Fixing Our Broken Public Education System: Restoring The Most Fundamental Prerequesite to Equality of Opportunity

Note: my views have softened considerably on teachers’ unions. Like all unions, they seek to collectively bargain for fair wages and have basic workplace protection in place. Finland, for instance, is heavily unionized.

Education is one of the few issues that is fundamentally bipartisan in theory. Just about everyone accepts that the government has an essential role in ensuring a good education for our students. Everyone believes that a well-educated youth is a prerequisite to the safety and prosperity of our nation, and that education represents a fundamental component of equality of opportunity and the American dream.

Despite this, our educational system is utterly broken. In 1973, the U.S. was ranked high in the world for providing quality public education. Today the OECD ranks us 14th in reading, 25th in math, and 17th in science out of its 34 members. This is mediocre at best and downright alarming at worst.

Just as important is our inability to improve the worst-off among us. Despite billions spent in education to improve our schools, the performance among the most disadvantaged has flatlined. An enormous achievement gap exists among races and socioeconomic classes. Racial minorities and the poor disproportionately attend low-quality schools in inner-cities. They are also a prominent demographic in dropout factories, where as many as 50-70% of the students attending that school inevitably drop out. Overall, in 2010, an appalling 7.4% dropped out of school without obtaining a GED.

The Problem

There are a myriad of structural problems in education today.

One pressing problem is the way schools are funded. Right now, federal aid represents a tiny slice of total educational spending (even though it comes with MANY strings attached). A greater portion of the money comes from the states, but individual school districts shoulder most of the spending.

This creates alarming trends. Municipalities, whose principal revenue is the property tax, will spend accordingly to the wealth of their communities; in other words, poorer neighborhoods and inner cities will be badly underfunded relative to their richer counterparts. State funding may or may not counteract this to some degree, but economic performance and tax revenues vary widely from state to state. Because both are bound by a balanced budget and cannot overspend in the long term, there is an inherent disadvantage in funding for the very schools that need it the most. As a result, poorer school districts also happen to have larger student to teacher ratios and fewer resources that can enhance an educational experience.

Just as important is the way teachers are treated under the current system. There are two primary problems here. First, we pay teachers a ridiculously small amount. This low salary is a monumental deterrent to the most talented individuals, who can easily make much higher salaries by working in high-demand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs. It is telling that many who become teachers come from the bottom half of a graduating college class.

The second is the issue of teacher tenure. While it gives teachers a helpful level of autonomy and protects the best teachers, it also shields the worst teachers from accountability. Moreover, in tight fiscal times such as now, the newest rather than the poorest teachers are the first to go; seniority in general is a poor criterion of overall teacher performance.

Both trends contribute to the poor quality of teachers. According to Eric Hanushek of Stanford’s Hoover Institute, the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher within a single school year can be as much as 300 percent, even after controlling for race and socioeconomic class. Just imagine these effects compounded after thirteen years of public education.

In her book Multiplication is for White People, Lisa Delpit observes that bad teachers also contribute to the stereotype threat among racial minorities, where these students are perceived to have less inherent potential than their peers and it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whilst rarely overt, this subtle form of racial discrimination that many teachers harbor is excruciatingly difficult to eliminate. When racial minorities are not keeping up with the rest of the class, these teachers usually assume it is because of their race rather than their dire socioeconomic circumstances. They do not create a tolerant environment where no student believes that they are inherently superiority to one another on the basis of race, socioeconomic class, or gender. This reinforces the poor educational performance of racial minorities.

“Reforms” That Don’t Work

  1. Standardized Testing

In 1983, the Department of Education under the Reagan administration produced an article titled “A Nation At Risk.” While perhaps a bit sensationalist, the article eschewed jargon to help the layman understand its ideas and highlighted the need to develop national standards in the curriculum so that schools know precisely what students are expected to learn.

Yet, in the mid-1990s, the standards movement fell apart. A proposed national history curriculum was embroiled in controversy and relentlessly attacked by the far right, who preferred a utopian picture of American exceptionalism rather than the more accurate picture the curriculum outlined: two mixed centuries featuring hypocrisy, racial oppression, ethnocentrism, and imperialism along with success. Politicians of all ideologies moved away from national standards to avoid the wrath of the far right, whose influence had dramatically increased over the past decade and a half.

Out of the ashes rose the testing movement, which is symbolized by the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002 with surprising bipartisan support. Standardized tests had some theoretical appeal: it was the most cost-effective way to measure a student’s approximate skill, and it was believed that one’s test score reflected on the teacher’s ability to provide a quality education.

However, the NCLB was a gargantuan failure on many levels. Its most fundamental weakness was the inflated importance of standardized testing as a metric for school performance. Because these test scores determined whether or not schools would keep their current federal funding (or even stay open), it created an obsession to “teach to the test,” which emphasized good test-taking skills and core concepts over overall course mastery, long-term retention, other concepts important for the true mastery of the subject but not the test, and even critical thinking. Sometimes, things got so desperate that the teachers and principals were complicit with large-scale cheating by giving students extra time, writing answers on the board, and/or modifying the answers themselves. The NCLB was also completely punitive with regards to federal aid. By promising no rewards for the best performing schools and leaving it to the states to set their own standards, states were encouraged to dumb down standards rather than improve them, creating a vicious rather than a virtuous cycle. In fact, Governor Rick Perry once lowered the difficulty of standardized tests to inflate the passing rate and promote his chances for reelection. Finally, to avoid the controversy that occurred with the national history curriculum, states left the contents of their curriculum intentionally vague instead of making it transparent to parents and students what precisely they are expected to learn.

That is not to say that standardized tests don’t have any place in the educational system. They are, by and large, still the least bad way to assess student achievement. To the extent that they can incorporate critical thinking (much as the AP exams do), standardized tests can assess mastery rather than good test-taking skills. However, they have no business being the central facet of education or imposing life and death decisions on the school

  1. Merit Pay

Another popular proposal that comes along with accountability is merit pay. It certainly has theoretical appeal: it would pay the good teachers more and encourage all teachers to improve their performance. However, it is not the answer because it creates perverse incentives rather than positive ones in practice. As Dan Pink, an expert on the science of motivation, reasoned:

For starters, most proposals for “merit pay” (sorry, I can’t use the term without quotation marks) tie teacher compensation to student scores on standardized tests. That’s a disaster. It focuses teachers almost single-mindedly on training their students to pencil in correct answers on multiple choice tests – and turns classrooms into test prep academies. (What’s more, it can encourage cheating, as Georgia’s experience shows.) So let’s knock out this approach to merit pay.

A second option is for school principals to decide who gets performance bonuses. Again, there’s a certain theoretical appeal to this method. But I’ve yet to meet a teacher who considers it fair, let alone motivating. Teachers worry that principals don’t have sufficient information to make such decisions and that “merit pay” would be based too heavily on who’s best at playing politics and currying favor. So let’s kibosh this method, too.

A third approach is to use a variety metrics to determine who gets a bonus. You could measure teacher performance using: standardized scores for that teacher’s students; evaluations of the teacher’s peers, students, parents, and principal; a teacher’s contribution to overall school performance; time devoted to professional development; how much the teachers’ students improved over the previous year; and so on. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it has a huge downside: It would force resource-strapped schools to spend enormous amounts of time, talent, and brainpower measuring teachers rather than educating students. Schools have enough to do already. And the costs of establishing and maintaining elaborate measurement systems would likely outweigh the benefits.

In short, I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair. What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars. Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already.

Moreover, merit pay pits teachers against one another, encouraging competition rather than cooperation, and encourages them to only seek good students. This slows the adoption and diffusion of effective teaching methods. Yet another oft-omitted effect is that it discourages good teachers from teaching the most disadvantaged or disabled students, which further screws them over.

  1. School Vouchers and School Choice

Recently, the Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats have been enamored by the concept of school vouchers and school choice. This idea, again, has theoretical appeal. When a student is stuck in a bad inner-city school, they should have the proper financial incentives to relocate to a better one. Indeed, it has the potential to give thousands of students a better educational opportunity. What can possibly be wrong with that?

Much, unfortunately. The concern, as illustrated by Diane Ravitch, is that it would “allow thousands of flowers to bloom” but makes life even more miserable for the students left behind in these bad schools and can’t afford to make a switch. When the best students leave a poor school, those remaining lose another incentive to do well in class and cast optimism for their futures. This will most likely offset or even outweigh any positive benefits associated with the school’s recognition that it must increase its quality to retain its students.

Vouchers also disproportionately benefit the wealthy and the middle class, who are allowed lucrative discounts on something they could already afford. The fundamental problem behind vouchers is that it will remain unaffordable to the poorest people who would benefit most from such a transition: families simply cannot move because they cannot find employment in a different district (particularly in current economic conditions) and their health coverage goes completely out the window, so they cannot pay for the costs they must shoulder. Consequently, vouchers actually reinforce the association between socioeconomic class and quality of education rather than the other way around.

The priority of public education is not to simply shift the quality of education around, but to improve the system as a whole. Vouchers are only truly effective if they are targeted towards the poorest segments of the population and if they do not crowd out spending in other areas of public education (there is a substantial risk that they will).

  1. Charter Schools

The final major policy proposal for improving education is the charter school. This particular reform is a favorite for businesses and “genius playboy billionaire philanthropists.” Just like all the other “reforms,” there is theoretical appeal to running a school like a business. Deplit states that “they are intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms.” They were “to be beacons for what could happen in public schools.”

However, the incessant proliferation of charter schools has had mixed results and tangible harms towards the public schools. “Special education students, students with behavioral issues, and students who need any kind of special assistance are excluded in a multiplicity of ways because they reduce the bottom line-they lower test scores and take more time to educate properly.” Delpit even states that these charter schools weed out disadvantaged students by “counseling” their parents and telling them that the charter schools are unable to meet the needs of their disadvantaged students and, astonishingly, telling parents that these students are better off in the public schools! In New Orleans, so-called “lottery systems” gave preferential admission to those who have attended an affiliated private preschool, which cost $4,000 or $9,000. In other words, these charter schools attempt to siphon off the most gifted students and leave behind “excess baggage” to the public schools, where the decrease in gifted students produces a truly stagnant school environment.

Even when charter schools produce innovative methods that increases the educational performance of their students, they are discouraged from sharing these ideas to public schools or other charter schools because doing so would allow “competitors” to “win” the race to give the best education. That is an unconscionable market failure whose negative externalities are directly borne by the students stuck in public schooling.

Finally, when there are successful charter schools (Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem charter schools are a famous example), the success is attributed towards the type of school (charter) rather than the most fundamental criterion, teacher quality. The prominence of effective charter schools also masks the fact that other charter schools have mixed results and a handful are even worse than public education. This creates a vicious cycle where businesses and philanthropists lavish attention on charter schools rather than public schools; when combined with “choice,” this again leaves the most disadvantaged students behind.

Reforms That Do Work

As highlighted above, neither party has been accountable for providing a robust public education system for our students. You might also be disillusioned because this post harps excessively on the failings of education and is cynical in nature. Does a solution to this extremely complex problem exist?

Thankfully, there are many practical solutions.

Preschools, which accelerates cognitive development and is empirically proven to aid students later in their educational career, should become part of the public education system. It would be a good idea to force charter schools to disclose their teaching methods. The negative incentives behind standardized testing need to be eliminated and used more as a guideline rather than a determinant for funding and compensation; in addition, it should incorporate more critical thinking rather than rote memorization. A “nutrition” food stamp should be introduced so that students in poverty don’t come into class hungry or with malnutrition. Student-to-teacher ratios should be reduced, particularly among the most disadvantaged students. The school year should be lengthened so that students don’t completely forget everything over the summer.

The funding available to schools should be delinked from the overall wealth of the district.It might be more appropriate to set a federal guideline on the necessary level of funding for a school to function efficiently, and incentivize States to provide sufficient funding for all schools. Optimally, schools should have the same amount of money per student to spend, but let’s not be socialist here. XD

The single best way to fix our broken educational system is to improve the quality of our teachers. Eric Hanushek believes that if we let go the worst 6-8 percent of our teachers, our OECD scores would be on par with Finland.

While I personally believe that is an exaggeration, teacher quality is incredibly important. Good teachers smartly incorporate different resources to help students learn, create a nurturing and tolerant environment that minimizes the devastating stereotype threat, and emphasize course mastery and critical thinking over good test-taking skills.

One prong to increase the quality of our teachers is to dramatically increase teacher compensation and give them the status they enjoy in South Korea or Finland. The exact salary is debatable, but I think teachers should at least have a six-figure salary. This keeps the issue of money off the table and also provides a competitive salary with other STEM fields. While giving different teachers different salaries is controversial (see merit pay), it might also be a good idea to give an extra bonus for teachers who decide to educate the most disadvantaged students.

On the flip side, teacher tenure will have to be weakened significantly. While it does protect the best of the best, it also shields the worst teachers from even basic accountability, and these are the ones who destroy the aspirations of their students. It is optimally done with the cooperation of teacher unions, but should they refuse they may have to be destroyed with an iron fist. Otherwise, those massive campaign contributions to the Democrats will effectively block change indefinitely.

Again, the details of these reforms are elusive and need to be hammered out and produce strong consensus. Basic employment protections should still exist: teachers should not be discriminated on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc. Giving principals too much power to fire teachers makes the system extremely arbitrary. Providing detailed evaluation systems would be costly and crowd out money spent on other resources designed to help out students.

Ultimately, I think that this question should be left to fellow teachers and should be structured like a trial. This referendum on the teacher would optimally take place during a weekend. Students within the class will testify their experiences for and against the teacher, and other staff will be allowed to give their own personal views. Then, the teachers acting as a jury will hold a vote, and the principal will be allowed a somewhat weighted vote. Because firing a teacher is a big deal, the vote will have to be anywhere from 55% (a strong majority) to a supermajority in order to successfully “impeach” the embattled teacher. To avoid disruption, this teacher might be allowed to teach for the remainder of a particular unit or even the semester, but should not be fired before a replacement is found.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence suggesting the efficacy of my theory. Because I do not have extensive knowledge about the educational systems of South Korea or Finland, I cannot cite case studies there. However, one thing is clear: teacher tenure must be weakened in some way; its exact implementation can be debated.

Better teachers would go hand-in-hand with national standards in education. In order for education to function best, expected results should be centralized, but the process should be decentralized. This would give teachers the autonomy to teach however they see fit and encourages innovation; the only requirement is that students must learn the specified concepts for a given year.

Finally, with regards to college admissions, some degree of equality of results is necessary to facilitate equality of opportunity. When the difficulties of students in poverty or in poor schooling are taken into account, they are given the opportunity to attend a university that closely matches their educational potential. The chance given to one generation to overcome its socioeconomic classification can provide better opportunities for subsequent generations.

However, affirmative action programs should be minor or moderate at most and should be based on socioeconomic class and overall school quality (what happens in preschool, elementary school, and middle school are all shape what happens in high school) rather than race. The stereotype threat that so adversely affects racial minorities is the symptom of a structural problem (low teacher quality) that is perfectly within the teacher’s control.

On the other hand, socioeconomic class is completely outside of the teacher’s control. Students in poverty are more likely to attend poorer school districts with less competent teachers, which will always happen regardless of structural reforms because of the inherent inequality in funds and the stigma that teachers harbor against poorer school districts. Families in poverty cannot afford private schooling or other useful resources to such as SAT prep programs to aid the educational achievement of students outside of public schooling. Students in poverty do not have the luxury of taking the SAT a million times to get the optimal score. Moreover, because racial minorities are more likely to be in poverty or poorer schooling, socioeconomic class solves for race.

Contrary to popular belief, there are many sensible and practical solutions towards fixing our broken educational system. However, politicians, businessmen, and philanthropists alike have been pushing the wrong reforms. Should this continue, it wouldn’t be long before our public education system entered a state of deep disrepair.

As I will outline in a future post, the prevalence of special interests in our government has blocked the necessary reforms and promoted the incorrect actions. Until special interests no longer have a disproportionate say in public policy, it will take mass, sustained outrage before the effective reforms will be implemented.

Further reading:
Multiplication is for White People, by Lisa Delpit
The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch
Chapter 6 of Republic, Lost, by Lawrence Lessig


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