A huge amount of time is wasted reorganizing schools and retraining teachers for the latest fad, which, typically, was tried and discarded so long ago that nobody can remember anymore. (So don't take these ideas I'm tossing out all that seriously!)
Many teachers and administrators don't mind all the reorganizations because sitting around playing office politics versus each other is more fun than trying to get students to memorize the Times Tables.
The dogma of racial equality helps explain much of the educartel's susceptibility to the latest cult craze. Nobody has ever been able to get blacks and Hispanics to consistently perform as well as Asians and whites on a large scale. And, since the obvious implication of this reality is unthinkable (in many minds, quite literally), then it must be the schools' fault. What else could it be?
This logic is then used by cranks reformers to justify implementing their pet obsessions. If the schools are small, for instance, that could be the reason for the racial gap. So, make them bigger. If they are big, then make them smaller. Just do something!
For example, the insanely rich Gates Foundation has been pressuring public schools to deconstruct themselves into "small learning communities"—which was what Americans were trying to get away from back when they built big learning communities.
One way to gain a wiser perspective on K-12 fads is to think about how you chose which college to attend. For some reason, ideology tends to get in the way less in individuals' college choices than in debates about public policy.
Did you pick a small college or a big college?
And did you make the right choice?
You may have a strong opinion on the subject of the optimal college size. But, whatever it is, you have to admit that other people disagree with you. After all, both Caltech (864 undergraduates) and University of Texas at Austin (36,878 undergraduates) seem to have done pretty well for themselves over the years. Different sizes come with objective advantages and disadvantages. For example, when I attended huge UCLA, there were professors on campus expert on practically every topic under the sun, but my parking lot was a half-hour walk away. Moreover, different people flourish best in different size schools.
Education fads are seldom motivated by statistical research, since it's hard to move the needle noticeably for a large number of schools. As we've known since the Coleman Report during LBJ's Great Society, the students are more important than the school.
Instead, education vogues are launched by statistical outliers.
Small schools are particularly likely to be outliers, because they are small. There are so many of them, and unusual things can happen more easily when fewer people are involved.
Not surprisingly, though, outliers are hard to replicate on a large scale.
Lots of new educational fads are launched by charismatic individuals who can personally make them work. Charisma can accomplish amazing things. Rasputin apparently could stop the Crown Prince of All the Russias' internal bleeding just by talking to him. Nevertheless, "Hire lots of Rasputins!" is not a reliable strategic plan for hemophilia clinics.
Similarly, there are millions of schoolteachers in America. As the law of large numbers would suggest, most of them are not charismatic superstars like the ones they make inspirational movies about.
That big districts tend to be bad districts is widely admitted to be true. But the main reason isn't well understood.
Size doesn't necessarily worsen management performance. Wal-Mart, for example, has 1,800,000 employees, far more than any school district, yet it manages them better than any school district 1/100th its size.
No, the problem with a big school district is that it's so big that it doesn't feel much competition from surrounding districts. For example, the northern and western suburbs of Chicago are famous for quality public schools. The many small municipalities compete with each other to have the best schools in order to have the highest property values. If a corporate worker wants to buy a home within, say, 10 miles of O'Hare airport, he can choose among dozens of rivalrous towns.
In contrast, the northwest suburb of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, falls largely within the Los Angeles Unified School District (which is coterminous with the vast city of Los Angeles). For instance, the LAUSD's Chatsworth High School, in the extreme northwest of the Valley, is over 30 miles from City Hall.
Not surprisingly, LAUSD is notoriously blasé, with a giant downtown bureaucracy that routinely gets in the way of what its better educators out in the schools want to do. LAUSD can be this shoddy because it has an enormous captive audience—over four million people living on some of the world's prime real estate.
In contrast, several of the smaller school districts within the general LA area have better reputations than LAUSD—not just rich Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, but also more diverse Long Beach, Glendale and Burbank. These smaller districts compete with LA for young families more than LA competes with them.
You can see how school district size affects quality by looking at the performance of public school football teams. In recent decades, most of the top high school football teams in the country have come from either Catholic schools or public schools in smaller municipalities, such as Hart High School in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles. The 2007 Birmingham Patriots from the San Fernando Valley were celebrated as the exception that proves the rule: the first LAUSD team in twenty years that was competitive with Southern California's suburban and exurban superpowers. The big city schools have more black players, who get most of the college football scholarships for reasons we (but no-one else) have written about before. But big city teams seldom have the support structure needed to be competitive at the highest levels.
Why not? Because the politicians and parents in smaller places care more. Exurban public schools play the public schools of rival exurbs. A winning team is good advertising for the town. It attracts homebuyers, boosting the property values of current residents.
But big city schools mostly play other schools from the same big city. So, when one LA City team beats another, it's a wash to the politicians.
Needless to say, I'm not saying the purpose of high school is to win at football. But I am able to use football as an example of the mediocrity caused by lack of competition because it's relatively easy to measure success in sports. It's much harder to measure how good a job schools are doing.
Many argue that all we need is a voucher system, and then the market will perform its magic. As a father who has sent his kids to both private and LAUSD schools, however, I know how hard it is currently for parents to get useful information comparing schools.
And that brings us to …
There is a gigantic conflict of interest in current K-12 testing. The No Child Left Behind act tells the states to make up their own tests, administer their own tests, grade their own tests, then report back to Washington on whether the test scores have gone up enough for the states to keep getting federal bucks.
That's why Mississippi has, officially, the highest percentage of proficient readers in the country.
In contrast, we don't let law schools hand out licenses to practice law to whomever they graduate. We insist that would-be lawyers pass an independently-administered state bar exam. Same for medical schools.
You'll notice college admissions test scores don't suddenly zoom upwards from one year to the next the way state-created K-12 tests often do. The independent agencies aren't perfect, but they have less incentive to cheat.
In college and, increasingly, in high school sports, there is a distinction between coaching and recruiting. In the old days, a basketball coach like Adolph Rupp of the University of Kentucky would largely restrict himself to recruiting from his home state, figuring he could outcoach his rivals. Today, though, the royal road to NCAA success is in luring freaks of nature from all across the country to come play for you. There's not much point in trying to teach them basketball fundamentals, since they'll be off to the NBA after their mandatory one year of college ball.
Something similar happens with school testing. The easy route to success is in attracting better students rather than doing a better job with the ones you've got.
For the country as a whole, though, this kind of competitive recruiting is basically a zero-sum game.
Which is why, for every student in America, we need a baseline measurement of his or her intelligence. That would allow us to compare their school achievement scores to their IQ to see how much value the schools are adding.
For example, in Los Angeles County, the non-exclusive public high school with the highest average SAT score is San Marino, at 1230. So, the staff and teachers of San Marino must be doing a bang-up job, right?
Actually, nobody knows. Many of the students are the scions of Hong Kong millionaires, so anybody not stupefied by political correctness would expect them to do well because the average IQ of the students is so high to start with.
What we need is to have each student tested for IQ by an independent agency when he or she starts at a school—say, kindergarten, first grade, and sixth grade, and ninth grade. (Tests are less accurate in the early years, so it's useful to have two scores when the child is young.)
The figures would be kept encoded in a national database (with all the usual privacy protections). The schools would be publicly graded on how much achievement it elicits from its students relative to their IQ.
Schools could use this information as well. They could specialize in different types of students—they could advertise to parents that they are a good at adding value for students with two digit IQs or for students with IQs over 115 or whatever.
Whether or not we go to a voucher system, we still need this kind of testing system to figure out which schools are doing a good job and which ones aren't
On the other hand, it's hard to see how they would hurt.
The hard truth is that the quality of the students matters most.