Education Reform


This seems to be a good time to try my hand at a post on public 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. I’ll start with education reform, since it’s a subject about which I’m not that well-informed and so I’m putting less of my ego on the line in presenting an opinion. And besides, what’s the fun of being a blogger if you can’t make grandiose statements on subjects you know nothing about?

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 reproduced below – a pretty powerful counterpoint to the No Child Left Behind rhetoric.

Graphic from NCEE powerpointt,

Graphic from NCEE powerpoint,

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 the chart underneath this paragraph, 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.

Graphic from NCEE powerpoint,

Graphic from NCEE powerpoint,

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.


One Response

  1. […] opinions around. I did notice, and decided to point out, that he seems to agree with me about education policy, and particularly his comment around 5:45 in the video with respect to schools becoming community […]

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