Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Education Reform

Cross-posted to Mike’s Blog!

Here’s a blog post I wrote recently about education policy. I don’t have a lot of experience writing about policy, so I’d really appreciate comments and criticisms so I can get better at this stuff. Since I wrote the post, President Obama gave a big speech on education policy. There’s been a lot written about that speech and its implications, but this post is more of an introduction to the entire education policy debate.

One advantage of discussing education policy is that I have an easy point of departure: everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done. I can justify this by pointing to the ubiquitous studies showing how embarrassingly uninformed American students are nowadays (e.g. “Fewer than half can place the Civil War in the correct half-century”, or “Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map”). I can also point to polling that shows widespread dissatisfaction with the nation’s schools. However, I think the most effective argument is summarized in the graphic here – a pretty powerful counterpoint to the No Child Left Behind rhetoric.

There seem to be three broad schools of thought about how to reform education policy. There’s the conservative movement position, which is basically abolishing the Department of Education and making everyone go to private school. I think I’m going to treat this position as so laughable as to not merit serious consideration and ignore it for the rest of this post. The second position is that of the teachers’ unions: essentially, that no structural changes are needed to America’s school system, public schools just need more funding and everything will be all right. And the final position seems to be known as the reform movement, symbolized for me by the chancellor of the D.C. public school system, Michelle Rhee. The specific reforms advocated by this movement all stem from the central idea of creating a free market for public schools; these reforms include merit pay for teachers, strict accountability testing for schools, and creating more and smaller schools to give parents and students a choice about where to go to school.

To explain the reform position a little more clearly, consider this chart, showing the average government expenditures per student (in 2002 dollars) and the average student performance on a basic math and reading test over a thirty-year period. Over this period, while the cost per student has more than doubled, test scores have remained essentially unchanged. The conclusion here seems to be that increases in funding, even large ones, don’t necessarily have an effect on educational outcomes. Thus the reformers argue that schools don’t need more funding — they need to be more efficient, and we all know that markets are the best way to maximize efficiency. They therefore aim to create a market by increasing “accountability”, which in practice means withholding funds from underperforming schools or teachers to punish them encourage them to do better in the future.

I don’t really support this position. Imagine that public schoolyard infrastructure was so lavish that schools became popular neighborhood hangouts, that teachers made lots of money (or even just more than garbage collectors!), that everyone who wanted to enroll in special education or bilingual education had access to these programs – if all this were true and students were still failing, then I’d be inclined to look for more accountability for schools and teachers. At the moment, however, many public schools are crumbling, obsolete, unpleasant places with overworked and underpaid teachers where there is often not enough money for after-school and special-ed programs. I’d look to those first before trying to impose the wonders of the free market on a public good like education.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that a dramatic increase in public school funding will fix our education system – just that it’s a necessary prerequisite. As the chart above suggests, there are many more factors than money that affect quality of education. An obvious example is the role of parenting (to which Obama refers frequently). A more nuanced example is the role of institutional culture at the school, which can be very difficult to codify; Harry at Crooked Timber makes a pretty good attempt at it here, but the commenters quickly point out that he’s not really saying anything useful. These sorts of factors are higher-order policy issues, but hopefully we can all agree that massively increasing funding is a good place to start. And, incidentally, Obama’s new budget doesn’t significantly increase funding for the Department of Education, but then the stimulus package triples the funding, which is more significant.

As a final, unrelated point about education policy, I want to mention that I strongly support requiring anthropology, critical thinking, and theater in high school curricula. This argument probably deserves its own post, though, so I’ll leave it alone for now.

1 comment

  1. There have been two other diaries about education recently, which is probably why this one isn’t getting much attention.

    My take on this is that we can’t just throw money at the schools and expect good things to happen. As with any issue like this the first thing to do is to identify the problems and then come up with solutions that target those problems. What is our biggest problem? Is it the drop-out rate or is it the test levels for different grades? Or is it something else?

    Once we identify the problems we need to set goals. Then we need to look for solutions that will accomplish those goals. There are plenty of pilot programs out there that show promise. We need to pick the most promising and try them on  a larger scale. If they work then we can take them national. If they don’t work then we need to look for other solutions.

    Education isn’t a unique endeavor. Troubleshooting and problem solving techniques that work in industry or any other human endeavor will work equally well for reform of the education field.

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