What’s the Way to Get Higher Education Performance?

Recently, as readers are no doubt aware, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court determined that California’s system of tenure for public school teachers violated the state’s Constitution.

The state’s teacher tenure laws, which grant employees job security after a mere 18 months of supervision, deny students California students their right to an equal education because “substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students.”

Because low-performing teachers (or those who teach low-performing students) tend to instruct poor children, the difficulty of firing them has an adverse and unfair impact on students’ education. But will firing teachers easier make student performance better? Well, it’s probably not the best way to go about it.

That’s because a recent study makes it clear that a good way to eliminate education performance disparities would be to address the other things going on in poor students lives: not their teachers, but their poverty.

According to a study released earlier in the week by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

Expanding health insurance coverage for low-income children has large effects on high school completion, college attendance and college completion.

Specifically, increasing Medicaid eligibility for school-age children by 10 percentage points caused the high school dropout rate to fall by half a percentage point and caused college enrollment (and bachelor’s degree attainment) to increase by up to one percentage point.

These estimates translate into declines in high school non-completion of about 5 percent, increases in college attendance of between 1.0 percent and 1.5 percent and increases in B.A. attainment of about 3.3 percent – 3.7 percent relative to the sample means.

Researchers discovered this by looking at Medicaid expansions in the states in the 1980s and 1990s.

This is, admittedly, a rather limited study, addressing only Medicaid eligibility, but it suggests that allowing poor people to get health care coverage and experience fewer of the problems, that come from being poor will also cause them to behave less like poor people, and be better off in life.

This is one of the major reasons for the (likely) success of something like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which offers “wraparound” services, including health and dental care, preschool, and food and clothing, to families and schoolchildren.

The best way to improve the education achievement of poor children might have very little to do with the labor conditions of public school teachers and everything to do with just making people less poor.

Admittedly, the opinion of Judge Treu and the findings of the researchers of the NBER study are not necessarily in conflict; it’s possible both providing teachers with fewer labor protections and increasing social services for students could both improve education achievement. But the findings suggest that the way to get better achievement might have an awful lot to do with social services.

It’s worth a thought, anyway.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer