Friday, June 10, 2011

What Mt. Lebanon can learn from school projects in poor countries

NPR’s Planet Money podcast is always fascinating, but Tuesday’s episode, “Poor Economics”, ended with an unexpected bonus: a short discussion with MIT economists about whether investments in school facilities pay off in poor countries. Because our community, though far from poor, is about to devote a giant chunk of its increasingly scarce educational dollars to a single facilities project – the high-school renovation – it’s worth considering what we can learn from the economists.

Research in the developed world suggests that investments in school facilities have little effect on student outcomes. Once you place students in a building that’s safe, sound, and adequate to the needs of learning, spending more on that building doesn’t seem to make much difference. Diminishing returns set in quickly.

But what about building a school facility for a poor community that doesn’t already have one? Surely, that would be the community’s best way of helping its students, right?

That’s what the economists were asked. Their answer might surprise you.

The scenario was this: There’s a community in Haiti that the Planet Money crew visited while covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. While there, they met the principal for the local school district and learned that his students didn’t have a school building. They had most of their classes behind a church, under a palm-frond roof, next to an outhouse. When it rained, they got wet. They lacked textbooks and other necessities. It was pretty miserable.

When the Planet Money listeners heard about the students’ plight, many sent donations, which soon reached $3000. The principal, overjoyed with the unexpectedly large outpouring, said he wanted to build a school with the funds, and one listener, a construction expert, flew to Haiti and said he would help build it. But, when he got there, he discovered that it would cost closer to $80,000 to build. (It seems that estimating construction projects is hard everywhere.)

At this point some other listeners wrote to Planet Money and asked, If the $80,000 could be raised, would it be best spent on a building – or other things? And that’s what the economists were asked. Here’s the exchange. (If you’re listening to the episode, it starts about 21 minutes in.)
Planet Money: The principal and the community say they want a school [building], so I’m inclined to trust them. Do you have any advice on this kind of thing? Let’s say they had $80 thousand. Is building a school the right thing? Is there any advice you can give us?

Abhijit Banerjee (MIT economist): Generally the evidence from economics is that brick-and-mortar expenses are less useful than improving teacher quality. There’s a fair amount of evidence that seems to suggest that, even with fairly poor infrastructure, if you had a teacher who was excited about teaching, and the materials were appropriate to the children, and the teacher focused on teaching the child in his class instead of the “ideal child” who doesn’t actually exist there, I think you get a very good education, even when the infrastructure is extremely poor. That’s my two-minute summary of the literature.

Esther Duflo (MIT economist): One thing to add, we’ve worked with a lot of schools, in Kenya in particular, and people always want [buildings], especially principals. From their own point of view, that makes a lot of sense: they have to work in the schools, which are often quite unpleasant... People [in leadership positions] always like to provide bricks and mortar because it’s something that looks tangible. The people who receive the bricks and mortar are very happy, [too]... but things that are more like “the software” – what are you going to teach, how are you going to teach it, who is going to teach it, what are the incentives that are given to the parents, to the teachers, to the students – are actually probably cheaper [ways] to achieve [results], but less photogenic. Which is why it’s important to focus on what’s going to make the most difference, without being influenced by whether it’s the most photogenic.
(The whole episode, by the way, is fascinating. If you have 30 minutes, it’s worth a listen.)

Of course, schools in Haiti and Kenya are not schools in Mt. Lebanon. But the interview offers two insights that are probably general enough to apply everywhere, even here.

First, when it comes to education, the diminishing returns from investments in bricks and mortar seem to diminish rapidly. In some cases, even if you get the money to go from zero to a new school building, you’re better off, educationally, not buying the building but investing the funds in other things.

Second, the payoffs for decision-makers and students are different. Community leaders have a strong incentive to invest the community’s resources in things that are highly visible, such as bricks and mortar, but those investments are not necessarily the best way to help students.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our planned renovation is just eye candy. But I do think it’s worth asking whether we wouldn’t be better off with a less-expensive renovation that conserves more of our educational funding for education. The evidence seems to point toward the conclusion that you get the best education when you spend on buildings what you must – but no more – and save the rest of your funding for things that help students more.

When it comes to school buildings, apparently, less is more.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, this information would be very useful if our current school board were more interersted in "student outcomes" than in building a monument to themselves.
Joe Wertheim

June 10, 2011 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 23 years that I taught in the post-secondary or vocational environments (22 years at Penn Tech and 1 year at Parkway West) I never had a student come to me and tell me that he or she could have performed better academically but for the building. My colleagues and I did get the normal “it's too hot” or “it's too cold” complaints from time to time, but the remedy was to either turn up the A/C or the heat, as appropriate. Of course if you are going to conduct classes in a school building then that building should be properly maintained. If proper maintenance is applied as needed then the costs involved with running a school are a lot less than remodeling or complete reconstruction.

A building has absolutely NO bearing on the quality of the teacher. Quality teachers are those who 1)know their subjects, and 2)are able to explain those subjects at the level of the student. Anything else is window dressing. And as far as students are concerned, post-secondary students aren't going to make an issue out of a building. High school or elementary school kids, if they do complain about a building, probably got the idea from their parents.
Richard Gideon

June 10, 2011 12:03 PM  
Blogger Bill Matthews said...

In the few conversations the "renovate" Building C topic was even addressed, a comment by the CM was frequently repeated.

At some point along the trail, the CM indicated that after spending millions of dollars -- all we would see is fresh paint when it came to Building C.

This became part of the justification for the grand scheme.

On one hand we can have a freshly painted Building C - or - for a little bit more we can have a new academic wing and much more.

The CM was not saying all we would get in Building C was fresh paint, he was saying that we would not "see" much more in the building. We would have new Mechanical, Electrical, HVAC and Technology, and most of it would be masked by new drywall and fresh paint.

Essentially saying, if we were looking for eye candy for our money, we would have to look in another direction.

And so we did...

June 10, 2011 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tom, for making this available. This and the comments thus far make the Celli/Cappucci presentation at the PSBA meeting in Lancaster all the more questionable and indefensible.

Bill Lewis

June 10, 2011 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long ago and far away, in February 2010 I started the following petition:

“We, the undersigned residents and property taxpayers of Mt. Lebanon, petition and request that the Mt. Lebanon School Board proceed with a high school renovation project budget not to exceed the $75 Million dollars which has already been borrowed and for which the district has already incurred an obligation to repay with interest. Such $75 Million dollar cap should be inclusive all administrative costs of the project (past, present and future), and should include a reasonable reserve for potential cost overruns, change orders and other eventualities of at least 10% of the total budget.”

This was an effort to ensure a renovation to provide for a functional facility in support of our educational mission, while also balancing the project cost with other potential demands for monetary resources (PSERS, further economic downturn, etc.). Simply stated, the petition was rejected.

I am still hopeful that a renovation will be accomplished sooner than later and within a budget as described by the petition that considers other municipal, demographic and educational variables. Although, given the instability of today’s market I wonder if the original petition request is realistic at this point.

Sorry to digress, but in the end and even though this subject has been discussed and blogged about ad nauseum, I can honestly say that advocating for a lower cost solution has provided me the opportunity to delve into the details of how things work on a local level. It takes time, effort and wear and tear occurs along the way when getting involved, but it was worth the “old college try”.

– Charlotte Stephenson

June 10, 2011 3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that perhaps the MIT Economist Mr. Banerjee should share his insights with his employer. From the MIT Facilities dept. home page:

A world class institution like MIT deserves award-winning spaces. At MIT our buildings have won LEED certification as well as design awards. Facilities staff know that teaching and research are the lifeblood of MIT, so we provide the physical space and technical capabilities needed for MIT classrooms and laboratories, offices and living spaces for our students. We know that gathering places like dining areas and libraries draw members of the community together.

Here is a partial list of projects completed at MIT within the last 10 years:

5 new dorms (one with Gold LEED certification)

A center for cancer research

163,000 sf extension of the media lab

Building "E62" which includes 205 offices, 6 classrooms, over 30 group study rooms, dining, Executive Education suite, lounge areas, and new, usable outdoor spaces including a rebuild of Sloan Plaza.

The "Stata" building, which should be listed in the dictionary as the very definition of "eye candy" -

A fitness center featuring a 50 meter pool, an 11,000 sf fitness center, a 5,000 sf court facility, and six squash courts.

In 2006 MIT also unveiled a plan for an additional three quarters of a billion dollar campus redevelopment program.

It's surprising that such an esteemed bastion of higher learning would be ignorant of the fact that its physical plant is irrelevant when it comes to teaching its students.

--Dave Schraven

June 10, 2011 4:08 PM  
Blogger Tom Moertel said...

Dave Schraven,

Thanks for your comment.

Nobody said that facilities are “irrelevant,” just that they don’t affect student outcomes much.

MIT and other top-tier universities trade on their reputations, which they promote through highly visible demonstrations of their elite status. For example: showpiece facilities that typical universities cannot afford.

If you can present any evidence, however, that these facilities actually improve student outcomes, at MIT or elsewhere, I’d love to see it.


June 10, 2011 4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correct me if I am srong, but isn't MIT a private institution which DOES NOT HAVE THE ABILITY TO TAX those who happen to live in their "district"?
Joe Wertheim

June 10, 2011 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrong, not srong. Sorry
Joe Wertheim

June 10, 2011 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave, this group of smart MIT students doesn't care about fancy new buildings.
Do you want the Mt. Lebanon high school to leak like this eye candy? David Huston

June 10, 2011 6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhhh...the MIT reference should also remind us that these high priced, stellar education institutions are magnets for successful, well heeled alums to donate $ millions to their alma mater's....most often in connection with some spirited campus building campaign....and the opportunity for the alum to have the building or building wing named after him/her. Naming rights tend to attract egocentric alums.

Well, we might have just the answer for our Taj Mahal high school...SB candidate running mates Kubit & Goldman, claiming "Strong Leadership" in their campaign mailer, and also pledging "We are Committed to :" with "We will spearhead the effort to obtain corporate and other private sponsorship of the newly renovated athletic and arts facilities." I'm sure the dynamic duo will be able to deliver $ millions to offset the cost of the excess lavishness bestowed upon special interests under Ed's SB leadership role in the HS project. We will then be able to apply these net savings to merit pay for the teachers.

Too bad Raja isn't a Lebo alum. Maybe Dr. Tim can arrange an honorary graduation diploma for Raja. It would make for great press and be a draw for people to move here and reverse declining enrollment.

Bill Lewis

June 10, 2011 10:25 PM  
Anonymous John David Kendrick said...

What I think is more interesting is this email that I received from a RTK that I filed with Mt Lebanon. Check this out!

On Thursday March 24, 2011 at 11:39AM Merle Jantz sent this email to Mt Lebanon Police Chief Coleman McDonough:(The following is a direct quote from the email)

"SUBJECT: Re: Blog Lebo
Speaking of cranky retired cops, Frank Brown, Tom Ogden's predecessor, kept threatening to run for commission after he retired. I think that a lot of people heaved a big sigh of relief when he moved to Florida. Some people may even have chipped in to help him find a place there. May want to keep that in mind as a retirement bonus."

WOW! This is huge! DId you see that last sentence!

June 10, 2011 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many athletic coaches were evaluated this year before they moved up a Step in the EDR pay scale?

When is the last time we won a WPIAL title in football? What happened to the new turf that was going to save the e-layer of the football field?

What happened to the $8-Million promise from the athletic Boosters? You know the money that was supposed to pay for the Field House.

Dave, how about leading a fund raising campaign for the new 8-lane swimming pool?

John Ewing

June 13, 2011 8:51 AM  

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