Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors and Math

Yet another front page, above the fold puff piece 

So once again the Amherst Bulletin is acting as stenographer/cheerleader for the Amherst Regional Public School administration by failing to point out the recently released, expensive, $5,000 study on the high cost of education (irony alert!) in Amherst failed to point out a rather obvious factor:  high administration costs.

And it's not too difficult to uncover that smoking gun.  According to the Mass Department Of Education website, Amherst "administration" costs are at $735 vs state average of $447, or 60% higher than state average.  And pesky critics have been pointing that out for years.

When the Amherst School Committee first discussed the exceedingly high per-pupil cost ($17,116 vs state average $13,361) some on the committee suggested perhaps other cities and towns had different financial reporting criteria to the state DOE, so perhaps some hidden costs that are not reported could be a factor in making Amherst appear high.

The $5,000 consultant report makes no mention of that, so it sounds like an "apples to apples" comparison confirms Amherst is indeed exceedingly high compared to other cities and towns (higher than two-thirds of comparative cities and towns used by the consultant).

The consultant, however, does the next best thing:  praises the town for "A historic value for education here and that's a wonderful thing." Easy for her to say since she does not live and pay our high tax rate. 

Funny, I can't ever remember running into a taxpayer who cheers our exceedingly high cost of education, which directly leads to our exceedingly high property tax rate.

And it's not like the academic results are something to applaud either.  According to the DOE, Amherst elementary schools (currently a "level 2" category) failed to measure up in 9-out-of-10 areas targeted for improvement.  Ouch!

Yes, Amherst teachers at an average annual salary of  $66,484 are a little over the $63,000 state average and the student/teacher ratio is lower at 10-1 (not the 1-10 the Amherst Bulletin reported) vs state average of 13.9-1.

But clearly a 5% above-average salary and 39% lower student/teacher ratio does not  account for an overall 28% increase over state average in per-pupil costs. 

Rather than throw teachers under the bus, ARPS administration needs to take a lesson from AA:  first step is to admit there's a problem.  Or as Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Can I bill the School Committee $5,000 for this report?


Anonymous said...

Those who push back against "them" (speaking as a former employee) ~quickly~ become chopped meat in the butcher's sausage maker.

And that little machine

is ~very~ well oiled...

(Oh, what a shameful little village.)

Anonymous said...

The person who yelled, "The Emperor has no clothes!" did not get paid.

Larry Kelley said...

Good point.

Anonymous said...

The pesky critics have all been run off.

Democracy at its finest.

Dr. Ed said...

$60K salaries and less than 10 students per class? Why didn't I stay in K-12????

Anonymous said...

We just decided to move our family to Amherst from a nearby town, and along with it we accepted the doubling of our taxes. Now we find out we're moving from a district with a level 1 high school to one with a level 3. I don't know which is more worrying, the demotion or the fact that such highly paid people could "just screw up the paperwork".

Anonymous said...

I wonder this: if the schools were more in line with the average cost per pupil, would that lower the tax rate significantly? (I'm assuming that the administrators' costs are factored into the cost per pupil.)

I, for one, think the public safety departments in town are worth every penny.

I'm not saying the schools are not worth it, I would just like to a more cost effective program -- we all want more bang for our buck.

Larry Kelley said...

Since school spending accounts for the lion's share of total town spending you can bet your bippy a reduction in per pupil expense would reduce the property tax.

Anonymous said...

No, it should be at least four $75K+ teachers per student. Maybe a linguist and someone to do all the homework too. What ever happened to one teacher and 30 kids per class and 80% went on to college?

Dr. Ed said...

What ever happened to one teacher and 30 kids per class and 80% went on to college?

R.I.F. killed that.

The baby boomers were out of K-12 by the mid-late 1970s and the total pupil count dropped by upwards of 40%. Each district had way more teachers than were needed, and "Reduction In Force" was how they were to be laid off -- and many were.

The union came up with this novel new concept of reducing class size. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that if you take the class of 30 and split it into two classes of 15, you will need a second teacher for the second classroom.

The kids won't learn any better but you will have saved a teacher's job which is what this was all about initially.

Then we get into the 1990s where almost all of the legacy teachers of the 30-student classrooms have retired and no one remembers how to teach large classes anymore, and the solution to absolutely everything is even smaller classes.

Yes, the Peter Principle applies here too -- if you are incompetent, hire two more incompetent underlings and you will look like a genius compared to them.

And this, my dear taxpayers, is why you are paying so damn much for K-12 -- a class size of 10 rather than 30 simply means you have to hire three times as many teachers.

Anonymous said...

the review was a joke. Really is it the place of this 'reviewer' to conclude our high costs are educationally valuable. It is clear from our MCAS (see, that we are AT BEST average in our elementary schools, and yet we 'invest' close to 50% more/student. The 10:1 student ratio is the problem. We have lots of teachers not involved in the classroom (some of which have close to 25:1 ratio) that are supposed to support intervention (and are clearly not very effective). In addition, I am pretty sure our district inflates the numbers of ELL students (it is in there best interest to play that card).
The district also plays the low income % we serve, but again simply compare our MCAS results with the state and again we look pretty average DESPITE our heavy investment in this population- why isn't what we are doing working?!? The million dollar question. (to which I'm sure the district can reply to with incomprehensible 'edu-speak'.

Anonymous said...

Larry-I know it has been a busy week, but I am surprised you did not take notice of how stressed AFD was this past weekend. Beginning at 12am Friday 10/19 through 11:59pm Sunday 10/21 AFD responded to 76 emergency calls. That is over 25 per day! 22 times the Department's 1st ambulance out of Central Station was called into service, 20 times the 1st ambulance out of North Station was called into service, then 9 times the department's 3rd ambulance, 8 times the department's 4th ambulance, and 2 times the departments 5th ambulance were responding to emergency calls. That is by far the busiest 72 hour period of the school year to date.

Dr. Ed said...

Three other things:

1: There is a great deal of contention nationally over the issue of fiction versus non-fiction in a reading curriculum, and I was at a national conference on this recently.

The one thing that both sides agreed on was that kids are going to college without sufficient reading and writing skills -- and with Planet UMass running something like 20 sections of remedial math each semester, I would add the third "R" as well.

At the height of the baby boom a half century ago, class sizes of 30 and the rest, kids graduated from high school knowing how to do this stuff. They were using slide rules for heaven's sake -- and those things were complicated...

So I don't see how reducing class size really helped.

2: In the mid 1990s, we essentially doubled teacher pay. Top pay for a teacher used to be about $35K, even adjusted for inflation, it is now about twice that.

Bear in mind that this happened after class size was reduced in the 1980s. The deal was twice the money and twice the education in return -- and are we getting it?

3: I believe the class size includes SPED. I like to do the figures both ways -- just classroom teacher per student ratio and then the total teacher (including SPED) per student ratio which is a lower number.

SPED is a trident of trouble. It is literally busting the budgets of most districts -- and calculate the per-student cost without including just local costs for SPED and your jaw will drop.

On the other hand, I don't think we have anywhere near enough kids in it -- SPED is for the bottom, not the top and the children truly being neglected are those who are both gifted and disabled. (Depending on gender, these are the kids who often wind up becoming either behavior problems or pregnant -- and a lot of this evolves out of unmet SPED needs.)

Which goes to my third point -- there is a great deal of overlap between the skills of a regular classroom teacher and a SPED teacher, and historically a lot of these SPED issues were addressed in a regular classroom by a kind, caring and qualified teacher.

I have a friend who is retired military and from the old school of teaching. He runs the alternative education program in a high school about the size of ARHS - and he has kids voluntarily dropping out of SPED so that they can be in his classroom. They are asking the district to stop providing accommodations so that they can be treated as a regular student - as they (the kids and their parents) believe they will do better in my friend's classroom than in SPED.

My point: The problem with a Superintendent that comes only from SPED is like the adage of "if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Because Maria G has neither taught in a regular classroom nor gone through the certification process for that particular license, she doesn't understand how a regular classroom teacher can address SPED issues before they become impairing enough to warrant a SPED diagnosis.

This is like me going to see a cardiologist to renew my blood pressure medication prescription and not my primary care doctor (who will refer me when he thinks he needs to). It is a hell of a lot cheaper all around to have the primary care guy write this 'script -- and it is likewise cheaper to have kids in the regular classroom instead of SPED.

And we won't even get into the mandate of "the least restrictive environment" and such...

Dr. Ed said...

One more more thing:

I will concede that a higher adult/child ratio is needed in the lower grades -- grade 4 and below.

But I said adult, not "teacher", and back in the days of the 30-student classrooms, there also were a lot of student teachers who essentially served as de-facto aides. And we have a lot of aides now, and we should be calculating them into any evaluation of the educational environment.

But sixth grade and above, once you go below about 18 students in a class, particularly when you go below 12, it becomes a much more difficult class to teach because each student starts to feel entitled to a private educational experience -- and the complete, undivided attention of the teacher.

There are social norms of a group -- you have to take turns speaking, you have to share resources (including the attention of the teacher), you have to respect the needs of others. All of these help a teacher manage a classroom - and if you can't manage the classroom in the first place, you aren't gonna be teaching anything.

When you get into smaller class sizes, you have to start doing things to -- essentially -- "stomp on" kids. To remind them that there are other people in the classroom besides them. I usually seat them in a circle and then go around the circle so that there is the appearance of a group and it is clear to all whose turn it is to talk.

But what I have seen some other teachers, particularly female teachers do, particularly to male students, borders on psychological child abuse.

Anonymous said...

Dammit Ed, that's the first response of yours I've ever read that made perfect sense (11:08 AM). Then you had to go an ruin it by running off at the mouth again. Quit when your ahead and people might just listen to you...

Dr. Ed said...

Dammit Ed, that's the first response of yours I've ever read that made perfect sense (11:08 AM). Then you had to go an ruin it by running off at the mouth again. Quit when your ahead and people might just listen to you..

It is all the same point -- they wanted class sizes smaller so there would be more jobs for teachers.

Same thing at UMass -- when faculty went from 4 & 4 (teaching 8 classes a year) to the now common 1 & 2 (three classes a year), there are a whole lot more professors needed....

Anonymous said...


I agree that administrator salaries are out of line, and like you, question what that buys us (it's even worse at UMass, but let's not go there...).

But it seems Amherst's student/teacher ratio is about 30% lower than average, and that the cost per student is about 30% (not 60% as you stated) higher than average. So it's not (as you correctly point out) that Amherst teachers are overpaid, but that there are more of them (per student, which is a good thing, IMHO).

Maybe you should double-check your "math"?

- Ite Figura

Larry Kelley said...

Actually I said the Admin costs were 60% over state average, something their consultant never even mentioned.

Anonymous said...

$5000 spin doctor

Anonymous said...

Then better re-read and correct what you actually wrote:

Yes, Amherst teachers at an average annual salary of $66,484 are a little over the $63,000 state average and the student/teacher ratio is lower at 10-1 (not the 1-10 the Amherst Bulletin reported) vs state average of 13.9-1.

But clearly a 5% above-average salary and 40% lower student/teacher ratio does not account for an overall 60% increase over state average in per-pupil costs. Clearly.

Larry Kelley said...

Good point. Had it correct early on.

Getting dyslexic in my old age. (Or senile.)