Public education — are we under, over or just misspending? Michelle Rhee at TEDxWallStreet


Translator: Gustavo Rocha
Reviewer: Capa Girl Good afternoon, my name is Michelle Rhee, I am the former chancellor of the Washington DC schools I’m also currently the CEO of an organization called Students First. And the whole idea behind Students First is a simple one, and it is that: if you look over the last twenty to thirty years in this country, at the decisions that we have been making about education, they have largely been driven by special interest groups. So you have textbook manufacturers, you have teacher’s unions, you have testing companies. You’ve all these organizations that have tremendous resources and therefore tremendous influence on how decisions get made. So, that’s the way the world works. The fact those organizations exist is not actually the problem. The problem that we face is that there is no organized national interest group with the same heft that, say, the teacher’s union that’s advocating on behalf of children in education. So, when children are left out of the equation and no one is defending what is good and right for them and you have all these other special interests what you end up with is a landscape that is very skewed towards the adults and very skewed away from children. So, that’s exactly what Students First aims to try to do, is balance that equation out and make sure that we have millions of members across the country that are advocating for what children deserve. So, I am often asked, because I was both the superintendent of a school district and now I run this organization, people always say, “What’s wrong with education in America today?” “Why are we doing so poorly?” And often times people say, you know, “Give us what the biggest issue in education is.” And I always refuse to answer that question. I refuse to answer it because actually what is wrong with our system is pretty complicated and when you try to distill it down to just one thing then it sort of implies that if you solve that one thing you’re gonna fix all of the problems, when in fact that is actually not true. But people don’t like taking no for an answer, and so usually — It is the press, the media, they’re very persistent and they go to me on, it’s like, “Come on, tell us what it is! It’s the teacher’s union, isn’t it? Or the parents, or we don’t have enough money? Come on, tell us what it is.” And you’ve actually probably heard a lot of this too, you go to your cocktail parties you and your friends sort of bemoaned the state of public education in our country, and then inevitably it sort of devolves down into what we need to do is invest more in our schools. The question is: is that really right? So, I’m gonna show you some data, the first slide, when Americans are asked how much money they think we are spending on public education in America today. What do they say? They think that we spend about four thousand dollar a year per kid. The reality is that we spend several times that, actually about ten thousand dollar a year. So there’s a huge disconnect and that is not the only disconnect because when those same people are asked they will very confidently tell you that they believe if we spent more money on education we would get better results. So take a look at this: the red line shows the expenditure growth on education over the last few decades in this country and the blue line shows our academic achievement levels, of our children in both reading and math and as you can see we have grown several times what we are spending and yet our children’s academic progress has remained pretty stagnant. This creates an incredibly difficult dynamic in these top economic times where people are still trying to figure out what to cut in the budgets, etc. Because if, for example, in the last few decades we had tripled the expenditures and the achievement levels had also tripled, then you would be able to say, “Ok, if you cut our budget by ten percent this is the loss that you are gonna see.” But we actually can’t show that at all, in fact, in the last couple of years there’ve been several states that have cut their education budgets and seen their academic achievement levels rise so we’re in this really tough quandary right now about — you know, what the relationship is between expenditures and progress. So why is there this disconnect? What’s the problem? Where is all of this money going? If we have grown the amount of money that we are spending so much and we haven’t seen the results, what’s happening? So I’m gonna tell you a very quick story from when I was the chancellor in Washington DC. In 2007 I took over the Washington DC public schools, at the time they were largely known as the most dysfunctional and lowest performing school district in the entire nation. Just to give a sliver of data to elucidate that for you: of all of the 8th graders who were attending school in DC in 2007 only 8% of them were on grade level in mathematics 8 % — which means that 92% of our kids did not have the skills and knowledge necessary to be productive members of society. So, it was no surprise that the young upstart mayor who had just been elected, his name was Adrian Fenty, decided that as his major priority he was gonna take on fixing the schools. Because his theory was: you cannot have a great city without a great public school system. So, he decided to introduce legislation that would allow him to take over mayoral control of the schools. And he got the legislation past and in June of 2007, as his first act of having control of the schools, he nominated me as the city’s first school’s chancellor. Now, I was a 37 year old Korean girl from Toledo, Ohio, who had never run a school much less a school district. So people were looking at him and saying, “This guy’s crazy. Why would he think that she is a person who can fix the most dysfunctional school district in the country?” And so for days the thought that was teeming through everybody’s mind was, What on God’s green Earth is Adrian Fenty thinking? And that was pretty much what I was thinking as I was sitting in my office the first few days of my tenure, thinking, where do you start when you have to fix something where every single thing is broken essentially? So, I was lucky enough to have lots of people who wanted to come in and help and a number of these people had actually seen what had been going on in the school district for several decades and they had lot of thoughts about what needed to change. Over and over again in my conversations with them what they said to me was, “You have to find out, Michelle, where all of the money is going.” Because we were spending almost more money in Washington DC, per child, than any other urban jurisdiction in the country yet our results were absolutely abysmal. So, when you went into the schools you saw dilapidated school buildings, you saw teachers who had to buy supplies with their own money, it did not feel like one of the richest school districts in the nation. So it made sense to us that we would try to figure out where the money was being spent. So, I sent my team out, I said, you know, go look at every spreadsheet, every excel document you can, tell me where we’re spending the money. So, a couple of weeks later my special assistant comes back to me and he says: “Ok, I did exactly what you said, I looked at all of the largest budget items and tried to figure out where they are going.” He said, “I have found two very interesting things.” Now, in education speak, interesting is code for whack –(Laughter) So, the first thing that he says is, “Number one: we are spending about ninety million dollars a year transporting a few thousand special education kids through the system.” So, I do the quick back of the envelope math, ’cause that sounds a little nuts and it turns out that it’s about 18,000 dollars per year per kid on transportation. So, I said, I don’t know anything about running bus routes, but I’m pretty sure I can do it for less than 18,000 dollars a year. For 18,000 dollars a year you could buy the kid a Saturn the first year, and a personal chauffeur for the Saturn every year after that. So, I am confident that we can do it more effectively. and the good news is that we’re gonna be able to take the savings and push it down into the classroom where it’s gonna have more of an impact on kids. And he said, “Actually, not so fast.” See, the problem is that the district had done such a poor job of transporting the special needs kids to their schools in the past that now we’re under a court order, a consent decree and there’s this court appointed special master, and he has the responsibility for transporting the kids to school every day, he’s allowed to spend as much money as he wants, and all we can do at the end of the year is pay the bill. We have absolutely no ability to control cost. And I said, that is the craziest thing I have ever heard! And he said that’s because you haven’t heard titbit number two — (Laughter) He said i’m trying to figure out where are all these children going. Washington DC is only a few square miles wide and long, you could be doing laps around the city all day and you still shouldn’t be able to burn off 18,000 dollars worth of fuel, so where is all the money going? It turns out that we were not just doing a bad job of transporting these special education kids, we were doing a very bad job of educating them as well. And this sort of culture became that parents would sue the school district because their kids weren’t getting the services and resources that they needed. We would inevitably lose that lawsuit, because we were, in fact, doing a pretty sucky job and then, the court would prescribe a remedy and most often that remedy was that they would send them to a private school and we would be required to pay the tuition to that private school. And it was not just that, but every kid had a different remedy. So, you had a situation where you might have a housing complex, that had ten special needs kids living in it, and each of these ten kids would all be assigned to a different school in these far-flung places, in Virginia and in Maryland. So you’d have ten different buses roll up in the morning with ten different bus drivers and ten different bus matrons who were making sure that the kids are ok on the bus, all going in different directions to these far-flung places. That was one of the reasons that we were spending all of this money and not seeing any results. Now, this is actually not just unique to Washington DC. If you look at this next slide you will see that since the 1970s we have had more than 26 states have court mandated, sort of education finance cases, that have resulted in really, really dramatic increases to funding, education funding. And the whole goal of that was to try to equalize things and make the education achievement levels of minority kids more… equal to where it was for other children. Have we succeed to that? No is the quick answer. If you look at the minority achievement level in these 26 states, it really hasn’t gone anywhere, in fact, a review of three states in particular shows that the achievement levels of the minority kids in these three states where they had these increases actually didn’t even keep up with the national averages. This is not just about the courts, it is about lots of different special interest groups. You have the state governments, you have the federal government, you have school board, everybody wants to put in set-asides. So, they say, we want some of this money to go to curriculum development, we want some of the money to go to this community program, we want some of the money to go to textbook adoptions, and they mandate these set-asides and what it results in is that of the 10,000 dollars that we are spending per child, actually only about half of it is going into the classroom where we think it’s gonna have the most impact, the rest of it is going to these other things. So, this slide actually jives more with people’s perceptions of how much money is being spent, because that’s what they see in the classroom. So, let’s get to what needs to happen about it. It’s actually pretty simple. We need to stop spending money on things that do not work and start putting our money towards the things that do. More specifically what that means in a school district is that we should set really specific goals for what we expect a classroom or a school to achieve, we have to give people the freedom and the autonomy to make the decisions about where those dollars are gonna be best spent to get to that goal. Then we have to measure whether or not they met the goal or not, and then we have to have some accountabilty, so, if you did meet the goal or exceeded the goal then we’re gonna look at what you did and we’re gonna share those best practices with others. And if you did not meet the goal then we’re not gonna let you spend the money in the same way. But that is not the way that we run things. So, in order to change the system it’s not just gonna require a change with the courts and the federal government. It actually also requires a cultural change. And let me tell you why. As a parent, and I have two kids, I had this perception of what school should look like for my two daughters. So when my daughter went to kindergarten, I thought, I want a grandmotherly woman who has had a long teaching career, who will take my daughter on her lap, and read her a book and if she’s only in the classroom with 15 or 16 other kids, that’s gonna be better for my child. What I don’t want is for her to be sitting in front of you know, computers, in front of a computer screen because that seems cold and rigid and that sort of thing, right? So this is what we believe we hold as our — sort of beliefs. But the reality actually is that the research shows that class size largely doesn’t matter. If you have a smaller class size versus a larger class size, it doesn’t have that much impact on a student’s achievement levels, and the latest data that’s coming out from some of these new programs that utilize technology pretty heavy in the classroom shows very good results for kids because you can differentiate for the individual needs of every child. So, at the end of the day what we have to do is ensure that we are not continuing to spend more money and not fix the system and expect that we’re gonna get a different result. What we need to do is something very very different we have to reinvigorate the system by investing in what works and by innovating. So, the bottom line is that the next time you go to a cocktail party where you hear your friend Ted say that we’ve gotta spend more money on education to fix it. You should say, “Do we, Ted? Do we?” Because really what we ought to be doing is ensuring that we are not over mandating and over prescribing where the dollar should be spent. That we’re innovating around new strategies that can help kids learn and that at the end of the day, we should funnel our resources to where we know it’s working for kids. That is surely gonna make you the head of the party. Thank you.

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