Thursday, April 08, 2010


The following op ed is being published in today's Emporia Gazette.  The local school board and superintendent are not happy with me.  They're dragging out the heavy ammo (statistics) to prove they are absolutely essential to the well being of every Emporia family. 

I'm not buying the party line. 

The op ed follows:

At a recent eggs and issues forum I was asked if I was going to behave. What else could I do? I behaved…. grudgingly. I did have question or two or ten, but I just sat there, rehearsing the lyrics from an old “Kiss Me Kate” tune:

“Oh, why can’t you behave?
Why can’t you be good?
And do just what you should?”

I understand the Board’s displeasure with someone like me. No one likes being around a guy with a pin in has hand, particularly when they’re carrying a string of balloons themselves. I get the message. Why afflict the comfortable when what they’re really looking for is comfort and assurance?

But, it’s about two weeks past Eggs and Issues, and I’m in a misbehavin’ mood again.

What have I learned? If I’m to believe the Excel spreadsheets, line charts, and bar graphs there is a direct correlation between money and quality of output in education. Test scores here have improved and, until recently, funding levels have also increased. About the only way to complete the syllogism would be to conclude that more money means a better education or that less money equals an inferior education.

I suppose I should blindly trust the data.

Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.” I think he was right. Numbers can be used to prove almost anything. I suspect that, given time, I could offer convincing proof that Jell-O is one of the prime causes of death in this country. After all, most of us will die in hospitals and most of us will ingest an inordinate amount of Jell-O while we’re there. What other conclusion could one draw?

Every time I hear some expert tout the numbers I get a sick feeling in the pit of my gut. The Board of Education cites numbers. Well, two can play that game. For every number they present I see scores of others that lead down a different path. For example, the most recent (2006) assessment tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) seem to indicate we have a serious problem. Over 400,000 students from 57 countries were tested. In the area of science, students from Finland had the highest score, an average of 563. The Estonians weren’t far behind, at 531.Slovenia did pretty well (519), as did the Czech Republic (513). Where did the U.S. rank? Statistically tied with Latvia and a couple of points better than Lithuania. The results in mathematics were every bit as alarming. Finnish students averaged 548. Estonians averaged 515. Slovenians averaged 504. American students averaged 474, a bit better than the Croatians.

What do these results say? Do the Finns have more money to throw at education than we do? Are the Estonians and Slovenians cookin’ the books? Are their kids just naturally smarter than ours? The answer to all of the questions is a resounding “No!”

I realize that education is not a cost-neutral venture. But, I think it’s eminently fair for taxpayers to ask where their education dollars are going. In 1993 Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institute asked where the money was going and found what most of us intuitively know. “A study of education expenditures in New York City found that less than $2,000 reached the classroom out of more than $6,000 spent per pupil.” Where was the money going? “Educational bureaucracies, both at boards of education and in the schools absorb much of the money spent to educate students.” This past Sunday the Kansas City Star revealed that while Missouri spends about 48% of its state budget on education, Kansas spends 65%. Further, Missouri spends far fewer dollars on its administrative costs of education than Kansas.

Of course, we all know that Emporia is a world away from New York or Missouri. There’s no rigid, top heavy bureaucracy here. Right?

I’ve been told that I have personal axes to grind. Not true! This is only personal to me because I care. I can only imagine how much more personal this is to the parents, students, and teachers of USD 253.

Is there a way out of the wilderness? Not without fundamental change. Things will never work as they should here until we scrap the top down, self-congratulatory management model we’re currently using.

Can we get there? I think so. It could begin by inverting the organizational pyramid, adopting a silo busting mentality, developing a lean staff structure, and finding ways to put that money directly into the classroom.

Granted, these seem to be small gestures. But, they would be steps in the right direction

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