The Cost of a Snark

Ken Gorrellby Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”
– The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll

Once, twice, or thrice – no matter how many times our legislators, judges, or education bureaucrats claim they are calculating the cost of an “adequate education,” what they tell us isn’t true. Like Lewis Carroll’s Bellman and crew, they are hunting for something that doesn’t exist.
They can point to this or that RSA, judicial opinion, or bill with the words “adequate,” “education,” and “cost.” But that doesn’t mean any of them have taken even rudimentary steps toward defining those words in context. If I were more clever I could set RSA Section 193-E:2-a (Adequate Public Education) to rhyme and it would fit well within Carroll’s whimsical canon.
The fault doesn’t belong to any individual or group. As much as finger-pointing can be cathartic, we are dealing with a systemic failure long in the making. Shawn Parr, CEO of consulting firm Bulldog Drummond, asked in Fast Company, “How many industries that were around 100 years ago—and are still around today—are making their products almost the exact same way? Can you think of an industry that uses almost the identical methods of production they did 100 years ago, one that hasn’t undergone radical industrialization, innovation, or significant transformation? How about the American classroom?”
As yourself this question: “If you were going to design from scratch a system to educate American children and prepare them for the adult world, would you design the public education system as it currently exists?” The question answers itself. Of course you wouldn’t design a labor-intensive, administration-heavy system that spends ever increasing amounts of money yet produces inferior products as benchmarked in a global market. Of course you wouldn’t design a system using a production model built to meet the needs of 19th century America. Of course you wouldn’t base the success of your system on the imperative of hiring, training, and retaining more than 3 million professional employees across a range of specialties, yet compensate them using metrics that have nothing to do with competency. And of course you wouldn’t design a system that treats your increasingly varied customers as if they were essentially the same.
Yet that describes the education system under which we continue to burden ourselves and hinder our children. While innovations have radically transformed everything from automobile production to the delivery of professional services, American public education has soldiered on using a model virtually unchanged in 100 years. Yes, we have added some technology to the classroom – white boards replacing black boards, Netbooks supplementing textbooks, mission statements posted on websites rather than bulletin boards – but by any meaningful metric public schools are building Tin Lizzies in a Tesla world.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, bureaucracy abhors transformation. According to the Friedman Foundation, during a period when student population grew by 96 percent, the number of public school teachers grew by 252 percent and the ranks of administrators and other staff exploded by an astounding 702 percent. As we know from reports of static test scores, the significant rise in the need for remedial college courses, and US rankings against our global competitors, that growth in personnel cost has not translated into better prepared, more educated students.
Now back to hunting the Snark, i.e., determining the cost of an adequate education. How can anyone calculate the cost of something that is being produced by a system that in 100 years has not had a radical transformation or a clean-sheet review? How can anyone define “adequate” in a way that has meaning for millions of “consumers” with widely varying abilities and needs? How can we expect elected officials to move an entrenched, heavily-unionized bureaucracy with a significant stake in maintaining the status quo? The predictable response: Take a welfare approach and ignore the core issue.
HB 1630 (Cost of an Opportunity for an Adequate Education) is working its way through the legislature. Its focus is on the margins. Its metrics include equalized valuation and participation in federal free and reduced-price meal programs. In other words, our legislators will try throwing enough money at an unsustainable, undefinable, under-preforming system to get by another year. So next year we’ll spend $12-13,000 per pupil on average to inadequately prepare another cohort of NH’s children to enter the adult world.

Ken can be reached at kengorrell@gmail.com