Education and Economics

Budget-picBy Tom

As you may have noticed, the education reform debate has recently been dominated by economists, not educators. Guys like Dan Goldhaber, Eric Hanuschek and William Sanders have been making a pretty good living using economic theory and statistics to affect the course of education reform in this country. Now, I’m in no position to second-guess any of these people. Frankly, all three of them were probably smarter than I’ll ever be before they finished fifth grade.  

No, my concern is whether education in general should follow economic principles at all. As I understand it, basic economics tells us to “minimize cost with regard to a given goal or maximize utility for a given level of cost or input.” If that’s the case, then I recently orchestrated a colossal waste of resources. Behold:

I have a student named Maria. She’s in third grade. Her reading and math skills are well below grade level. She has an IEP for speech and math, which provides for her about 90 minutes of extra help per week, an investment of resources far greater than what anyone else in the class receives. Nevertheless, Maria was still falling farther and farther behind. By January, I was fed up, convinced that we had to do more. I convened a meeting with our math and reading specialist, the SLP, our psychologist and principal. We looked at Maria’s data and started brainstorming ways to increase our level of support. We arranged to have a para-educator work with her on her math practice at the end of every day for half an hour. I switch my math time to an earlier hour – one in which I have in-class support from another para – and we directed that para to focus her attention on Maria. Our reading specialist found an extra 30 minutes three times a week to help Maria with subject-specific reading comprehension.

All told, the level of support directed to this one student is astronomical. Including myself, there are six educators spending a significant portion of their workweek on just one kid. It would be nice at this point to report that Maria has turned the corner and is now working at grade level. It would even be nice to report that she’s heading in that direction.

Unfortunately, the best I can say is that she doesn’t seem to be falling any further behind. That’s not saying much, is it? Actually, it’s barely saying anything. Despite the best efforts of a hard-working and capable team, Maria is still struggling, and will probably continue to struggle for the foreseeable future.

So what do we do? As I see it, there are three choices. First of all, we can double down on our first decision and increase the level of support for Maria until we see real growth. Unfortunately, this choice is impossible; we simply don’t have the capacity to offer more support, and frankly there really isn’t any more time in Maria's day to squeeze in any more support.

Another choice is to follow the principles of economics, write Maria off as a sunk cost, and apply those resources toward a goal that’s more attainable. At a certain level, this makes sense. My performance, and that of our school, is measured to some degree by the percentage of students that pass the state test. Maria is not going to pass that test, but there are a lot of other kids in our school who are on “the bubble.” With a little more support, they’ll pass; with a little less support, they won’t. Directing the resources currently allocated to Maria could very possibly make a lot of difference in our school’s overall performance numbers.

But if you’re reading this, you’re probably a teacher, and reading that last paragraph probably made you sick to your stomach. It made me sick writing it. Educators don’t “write students off.” You and I both know that my team and I will pursue the third choice. We’ll continue to work with Maria and all the other kids who struggle.

Not because it’s economical, but because we’re teachers.


4 thoughts on “Education and Economics

  1. Jason

    What’s the impact the additional support you’re supplying Maria having on other students? In what ways are you failing others in your class? I don’t think any of this is open and shut, but I think the principle to apply here is to do what’s possible to ensure everyone does the best that they can do. When you can’t do that because of resource constraints, you should minimize aggregate harm, i.e. ensure that the impact of some students not reaching their best is minimized.
    There are cases where someone like Maria would have such a low quality of life or set of outcomes by falling short that she should receive substantial support to the detriment of others. Sometimes, this is not the case. It’s never easy, but that’s the reality of a world without unlimited capacity. Unfortunately, we’re far from being “post-scarcity” when it comes to education. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the level of support required to change that.

  2. Tom

    First of all, Jason, there’s no question Maria’s extra support comes at the expense of others. We’re forever making those types of choices. As you know, it wasn’t like everyone was standing around waiting to work until Maria happened along.
    The important point, though, is that there’s a disconnect between how educators solve problems as they arise and how economics would have us solve those problems. And that disconnect is exacerbated when economists start to measure educators in terms of output, while educators solve problems the way “we’re trying to solve the problem of Maria.” (Cool song reference! Totally accidental!)
    Mark’s right; I’ll end up getting “dinged” in the world of VAM, etc., by doing what I know is right for Maria.

  3. Travis A. Wittwer

    Woah, Jason. Careful. That may come across like you are okay with a low performing educational system.
    While in many ways I agree with what you say, it is what I do in my own life (look at options, decide priority, lessen harm), I cannot imagine any politician saying what you have said. I find your statement refreshing.
    Again, I agree with you in philosophy, but can you imagine the superintendent of public instruction saying in a press release in voting year?
    What I think is great about what you have said, and likely to go unnoticed, is that you understand the resource issue AND are accepting of the reduced service.
    Most people in the state government I have heard lately are talking like resources can be cut but do not worry because the same level of service will be provided.
    Not possible.
    Several of the posts over the last two months have addressed the disconnect between the education system the state wants, and the one for which it is willing to pay.

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