Fisking the NEA's Improvement Ideas

In my previous post, I took a look at the absurdity of the metrics in the NEA's recent schools report.  In that post, I ran out of room to Fisk the NEA's suggested areas of improvement for better school performance (keep scrolling).

Here are their improvement areas with my comments.  I always try to differentiate the NEA as a group from teachers individually.  The rants in this post are aimed at the NEA as a group.  Many teachers as individuals have my fondest regards.  Note I have helpfully put a big green dollar sign by every recommendation that boils down to "spend more money":

$ 21st Century Schools for 21st Century Learning: Due to either aging or outdated facilities, or severe overcrowding, 75% of our nation's school buildings are inadequate to meet the needs of school children. The average cost of capital investment needed is $3,800 per student, more than half the average cost to educate that student for one year. Since 1998 the total need has increased from $112 billion to $127 billion.

I have no doubt that there are schools out there that are in need of repair - though 75% seems overblown (what does "inadequate" mean - if they are one locker short, does the NEA call it inadequate?  Probably).  I will bet any amount of money the job can be done for less than $112 billion, but the number is surely greater than zero.

However, let's accept this for a minute and ask ourselves two things.  What organization has been fighting to soak up every available dollar in the public school system and more to fund teacher pay raises?  How many school capital improvement and maintenance projects have been cut to fund raises for teachers and bloated administrative staffs?

Second, remember this argument when the NEA lashes out at school choice.  The NEA loves to make the argument that by allowing kids to leave the current public schools, all the current infrastructure will go to waste.  To which I say, if it all has to be replaced anyway, now is the perfect time to let students migrate to private schools.  Let private investment rebuild the capital plant, and shut down the most crumbling schools and consolidate publicly run schools into fewer, better facilities.

$ Helping All Students Meet High Standards: Title I funding for disadvantaged children is the primary federal vehicle for meeting our commitment to help all children meet higher standards. Poor and at-risk children need extra resources and individual attention to achieve at the high levels demanded in today's classrooms. To provide all eligible children across America with Title I services would require $24 billion, almost three times the current funding level.

This is classic NEA.  The title uses all the words the public wants to see - student performance and meeting standards.  But the meat of the proposal is "spend $24 billion more".  I do not begrudge the fact that the poorest districts may need more spending, but I am no more likely to give the current mismanaged districts more money than I would be to give money to Worldcom or a Nigerian emailer.  Get new management first, then I will give more money if it is necessary.

$? Meeting High Standards with Solid Support and Resources: To help every child meet the highest standards in history, we must insist on rigorous alignment of standards, curricula, and assessments. Standards need to be connected to classroom learning and assessments. We must also match this commitment with resources and demand quality teachers, safe and modern schools, and extra learning support for students in need. Currently, too many state standards are unconnected to curriculum and tests and students do not receive adequate tools and resources to reach them.

This statement is the same kind of mixed bag.  Who can be against matching curriculum to the standards?  If this is the entire point, then I agree wholeheartedly. 

However, there are a couple of code words to be aware of.  The most important is "highest standards in history".  This is an odd phrase, and I struggle to believe it is true since many test scores are at an all time low.  I will accept that they are the highest standards actually implemented formally in public schools since the government began to destroy the public schools with low expectations in the 1960s.  My suspicion is that if the NEA can sell the fact that these are the highest standards in history, then the follow-on is that they need more resources, ie dollars, than ever before in history -- thus the "adequate tools and resources" at the end.  My fear is that this is the real point here, not the curriculum.

$$$The United States Trails Many Countries in Resources Devoted to Public Education. A recent comparison of 30 democratic countries shows that the United States ranks 15th in total direct public expenditures for education as a percentage of the gross domestic product.

I hardly know where to begin.  My first response is, so?  How do we compare in how well people are educated to other nations?  If we trail, which we do in some categories, then that's what's important.  Lets take this statement and put it in another industry.  Suppose we were talking about the US auto industry.  What if we had a statistic that said the US auto industry is in the middle of the pack as to how much it spends on car design.  You would say, so what?  Tell me how it ranks on quality, or design appeal, or market share, or something that matters.

If we dig into this stat, it is terribly disingenuous and the NEA knows it.  There are at least two fundamental flaws with it.  First, it refers only to public expenditures.  The US spends far more private dollars than any other nation on education.  If you added in private dollars, the US would rank much higher on total spending (and if spending matters as a measure, shouldn't it be total spending, not just a part of the pie?)   Everything in the US is far more privatized than the rest of the world - the US is always going to trail on public expenditures in any industry (thank God).

The other problem with the statistic is that they very artfully choose to compare spending as a percent of GDP.  Why, when the NEA always shows spending stats as dollars per student do they suddenly switch from that metric to percent of GDP?  The reason is that on a $ per student basis, the US ranks much higher, because our GDP per capita is much higher.  As the wealthiest nation in the world per capita, if we are spending about the same amount as other nations per capita, it will be a lower percentage of GDP than other nations.  This is called economies of scale - as you get richer as a nation, you SHOULD be spending less as a percentage of the total on necessities.   A person who makes $30,000 a year might spend 20% a year on food.  Does that mean that a person who makes $1,000,000 a year should also be spending 20%, or $200,000 a year, on food?  Of course not.

Update: courtesy of Powerline, here is a chart from the OECD confirming what I said above, that when compared on a $-per-student basis, the US is nearly the highest in the world. 


Therefore, where the US is trailing other nations in student performance, it is a productivity and effectiveness issue, not a spending issue.

Preparing Teachers to Boost Student Achievement: The quality of classroom teachers is the primary predictor of student success. It is imperative that teacher preparation efforts produce real results that meet the needs of the future. We must insist on solid entry-level standards, mentoring for new teachers, and peer assistance to ensure parents and the public that America's teachers are current in their knowledge and competent in their skills. We must practice zero-tolerance for the hiring of non-certified teachers and out-of-field teaching.

This is the NEA demonstrating that they are no more than a classic guild.  This is all code for the fact that teachers should have education degrees and be certifies by the guild, err the NEA.  Certification is the way any guild cements their monopoly and ensures their virtual control of an industry.  As Milton Friedman says about certification and liscencing:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

(update:  a related post about how certification mainly boosts salaries is here)

Growing up, I went to a couple of private schools.  Four of the five best teachers I ever had in high school were not certified, did not want to be certified, and probably would have had trouble getting certified because all they really studied in college was what they actually taught, rather than getting the mish mash of crap they serve up in teaching programs.  The Heartland Institute writes here about more problems with certification.  The NEA cleverly creates a certification process that drives good people away, and then blames the lack of good teacher candidates on pay scales.

Also note - when the NEA talks about certification, it has nothing to do with testing teachers about their subject knowledge.  Oh, no.  The NEA stridently opposes setting standards for and testing teachers on their subject matter.  They only want to test on the arcana and philosophical mumbo-jumbo that is taught in education programs.

If the NEA really was interested in maintaining the quality of the teacher pool they would enthusiastically support enhanced pay for the best teachers -- but in fact they oppose pay for performance vociferously and only want mindless seniority systems.

Finally, if the NEA certification process is so great, how do you explain this:  Home schooled kids on average hit between the 80th and 90th percentile on test scores, even in cases where their parents do not graduate high school.  High school dropout mothers who home school their kids on average have their kids hit the 83rd percentile on scores.  So if high school dropout moms do 30 percentile points better than the average public school certified teacher, how can certification be that important?

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: The number of teachers leaving the profession is exceeding the number of teachers entering the profession by 23%, and turnover in the teaching profession is 32% higher than it is in non-teaching professions.

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: Approximately one-third of America's teachers leave teaching sometime during their first three years of teaching, and almost one-half leave during their first 5 years.

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: Teacher turnover and teacher shortages are not due to retirement. By almost 3 to 1, teachers are more likely to give reasons other than retirement for leaving their jobs (e.g., low pay, lack of professional support, poor school leadership).

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: Teacher salary and school conditions-such as poor administrative support, a lack of influence, classroom intrusions, and inadequate time-are cited most often by teachers as reasons for leaving teaching.

Though it does not say it here, the NEA has one major recommendation from these --- raise salaries.  I certainly agree that public school administrations are bloated, bureaucratic, unhelpful, and intrusive, and would love to see the NEA say so and fight to pare down these bureaucracies.  I would gladly give to teachers in higher pay all the money any school saved by cutting admins and assistant principles, but the NEA never says anything like this.  These useless admins are probably in the union too, and therefore immune from criticism.

I am sure there are places where teacher pay is inadequate.   However, RAND did a study through regression analysis of the best ways to spend money to improve schools.  They found no correlation between teacher pay and education quality.  Zero.  Nada. (pdf)

If the NEA really was concerned with retaining the best quality teachers, then we would give pay raises preferentially to the best teachers.  But of course, they oppose pay for performance.

By the way, the turnover problem reminds me of a line in the "You took a teaching position, 'cause you thought it'd be fun, right?  Thought you could have summer vacations off...and then you found out it was actually work...and that really bummed you out"

We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: Too many states and districts are unwilling to do what it takes to attract qualified and certified teachers and choose instead to bypass or ignore their own laws and hire teachers on "waivers" or "emergency" certificates. A recent federal study found that 6% of all public school teachers are teaching without full certification or licensure--despite the existence of 3 million people trained to teach who have chosen to leave the profession.

This is the guild protecting itself again.  See above.

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: In 1970, when many of today's senior teachers entered the workforce, female teachers were paid approximately 10% more than the average woman with a four year college degree. Today, the average woman with a four year college degree makes 10% more than the average female teacher, even though many teachers have master's degrees and are much better educated than their higher paid counterparts. The pay gap for men is even more pronounced.

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: Overall, teacher salaries are about 20% below the salaries of other professionals with comparable education and training.

Umm, this is called supply and demand. I have a masters degree.  I know people from the same university with the same degree who make more than 10x what I do a year, and I know people with the same degree from the same school who make half what I do.  By the way, if we correct for total number of hours worked, how would the analysis look?  Why does the NEA never correct for the fact that teachers on average work 10 months a year or less.  If their annual salary is 20% less, but they work 30% fewer weeks, aren't they actually making more?

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: Teacher salaries are not keeping pace with wages in other occupations. Since the early 1970s or even the early 1990s, the average teacher salary has increased only $100 a year (taking inflation into account).

First, the statistic does not match the statement - they have no data on other occupations.  Second, gaining on a real basis is still gaining.  Third, real cash salaries are flat for the same reason real hourly wages have fallen in the US - most of the compensation increase since 1970 in most jobs has been in the increased value of health insurance, in more lucrative retirement accounts, etc. which are not counted in the salary number.

$We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: The teacher shortage is not due to a shortage of people who are trained to do the job. Right now at least 3 million people in the United States have been trained to teach but have chosen not to do so.

Um, OK.

We Need to Do More to Attract and Retain Qualified Teachers: America has no shortage of idealistic and competent people who want to teach. Far from it: the nation's 1,300 schools of education have more than enough teachers in training to meet the need. However, out of every 600 students entering four-year teaching programs, only 180 complete them, only 72 become teachers and only about 40 are still teaching several years later.

See all of the above

We Must Improve Conditions and Support for Learning Outside of School: During the course of a calendar year, only 14% of a student's time is spent in school. Any effort to improve student learning and performance must recognize the importance of a student's life outside of school-and the need for that life to be a healthy, supportive learning environment.

Greater Attention to Reading in the Home: Our children need to have access to reading materials and should be encouraged to read at home.  Students who live in households with newspapers, encyclopedias, magazines, and more than 25 books score much higher on NAEP writing and NAEP reading tests.  However, only 34% of 4th graders, 51% of 8th graders, and 53% of 12th graders report having all of these materials at home.

We Need to Encourage our Children to Spend More Time Reading for Enjoyment: Although more American public schools lead the world in hours they devote to reading instructions and American students are among the leaders in the world in reading literacy. Yet international comparisons show that American students do not read for enjoyment outside of school. American 8th graders rank last in a comparison with 38 countries in the number of hours per day spent reading for enjoyment, and American 4th grades in comparison with students in 35 countries are the most likely to say the never read for enjoyment outside of school.

We Need to Do More to Encourage Richer Literacy Environment for our Pre-School Children: Research clearly demonstrates that children with richer home literacy environments demonstrate higher levels of reading skills and knowledge than do children with less rich literacy environments.

Children Should Be Encouraged to Read at Home on Their Own:  The proportion of 17-year-olds who say they read for fun at least once a week has decline by 17% since 1984.

And Their Parents Are the Best Examples:  The proportion of 17-year-old students who say they saw their adults reading at home on a daily basis has decreased by 19% since 1984.

In other words, the real problem is parents, not the rest of us.  Actually, parenting is important and I think a huge performance differentiator for students.  However, I am not sure this is going away - wishing it were not true will not help.  Teachers and schools need to find ways to still get kids to make progress despite this.  Also, schools need to find ways not to hold back kids who are really trying to learn to match the slow pace of those who are not. 

By the way, what is not on this list?  How about:

  • Continuing to raise low expectations for student performance
  • Weeding out bad teachers and rewarding good ones
  • Strictly enforcing standards for promotion to the next grade
  • Increased writing in the curriculum
  • Separating slow and fast students into multiple tracks
  • Reduced administrative beauracracy

Okay, sermon over.  You can find a related post on the NEA's latest schools report and some thoughts on school choice here.


  1. BridgetB:

    That was beautiful. Im salivating at your excellent fisking. Im very greatful as I was searching for good resoures on spending v. performance and now I have it all in one place. Woo hoo, thanks!

  2. Business Opportunities Weblog:

    Carnival of the Capitalists

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  3. jotsheet:

    Coyote Blog finds NEA drivel, tears apart, sets aflame, feeds to rats

    More from Coyote Blog. Man, this is a good blog. Anyway, here it is: Fisking the NEA's Improvement Ideas. Yow. Is there a special term in the blogosphere for an ass-whuppin'? If so, the NEA just got it....

  4. jdcjr:

    Your comments miss the fact that teacher compensation has been steadily dropping in ways that are not easily seen. I'm an AZ teacher, and I got a 4% raise this year. Then I watched as our health insurance went into the toilet, and my state pension "contribution" doubled, wiping out that raise and then some.

    Meanwhile, our school's sidewalks were replaced for the third time in 8 years, huge capital contracts have been let for projects that are required to replace poorly-constructed buildings. These new projects, it is already clear, are destined to crap out the same way. In other words, those big bucks we are spending on our kids are going to contractors, not teachers. Sometimes it looks like the students are just hosts for parasitic grownups. It runs deep. And I'm not even mentioning the abysmal bureaucratic accounting systems in public schools yet.

    I'll say it again: If teaching is so blasted attractive, why are there still four unfilled positions in our district? And, yes, the subs in those positions are outperforming some of the certified teachers. But please don't make economic cases for obviously political ends.

    Thanks again for the forum.