When Ol’ Meany Said (and new ones say) “More”

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

In the category of “mathematically-non-proveable theses” falls the unusual propensity (Humble Scribe opinion, here) of American labor leaders to deliver eminently memorable quotes. Two have already appeared in these column-inches: re-stated here to save space, one was the observation of John L. Lewis that he didn’t care how many miners were dis-employed by coal-handling mechanization, so long as the survivors made good money; and the other was the observation of Albert Shanker that he didn’t care for the interests of non-dues-paying students, but for the interests of dues-paying teachers. A third was the memorable reply of AFL Prez George Meany to a press question on the monetary-bargaining aims of his then-new AFL-CIO. “More”, he said. (N.B. Some references source this quote to AFL founder Samuel Gompers, who orated a very lengthy multi-item “more this/less that” paragraph subsequently shortened to one memorable word by Meany.) Don’t even contemplate quizzing your AmHist high school student on these 20th century developments in the union labor movement, and their relevance to current events in the economy in general and, for example, public education in particular.

Here, the Meany “more” doctrine has prevailed with mathematically-proveable success: from 1969, when Federal student-achievement testing began, to the present, public-school reading and math scores have remained in flat-line mode (a little medical lingo, there) in the low 200’s within a 0-to-500 range, meaning that 2/3 of students can’t make “Proficient” or function at grade level. Concurrently, the average-class-size curve has down-turned from 30 in the early ’60’s to 15 today (VT is national pupil-teacher-ratio leader at 10.7), and the annual cost-per-pupil curve has up-turned from $4996 (constant 2008 dollars) in ’69 to $12,117 in ’07. All these stats can be savored by parents/taxpayers in the annually-published National Digest of Educational Statistics, a $50 volume usually available free if your Congressman likes you. Economists Eric Hanushek and Richard Vedder pioneered this sort of research into the decline in public-ed productivity in the ’70’s, and have since been joined by dozens of academic researchers and writers in publishing irrefutable findings, but to no measurable effect: the “system” continues to demand, and get, the staff- and budget-growing small classes (“more”) they want and to claim budgetary distress for anything else. Recent example: computers for students.

About a decade ago your Humble Scribe ran the numbers in a column like this one, showing that, as Hanushek editorialized, small classes produce higher budgets but not higher scores. Then, an increase in VT class size of .5 of a student would break loose enough instructional-spending money to buy a $1000 lap-top for each 9th grader. Now, in TN, educators profess a desire for student computers, but, as a sub-headline in the18 Sept 11 Johnson City Press says, “The problem is finding how to pay for it.” Hint: look at your p/t ratio.

From the 2010 NDES we know that TN spends, on direct instruction, $4935/pupil (’08 numbers) and has an average p/t ratio of 15.0, just below the national average of 15.3, so that an additional .3 of a student per classroom would break loose$4935 x .3 or $1480. That’s enough for a couple of laptops and a smart-phone thrown in, because the computer industry has been raising productivity and cutting costs while the education industry –how can I phrase this graciously?– has been doing the opposite in pursuit of the same Gompers/Meany “More” as was voiced by the original George back before the AFL had even joined up with the CIO. For a very detailed analysis of the recent-decades decline in public education productivity –per-pupil costs vs achievement levels– there’s the M.W. Hodges Grandfather Education Report on the Web, demonstrating in charts and numbers trends since the ’50’s when, for example, almost all the 30 students in a class were making “Proficient” because they wouldn’t have been promoted into it from the previous grade if they hadn’t proven their reading and math skills in the previous-May achievement tests. Only one relevant fact-set is absent from the GER website: the small-but-growing number of States which have adopted minimum-class-size statutes or rules at the State House level, even though those rules are most typically ignored at the school-district level.

In that tiny rule-making group, as previously discussed in these column-inches, are both TN and VT. The latter presently staffs for class sizes just over 10, while the former staffs for class sizes of 15, both averages well below the standards (not just “recommendations”) set by State legislators and officials, who don’t seem to care much that their rules (and budgets) are being systematically violated. Fractional increase in average class size, while it would break loose enough funding to pay for digital hardware, wouldn’t come close to meeting those rules or changing those per-pupil budgets in noticeable manner. It would take substantial increase in class size and/or in achievement scores, to turn the productivity curve upwards, something that isn’t promised by the wannabe technology-buyers in public ed (although there’s some small evidence that computer-based instruction works well for home-schooled students) and there is enormous resistance to any exploration of raising class size. Even The Wall Street Journal, in a nearly-half-page 12 Sept article headed “Some Schools Fail to Make the Grade”, lists larger class sizes as a negative quality indicator, all the research studies by Hanushek et al. to the contrary, notwithstanding. And the education industry, in classic Gompers/Meany-“More” mode, always wants more staffers to lead more classrooms, pay more into union coffers, and vote more for local school budgets. There’s only one area in which the public education industry shows no interest in “more”: that’s in achievement test scores, where the response to the dismally low NAEP test numbers their students produced was non-existent from 1969 to 2001, while the test results went un-publicized. Since 2001 and No Child Left Behind legislation, the scores are better publicized, and the K-12 management response has been to declare the scores irrelevant, not only in VT (see earlier column on this subject) but in all other States as well. And, of course, there’s the resistance, even hostility, to school choice, vouchers, home ed (in VT, a parent was famously jailed for that crime) all of which, as then-Harvard-based researcher Caroline Hoxby documented, threaten the public-ed monopoly and enable parents to send kids to different (typically better) providers