Unintended Consequences of Education Reform

Unintended Consequences of Education Reform

“The law of unintended consequences has come to be used as an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.”

My Great Grandpa was the principal of Holmes High School in Covington Kentucky in the 1930’s. He told my father that during the depression, the school board would simply fire teachers for someone to whom they wanted to give a job regardless of their qualifications or competence.

It is for reasons like this that continued contractual services first formed.  Tenure helps provide a check and balance for political decisions in education that are not necessarily in the best interest of students. An underlying problem in education that should not be ignored when undertaking drastic education reform: Politics and Jobs

In considering the problem, it is interesting to look at the economic theories of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner in their booksFreakonomics and Superfreakonomics.  In their books, they discuss the fundamental economic idea of  “incentives”.  Essentially, human beings are purposeful creatures, driven by incentives that sanction them to operate in their own best interest.

If we accept this theory of incentives as it relates to pursuit of self-interests, we understand the importance of imbedded checks and balances in our democracy.  We purposely employ a complex system of elected officials to ensure that government remains in the hands of the people (those who receive the incentive). As a result we also have elected school board members to represent public opinion in education. There is one major problem though that sets education apart from other social systems in our country:  Children cannot vote.

Ideally, parents will vote in the best interest of their child, but I would theorize that that is not really the case in situations of low economic stability.   In applying the principal of “incentives”, I would theorize that when times are tough and people become desperate for jobs, parents focus on the here and now of getting a job and maintaining their lifestyles often times cannibalizing their own child’s long term life opportunities. For example, if a father loses his job and benefits, he may tell his friend that he’ll help him win his campaign for school board member if he gets him a job as a bus driver in the district.

If too much dealing occurs, then you may end up having a school board full of people and their “friends”, who may themselves not understand or not value the conditions that create high student achievement.  One might describe this sudden overload as “the tipping point”:  “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Malcolm Gladwell discusses this idea in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. If we apply this same principal to the infiltration of politics into education, one might deduce that at some point education becomes counterproductive.

To better illustrate this theory, consider the following cycle of education players as a district moves from a thriving economy of meritocracy to a struggling economy of “friend”ocracy:

The Players:

  1. Professional educators: those educators that are able to get a job solely on their own merit.
  2. Politicians: those that received their position because of a personal connection.  This could range from a school board member giving his cousin a job as a food service worker to a teacher being given a job as a principal because she was best friends with the superintendent to a school board member who was elected by his neighbors.  Some of them actually do a good job, some are incompetent, and then there is every degree in between.
  3. Parasites: People who obtained their jobs due to a personal connection, but take more from the district than they contribute.

As the economy decreases, the parasites and political jobs become greater in number and the professional educator jobs decrease.

Need some evidence? Take a look at these two districts in IL, one thriving, one struggling:

North Shore Granite City
Per capita income: $52,252 $17,852
Median family income: $111,916 $44,223

Further data supplied through the links support conclusions about district priorities:

  • Despite having 2000 more students, Granite City only has 3 instructional coordinators compared to North Shore’s 10.  These types of educational “experts” are essential for improving instruction for students.
  • Despite the fact that total revenue is about the same for both districts and Granite City has 2000 more students, North Shore spends more on instruction.
  • North Shore has a much lower teacher-student ratio than Granite….this is of course due in part to the fact that Granite City has roughly the same total revenue and has to service roughly 2000 more students.  And one can see from the data that Granite City has a much lower per capita income with much less revenue coming from local sources.  Why then, doesn’t Granite City generate more local income?  Headlines like this in their local newspaper might help explain: “Parents Want Mill to Get Tax Cut at School’s Expense

The Chicago Tribune lists the IL State Report card for 2011. From this data we can deduce the following facts:

  1. 30% more teachers in North Shore have advanced degrees, yet the average salary of the North Shore teachers is only 3% higher than the average salary of Granite City teachers.   Is merit being rewarded
  2. North Shore students are beating state averages on test scores while Granite City students are performing below the state average.
  3. Interestingly, a local newspaper in the southern IL area created a database and search engine for public pay employees.  Using their search features, I found the following rough wage ranges:
Custodian Teacher
GrossWage $37,585.60 –low

$51,126.40 -high

$41,001.00 – low

$70,587.00 -high

OtherPay(Benefits/Retirement) $11,609.14-low


$10,372.42 – low

$17,970.61 -high

TotalWages  $49,194.74 – low

$69,774.68 -high

$51,373.42 -low

$88,557.61 -high


In looking at these ranges, it’s apparent that the overall contributions that teachers vs custodians make in raising student achievement are not reflected in the wages that each make:

  1.  Both low and high paid custodians cost the district more in benefits and retirement than both low and high paid teachers.
  2.  Low paid teachers only make 8% more in gross wage than low paid custodians.
  3.  Total cost of a high paid teacher is only 21% more than a high paid custodian.

Proportionately overpaid support staff is really only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to linking politics to jobs in education.  Other examples of incentive based politics that inhibit student achievement come from those people who get the highest paid jobs based on reasons other than merit, and directly or indirectly impact student achievement, i.e. board level employees, administrators, etc.

My point to policy makers, is not that I want to keep tenure, because it certainly has its own counterproductive issues, but rather that big changes have unintended consequences.  Careful planning with solid implementation strategies need to be in place with the consideration of how basic human behavior will influence the outcomes.

In the case of schools, all of us need to consider whether democracy really works in a situation where the biggest stakeholders are not old enough to vote.  Perhaps education would work better if placed in the hands of the professional educators….or at the very least, we might insist on strict laws and rules that subdue friendocracy with elected officials.

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