examples of secular schools that have performed at this level?

    michael

    I can’t name them off the top of my head, but there are schools here in DC doing similarly great work (both parochial and secular). The upside of having a shitty, shitty (did I mention shitty) public school system is it encourages the free market to deliver alternatives (for instance, DC is the only area where catholic schools are actually growing).

  11. Catholic schools are growing in Tucson, too. I think we’re going from one to three Catholic high schools in the next four years.

    As for non-Catholic schools doing well, of course there are many (and there are some poor-performing Catholic schools, too). Some charters, private, and public schools manage to do amazing things. Of the three, public schools have the most challenges: number one being anyone has a right to attend. Charters can say there’s no room. Private schools can say they don’t like the way a student walks or smells or holds a pencil. But public schools don’t get asked.

    The free market can deliver alternatives, but the laws regarding schools are designed for public schools. There was a Reason Institute report on the subject of private school construction costs (I’ll leave it to someone on their payroll to provide a link) that was unbelievably depressing. My own experience with private and charter schools showed me how true it is.

  12. As for non-Catholic schools doing well, of course there are many (and there are some poor-performing Catholic schools, too). Some charters, private, and public schools manage to do amazing things. Of the three, public schools have the most challenges: number one being anyone has a right to attend. Charters can say there’s no room. Private schools can say they don’t like the way a student walks or smells or holds a pencil. But public schools don’t get asked.

    While I mostly agree with you, it seems that one of your arguments on why public schools don’t do as well as charter and private schools is because they have to take everyone, while the others can cherry pick the rest, i.e. they’re really not that bad, they’re just saddled with the lower performing students.

    In the case of DC, though, almost all of DC’s problems happen upstream of the students, i.e. money is wasted (if not outright stolen), incompetent managers / principals are hired, academic standards are pathetic, accountability is non-existent, and on and on and on. Even if DC were to purge the bottom half of kids, performance wise, they may “look” better, test wise, but they’d still be the same POS school district. The reason private and charter schools do so well in the District is because parents of all income brackets are clambering to get their kids out of that dysfunctional system.

  13. thoreau,

    You’re right on about the ass-brained spending.

    A few years ago, voters in the neighboring town of Siloam Springs (Ark.) turned down a millage increase for the local school system. Shortly afterward, the school administration announced that it would be forced to upgrade existing computers instead of buying new ones as planned, thanks to public niggardliness. I’m not very tech-friendly, but I assume they bought some new RAM at a fraction of the cost of new computers, with nearly as good results. Anyway, that struck me at the time as an indicator of how foolish it was to give those people more money to waste.

    Public education, like “defense” and every other captive constituency, is run (as Seymour Melman wrote of the military-industrial complex) on the basis of politically administered prices and cost-maximization. For many goods procured by the government, there IS no standard market price. There are firms that have grown up around serving the state education complex, just as camp followers like KBR have the M-I complex. And for many commodities, the firms providing them are guaranteed a rate of profit on the sale–so the incentive is there to increase the cost base as much as possible. I’m sure the publick skools have their own equivalents of the $400 hammer or $600 toilet seat, many times over.

  14. To hear some of the posters here talk you would think every single student in the NY public school system is a “special needs student”.

  15. severin-

    The way the diagnoses of mental illness and learning disorders are proliferating, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all classified as “special needs”.

  16. “….the courts have ordered New York City schools to boost the $12,000 a year they spend per pupil to around $20,000.”

    Hmm, perhaps we should just stop wasting money on things like school boards, borough councils and legislatures and submit ourselves to the rule of all-wise judges (who are so ably assisted by the true geniuses of our society, trial lawyers).

    Of course a few necromancers to produce the extra 8 large would help too.

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