Public Education: Is There A Crisis?
from: Frontline Questions for each of several Persons:
Galston is a professor and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Clinton Adminstration and is serving as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore during his 2000 campaign for the Presidency.
What's your own view of the state of public education in this country?
Where are we today: is the US system of public education as a whole in crisis? The answer to that question, I believe, is no. Today it would be more accurate to say that we have two systems of public education, not one. The first of them is based principally, though not entirely, in the suburbs of this country and [in] some of the wealthier urban jurisdictions and districts. That is a public school system that could be better and should be better. In many respects it is mediocre, particularly when compared to our international peers in the advanced industrial nations. But it is not failing its students.
The second system of public education, which is based principally in poorer urban and rural areas, is indeed in crisis. Too many of the students in those schools are dropping out well before high school graduation. Too many are receiving high school diplomas that do not certify academic confidence in basic subjects. Too many are being left unprepared for the world of work. Too many are being left unprepared to go on to higher education and advanced technical training. Those schools are indeed in crisis and they require emergency treatment....
There are important gaps in resources between many of the wealthier jurisdictions and many of the poorer jurisdictions. And money matters in education--there's no getting around that. However, many of the gaps in per pupil expenditures between urban districts and their surrounding suburban districts have been closed in the past ten years, not eliminated in all cases, but closed substantially in many cases. [This is] in part because a higher percentage of the expenditures in the poorer districts are now being picked up by the states or even by the federal government through its compensatory education programs.
So, while money matters, it's not the only thing that matters. School safety and discipline matter a lot. Teacher quality matters a lot. Support from parents and the surrounding community matters a lot. And a culture of learning matters a lot. And all of those things have to be attended to at the same time that we continue to focus on the existing and remaining gaps in resources.
What works, from your experience in public schools, especially in urban areas that are in the crisis you described?
Some very basic common sense measures work in dealing with the crisis of urban education. You need good leadership in the schools, a strong principal focused on the basics can make an enormous difference. Restoring safety and discipline and backing up teachers who are determined to maintain discipline in their classrooms and in the school corridors can be very important. High expectations work. A solid academic curriculum for all students works. And determined efforts by school districts to recruit and retain high quality teachers can make a big difference....
We are talking about education here--public education--but ultimately, given what you've been saying [about] the disparities in education, we're really talking about race and class in America, aren't we? If we're talking about this new economy and people having to be highly skilled, highly trained, well educated, deal with computers and so forth, then the danger is that you'll leave a substantial portion of America behind unless schools in urban areas get a whole lot better.
When anyone speaks of the distinction between the suburbs and the cities in America, and the distinction between suburban school districts and urban school districts, one is speaking to a significant extent about race and ethnicity and class. If we do not close the gap between the two systems of public education in America, the system that could and should be better, but which is not failing its students, on the one hand, and the system that is failing its students on the other, then we will be condemning our society to the perpetuation of the distinctions and the inequalities across lines of race, ethnicity, and class that we've been struggling to overcome in recent generations.
I don't know of very many people at any point along the political spectrum who want to look forward 10 or 20 years and see an America divided along lines of race, ethnicity, and class. I think that all Americans of good will want to see that those divisions narrow in the next generation. Public education reform that brings all public schools up to a common standard of achievement and expectation is one of the best ways of closing that gap that I can think of.
Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), and Director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Learning from School Choice and is an advocate of experimenting with voucher programs.
I think that we are doing fabulously as an economy, in part because we're bringing a lot of brilliant immigrants from abroad, for whom there are plenty of opportunities in the American economy because we're not growing our own. It's not clear that we are doing as well with our very best students as we should be doing, given the great resources this country has. How come we don't have the really top-performing students, or as many of the top-performing students, as you would think the United States should be able to produce? At the same time, we know that, among minorities and among inner cities families, among low-income families, the system is obviously failing.
So, I think we have problems throughout the system. Yes, the American educational system may be almost as good as it used to be, but it sure hasn't been improving. And everywhere else in our society, things are a lot better. We have better cars. We have better TVs. We have bigger houses. Wherever you look, things are better, but not in education. They may be as good--maybe not as good--[but] they certainly aren't better.... Why is that our test scores aren't going up, decade by decade? Year by year? Why is it that the Japanese continue to out-perform us? The Taiwanese? The Koreans? Why can't we be the best in the world? We're the best in every other area. Why can't we be the best in education? Why do we have to take mediocrity as about right for the United States?
And, when you say that, are you talking about elementary and secondary education? Or do you include our universities in this?
The United States has been fortunate to have great universities. And we still have students coming from all over the world to study in the United States, so there must be something that's bringing people here. Universities are more competitive with one another. They compete for teachers. They compete for students. It's an environment where being better counts. Elementary and secondary--that same sense of competition isn't there. There's probably plenty that could be improved in American higher education--I don't want to say there isn't--but I think the biggest problems are in the first 12 years.
And you would say, when Americans say, "What works in K through 12 education?"--What? What do you think does work? And then, again, what doesn't work? What's the biggest problem?
If we knew what worked, it would be so easy to fix, but because we don't know what works, that's why we have to have competition. That's why we want to let a 1000 flowers bloom. See what happens on the ground. Try things out. Take an experimental attitude. Those who discover what works can then spread the gospel to others, and we'll see, as a result, improvements across the board, up and down the line, not overnight, but in the long run--maybe in the course of the next decade.
Don't we know a lot already? That, to a certain degree, a smaller class size, perhaps less anonymous experiences in high schools, better trained teachers, more enthusiastic teachers, a decent level of of financial support [improve schools]?
All of these possibilities may be part of what works. Certainly, a good leadership counts and committed teachers count, and taking advantage of the new technology counts. There are lots of things out there that count. But, what's the right package and how to put it together? I think there's a lot yet to be learned, and we'll only learn it if we ask the people in the system to try different things out and to compete with one another to show that what they've got is the superior product. That's exactly what we do in every other sector of society, why shouldn't we do it in education?
Hoxby is Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard University and has conducted research examining the value of competition to public schools.
When people talk about a crisis in public education . . . what do you think the concern really is? Is it with our colleges and universities, or are we talking kindergarten through 12th grade?
First of all, I don't think the crisis has very much to do with higher education, at all. I think most people feel pretty happy about the higher education system in the United States. People are really talking about K through 12 education. And when we talk about the crisis, I think it's important to talk about what the crisis is. We don't have an achievement crisis in the United States. We have achievement that is, perhaps a little bit better, maybe about the same, perhaps a little bit worse, than it was in 1970. So there's no "crisis" in the sense that achievement has been deteriorating.
However, we want out students to have the best education in the world. And a lot of countries have improved their education a lot since 1970, whereas we stayed about the same, maybe a little bit better. And I think, increasingly, we're feeling mediocre in the world of industrialized nations. We're not doing the worst, in terms of math and science and reading and writing, but we're certainly not doing the best amongst other nations with similar industrial composition.
So I think that's one of the worries. The other worry is that we've been spending a lot more on education since 1970. Education spending has gone up by about 85% in real dollars since 1970. So, I think that the spending has been going up because people want to have education that's getting a lot better over time, and having it stay about the same or getting a little bit better is not making people happy. . . .
Let me ask you sort of the macro picture here. Here's Shaker Heights, [Ohio] which is an upper middle class community, solidly upper middle class. And people there, in general, seem to have quite an investment in the education of their children and are willing to tax themselves enormously to pay for a very good public school system....Just down the road is Cleveland, a school district that, at one point, was $150 million dollars or so in debt. Schools were falling apart and there didn't seem to be the economic ability to generate the funds that were necessary to repair those schools, repair them physically and repair the education in those schools. Isn't the sort of crux of this problem or one of the fundamental cruxes of the problem in education is this tremendous disparity in income that people have?
School finance or the degree to which a school system only reflects the amount of money of the people who live around it is, actually, a somewhat separate issue from school choice. For the last 30 years we've had very active policy making on what's called school finance equalization, which is the attempt to make sure that schools that serve parents who do not have incomes are actually able to spend about the same amount as schools who serve richer parents, or middle class parents. And every one one of the fifty states has been very active on school finance equalization. Every state legislature has a program to equalize school finance and many state courts have been involved in it.
School spending has been equalized between rich and poor districts within a state to a great extent over the last 30 years. It is not perfectly equally, by any means, but average school spending has risen, as I said earlier, by about 85% in the United States, on average. And, the poorer districts have had their spending rise faster than that and the richer districts have had their spending rise more slowly than that. So they have drawn together, gradually, over time.
I think that it is important that schools that serve poor families have enough money for education, but if you look at a school district like Cleveland, the public school system is spending much more on a per pupil basis than any of the private schools that parents who take the voucher are going to have their children receive in those private schools. The disproportionate spending in the public school versus these private schools is, perhaps, 2 to 1, maybe 3 to 1 in some of the private schools; which suggests that it's not just about money. It's partly about the money and it's partly about making sure that the money is well spent.
Finn is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where his primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. He was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and is co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education.
Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in crisis?
I think we're doing a pretty mediocre job as a whole. There are some beacons of quality, but they don't serve many kids. When you look at the international comparative data, and things like math and science, you discover that our best students are lagging way behind most other countries' average students in things like math and physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools of America are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the people attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner cities, people know they have a problem and are actively discontented. But I think a lot of suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.
If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine.
I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because you don't particular want to tell people that they're wrong, and that something they think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear yourself to them by telling them that. But if we were being brutally honest, we would be saying to suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either. While the country is doing fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I think the country is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of mechanisms for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working very well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained on the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third, fourth time. We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause, we never say it's hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational supplements. You're given a thousand chances, and that's the nice thing about America, but it also means that we don't actually ever sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up or ship out." It's one of the reasons why the standards-based reform movement is beginning to produce a kind of backlash around the country. It is beginning to say, "Hey, we're serious, and if you can't pass this test, you can't get a high school diploma."
Crew is the executive director of the University of Washington's new Institute for K-12 Leadership. He was chancellor of New York Public Schools for four years, one of the longest tenures of any recent chancellor. While leading the district of 1.1 million students, Crew ended the automatic promotion of failing students, changed the practice of giving lifelong job protection to principals, and persuaded the state Legislature to give the chancellor more say over the appointment of local superintendents. In news accounts, Crew blamed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his departure. The two had several disputes, including over a plan favored by the mayor to give public school students taxpayer-funded vouchers to use at private schools.
Is there a public education crisis now?
Certainly [the word "crisis"] would be applicable in some places. But I think it's a misnomer. I think the real enemy here isn't, quote, "public schools in crisis." That makes good camera-ready copy for somebody's journal. But the real issue is the tremendous variation between and among schools. In every city across this country, there's huge variation in the outcomes for kids. There are some that are doing extraordinarily well, and then you have some that are in the same system who are chronic occupiers of that lower rung of achievement.
The enemy in my mind isn't this "crisis." It's this tremendous variation. You need to look at what decreases the variation, when you really look at what would allow for all kids to move to the level of performance where many of our children already are. I think that's actually a more honest statement about it. We have lots of kids that are doing extraordinarily well. We've got some kids in the middle, and then you've got an enormous number of kids on the bottom end. . . .
Below this conversation about education, we're having a conversation about race and class in America.
That's right. Yes, we are. This is as close as America knows how to have a conversation about race and class. The president tried to have this conversation more overtly at one point in his tenure. It was really sort of misguided, in the sense that America's not ready to have that conversation. It's still too raw, or still too fretful, or we're just afraid to do it. It doesn't make us bad. It just means that we've got to find a proxy.
The conversation about education, just below the surface, is about standards, and assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the real conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? Who will have access to the resources that that intellectual capital commands? Who will have access to the marketplace? And how will they access that marketplace? All of that is going to be predicated by who has computers, and who is using technology now, who's actually being taught at a level of literacy that would allow them to compete, technologically and academically, in a literate workplace. That is happening in America's public schools.
When you look, and you ask yourself, what's working in some of those other schools? They're spending a lot of time, particularly in elementary schools, huge amounts of time in language development--oral language development done in a variety of ways, done by every teacher, done for long periods of time, done in an integrated, multi-disciplinary way. They're doing it in math, they're doing it in science, they're still using language in language arts, and they're using language in music. They've integrated the notion that your language is king of your ability to actually be a literate human being in this country.
And that represents one of the good things that are happening in these schools that are working. Other schools have spotty language programs. There's a program in, a program out, we like this program today, we don't like this one, and we'll choose another one tomorrow. Teachers in and out. Principals and leadership team in and out.
What you need is some constancy, both in terms of instruction, and in terms of the human resources that are there. You need proficiency, and you need constancy in those schools, just like you have it in other schools that are doing extremely well. And simply, when you find principals and teachers who are committed and love that school, they don't leave. There are no vacancies there.
So the real issue for me is that you can fix these schools if you really want to hang in and do it.
The real 21st-century problem in public education
By Valerie Strauss October 26, 2013 ---- Washington Post
There are plenty of problems in public education, but here’s the biggest, from Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, a project of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute that recognizes the impact of social and economic disadvantage on many schools and students, and works to better the conditions that limit many children’s readiness to learn.
By Elaine Weiss
So much has been said about new “21st century” skills, standards, and learning requirements, that they have become virtually synonymous with “college and career readiness” (a similarly poorly defined goal). The purportedly new demand for higher-level and different skills has further increased the pressure for more tests and higher stakes attached to them.
A new study showing explosive growth in student poverty suggests, though, that we have misidentified the problem. What if we have actually been teaching the right skills in U.S. schools all along – math and reading, science and civics, along with creativity, perseverance, and team-building? What if these were as important a hundred years ago for nurturing innovative farmers and developers of new automobiles as they are now for creating the next generation of tech innovators? What if these are the very characteristics of U.S. schools that have made us such a strong public education nation, and the current shift toward a narrower agenda just dilutes that strength? What if, rather than raising standards, and testing students more, the biggest change we need to address is that of our student body?
The October 2013 Southern Education Foundation study indicates clearly that poverty, which has long been the biggest obstacle to educational achievement, is more important than ever. It is our true 21st century problem. Fifty years ago, we educated mostly working-class kids and up, and we did not expect those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to graduate. Now we educate all students, including the very poorest and otherwise disadvantaged. And we expect them all to graduate. Compounding this shift, a large and growing proportion of U.S. students students live in poverty and even concentrated poverty, have a disability, and/or are learning English as a second language. THAT is the paradigm shift, and we need a totally new set of policies to address that 21st century reality.
In 2000, students who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals made up at least half of the student body in four states. Just eleven years later, over half of public school students are poor in 17 states, including every Southern state but Virginia and Maryland, and most Western states. Student poverty is the dominant reality in schools in three of the biggest states – California, Texas, and Florida—and nearly the majority in New York, Michigan, and Illinois. The 21st century has sharply increased the proportion of parents who are unemployed, whose jobs do not pay enough to provide basic food, shelter, clothing, and health care for their children, and/or whose immigrant status limit their capacity to navigate the education system and restrict them to a shadow economy.
This devastating reality demands a set of education reforms radically different from those on which policy has fixated of late. Without a set of supports that enable all students to acquire basic literacy, problem-solving, and communications skills, kindergarten teachers must tailor their instruction to an ever-broader range of academic capacities and behavioral challenges.
And too many students will be doomed from a very early age to remedial education and dim prospects of life success. Until we ensure that basic, preventable medical problems do not keep large numbers of students out of class and lack of food does not prevent them from focusing, effective teaching will become further out of reach. So long as we put school nurses, social workers, and counselors on the “expendable” list when budgets are tight, teachers will shoulder more non-teaching burdens, and instruction will be impeded. In the absence of systemic, consistent afterschool and summer enrichment, a growing number of students will lose much of what they gain during the day and over the school year, wasting taxpayer dollars and future talent.
Not only have we not addressed these realities, we have exacerbated them. Pressure on test scores has crowded out the art, music, and drama that cultivate a love of learning and that draw out children’s unique skills. In high-poverty schools especially, drilling in math and reading has dumbed down lessons, frustrated teachers, and put students at an even greater disadvantage relative to high-income, experienced, well-rounded peers. Standardization has made it harder to tailor lessons to the unique culture of the community, making instruction more distant and less relevant. This pressure has also sidelined physical education and recess, both of which boost student capacity to focus and learn, and of course are critical to combat our growing child obesity crisis. Finally, it has increased the prevalence of “zero-tolerance” policies that establish harsh disciplinary consequences for even minor infractions and that treat the natural responses to poverty- and school-related stress as near-criminal behaviors.
Kids who are living in poverty need more, not less, of the supports that help upper-class children thrive. These include small classes, challenging, rich curriculum, individualized instruction, and supportive responses to emotional and behavioral challenges. It also means ensuring a meaningful “floor” – in terms of school readiness, physical and mental health, and nutrition – on which they can stand in order to viably learn.
We do have a 21st century education crisis – poverty. Until we properly diagnose the illness, however, our prescribed remedies will continue to fall far short.
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
How Should We Rebuild the U.S. Education System?
by John Converse Townsend
Three learning enthusiasts share their blueprints for rebuilding the U.S. education system.
In the 2nd century A.D., Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius penned a series of personal writings and reflections known today as “Meditations.” In Book 1, the emperor shares some of his debts and lessons learned, and offers a glimpse at his experiences as a student. Even then, from the sound of it, we were still letting schools get in the way of our children’s educations.
From his great-grandfather, Catilus Severus, Aurelius learned “to avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.” And that was 1,800 years ago. The more things change…
Anybody else tired of having to be “boundlessly and annoyingly skeptical” about the reforms advertised as fixes to bad public schools?
A good education is worth investing in—that has always been true. To get some perspective on what a quality learning experience could look like, and how we can turn that vision into reality, I reached out to a few people who are fighting to build a better education system here in the United States:
1) Why are schools in the United States failing their students?
Sam Chaltain: We won’t get more great schools until we get more clarity around the ultimate purpose of schooling. At an ideal school, adults understand that their mission is to help children grow not just cognitively, but also socially, emotionally, linguistically, ethically, and physically. We can’t address all those different developmental needs of children until we restore some balance to what we value. And right now, in America, it’s all about cognitive growth (and even a narrow sliver of that)—and little about anything else.
Nikhil Goyal: American schools are failing, because they are suppressing children by forcing them into a compliance-based model of education. All children are natural learners. We’re born with curiosity, creativity, wonder, and intrinsic motivation. Research shows that with more years of formal schooling, those very qualities are stunted tremendously. Moreover, schools largely resemble prisons: children are cut from society and social media is banned.
Rahila Simzar: Reform movements in education tend to focus on a “one size fits all” approach in attempting to solve educational inequity issues. While universalizing core standards and curriculum does carry some utility in leveling the playing field, it is important to keep in mind that it is not the magic silver bullet that will remedy achievement gaps alone. Support for underachieving students and their teachers, professional development promoting differentiated instruction for diverse groups of learners, and efforts towards building learning communities for teachers, school leaders, and administrators to encourage teamwork and shared responsibility must accompany these movements.
2) If you alone had the power to do so, how would you fix the U.S. education system?
Chaltain: In a system as diverse and broad as ours, some form of standardization is essential. We have chosen to standardize two things: what gets taught, and how kids get assessed. By contrast, a country like Finland has standardized two very different factors: how schools get funded, and how teachers get trained.
Imagine how differently the landscape of modern school reform would look if we stopped funding schools inequitably—even the U.S. Supreme Court has characterized our approach as “chaotic and unjust”—and started funding all schools the same, regardless of the surrounding community’s property values? We’d solve the riddle of comprehensive school reform in record time.
Goyal: First, I would call for Congress to repeal No Child Left Behind and allow for the abolition of Race to the Top. Then I would arrange for a council of education stakeholders to craft national guidelines of the basics for what children should know for this day and age. Most importantly, I would push for schools to adopt learner-centered policies where children take full agency over their learning experiences, have a curriculum that is anti-disciplinary and rooted in real-world problems, and transform the role of the teacher into a facilitator rather than a “sage on the stage.”
Simzar: I would place more emphasis on early childhood programs, especially for children in underserved communities. I would highlight the potential that out-of-school-time programs have for students’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills that can transfer to students’ academic life, social and family life, and later career life. Out-of-school-time staff would be given pedagogy-based professional development, opportunities for degree attainment, and residency-like programs to assist mentorship between teachers. Lastly, I would encourage cross-curriculum connections and a shared responsibility in academic achievement among teachers, colleagues, coaches, and mentors.
3) What does your “dream school” look like?
Chaltain: There is a mission and a vision that aligns everyone’s work every day. The end goal is not a fixed set of content knowledge, but a flexible series of habits of mind that can guide a child through life. Learning occurs anywhere and everywhere, and is always engaging relevant, supportive, challenging, and experiential.
The good news is that what I’m describing is not just a dream—it’s already happening. See for yourself at ayearatmissionhill.com—a 10-part video series about a year in the life of a remarkable public school in Boston.
What the Mission Hill series demonstrates is that we know more than we think we do about what powerful teaching and learning really looks like—and requires. Now we just need to spread the word.
Goyal: There are thousands of schools scattered around the nation that are working very well: progressive, democratic, and free schools. In democratic schools, for example, by means of meetings, children in the school can vote on school rules and policies. However, we must transform even further than these types of institutions. We should create city-as-a-school models where we turn public spaces into learning environments, let children participate in apprenticeships, and unlock the potential of communities to solve real-world problems.
Simzar: A “dream school” would be a community of teachers, school leaders and administrators who share a goal of nurturing, supporting and encouraging each and every one of its students. This requires components of a “dream community” as a prerequisite—with all members of a community contributing to and caring about the development of its youth. Bridges between students’ school life, home life and social life need to be built for students to experience a wholesome and connected learning environment. A “dream school” would be a school in which each teacher truly loved his/her students and cared deeply for their futures.
Follow John on Twitter at @JohnCTownsend
our educational problems of today, originate with the "Brown vs Board of ed" decision...
14 Disturbing Stats About Racial Inequality in American Public Schools
Steven Hsieh March 21, 2014 --- The Nation
Comprehensive data released Friday by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights offers a striking glance at the extent of racial inequality plaguing the nation’s education system.
Analysts found that black, Latino and Native American students have less access to advanced math and science courses and are more likely to be taught by first-year instructors than white students. Black and Native American students are also suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates.
For the first time in history, the Education Department also examined school discipline at the pre-K level, finding that black students as young as four years old are already facing unequal treatment from school administrators.
The Education Department released four papers with the data, analyzing inequality in school discipline, early learning, college readiness and teacher equity (pdfs). Here’s a breakdown of some of the key findings, taken straight from those papers. During the 2011–12 school year:
of Various Subjects