Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went after Texas education policy (and, by extension, Rick Perry). The faults and achievements of Texas education interests me less here than the metrics that he used: per-pupil spending and drop-out rates (he also attacked class sizes, though it does not actually appear that class sizes in Texas have gotten larger as of yet).
While it can certainly be argued that high dropout rates are indicative of a problem, and that higher spending correlates with better results on the whole (outside of Washington DC, of course), I don’t particularly care for these metrics. Mostly, because they’re easy enough to fix without actually accomplishing much.
Whether higher spending may correlate with better results or not, on the whole, it’s clearly not an absolute correlation. In other words, simply throwing money at education won’t do a whole lot of good if they’re spent on, say, a lavish new football stadium rather than things that matter. But, if we use spending alone as a metric, you can paper over any sort of lack of achievement. We’re #1 because spending is #1. (It’s also unclear as to whether Texas has actually reduced spending, or been more restrained in the overall growth of spending. I haven’t really seen the data.)
Drop-out rates are more of a mixed bag, in my view. My home state has one of the highest drop-out rates in the country. The main reason for this is not because the schools are failing, necessarily, but because the state has a loose drop-out policy. Traditionally a farming and ranching state, there is a history of here of kids dropping out of school early to go work on the farms. Maybe this is a good idea or maybe not. It’s a matter of priorities. Notably, the state is looking at changing its policies, in large part for appearance reasons.
Largely, though, the decision to stay in school or drop out is a personal and family one. When we talk about what influence parents have or schools have over results, this is one of those things that is most home-driven. If a parent doesn’t want their kid to drop out, they can’t really drop out (until they are emancipated). While it might be possible for a kid that wants to attend school to be forced by his parents to drop out, that’s generally unlikely.
So what is the state’s role here? Well, the state can create truancy laws, the schools can hire truancy officers. And the kids can be dragged to school kicking and screaming. When a kid doesn’t want to be there, and when the parents don’t care, it might be worthwhile to question the degree to which they are likely to actually receive an education. I suppose I am skeptical. And I am also skeptical that we can bring them in by making school a cooler place to be. But I could be wrong on that! And, in the greater scheme of things, it may be good policy.
But it’s not indicative of much. A governor with presidential aspirations can fix all of these problems with one fell swoop: Hire a bunch of truancy officers at $100,000 a year (more spending!), have them drag everyone to school by the ear (better attendance!), and pass through socially promoted graduations (higher graduation rates!).
Of course, all of this bites into the larger apple of how, precisely, we do gauge schools. Standardized testing is unpopular for a plethora of reasons, among them because they are supposedly easier to game and because so much of it is dependent home and economic situations. Not nearly as simple to game, though, as spending more and keeping more kids bound to school with a ball and chain. And far less dependent on home situations as attendance. And, unlike with standardized testing, can bear no back-and-forth relationship with how much they learn within the school’s doors.