Latest NEA School Report is Absurd

Today, on NPR, I heard my state of Arizona getting bashed by some young reporter at the local affiliate based on Arizona's rankings in the latest NEA state rankings.  So, I thought I would check the report out myself.  The cover of the report tells us what we should expect to find:

This report is an update of data from NEA Research's report, Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2003 and Estimates of School Statistics 2004, based on the latest information provided from state departments of education. NEA Research collects, analyzes, and maintains data on issues and trends affecting the nation's public education systems and their employees.

OK, so lets open the report and see what statistics the NEA thinks are the best measures of public education.  Here are all the stats in the report, in the order they are reported (presumably their importance):

  1. How much, on average, did teachers in each state earn per year?
  2. How many students were enrolled in each state?
  3. How many teachers were working in each state?
  4. What was the student"“teacher ratio in each state?
  5. How much money, on average, did each state spend per student?
  6. How much money did each state spend for operating schools, including salaries, books, heating buildings, and so on?
  7. How much money did each state spend in total for schools, including operating expenses, capital outlay, and interest on school debt?
  8. How much revenue did school districts receive from state governments?
  9. How much revenue did school districts receive from local governments?
  10. What were school districts' total revenues?

Thats it.  That is the entire sum total of performance metrics they have for states and their schools.  So, what's missing?  How about any dang measure of student learning or performance!  I know that the NEA wants to criticize every test out there, and in fact resists standardized testing at every turn, but is it too much to think that we might measure the quality of education by the, um, quality of education, and not by how much the employees make? 

To be fair, the NEA does talk about NAEP test data on their web site, to the extent that they point out that some test scores are improving (they don't mention that this is improving off a disastrously low base).  This NEA web site section on student performance reminds me a lot of the environmental protection section on the Dow Chemical web site -- it's there because it's important to public relations but its not really a topic that dominates their priorities. I have a related post here that fisks the ideas for improvement on this NEA page, but if you don't want to read that post suffice it to say that they boil down to 1) spending more money; 2) hiring more teachers; 3) paying teachers more money ; 4) testing less or putting less emphasis on tests and measurable performance; and 5) more certification and protecting the guild.

Look, I don't begrudge the NEA's role as the union and collective-bargaining agent of the teachers, and as such, they should be very concerned with salary levels (more on that in a minute).  However, the NEA and their supporters constantly try to piously position the NEA as not a union - oh no - but as a group primarily interested in the quality of education.  I hope this report and its contents effectively dispels that myth once and for all.  The NEA today as an institution cares no more about the quality of education than the UAW cared about the quality of GM cars in the 70's (by the way, I am careful to say the NEA as an institution-- many individual teachers care a lot).

In their glory years of the 1970's, when the UAW was competing with incompetent management to see who could do the most damage to the US auto industry, the UAW typically had a number of major goals: 1) increase the number of workers per car produced, 2) increase the pay for each worker, 3) substitute seniority systems for performance pay and 4) get the government to protect the US auto makers from any competition.  How are the NEA's prime goals of decreasing class size, increasing teacher pay, fighting testing of teachers, and stopping school choice programs any different?  I am sure UAW leaders in the 1970's tried to make the argument that to produce a better quality car, you needed to spend more labor hours on it.  In the end, though, the recovery of the US auto industry came when they figured out how to make better quality cars with less labor input.  Why should education be any different? 

OK, so the NEA is indeed a union and its primary concern is teacher pay.  Fine.  Lets look at teacher pay.  Their table one shows average teacher pay by state, with CA, CT, DC, NJ, and MI as the five highest and AL, OK, MS, NS, SD as the five lowest.  The NEA likes this kind of ranking, because by putting blue states at the top and red at the bottom, it supports its political goals of electing Democrats.  However, something else should also strike one pretty quickly about these states -- the top five have very high cost of living, and the bottom five have low cost of living.  So basically, the NEA has proven nothing more than the fact that salaries are higher in high cost of living states.  Without correcting for cost of living, the table is meaningless.  The NEA repeats this mistake in every single chart, never correcting for cost of living variances which can be substantial state to state.  So not only are they looking at the wrong metrics, but the stats they are keeping are measured incorrectly.  This is probably the result of requiring their statisticians to have teaching degrees rather that statistics degrees.

I didn't mean to take so much time with such a side issue of statistical quality, but I was curious if not correcting the data changed the results much, so I did a quick cost of living correction using the cost of living indices here.  When you apply these, you find CA moves from 1 to 37! DC moves from 3 to 32 and NY from 4 to 30.  Corrected for cost of living, Hawaii goes from above average to last by a long way.  Oops.  So why doesn't the NEA correct salaries for cost of living?  Since the NEA uses this report as a bludgeon on states in the bottom half, the report if corrected would still be just as useful (since there would still be a bottom half)-- and in fact it should be more useful as the list corrected for cost of living moves a number of very populous states like NY and CA into the bottom half (i.e. they can now be bludgeoned).  My only guess why the NEA doesn't make this obvious improvement to the data is that it would put several red states, including the Great Satan (Texas) in the top 10, and move several hardcore blue states (VT, HI) into the bottom five.

No matter what, though, some states are always at the top and some at the bottom.  The question is, should we pay teachers more money?  The easy answer is, we should if we need to attract more or better teachers in a particular market.  This means yes in some places (Hawaii really does look bad, and their public schools have a reputation of being awful), and no in others. 

Since there is no real teacher shortage in this country, the NEA has to be careful - it wants to argue that we need higher pay to attract and retain high quality teachers but it must be careful with the "high quality" issue.  If the issue was really about quality (and not just about across the board pay for all union members) the NEA would supported higher pay for the higher quality teachers.  Of course, just like the UAW always favored mindless seniority over performance-based systems, the NEA systematically resists all efforts to measure teacher performance or to pay/promote based on performance.  The NEA tiptoes around this issue by saying we need to pay more to retain more "qualified" teachers, a word which they would say applies to everyone in their union, so really they are just asking for across the board pay increases that have no bearing on teacher quality.

I was going to do some regressions and scatter plots here between teacher salary and spending and overall student performance.  The results tend to dramatically refute a lot of correlations (for example, CA, which has the highest teacher pay, consistently is in the bottom 5 of test scores). It turns out that this regression analysis is hard to do well.  To be fair to states, you need to correct not just for cost of living but for such things as number of new immigrants and education background of parents. Fortunately RAND is already way ahead of me with this report.  RAND defined a certain fixed amount of performance improvement on NEAP tests, and ranked the relative cost of reaching that improvement from increased spending in each of these areas based on regressions of performance vs. inputs across the states:

(All numbers are cost per pupil increase to achieve fixed NEAP score improvement.  Lower numbers mean the action is more efficient at improving student performance)

  • Shifting teacher support resources from low to adequate:    $170-260
  • Shifting teacher support resources from medium to adequate:   $190-280
  • Decreasing student teacher ratio in grades 1-4:   $230-320
  • Adding public pre-kindergarten:   $240-400
  • Decreasing student teach ratio all grades:   $750-1030
  • Increase per pupil spending across the board:   $1020-2380
  • Increase teacher salaries:   $2900-infinite  (no substantial correlation with test scores)

Their results (and similar results have been obtained by other neutral third parties) is that teacher salaries have virtually no correlation with student performance and that across the board spending increases are about the least efficient way to improve performance.  So what does the NEA measure in their report - teacher salaries and across the board spending. 

By the way, I would argue that RAND misses several even cheaper ones

  • Fire a whole sackful of assistant principals and administrators that infest large city public education systems and do nothing but draw salary and make education harder rather than easier
  • Change the standards for teacher hiring to deemphasize teaching degrees and reemphasize subject matter fluency
  • Change curricula away from least common denominator expectations, particularly in early grades
  • Strictly enforce standards for grade to grade promotion
  • Increase the amount of writing in high school and cut way back on multiple choice.  Teachers hate this suggestion because it creates a lot more grading work, but the amount of writing required is the single biggest difference, in my experience, between private and public high schools.
  • And of course, my favorite, lets abandon the government monopoly on education and allow students and their parents real choice.

Let's stop kowtowing to the NEA on education issues and start thinking for ourselves about how to fix education.  Public education for most people in this country ranges from mediocre to terrible.  I am flabbergasted that African-Americans in particular put up with the awful education they are offered today.  Seeing their test scores and admission rates in college (as well as college drop-out rates), they should be in the streets protesting the raw deal they get on K-12 education, but instead the only response from their leaders is to ask for lower admission standards in college and to blame the tests as biased. 

There are certainly school districts out there in poor areas that need more money.  There are two problems, though, that groups like the NEA never address, or even mention, that are going to stand in the way of getting poorer districts extra resources:

  1. Many of these districts have absolutely no credibility in terms of self-management or fiscal responsibility.  I would probably rank Haiti higher than many urban school districts in terms of management ability and I would sooner give money to someone in a Nigerian email than I would one of these districts.  They are populated with strutting prima donna's with no sense of fiscal responsibility and hugely bloated administrative and bureaucratic ranks.  Many of these districts are totally untrusted by the populace at large, and until the management of them is completely flushed out, no one is going to trust them with more money
  2. Rich neighborhoods suspect (probably rightly) that funding equalization measures will do more to bring down their level of education than it will to raise the level in poorer districts (see Rush, "the trees").  While many would be willing to pay more to help other people's kids (this is a country that puts a high value on education) they will fight to the death any proposal that makes their kid's education worse.

I am fortunate enough to have the means to send my kids to a great private school, and I would love to see more voucher programs to give poor kids the same chance at choice.  I honestly believe school choice programs are the answer:

  • The system lets parents make choices that fit their kids, rather than having one size fits all and lowest common denominator programs
  • Over time, choice systems shift money away from mismanaged and inefficient schools and districts and into schools and districts that are innovative, productive, and get results.
  • Rich neighborhoods will be more likely to accept equalization under voucher systems, because they can still pay more for education by supplementing the voucher with additional $.
  • One happy side effect is that choice programs would just about eliminate all the heated arguments over religion in schools - if people want religion, they will go there, if they want secular, that can be their choice.
  • Yes there are transition issues, and some private schools will do poorly - but can it really get much worse for places like East St. Louis?  This post has gone on too long (sorry) but the NEA and others raise up a lot of bogymen to scare people about school choice.  I will have a post later responding to some of these, but keep asking yourself - for the worst school districts, can it really get worse?  What is the downside of trying something new?

By the way - for those of you who think the problem is only money - I will give you one other fact.  My kids get an absolutely fabulous private school education, and in Junior high school the tuition I pay for them is far, far less than $8208 a year the NEA shows as the average per pupil public school expenditure and their student teacher ratio is higher than the 15.7 the NEA shows as the national average.  Note that there are no endowments or private donations subsidizing this school's tuition -- our private school is for profit (gasp) and so our tuition is low because the school's costs are low.

You can find further thoughts on the NEA, including a fisking of the education recomendations on their web site, here.


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