The Intellectually Vacuous Bob Bowdon’s “Cartel”

Posted on June 17, 2009

See updated post on this topic:

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Had a busy week, so I haven’t posted, but saw a new report yesterday which relates nicely back to the shallow logic of Bob Bowdon’s intellectually vacuous Cartel movie.

The Cartel movie is based on the premise that (a) public schools nationally are failing, (b) public schools in the US spend a ton of money to achieve little, (c) New Jersey is the perfect example of a state which spends a ton of money and fails. All of this, of course, occurs because of a self-interested, self-indulgent cartel of teachers unions and greedy bureaucrats (here’s how their salaries stack up to those “real world” “private sector” workers in NJ). I’ll avoid this latter piece for now, and take a closer look at the logic of points “a” through “c.”

Bowdon cherry picks some national average results from the PISA international assessment of 15 year old students to show that the US compared poorly on math in 2003 and worse in 2006. Of course, any national averages in the U.S. combine the performance of children in states that have largely thrown their public schooling system under the bus  – like Louisiana and Mississippi among others – with those that have done quite well like Massachusetts and New Jersey (indeed it is somewhat unfair to compare directly LA and MS to MA and NJ).

As I have shown in recent posts, there does exist at least some relationship between state aggregate spending (controlling for a variety of factors) and national assessment performance – albeit a relationship heavily entangled with socioeconomic conditions and adult population education levels in states.

Further, as I have also explained previously, an extensive body of research on the effects of school finance reforms including infusion of new resources into poor schools, shows significant positive effects.

A new study out this month from the American Institutes for Research seeks to make more appropriate statistical comparisons of student math performance on another international assessment – TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study). The authors construct a statistical cross-walk between NAEP state assessment scores and TIMSS scores which can be used for international comparisons.  From this analysis, the authors are able to evaluate where individual states stack up against countries participating in TIMSS. This is important because of the variance in state level performance and differences in state policies, fiscal effort and students served.

For starters, on international comparisons, the US on average scored just below the mean for OECD (organization for economic cooperation and development) countries at the 4th and 8th grade level (we do lag from 4th to 8th, an issue of concern). At both 4th and 8th grade on math, the US average is well above the international mean for all TIMSS participants. Now, we may wish to do better – and should. AIR assigns grades to the score ranges for each country and points out that we don’t perform at the levels we should. But this is far from the absurd, apocalyptic (and simply irresponsibly misguided) view presented by Bowdon.

But wait, Bowdon’s premise is that states like New Jersey are the perfect example of inefficiency – spending so much yet producing these terrible national averages. Certainly, New Jersey can’t be blamed for the national average – which carries with it the baggage of states like Louisiana and Mississippi.

How does New Jersey compare to the OECD average? New Jersey ranks 3rd among states on 4th grade math with 25 states beating the OECD average performance. Not bad for Jersey, along with Massachusetts and Minnesota! Louisiana, Alabama, New Mexico, California and Mississippi carry up the bottom end of the rankings, falling below the OECD mean, but above the overall international mean. That is, even Mississippi and Louisiana beat the international mean.

New Jersey drops a little on 8th grade math (consistent with other NAEP based analyses of NJ), but still does well, coming in 6th among the 27 states which perform above the OECD mean. Again, even Louisiana and Mississippi exceed the international mean, but well below the OECD mean.

I am by no means arguing for complacency  – saying – hey – that’s good enough. Rather, my point here is to re-emphasize that the US has a wide variety of education systems in place across states – some which spend a great deal and in fact perform very well, even in international comparisons. New Jersey is among them. We also in this country have some states that have seriously neglected their education systems, spent little, and shifted large shares of (primarily upper class) children in private schooling (schools that spend more, not less than the public schools in those states) where their performance goes unmeasured in these international and even state by state comparisons (in fact, these may be the children who do well in those states, but we don’t know). WHAT THESE STATES HAVE DONE IS A NATIONAL CONCERN!

It is foolish stretch of logic to blame New Jersey’s high spending (and the Cartel that demanded it) for the poor national average performance on select international comparisons. Yes, New Jersey spends on education, and in fact, New Jersey does quite well with that spending compared to other states and on international comparisons.

Certainly, spending alone is not the solution. But little is added to the debate by producing bombastic, misguided, poorly conceived and irresponsible slick-production rhetoric posing as documentary.