by michael on May 16, 2011

Fate. Early this morning my dear friend Roger Fransecky sent me this link to a video of an inspiring presentation by advertising superstar Rory Sutherland
The video is entertaining, poignant and ends with an insightful and humbling message about finding meaning in our lives. I won’t spoil the ending. It’s worth watching. I mention this video because of this quote by G K Chesterton Rory shared in the last seconds of the presentation.
We are perishing for want of wonder, not from want of wonders. G K Chesterton

Chesterton’s quote came to mind when I read half an hour later this provocative article Taj Mahal Schools by Robert Weissberg in today’s American Thinker blog.
Here are a few key paragraphs. I urge you to read the complete article.

The latest installment of this expensive misguided endeavor is a $100 million dollar school located in New York City’s largely black Harlem targeting under-performing students. Taxpayers will pick up part of the $100 million bill.

The poster child of this failed strategy is the Kansas City experiment of the late 1980s and early 90s (see here). The aim was to provide palatial facilities so that African American students could overcome decades of attending under-funded schools while suburban whites would flock to the amenity-rich schools. Facilities included air-conditioned classrooms, planetariums, animal rooms, a twenty-five acre farm and a twenty acre wildlife area, a model UN assembly equipped with simultaneous language translations, radio and TV studios, movie editing equipment (with screening rooms)

By all measures the budget-busting experiment failed. Despite $2 billion in over-the-top facilities, drop-out rates moved upward while scores on standardized tests measuring reading and math declined. Nor could white students be enticed to attend these schools. At best there was a financial windfall for building contractors while numerous administrators personally profited.

Investing hundreds of millions on physical structures for an iffy outcome is bad enough at a time of budget deficits and teacher lay-offs, but worse is how “helping students learn” is increasingly distorted to mean constructing lavish facilities. It would be as if a sports championship were defined by who had the biggest payroll. This bait and switch is almost predictable after years of frustration, though this substitution hardly helps struggling students or over-burdened taxpayers.

To appreciate the mismatch between top physical facilities and learning, consider a 175 year old Catholic grade school, the Transfiguration School, in New York City’s Chinatown. The school survives on a near starvation budget. Students are generally of Chinese ancestry and class size far exceeds the City’s average. It lacks a library, a nurse’s office, and art and music rooms (the cafeteria doubles up) and the “gym” is a nearby outdoor, small, over-crowded park. Teachers receive ordinary salaries and the school depends on tuition and gifts. Students are not rich — most are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, a third receive scholarships while the City chips in a grand total of $57 annually per student for textbooks. There is zero school violence and classrooms are quiet with children in uniforms paying rapt attention to their teachers. Test scores are extraordinary and many graduates enter New York City’s elite high schools were only test scores count. The cost — $4800 per year — is less than half the public school figure.

In other words, smart motivated students do not require over-the-top facilities. But, in today’s political environment where government money if the great elixir, it is easier to spend millions than to get kids to study hard.

So, it seems that the intersection of politics and political influence is more likely to ruin education, besiege taxpayers and infantilize and patronize children. Not bad for a few hundred million dollars!!
More later

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