The leaning ivory tower

News that American industrial productivity rose 6.3 percent in the just-finished third quarter contrasts fairly vividly with news that American school-kids are now posting even worse results, compared to their international competition, than they were in earlier years. Typically, U.S. students score worse than global averages in science and math, the latest PISA tests show. You can fairly fault my weak attempt at punning (PISA is not only a small city in Italy (with very difficult sub-soil engineering conditions, which explains why a certain medieval bell-tower there has titled dangerously from the vertical and has become a recognized symbol for poor results; its also the acronym for the Program for International Student Assessment, which periodically runs achievement tests against which student accomplishment from various countries can be compared) but you cant easily avoid the conclusion that, as the American economy continues to develop, some sectors are doing far better than others in terms of return-on-investment as measured by gains in productivity. Typically, the measure of productivity is the ratio of inputs to results: equipment- or man-hours for a bushel of corn or a Lincoln Continental, labor and office costs for the IRS to collect another billion dollars, the quality improvements in a computer versus the decline in price over recent years. A quart of milk today may be pretty much what your grand-mother bought, but medical services today far exceed what she could have hoped for, as measured by, say, average longevity versus increased cost. And what about productivity trends in public education? The best source for this that Ive found is a web page called The Grandfather Report, compiled by one M.W.Hodges, and in its education section you can read the text and charts showing how he has come to his striking conclusion that, over the last three decades, public education has brought upon itself a 71 percent decline in productivity (even while the private sector, on average, has gone at least that far in the productivity-gain direction). Hodges derives his conclusion from a long-term historical comparison of two inputs and two outputs: the inputs are inflation-adjusted spending per pupil, average teaching and non-teaching staffing per pupil, and the outputs are student achievement test results, both domestic and international. He might have included administrative costs and building square footage investment, both up sharply on a per-pupil basis, but didnt: anyway, those costs are buried within the overall rising costs per pupil. Not so buried are the costs of remedial high-school work in college: two-thirds of matriculating freshmen need it, and its paid by parents or guess whotaxpayers. Maybe there are (I dont know of one) private-sector enterprises which showed a 71 percent productivity slump over 30 years, but ever week theres a piece in the financial press about companies or businesses disappearing from the competitive scene for performance which is much less bad, in productivity terms. Historically, the American taxpayer has been remarkably forgiving of low productivity in the governmental enterprises it pays for, but there are signs that, at least for education if not for less visible programs like USDA tea-testing, public patience is declining. Some indicators show up in what, in the private sector, would be called market penetration. Public education is losing customers at an increasing rate, and more would take their kids out if they werent forced, at legal bayonet-point, to pay for it regardless of actual service use. A recent poll by the St. Johnsbury Caledonian-Record finds that 26 percent of its Vermont and New Hampshire respondents are in favor of parents paying their own kids costs and, therefore, not being taxed for the costs generated by others. That public sentiment is a pretty sharp rebuke to the free public education system set up by Horace Mann a century-and-a-half ago, which experienced no such challenge to its credibility until the recent declines in productivity became so apparent. But then, its just about what the system used in the pre-Civil War years in Vermont, when, through families paying rate bills for the kids they sent to public schools, user fees (although not known by that term) were in place for the actual teaching while the town all taxpayerspaid for buildings and some of the administration.

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