THE BLOG
07/15/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Education Reform Is Dumb

Over the past few years government officials, from the president down to local school boards, have been discussing ways to improve education.

These discussions typically start with the belief that American schools are failing. Reformers use this belief to argue for any number of changes.

Even though unions represent only 38 percent of America's teachers, many say unions are ruining education. Even though charter schools are not necessarily cheaper to run and don"t produce better outcomes, some argue for more charter schools. And even though there is no data to suggest the Common Core standards are better than the current standards, most states are making the change.

But the most peculiar talking point that reformers discuss is money in education.

You would be hard pressed to find data that show less money in education leads to better results, but you can easily find people who complain that we spend too much on education. If you believe we spend too much on education, you are either willing to accept worse outcomes to fix our financial issues or you believe that spending less can somehow have a positive result.

Typically this argument manifests itself with something like "Detroit spends more per pupil yet gets some of the worst results."

While both of these things may be true, this is a complete perversion of what people mean when they talk about money for education. For example if we really spent too much on education then why would any charter school ever spend more than a public school?

Does anyone believe that the amount of money a school spends on administrators has greater correlation to student achievement than the amount spent on teachers? Because by comparison, charter schools spend more on administrative staff and less on educators than public schools.

If the education spending by cities like Detroit was meant as a serious discussion piece in determining the value of money in education, it would require more in depth analysis than simply "spending high + outcomes bad = more money doesn't work."

If armchair education reformers looked at where the money goes, they would see that while Detroit Public Schools had the 32nd highest per pupil rate in Michigan they were at the bottom of the list when it comes to "Average Teacher Salary" and spending on "Basic Programs." DPS spent around $4,500 per student or nearly 1/3 of their budget on "Added Needs" and another $2,100 per student on "Adult Education."

Given that a good teacher can have a lifelong impact on a student and that data show higher teacher salaries correlate to better educational outcomes, the fact that DPS teacher salaries rank at the bottom of all Michigan schools probably explains why the student achievement level is lower than other school districts.

The reality is, per pupil spending represents hundreds of different smaller budgetary decisions for each school district. Suggesting this data alone represent anything more than a surface level talking point is a massively uninformed position.

While cherry picking a few schools across the nation and ignoring the budgetary details is one popular method people offer as proof that more money doesn't lead to better outcomes, another tactic is to suggest we spend more on education now than ever before.

The data show that this trend has reversed itself recently but overall it is certainly true that the amount spent on education has been steadily increasing. The question then becomes: what is too much?

The data show that over the past 20 years spending on education has risen by 25 percent over inflation.

Defense spending over that same time frame increased by 83 percent over inflation.

The price of gasoline has risen by around 105 percent over inflation the past two decades.

Health care costs have jumped by 79 percent over inflation during this 20-year period.

The cost of a college education has gone up by around 66% over inflation over the past 20 years.

CEO pay has increased by as much as 725 percent

To some extent those who argue for cuts to education have largely ignored or argued against cuts to these numbers, which have grown at a much higher rate. What makes education spending so different?

Unfortunately, to the diehard reformer, none of this makes any difference. They believe in their hearts that education is broken and needs to be fixed.

The good news for these people is that data show there is a simple solution that has the potential to make the U.S. No. 1 in the world in education. All the government needs to do is reduce the poverty rate in America, because if you equalize results based on poverty rates, America is already the world leader in education.

That so many people insist on improving education using methods that don't actually improve education suggests there is indeed a problem.

It's just not with the public school system.

Previously published in the Detroit News