A Gilded Age of Education

American education is in a golden age. Never before have so many dedicated hard-toiling bureaucrats in the education industry done so much to ensure the quality of the veneer of education.

Today my wife called the middle school to try to get our daughter into algebra. We thought she was ready for it, based on consistently being one of the top students in her math classes, but, little did we know she didn’t do well enough on the qualifying exam. The qualifying exam was the final exam given in the algebra class, and our daughter could only muster a 77%, not meeting the bar of 80%. That is to say, while we thought our daughter was a good math student, it turns out she only knows 3/4 of the material in a math class she hasn’t taken yet.

Oh, you might think that seems like she ought to be ready, but that would be because you don’t understand the importance of schools’ maintaining the appearance of exceptional performance. Some of those kids you would mistakenly let into the algebra class might not do as well as others on the state’s standardized tests, and that would demonstrate to everyone who’s anyone that the school wasn’t doing a good job of appearing to be successfully teaching its students.

But don’t worry, we’re all making great strides in eradicating such poor perceptions. I was notified just today that to satisfy the regional accrediting agency my syllabus for any student doing an internship must specify–in addition to the number of hours they’ll actually be working at their internship–the number of hours they will spend writing a paper, and the number of minutes per day they will spend writing in their journal. The importance of this may escape you, but that internship is worth a certain number of credit hours, and it’s important we make up err, specify some imaginary, I mean precise amounts of time so we can ensure that the internship appears to be time appropriate for the number of credit hours.

The accrediting agencies have also dramatically increased the required amount of assessment faculty must do. Not being enlightened about educational theory, you may think of assessment as “testing.” Oh, dear me, no. Assessment is not about tests that demonstrate whether students have learned the material; it is about assessing student learning. At its core, assessment is about writing a report that demonstrates that you can write a report showing that you’ve assessed student learning.

And it’s imperative that we submit these documents so they can be filed in a timely manner. The prompt filing of reports is an important benchmark signaling that we have completed a task. Report filing indicates our dedication to completing documents that demonstrate our commitment to showing concern for the appearance of education.

Today’s children are a fortunate generation. Never before in America’s history have we had such an epoch of caring about the appearance of teaching our children well. The day is not far off when we can dispense with the wastefulness of education altogether, and have teachers devoting their full efforts to ensuring that American education looks better than education in any other country on earth.

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42 thoughts on “A Gilded Age of Education

  1. Stuff like this just continues to reaffirm the decision I made not to have kids. Otherwise, I’d have to deal with this crap.


  2. A number of colleges have adopted “test out” procedures for gaining credit in classes. My wife is enrolled at Western Governors University, so I know this institution has such a policy. A student can be enrolled in a class for as little as one week, and if the student demonstrate mastery of the subject matter on a test, the student gets credit and moves onto the next class. Conversely, a student who needs additional time above the traditional amount allocated for the class can take it before taking the test.

    Now, I don’t know what bureaucracy is happening behind-the-scenes. But I do know that from the student’s perspective, a test, rather than the creation of a thick paper file, is the critical means of demonstrating mastery of the subject matter, and that would seem to buck the trend that Prof. Hanley describes in the post.

    I, for one, approve.


    • Ha. I remember in college having a slog of a Numeric Methods class, where it was possible to complete the whole class and ace it without going to class. near the end of the course, the teacher asked why I wasn’t in class anymore. I told him — next year he had a “show up to class” requirement.

      This is far counter to the teacher who half-jokingly said: “This is a classroom. My class is for sleeping!” (hard slog of a Data Structures class — demonstrating the knowledge and skills was far more important than learning whatever the prof said).


      • I enjoyed the classes that were online lecture, where the ‘classroom hours’ were basically office hours. You could do projects, talk to the professor, get clarification — but the readings and lectures were done on your own time.


    • I’d take that chart with a grain of salt.

      My brother, for instance, would be considered ‘administration and other staff”. He’s a full-time inclusion aid, which means he’s there to deal with kids so disabled (developmentally or otherwise) that they need full-time help — which means his job [i]exists[/i] entirely so the teacher can teach, while he handles the needs of a disabled student or student(s).

      My mother-in-law would also be called “administration and other staff” — she runs a fine arts department. A large one. (Not as a boss, either. She’s an aide. But she’s the one that books trips, schedules private lessons, arranges tickets, handles fund-raisers, and basically does all the minutia that enables the fine arts department to go to competitions, give private lessons, give performances, acquire new equipment, get equipment fixed, etc….while the choir, orchestra, and band directors…teach).

      You could get rid of her job, I admit. But if you did, the choir director — who has some 400+ students in 6 separate choirs on two campuses with 1 subordinate director — would find his workload increased considerably, meaning he’d have to…stop teaching a lot so he could arrange stuff. Or cut a lot of choir related activities, like many performances.

      I’m not saying there’s no bloat (there is and I’ve seen it) but beware of charts like that — heck, complying with the ADA and special education students would have doubled or tripled “other staff” by itself.


      • If you figure the special ed/needs kids are a small proportion of total kids–let’s be generous and say 25%–and you assume it takes twice as many administrators per special ed/needs kid as it does per average student, then with the 96% growth in students (let’s round to 100%), we would have, if my math is correct, 125% growth rate among administrators. Let’s say jobs like your MIL’s (which I have no criticism of) added another 75 percentage points on to the growth rate, which is surely high. Then we have 200% growth, and we’re still looking for another 500 percentage points of growth rate.

        That’s not insignificant. And it’s probably not in the schools themselved, for the most part, but in the district offices. And notice that this growth happened despite mergers that were supposed to make schools more efficient by eliminating multiple sets of administrators, and keep in mind what I wrote A few days ago about Elinor Ostrom’s police studies.

        Some of this “excess” growth comes from the perverse effects of larger organization, some comes from the increasing paperwork demands of state education bureaucracies. Some probably has other causes. But pointing to soecial ed/needs students doesn’t seem to get us close to the numbers involved.


      • James,

        Have you considered janitors, IT support (the networks and technologies of a modern school are pretty much like any other business. Dozens to hundreds of desktops, an internal network — wired and wireless — internet access, projectors, microphone and speaker setups, eighteen thousand different types of necessary software, web systems and web interfaces and web gradebooks for teachers, parents, and staff), cafeteria staff, school security? (Seriously, or local school district has a separate admin building and separate IT building. The IT building houses three times as many people).

        As for special ed — they don’t scale like teachers. Teachers work 25 to 30 to 1 in terms of ‘kids per teacher’, whereas special ed teacher’s need a ratio that’s half that for the easiest cases and 1 to 1 for some.


      • Anyways, my point being — separating it into “teachers” and “admin and staff” is a misleading, BS statistic. It lumps janitors with superintendents with full-time department heads with the IT guy with the secretary who runs an entire department with the aides assigned to difficult SE cases with security people.

        “Wow, it’s grown 700% in 60 years”. well, yeah. For one, they didn’t have an IT or special ed staff in 1950. Probably didn’t also have eighty-five thousand sports teachers, sixty clubs, 8 languages, a band, an orchestra, a choir, and a zillion other things that requires some work on the back end — from organization to travel — which means either teachers spend a lot of time working and not teaching, or you hire someone to do a lot of the ‘non-teachy’ bits.

        Now, break it down into a useful statistic — who are these people, what are their jobs, and we can have a useful conversation. “Wow, admin has grown 100% — what are they doing? Do they need more people? Or less? What’s the change?”..


      • You are on point regarding special ed., although IMHO, such aides should be counted among the teachers, since they are directly involved in the learning process, rather than supporting it. Basically, if your job has you spending the bulk of your time working with kids directly, you should not be counted as Admin.

        IT, on the other hand… Holy crap! What kind of IT infrastructure do you think a public school has? When I worked for the uni, we had a handful of people, including student techs & AV staff, to handle the IT for a single college, and we had a very modern IT setup. As IT moves along, if it’s setup correctly, it requires less effort, not more, to keep humming along. My old boss is the IT Director for a moderate school district (most of a county) & he has just a couple of staff per building, plus a small team at the district office.


      • MRS,
        I’m quite familiar with the IT department of my local school district. 8000 kids, hundreds of teachers, and quite a lot of support staff spread over at least two dozen buildings on opposite sides of town.

        Each classroom has at least one computer (most have several). Most have projector systems, many of those have document systems (allowing teachers to have do things like slap a piece of paper down, project it onto the wall, and use it to illustrate things — and even quickly block the name on the paper before showing it). Every staff member has a computer, many now have tablets. Most classrooms (all new ones) have speaker and pendant setups (personal mic for the teacher). The library has tons of them. Not to mention the computer specific high school classes — web design, the graphic design clsases, programming classes.

        Then there is the department infrastructure — the networks in each building, the intranet, the gradebook software, the student portals, the parent portals, the ability to pay fees, look at grades, pay for lunches, etc all online.

        That’s ONE school district. You think a handful of guys keeps all that running? Our IT and help desk system at my work building is at least five people, serving less than 300 people — most of whom are quite capable of fixing every PC problem that doesn’t involve parts or admin access. That does NOT include the corporate help desk and the corporate network people, as they’re shared across the company.

        And the school IT department is, frankly, understaffed at the moment but they don’t have the budget for more. (It doesn’t help that a lot of tech comes from grants, which purchase hardware but doesn’t pay for support staff. So the school might have gotten a hundred free tablets and another 25 clicker feedback systems, but the same number of techs already handling the entire setup have to handle that to).


      • Oh, and I can assure you that special ed aides are NEVER considered teachers in any survey, graphic, or statistic you find. Neither are diagnosticians. Neither are specialists who might have a ‘class’ of students each day they work with on issues like dyslexia.

        Only people with current, valid teaching certificates who actually teach classrooms full of students official, for-credit classes, are considered ‘teachers’.

        Coaches generally count, but not always. (PE being a class, and 90% of coaches tend to teach a class or two outside of PE daily too. )


      • Of course private schools don’t have any IT folks. {eye roll}

        Well, I’m sure every job can be justified somehow. The question is whether those justifications add up to quality gains in American education. Anything else is just genuflecting before the alter of the unquestionable god of public education.

        Meanwhile American teachers are more likely than the average person to send their kids to private school. And since we all know how desperately underpaid they are, clearly they must have a deeply compelling reason to make such a financial sacrifice to keep their kids out of the public system.

        I’m sorry, but I so frequently see this “I’m know gov’t isn’t perfect, but I’m going to reject every actual critique, even at the cost of making spurious arguments,” that to me it just sounds like the mating call of the American liberal. Some days I can take it in stride, but not the day I’ve posted something indicating my deep frustration with a system that is strangling real education in an ever-tightening noose of by-the-book rules following and paperwork filing. To hell with your government aplogias. Go work for your public school district and see what they think of NCLB, see what they think of their state education bureaucracy.

        Christallfuckingmightu I get sick of the kneejerk defenses of public education.

        And I send my kids to public school…unlike a hell of a lot of the public school bureaucracy.

        Rip me in response if you want. I don’t really care what apologists for sclerocracy have to say.


      • That is all very impressive, but the number I wanted wasn’t mentioned.

        How many IT staff are there for the district?

        I mean, 2 dozen buildings & 8K machines means a minimum of 2 full time IT staff per building, call it 50 people. (Yes, that is a valid ratio, I used to take care of 200 student & faculty machines all by myself, as a part time student).
        Tack on at least another 6 for just infrastructure maintenance between all the buildings.
        Probably another 5 at headquarters.

        Round it up to cover some floating staff & call it 65 people.

        Oh, wait, you said 8000 kids, not computers. Well, you still need at least 2 people per building, or campus (if the schools are similar to hear, you have some that are a collection of single story buildings with breezeways between them).


      • Well, I’m sure every job can be justified somehow. The question is whether those justifications add up to quality gains in American education. Anything else is just genuflecting before the alter of the unquestionable god of public education.
        Yes but saying “Oh look how much more Admin and support staff” there is is NOT the way to determine whether or not there’s too much bloat.

        As noted, there’s a LOT that modern schools do that schools didn’t in 1950. Special ed and ADA being two areas that are particularly manpower intensive. And things like “IT” not having existed then.

        Which goes back to the original point: It’s a BS chart. It has “teachers” and “everyone else” and tries to imply it’s all bloated layers of admin, but doesn’t bother breaking out the actual “admin” staff. (Or even define it).

        When people complain about bloated administration, they are not talking about janitors or cafeteria workers or IT support people or inclusions aides or even departmental secretaries. Not unless they’re the sort of idiot that thinks one-room schoolhouses are the model to build on.

        Which is why I pointed out the chart was BS in the first place. If you want to talk about bloated administration and show it’s grown, by all means let’s do that. But don’t through a graphic at me that lumps EVERYONE who isn’t a teacher at me and claim it’s “admin staff”.


      • MRS:
        65 sounds about right. Might be as low as 50 or so. They’re under staffed, but the pay is pretty poor and all but a few run the same pay-cycle as teachers (work 10 months of the year, get the summer months off, and don’t get paid for the summer. 10 months of work split into 12 months of paychecks).

        I know it’s less than 100 — the HS has perhaps 5 dedicated IT guys, and I know the elementary schools work with 1 or even split one. Just running the networks and payroll systems would eat up a few people, and they do a lot of repairs/replacements. (I’m always shocked at how many hard drive failures you get a week when you’re covering thousands of hard drives).


      • Morat,

        The point is, you’re not even attempting to give real numbers. You’re just saying “they do more,” and apparently assuming that means they’re doing enough more meaningful work to justify all the extra people.

        This is where I get grimly amused. There’s a certain class of people who are smart enough to know that when a business says they’re doing something for the customer’s benefit, that it’s really driven by the business’s own interests and the businesses are just saying nice thing to try to trick us into believing their primary concern is caring about us. So they’re rightly skeptical.

        But they’re naive enough that they consistently fail to apply that skepticism to government, and when government says they’re doing something for citizens’ benefit, they buy it, failing to remember that government agencies also are driven by their own interests, and also will say nice things to try to trick us into believing their primary concern is about us.

        Oh, they’ll be skepticism about a limited set of government programs, the military, maybe the police. But about any program targeted toward something they care about, the skepticism disappears and they’re like toddlers in Disneyland; they believe it’s all for real and can’t imagine questioning it.

        I imagine there are even people who believe the teachers’ unions when they say their primary concern is the students.


      • Seems reasonable. Give me a free hand & a healthy chunk of change my first year & I could run the district IT with 25 people & no one would be over-worked.

        Still, the bloat that seems to infect schools, public, private, and collegiate, is positions that are essentially the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant Superintendent, or other positions that are incidental to the mission of educating students. You mention above schools needing people to organize & administer all the clubs & extracurriculasrs. I seem to remember a time when such activities were run by volunteers from the local PTA, or they didn’t happen.

        I can appreciate a large school district wanting a full or even part time staff member to handle such things, but I have to wonder, the last time the school went to the voters for more tax money to hire more teachers, how many teachers did they hire versus how many administrative staff to make life easier for the adults running the show, rather than to make life easier for the teachers & students? I ask because this is a constant refrain from schools, but I don’t always see the teacher populations jumping as much as they say they need to.


      • The point is, you’re not even attempting to give real numbers. You’re just saying “they do more,” and apparently assuming that means they’re doing enough more meaningful work to justify all the extra people.

        Okay, just to be clear here: I responded to a chart that showed “growth in teachers” and “growth in admin and staff” since 1950, and pointed out that it was disingenuous because “admin and staff” covers everything from the superintendent to the janitor to the IT guy, and includes at least two types of employee that flatly didn’t exist in 1950 but are pretty much required for 2014 (IT and special ed).

        I then concluded that you can’t draw any conclusions about growth, especially not conclusions about excessive overhead or administrative bloat, from such a crappy chart (and drawing those erroneous conclusions, despite lack of necessary detail, WAS the obvious point of that chart).

        And your response is that I didn’t give numbers? My whole POINT was the original chart didn’t give numbers! Apparently we fully agree: a chart that lumps multiple types of employee together is useless because the only number it provides (rate of growth) is meaningless given that it’s not specific to a single type of employee.

        Seriously, ALL I wanted to say was “That’s a stupid chart, and the conclusion it wants you to draw is meaningless because of X” (where X is “hey, off the top of my flipping head I can think of two types of employees required for most modern schools that didn’t exist in 1950, all lumped into the bloat category and totally not accounted for).

        You apparently now want me to prove no bloat exists? Yeah, no. I’m just pointing out that a bad chart leads to bad conclusions. If you want to prove admin bloat exists, go for it. I’d advice against using that chart, though…


      • Morat is right that his critique was primarily that the chart was overly broad in it’s definitions (I just linked it as a throwaway gag to poke you, not to illicit & big todo).


      • I really don’t think so. If he had said nothing more than that the combining of substantively different categories made it impossible to know just what was going on in the data, then, yes. But it became an exercise in unwillingness to consider that it’s possible that there is real, substantive, bloat in the education bureaucracy. (Note that he focused solely on staff working in schools, and excluded consideration of district staff.)

        Just as there’s a category of libertarians who can’t accept that there are some endemic problems with markets, there are liberals who can’t accept that there are some endemic problems with government that are present, with force, in even the programs they like. A pox on the houses of both groups: each wants a simplified version of reality where the good guys and bad guys are readily distinguishable, and of course each side is confident they’re the good guys, so at worst they make minor mistakes that are mere human errors, not problems endemic to their preferred system.


    • I was hanging out with my dad earlier and the Chicago Public School system was a hot topic regarding how much money gets sucked up by downtown/district bureaucracy. He’s retired twice: first from teaching high school Physics in CPS, then an additional 15 years teaching math to artists at Columbia College (Chicago not NY). He’s volunteering with a local group that is trying to get more funds allocated to the school level, or at least trying to find out where it goes.

      Currently, CPS has a $5.59B (billion with a b) budget and around 400,000 students. That works out to about $14,000/student. However, when sending money to the school, it is allocated at the high school at $5000/student. This has to cover all the teachers, support staff, administrators and expenses (including maintenance, heating, utilities, etc) at the school level. So, in Chicago, 65% of the funding doesn’t even get to the school.


      Total: 400,545 (2013-2014 20th Day Enrollment)

      Total: 41,579* (2013-14)
      Teachers total: 22,519

      Operating Budget
      Fiscal Year 2014 total: $5.59 billion


  3. i’d make a joke about “how do you know it’s the beginning of the semester? the professors are crying more than usual.” but my wife just punched me.


    • Well, my wife did get her in, with just a simple chat with the principal.

      But if she’d been one of the Hispanic kids from the poor side of town, whose parents don’t speak English well, what are the odds they’d have realized they could probably get her in. My daughter’s surely benefiting from being white and having educated parents.


  4. Heh… Assessment…

    I recently got to contribute as a facilitator to a massive PreK teacher training institute as part of NYC’s Universal PreK expansion*. At one point, we discussed assessment. As someone not weighed down by the red tape of the DOE and charged with discussing best practice, I gave a mini-lecture on all the ways we “check for learning and knowledge” (which is how I define assessment).
    “What about work sampling?”
    “Work samples are a great method for young learners. They can be either student or teacher driven. Who has some examples of each?”
    “No. I mean Work Sampling (TM).”
    “Excuse me?”
    “The DOE requires each school to choose a single prescribed method of assessment. Work Sampling (TM) is one such method. It tells us exactly how and what to collect samples of.”
    “Well, I guess if it helps you take work samples better, that’s great. But work samples alone are insufficient unless they consider children’s comments — taken as dictation or recorded — and documentation of their actions as “work”, you’re going to miss alot.”
    “I don’t think they do.”

    * I say “expansion” and not “roll out” because NYC had a “limited” number of UPK centers already. Apparently, the meaning of the term “universal” is up for debate.


  5. Today my wife called the middle school to try to get our daughter into algebra. We thought she was ready for it, based on consistently being one of the top students in her math classes, but, little did we know she didn’t do well enough on the qualifying exam. The qualifying exam was the final exam given in the algebra class

    Something seems wrong here. The qualifying exam for a class is the final exam for the class? That is, in order to qualify for learning a given material, you need to know at least 80% of the material that the class will be teaching?

    Also, does not everyone learn algebra?


  6. The qualifying exam was the final exam given in the algebra class

    Are you sure about that? I ask only because that seems like a stupid decision even for very, very stupid people. Also because it would mean that basically no one would get in.

    The standardized tests are, I’m pretty sure, by grade-level, not course. So letting students into algebra who might do badly doesn’t hurt test scores directly. It might hurt them if the alternative is putting them into a pre-algebra course that drills them on the stuff that will be in the standardized test. But that’s a reach on my part.


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