Sunday, January 06, 2008

Gee, and I Thought Money Alone Would Fix Schools

Sometimes these international conversations get a little baffling. In this case, I don't get Ewan's Scottish spin on this McKinsey (i.e., American) study of educational systems around the globe. I mean, from the US perspective, this study says "spending money alone will not improve your schools, but we are going to recommend doing several things to improve schools which will be expensive."

I don't understand why Ewan seems enamored with the idea that better schooling doesn't cost money. For example, he said this about The Met:

As I've said, the amount spent on a student in a MET school and the amount spent on a regular state school are roufghly the same. But in the MET about 80% of student 'cost' is spent on salaries of staff, to make class sizes no more than around a dozen. They're not spending on textbooks or large scale facilities, their schools being so small, which means there's that much more to invest in what really matters: the teachers.

Unfortunately, that's not even close to true:

Also, the current state statistics for The Met differ in some cases significantly from what they told you. For example, their per-pupil expenditure is 50% higher than the state average. They spend significantly more on "operations" than the average school, less on classroom teachers, significantly more on technology, materials, trips, etc. and over twice as much on "leadership."

I don't have the slightest idea what school budgets look like in Scotland, so maybe over there it is appropriate to put across the message that more funding isn't necessary to improve education, but on this side of the pond, even this study makes it clear that improving American education requires spending more money, even if "more money" just means "as much as Boston," since that's the shining US example in the McKinsey study. To most of this country, you might as well suggest they emulate France. Sure, spending more money doesn't guarantee better educated students, but buying a more expensive dishwasher doesn't guarantee cleaner dishes. It is pretty obvious.

Ewan also reaches a strange conclusion about the main recommendations of the study:

There are three key points to getting this point of success:

  1. Getting the right people to become teachers
  2. Developing them into effective instructors
  3. Ensuring that the system is able to offer the best possible instruction for every child

Improvement is therefore possible in a very short period of time, if the will and brains are there, and adjusting these three areas will have an enormous impact on improving school systems.

Those aren't three quick steps. That's a generational scale change. Step one is reforming pre-service education for teachers, which is itself a microcosm of the problems of schooling in general. You actually have to repeat those three steps in teacher education: get the right people to become teacher educators, develop them into effective teacher educators, ensure that the system is able to offer the best possible instruction for every teacher. Teacher education has proven to be just as intractable as educating kids.

Now, that doesn't mean it is the wrong answer, but it certainly isn't the quick answer. The quick answers are the familiar ones the study dispatches from the beginning: smaller classes, charter schools, etc.


Ewan McIntosh said...

No 'Scottish spin' on this one - read the report first and you'll see that I am, 99% of the time, just the messenger.

I think it's pretty clear that, as Stephen pointed out on his blog, the message is mostly to those spending the money to take stock of what they are spending it on. 'Throwing' money at education doesn't make a big difference. Targetting areas for development does.

I know. Big deal. Teachers have known this for ages. But here is an international study that backs up what teachers have known in their gut for all this time.

Also, American schools could do a lot worse than try to emulate France, a country with an intellectual heritage and school system many would be quite happy to claim as their own.

Tom Hoffman said...

No, I still don't understand the spin. This report doesn't confirm what teachers have known in their gut for ages, at least not the teachers I know. Teachers think that small class sizes are good and worthwhile. Teachers think more money needs to be spent on education. Teachers think more autonomy for schools is good. Teachers don't generally think that the problem with education is that they and their peers are not smart enough and poorly trained and that they need a lot more professional development. Teachers generally don't favor flatter payscales, etc., etc., etc.

Ewan McIntosh said...

But Tom - I'm merely stating what's in the report. Read it.

Personally, I do think smaller class sizes are better for the teacher, leaving more time for research, planning and thinking with having less marking to do and less energy, arguably, on managing the work of the class.

However, I am inclined to believe that the differences in education systems' performance is down to more than just money, since some of those doing the best are spending less than some of those doing rather badly. Curious, I find, and an indicator that money must be being spent on different things in different places with different results.

I wanted to know what those different things were - the report is trying to tell us.

Tom Hoffman said...

I just find your spin on it to be weird.

Christine McIntosh said...

What spin? Don't get it.

Tom Hoffman said...

Well, why emphasize cost at all? For McKinsey it is obvious: lower taxes and privatization benefits them and their clients, so before describing a bunch of reforms which, in the US would be expensive to implement, they assert out front that spending money is not the answer, despite the fact that every thing else they subsequently discuss costs money. They aren't lying, they just try to throw you off the trail in the intro.

The question is, why would Ewan want to perpetuate that angle, and in addition, go beyond the report in emphasizing that these are relatively quick and easy changes. Well, perhaps he's just trying to internalize the worldview of a business consultant. But I don't think it is quite that. I think what is really going on is that as a consultant Ewan needs to have a pitch that does not require extra money and seems easy and fast if we just have "the will and brains." That's what it feels like he is laying the groundwork for, that's the spin.

Christine McIntosh said...

Having gone back and re-read Ewan's piece, I still see it as a reporting of something he's read - which is, of course, what he says at the start. For one, I haven't read the original at all and therefore am indebted to Ewan for sharing what it says. I've just done the same on my own blog, in a lesser sort of way - quoted someone verbatim and drawn a small parallel with my own thinking without making any further comment. I don't regard that as "spin". (You can check for yourself - I'm not going to spam you with a link!)

Bill Kerr said...

tom: this study says "spending money alone will not improve your schools, but we are going to recommend doing several things to improve schools which will be expensive."

Not quite right. It is saying that it can be done with less expense than you might have thought. ie. rather than reduce class sizes reform the teacher selection process to improve teacher quality. Spend other dollars strategically to improve the status of teachers (huge problem)

ie. if we play our cards right we can get smarter teachers to work harder and not leave the profession for less or equivalent dollars than what we are currently doing (reducing class size)

Those aren't three quick steps. That's a generational scale change. Step one is reforming pre-service education for teachers, which is itself a microcosm of the problems of schooling in general

What McKinsey recommends is to decouple teacher selection from the microcosm of the problems in schools in general. There is some sleight of hand here, which I see as the real weakness of the report

Kinsey recommends copying Finland and Singapore. Select quality teachers before teacher training starts, not afterwards. This is the equivalent of what Private Schools do in Australia -->> get rid of the problem students to improve the learning environment for the remainder

"... the quality of any classroom experience is highly dependent on the quality of people in the classroom"

McKinsey sees this wrt teacher selection but then fudges the same point when it comes to achievement for all. The final part of the report ("delivering for every child") is highly suspect because exactly the same considerations apply but this time for students in disadvantaged schools

Tom Hoffman said...

If there was a proposal on the table in, say, Scotland, to slash class sizes as the sole driver of education reform, and it was sufficiently far along that it provided a baseline for the cost of reform, in that context you might be able to say the McKinsey proposals are no more expensive, maybe a little cheaper.

But if the baseline is the US status quo, it is all pretty clearly more expensive, particularly if you aren't living a fantasy land where middle class parents would accept their childrens' class sizes going up. Or the fantasy land where you start the drive to increase the status of teachers by unilaterally firing a bunch of them to cut costs.

Bill Kerr said...

OK, I'll rephrase

McKinsey is not cheap but its underlying rationale is a cost-benefit analysis. ie. we should be running schools like intelligent bosses run their business. Education has moved up the ladder in terms of importance to your countries place on the OECD productivity lists. So, its time to sell realistic but achievable suggestions for reform which is expensive but not too expensive. Disadvantaged schools will remain screwed because they are the ones that need smaller class sizes.

(please read this independent of your disagreement with ewan)

Tom Hoffman said...


That sounds right. I do basically agree with the goals of the report, given how they've framed the problem.