kitchen table math, the sequel: the spartan school and the low-income student

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

the spartan school and the low-income student

Far from an advocate of minimalism or the Lacedaemonian style of discipline, I am often struck by how schools elsewhere in the world can still retain excellent educations on so little a budget.

I admit, I have an ulterior agenda, one that pertains to immigration policy. I often hear the justification for stricter immigration controls (that is to repress even legal migrants) because additional migrants are overloading the resources of school systems. My answer is that a lot of districts have no idea how to manage low-income students or to construct low-cost schools.

Low-cost schools with excellent education, if you ask me, is a lot better than the alternative -- buildings that look like their high-income counterparts but the teaching does not. Schools in Singapore, ranging from the government-run "neighbourhood schools" to the independently-run distinguished names share some common design characteristics. They are not shamed by bare concrete floors; they are easy to spray-wash. I estimate that my primary school's (FMPS) current building cost at maximum $12 million SGD in todays' dollars, with a capacity of 1800 students. Contrast this with my high school district in Maine, which a few years ago wanted to take out a $57 million USD bond to renovate a high school that sees a student population between 900-1150 students. Where does the money go? I mean, Singapore, materials have to be imported from overseas; I imagine that cost of materials in New England is considerably cheaper. On top of this, FMPS managed to build several koi ponds and other feng-shui pleasing things in the courtyards -- a delight at every recess.

But the physical space is really a minute fraction of overall cost.

Is it the structure of the classes? From ages six to sixteen, schools do not try to imitate universities, though there are differentiated teachers even at primary one. So you don't have a single first-grade teacher trying to cover mother tongue languages, English, math and social/civics. But at the same time you're not shuffling kids from room to room in an imitation of the college environment. Yet I imagine a lot of American schools have this too. One thing my school did was to have morning and afternoon sessions -- from 7:50 am to 12:50 pm, and from 1:15 pm to 6:15 pm (with a 30-minute assembly before each session), so each classroom was effectively used by two different cohorts each day. Economization of space, I suppose.

How much expense is the food budget? Schools traditionally lease their canteen to eight vendors, which are in competition with each other, but the rent was cheap, such that the food prices were usually half that of the food prices found in the market across the road. But American schools can just as easily lease their premises to ARAMARK or some similar outsourcer, although a poor district may find itself paying for a large amount of free lunches.

Discipline perhaps. A large part of discipline was managed by peer leaders known as prefects -- but then again, it was needed, because a Singaporean teacher will typically manage a class of 40. Prefects were usually popular, respected students who could influence their peers, and were nominated for this reason. (I remember my form teacher once told the class monitor -- also a student discipline role -- she did not nominate him for prefect because he was "too quiet".) In my class, 11/41 students ended being prefects. (I was not the model student, and so, I was not one.) The system has its complaints; sometimes the prefects were not perfect instruments of administration and would sometimes conspire in mischief. But at the same time, perhaps the system takes considerable work out of classroom management, reducing stress and turnover. Does the system work well in Britain, who we inherited it from?

Books. The MOE much prefers thin textbooks and workbooks. Explanations in the textbooks are rather concise and visually illustrated (not with like, full-colour photographs, but with well-annotated diagrams). In primary school for each semester, my math textbook was at max a 100+ pages and was a low-cost paperback at $3.50 SGD. The workbook was a thin tome, costing like $2. And after exhausting the workbook, the teacher (with the assistance of the department) easily made up her own problems, or used past exams, and assessment books if need be. In secondary school the textbooks and workbooks were significantly thicker, but the prices were not ridiculous -- on the range of $10-$15 SGD usually.

Perhaps it's because publishers do not have a monopoly. Schoolbooks are meant to be worn; publishing in hardcover is ridiculous. I believe MOE drafts the material (with the help of participating teachers) and then has publishers bid to publish it the most cost-effectively. On the other hand, I have never heard of the Department of Education ever publishing anything besides reports, "standards" and "rubrics". I have never seen a Department of Education approval stamp on say, a textbook.

The money must be going somewhere. The Singapore administration would probably like the opportunity many districts in America are facing, with a large influx of migrant students. From a purely economic perspective, more students means more productive citizens in the future, and new opportunities to strengthen the state machinery, especially in the face of a declining birth rate. We don't have to be that cynical, but I really dislike how many local governments view their low-income students, treating them as liabilities rather than as future solutions to the poor neighbourhoods they came from.


Anonymous said...

"I often hear the justification for stricter immigration controls (that is to repress even legal migrants) because additional migrants are overloading the resources of school systems. My answer is that a lot of districts have no idea how to manage low-income students or to construct low-cost schools."

A more correct answer is that the average US *citizen* overloads the public resources. This is a simple consequence of a progressive income tax.

Consider, for example, the 2010 federal budget (I'm using Wikipedia for my numbers). $3.8 trillion. If we subtract off about $1 trillion for deficit spending that could, somehow, just go away, we get a federal budget of $2.8 trillion. With a US population of about 300 million, this works out to about $9K per person. Or $27K for a family of three; $36K for a family of four.

The *average* family of four does not pay $36K in federal taxes (I'm including social security in this ... so keep in mind that the employer portion doesn't show up on a paycheck). We could quibble about corporate taxes and such, but federal individual income tax plus social security taxes account for 85% of federal revenues.

The *average* citizen pays less in taxes than the government pays out per person in services and transfer payments.

This replicates as the state level.

California, for example has a budget of about $90B and a population of about 30M. $3K per person ... $9K for a family of 3, $12K for a family of 4.

Add state and federal numbers together, and the average family of four would have to pay about $50K in taxes every year to match current taxation levels.

I'll submit that the vast majority of immigrants do *NOT* pay taxes at this rate. And the result is that these immigrants do (or will) take out more in services than they pay in taxes. This is bad for the current citizens.

Things are *much* worse when one talks about illegal immigration ... many/most of these are hard working Mexicans who are nice people trying to do well for themselves and their families. The problem is that when the state pays $9K per student per year, and these people are making (generously) $30K/year, the additional taxes just don't cover the additional services. Add in medical care (often at emergency rooms as these people frequently can't afford health insurance) and things just get worse.


-Mark Roulo

le radical galoisien said...

But Singapore has faced similar issues before, and emerged from it with rather large budget surpluses.

Most immigrants do not pay at those rates /now/, but they can pay at those rates later.

Cynically, state services can be seen as investments to strengthen the state, not an end to themselves. You don't have to see it that way, but the effect still exists.

I contend that many local and state governments do not know how to contend with "crisis" projects....they are rather like the British SIT that preceded the Singapore HDB.

We started with emergency schools and emergency flats (for the squatters in the crowded central districts), and steadily upgraded from there.

And part of it is that we actively sought expertise from all parts of the globe.

The state doesn't know how to provide cost-effective services. If faced with a large low-income population, you take economic development measures to increase the average income of your population (education being one such measure).

There is no economic differentiation in the US in terms of public services.

In SG as a low-income family when hospitalised we could go for "Class C" wards -- with the same excellence of doctors but with wards, no air-conditioning, etc. (unless you were in ICU or something). No one threw a fit because we were apparently received less luxurious service than richer families who could afford Class A wards with their own personal TV and air conditioning.

(In fact, we usually have to block richer families from being able to take the lower-cost option, which is subsidised.)

And the money spent on healthcare (public or private) is much less for a higher life expectancy.

So again, American money is going somewhere, and disappearing into a black hole.

Anonymous said...

"Most immigrants do not pay at those rates /now/, but they can pay at those rates later."

Yes, it is quite possible. And Canada, to pick an example, tries to select immigrants who the Canadian government believes will do so. America does not try. So the policy becomes something close to accepting random immigrants from around the world. The question is then: does accepting random people from around the world pay for itself in taxes? This is an empirical question. My guess is that the answer is "No." But I might be wrong.

I am quite certain that in the case of *illegal* immigration the answer is "No."

-Mark Roulo

PhysicistDave said...

Mark Roulo wrote:
>The question is then: does accepting random people from around the world pay for itself in taxes? This is an empirical question. My guess is that the answer is "No." But I might be wrong.
> I am quite certain that in the case of *illegal* immigration the answer is "No."

Mark, the empirical data I have seen suggests otherwise, *when* you sum over the USA as a whole – i.e., California may be a net loser while other states are net gainers.

The issue is often obfuscated by confusing average cost and marginal cost: as any econ student is supposed to know, only marginal cost really counts. I.e., illegals may not pay for their share of “fixed costs” (such as national defense), but, in the economic sense, that does not matter since we would have those costs anyway. But, they do more than pay their way “at the margin,” which is what is economically relevant.

Of course, all that ignores the “cultural issues,” which is what probably really matters to most people anyway. Does the presence of more and better ethnic restaurants counter the “Push 1 for English” sort of annoyance? I don’t know how to quantify that.

Personally, I think the wreckage of the USA is due largely to Anglos/Euro-Americans, and that recent immigrants do not matter that much one way or the other.


Allison said...

When LAUSD spends half a billion dollars on a school building, I don't think you need look as hard as you did to explain the problem.

le radical galoisien said...

Do public districts at all, go shopping for contractors?

Or maybe it's been already arranged with the local construction union?

Low-cost private schools (targeted at the low-income demographic) seems like a weird oxymoron, but I'm starting to think it's a viable business model.

Asian parents after all love sending kids to enrichment centre after enrichment centre.

Allison said...

To connect up with the union debate elsewhere, have you looked into what the salary, pension and health care costs are for your school district? Because those are the huge numbers here, and those costs are skyrocketing.

Allison said...

--Low-cost private schools (targeted at the low-income demographic) seems like a weird oxymoron, but I'm starting to think it's a viable business model.

The major expense in a running a school is the employees. I've now spoken to several private school principals, and their data matches my own S-corp's: 90% of their expenses are employee salaries, benefits, and corresponding taxes.o

To run a school, you need to employ people on a full time, or at least full time 9 months of the year basis. You need to provide health insurance to them and their families in some form, and you can't make the salaries too low or you'll just end up having to pay for all of their and their families' premiums in the process. You pay half the SSI/Medicare on their wages, and you need to cover some modicum of a retirement plan.

Assuming a barebones of one teacher for every 25 students, and 2 admins 1 custodian and clerical person with no specialists, you've got 13 employees for the minimum k-8 school. Assuming an average of 40k in salary, at max capacity, 225 students needs to cover the no less than 500k just for salaries. Consider another 1-2k for health insurance per person, another 50k for ssi and medicare, and you're close to 600k. So you'd need 650k a year, minimum when you include the other costs. That's 3k per child IF you're at capacity, which you won't be, and if you have no specialists. Every new teacher above that adds 50k to the costs, so each teacher adds 250 to the tuition bill of each student.

Is that low cost enough for elementary? Could you really keep it that low, with salaries that low, and that few employees?

le radical galoisien said...

Singapore has a ratio of 1 teacher per 40 students (except for rich schools, which see it drop to 35, and GEP classes have a ratio of 1:25), but with administration-appointed prefects.

Funny thing in Singapore we didn't have to fuss about medical insurance. There was excellent healthcare in the public hospitals (though there were private options), which too had cost-effective design characteristics.

They kind of feed back on each other you know -- low healthcare costs make for low education costs, which in turn encourages a large pool of skilled workers to keep both education and healthcare costs low.

In fact there was a recent TED video (I don't know if you know of TED) that argued very convincingly (the guy is a global health expert, in many international orgs) that more than anything good healthcare causes economic prosperity in developing countries, not the other way round.

le radical galoisien said...

I'd like to question the barebones assumption. There is this stereotypical idea of how schools should start.

If you look at all the famous schools in Singapore, their history predictably goes..."X School started in 18xx as a single classroom with Y pupils...(where Y ranges from 4 to 15). And not for rich kids either -- often for the poor.

we have to ask ourselves -- what do you need to teach? how can a teacher teach as much as possible, without compromising quality?

Singapore uses a morning/afternoon session strategy, as mentioned. Teachers don't double-teach though -- I think my form teacher went home after teaching us and some other teacher taught the class that used the classroom after/before us. But they might have, when the nation was younger.

Teachers can pool resources and cover several cohorts. Can a teacher not be an administrator?

With a low-cost school, custodian is very low maintenance -- simply spraywash the floors into a drain (located in the floor) and air the hallways.

Of course, this practice is alien to American architecture, but it's how the most crowded of Asian night markets (full of raw meat and everything) stay hygienic and retain their class A health licenses. Drains in floors are remarkably useful things.

le radical galoisien said...

more importantly there was a strong sense of camaraderie among my teachers -- they could well have been unionised in spirit (teachers' unions do not really exist in Singapore, save for laughable, powerless groups under the state-regulated National Trade Unions Congress).

nearing the terminal PSLE exams, they would hold massive review sessions afterschool in groups of 3-4 with the seven classes of P6 assembled together (about 280 students).

And they were engaging. Dynamic. Thoroughly interesting. We reviewed everything we ever learnt -- I had arrived roughly 2 years back from America, but "six years of education". It felt so pivotal.

And of course, there were the individual class (40-student) remedial sessions conducted by each teacher starting roughly 16 weeks before the exam.

We crushed those exams. As tradition dictated.

None of these were experiments of course -- they had been implemented as part of the school culture for a long time.

Nevertheless perhaps it's useful to consider what makes a school. What structures are critical? What structures aren't?

Crimson Wife said...

School construction and renovation costs shot through the roof after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the early 1990's. While I'm sympathetic to the issue of making sure disabled citizens have access to public buildings, the requirements of the ADA are way over-the-top.

le radical galoisien said...

both my schools in Singapore were 100% wheelchair-accessible. among other things.

it must be a design choice.

Designing things to be accessible to the handicapped isn't that expensive. In fact the marginal costs between the two aren't that noticeable.

You need ramps and an elevator to transport heavy things (like say, lots of books, and computers, and projectors).

By making a school equipment-accessible, it was already made handicapped-accessible.

Allison said...

My numbers were off when I said 1k-2k for health insurance. I meant PER MONTH.

This is not an insignificant number. You can't go much below 1k a month per employee without simply raising their salary by the same, because you're competing with schools where teachers can get real policies, and the health insurance is at least not yet taxed, so everyone prefers that.

So the base assumption of average salary+ benefits is now 52k, not 40k, and another 3k for taxes, so that's 55k per person. so that's over 700k right there, and as a 90% figure, we're up above 750k.

Yes, the custodian is less, and maybe you don't have 2 admins and a clerical person, but perhaps you'd find you had to have a lawyer not elsewhere covered here. I assure you keeping the number of employees small limits the size of your school.

You can argue that my 13 is high, and that you've got some school model that gets that number down, but you're still fundamentally going to have the issue of paying your employees. You can start with just one grade, but by the time you've got 30 kids in the classroom, you're going to need more bodies.

This is not to suggest that disruptive technologies don't exist. My point is that *starting a school* is not the disruptive way to educate students.

le radical galoisien said...

I am not very sure this insurance model is working out very well for America either. (Obama to my disillusionment, is doing nothing fundamentally different that solved the issue...)

Why is healthcare so expensive? 12k per year for healthcare insurance is ridiculously expensive. Is healthcare unionised too?

Per capita annual healthcare spending is $6719, public + private.

It's kind of ridiculous because if you watch the TED video, countries like Vietnam (not even Singapore!) can match our life expectancy with much less resources.

We're doing something wrong.

Anonymous for this one said...

I just checked my 2009 tax return. I, a single individual, paid a total of $35,500 in federal tax and social security last year. My state does not have a state income tax, preferring instead to take in money via property tax and sales tax. In addition to the above, I paid $6000 in property tax, and the "standard sales tax" number was in the neighborhood of $11,000. My math says that's over $50K out of my pocket.

I have no children in the school system, never had, and never will.

My state has a lot of illegals that I'm paying for. In addition to the sheer numbers, they're taxing the system by having uneducated parents who don't speak any English, so the kids come in not knowing how to "do school" and not speaking much English themselves.

PhysicistDave said...

lrg wrote:
>Why is healthcare so expensive? 12k per year for healthcare insurance is ridiculously expensive. Is healthcare unionised too?

A huge chunk of the money gets spent in the last year of life. Americans are “willing” to spend huge amounts of money to extend life by a rather small amount. I put “willing” in quotes because the system is structured – employer-provided healthcare, followed by Medicare, with lawyers hovering over the whole system – so that individuals cannot really choose to pay substantially less in exchange for less heroic treatment at the end of life.

Americans have an egalitarian ideology that says we cannot let less affluent people die slightly earlier to save money, even if that is the choice they themselves would choose to make if they could actually thereby save some of their own money.


PhysicistDave said...

lrg wrote:
> Nevertheless perhaps it's useful to consider what makes a school. What structures are critical? What structures aren't?

Children who are willing to learn and parents who are supportive of that learning.

Teachers are not necessary.

I’m not being facetious: good teachers can help, of course. But a lot of the teachers I myself had actually did more harm than good, especially in grade school and junior high.

Recently, I was talking with a friend who teachers with a charter school: she mentioned that I seemed to have done okay even though I went through traditional public schools. I replied (truthfully) that I had in fact done alright simply by ignoring the teachers and teaching myself.

My friend was not pleased.


lgm said...

lrg, Have you looked at your local district's budget? After salaries& bennies, the next large chunk of budget here is special education, then transportation.

Salaries here start at $53K. Almost every teacher has an extra that adds to that - sixth period class, coaching, afterschool mandated tutoring, jr class advisor, dept chair or team leader (a team of 4 is common), etc. District hasn't released actual bennies, but last year was the very first year any contribution toward medical or retirement came from salary. Salaries have gone up 4-5% every year for the last decade, on top of the step raise.

In an area like mine where the district is geographically large and rural, and located away from specialized sped service providers, providing sped services is very expensive as these children have private school placements and unique therapist needs as well as transporation to/from. Many of these therapies are medical, but they are being paid for by the school district rather than the parents' medical insurance. Single child bus routes can run as high as $100K for the school year if the child is not residential as they are mandated to have an aide on board plus any additional personnel needed for their medical condition. We're basically running specialized individual medical transport daily which is quite costly. We also have cases where full time nurses are 1:1 with a medically fragile mainstreamed child. If the child's school is residential the family's bills for visitation may be picked up by the district. This adds up to a lot of dollars that are called 'education'.

Transport of course became very expensive when neighborhood schools were eliminated and vocational ed was centralized by region. It's routine to have hour long bus routes now to school and from school to vocational ed, which translates into human costs and lots of fuel.
Then there is the hand from other districts: I'm actually taxed through my phone bill for about $2 a month for public transportation in NYC, which goes toward the subsidized fares for the school children that ride the trains and busses to their schools in NYC Public. I live 100 miles away and my unclassified children cannot attend any NYC public school. My legislative reps are wasting a lot of costly time on this issue of taxation without representaiton. My district also has to pay for a nurse at a private school located in district, as well as health care costs for those that attend other private schools (none of these are contracted service providers for sped).

The state has additional mandates. Each school that has an ESL student must have a full time ESL teacher, even if the population doesn't require a full time position. Tutoring and bussing home from tutoring is required. All homeless children that have moved out of district must be transported by the district in to school. This sounds really noble, but what it is for the most part is divorced parents who moved in temporarily with a grandparent out of district..since the child was in this district they have the right to stay and must be provided transport no matter how far away they are living now. (Fortunately most parents doen't want more than a 2 hr bus ride, so the cost of that isn't sky high when they move back to NYC). The budget meetings have been very informative - they are about to start again and I would encourage you to tune in.

One of the larger problems is lack of classes for nonremedial, nonsped students. The first program cuts were all academic electives, including traditional college prep such as precalc and foreign language IV. A parent of an unclassified child has to pay extra for those classes through a community college or move to a district that hasn't been swamped by remedial needs.

lgm said...

>>By making a school equipment-accessible, it was already made handicapped-accessible.

There's a lot more to this; I'd encourage you to find someone knowledgeable. Most handicapped are not wheel chair bound in my area - it's other, more medically fragile conditions which seem to be a result of prenatal care saving babies. Here's what my district has done:

In brief, costs include:

rewiring electrical - many bldgs are dated from the 60s and haven't been upgraded to handle computers and smart boards, much less medical equipment.

additional space- handicapped child have aides and sometimes nurses and equipment. That all takes up additional space in the classroom and requires the building of small group instructional areas or the partitioning of larger classrooms into small group instructional areas

air conditioning - students with asthma and worse require room a/c which the bldg was not designed for

equipment for blind, low-vision, hearing impaired/deaf, etc that previously was provided or not needed at the specialized facility this group attended before mainstreaming. Rf mic systems for example..

Adaptive Phys Ed equipment- swimming for example requires specialized equipment to be installed for the wheelchair bound. Basketball requires the ability to lower the hoops. Instead of this being in a centralized county facility that shared costs for this equipment among many districts, each school now has to provide their own if it wants to continue that program for all students.

New sidewalks & parking& weather protection: facilities weren't built for multiple handicapped needs...the designers were thinking of a few employees, not several busses loading&unloading simultaneously each day. Parking lots weren't built with extra slots for all the new aides, nurses and sped techers.

The list goes on......

le radical galoisien said...

mandates are sort of silly.

The MOE regularly overrides autonomous, government-aided or independent schools, but it's usually kind of flexible.

You can get something (like say, admission) approved at the Central MOE building in Buona Vista and RGS in Bukit Timah will know about it two hours later.

I complained about Singapore rigidity a lot -- while a Singapore student -- but the bureaucracy was pretty efficient. I don't know what their secret is.

le radical galoisien said...

"Americans have an egalitarian ideology that says we cannot let less affluent people die slightly earlier to save money, even if that is the choice they themselves would choose to make if they could actually thereby save some of their own money."

Singapore is rather conservative and usually would not afford the individual "the right to die". I barely ever see it mentioned. Singapore does not like physician-assisted suicide.

One thing though, is that Asian grandparents tend to have lots of support at home -- "free support" by family members because the extended family unit is very prominent, and the grandparent's house is usually seen as the "social centre" of a family. (Asian grandparents love to throw parties.)

The other thing about migration policy is that many migrant workers are used as domestic workers for the elderly. Here there is a lot of bureaucracy: 5 years ago it was about 250-300 SGD per month as a salary (a lot for workers who come from Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.), and 250-500 SGD as agency fees and government taxes.

The government regulates, but does not excessively restrict the quota of, migrant workers. (Here xenophobic Singaporeans only have their cultural elitism to fall back on -- and maybe their sense of "Singapore is too crowded already" -- despite Singapore being nowhere near the density of NYC.)

And thus it is seen that migrant workers are not "stealing jobs". The wage situation in America is different of course, but training a migrant worker to help late-stage life is much cheaper than hiring nurses or LPNs to do it. There are very few at-home nurses in Singapore -- there are however an abundance of neighbourhood polyclinics.

Well-managed, migrant workers cut the costs of running a state.

PhysicistDave said...

lrg wrote:
>Singapore does not like physician-assisted suicide.

I don’t either, although, in principle, I think a well-informed adult of sound mind has a right to make that decision (of course, ‘well-informed” and “of sound mind” can be fairly serious restrictions – I’m not exactly a big fan of Jack Kevorkian’s!).

I was referring to something simpler: should a person have the option to buy an insurance plan that declines to provide “heroic care” that will extend a person’s life only a few weeks or months. Americans do of course have the right to reject such heroic care: my own mother-in-law did so, and, in fact, I was the one family member who urged her to accept the “heroic care” (a kidney transplant, in her case). The problem is that those who choose to reject “heroic care” still pay for everyone who wants it. You do not have the *economic* choice to decline to pay for heroic care, even if you are perfectly certain you yourself will not make use of it.

All the studies I have seen indicate that this “heroic care,” which adds very little to human lifespan, is a very large part of our health-care expenditures here in the US. I doubt assisted-suicide would really save much on costs, but letting people opt for slightly less “gold-plated” health-care plans, so that they do not have to pay for someone else’s “heroic care” that they do not want for themselves, would save a lot of money. At any rate, it would be more equitable, since the people who, unlike my mother-in-law, really wanted the “heroic care” would be the people actually paying the higher insurance premiums (I myself might do that).

Obamacare is, unfortunately, moving in the opposite direction, which is why it seems it will actually cause many people to lose their health care (i.e., because their employers cannot afford a gold-plated plan).

Getting back on topic, the same thing occurs in education: so much money (and time and energy) is devoted to computer labs, teachers’ assistants, special ed and ADA mandates, and a host of other things, that US schools really do have trouble just teaching.

Of course, I still maintain that the deeper and more important root problem is that most American parents really, truly do not want their kids to be educated: I can offhand think of only one pair of parents I know (aside from my wife and me) who would be proud to hear their kids called “nerds.”

“Nerd” = “bright, well-educated, academically-focused kid” in US English. Most US parents want that about as much as they want their kid to be a diabetic.

That is a problem.