School reform is a natural controversy. Perhaps no other issue better encapsulates the different hopes and fears that Americans have for their society. The idea of how to fix public education lies squarely across our largest emotional fault lines: our assumptions about the role of government mingle with our values about how to raise children, and the resulting controversy can appear baffling to an outsider. The public schools are one of the largest and most complicated public projects our nation has ever attempted. Their function in society is critically important but also rather vaguely defined. Just about everyone agrees that our schools are at a critical juncture in their history, but everyone has a different idea about where they should be headed.
Our current public education system is already extraordinarily ambitious. In every locality across the country, children are gathered into large, publicly-run buildings and forced to listen to whatever their elders have decided they need to hear. No matter who they are or where they come from, every child is required by law be a part of this program (or else to find a comparable equivalent on their own). There are currently about 65 million children in public education in the United States (US Census, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0216.pdf.) With such an immense undertaking, it’s understandable if some people are not satisfied with the results, and others aren’t even sure it was a sensible venture in the first place.
How Did We Get Here?
Traditionally, public schools were funded by local property taxes. The problem with this arrangement was that it led to immense inequalities in the amount of funding different schools were receiving. A district with lower property values would have less money to spend on schools than a wealthier district. Poor districts would get a worse education as a result, compounding their poverty. In response, state governments in the 1920s began to provide additional funding to poorer districts to try to even out the funding imbalances. Nowadays less than half of the money we spend on schools is raised locally, and low-income school districts actually spend more than the national average (Hanushek and Lindseth 2009, p. 62-68).
Despite the equality of funding, schools in low-income areas have not improved. In fact, the nation as a whole now spends three times more on education than it did in the 1960s, but by many standards our educational outputs haven’t improved at all (Hanushek and Lindseth 2009, p. 45). This stirs up some serious questions about the way our school system works and what we want it to accomplish. If we spend so much more to get the same results, does that mean our schools are now much less efficient? Or are we spending more on things that are valuable but can’t be measured by test scores, like art classes and guidance counselors? Different reformers typically answer these questions in very different ways.
For example, one approach to reform argues that the education system should look more like the private sector, where competition forces companies to operate as efficiently as possible. This argument is typically made by members of the business community, who find the school system to be a hopeless mess compared to the neat and orderly business world they’re used to. In education, they say, nobody knows what the goal is, so nobody knows whether anyone’s succeeding. We want students to graduate high school, but only if they’ve really learned what they need to know, and how do we determine what that is?
Furthermore, they say, people who work in schools have no financial incentive to succeed. In business, a successful employee will get a raise and a promotion, and will soon have a shot at running the company. But the best teachers don’t get paid more, because nobody can agree on what constitutes a good teacher. And that, they say, makes it very easy for teachers to content themselves with being mediocre. In business, a mediocre company goes out of business: only the best companies remain profitable. But a school doesn’t go out of business if the students don’t learn.
These reformers propose to change all that. The first step is to clarify what the goal is: comprehensive tests must be administered to every student in the system to see how much he or she have learned. Those test scores can then be used as currency in an educational marketplace: teachers who raise test scores the most can be paid higher wages, and teachers who don’t raise test scores at all will be in danger of losing their jobs.
Fostering competition between whole schools is a bit trickier. The basic idea is that parents need to be able to choose where their children go to school, and schools need to be independently operated so that a successful school can attract more students and expand its operations while an unsuccessful school can be closed down.
Reform Through Public Institutions
This free-market approach to school reform is very controversial. It’s a perfect example of the vastly different assumptions people have about what they want public schools to look like. Critics of the free-market approach say it misses the point entirely. The whole point of having a universal public school system, they say, is to use education to raise people out of poverty. A competitive system might allow the more proactive parents to send their kids to a better school, but the system exists primarily for the benefit of the children of parents who aren’t proactive. According to these critics, such competition already exists: if you want your child to go to a good school then you can move to a successful school district. The basic problem, they say, is the fact that unsuccessful schools exist in the first place. Adding more competition won’t change that: if anything, it’ll concentrate all the children whose parents don’t care about their education into the same schools. These critics say we have enough of that dynamic already: the real question is what to do about those failing districts, given that we can’t really let whole school districts go out of business.
Many of the free-market reformers concede the point: if parents don’t care about their children’s education, then that’s their decision. The public has no responsibility—no right, even—to force children to get more education than their parents are interested in. Their opponents counter that this, in fact, is exactly what public schools are trying to do. The whole point is to force children to get more education than their parents know how to give. Parents might not know how to find a good school, but what parent wouldn’t want the best education possible for his or her child?
Different reformers are worried about the schools for different reasons. The free-market reformers commonly say they’re concerned about America’s ability to compete in international business. They’re worried that students in Korea and Germany have higher math and science scores than American students, meaning that the next big, profitable innovations will come from there instead of here. In that context, they advocate longer school days, more rigid curriculums and more homework so that students will learn as much as possible. Opponents of the free-market approach have very different concerns. They say the primary problem is low literacy rates: it’s very hard to get a job if you can’t read and write very well. The way to raise literacy rates is to set up high-quality preschools and provide greater resources to elementary schools. They also typically advocate a less rigid style of curriculum: more question and answer, less homework, and less time spent in traditional classroom settings. The goal of education, they say, is to cultivate a love of learning, not merely to memorize facts for a multiple-choice test.
These approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But in practice, it’s common to find critics who see the value in one approach but not the other.
Sometimes, reformers will find something they can agree on. For example, in the past decade every state has adopted some kind of standardized testing to measure student performance, so that schools can know how they’re doing and when they’re improving. This was the primary goal of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. NCLB was very controversial, but its opponents were not fundamentally opposed to testing in itself. They had several concerns, for example: 1) that the tests were not very good tests, that they didn’t really measure student achievement, 2) that these bad tests were being used as a graduation requirement, which they considered unfair, and 3) that low-performing schools would have their funding cut as a form of financial incentive. Since the adoption of the bill, reformers have been discussing ways to address these concerns. A number of changes have been made, with the result that every state has a different kind of standardized test. Some commentators deplore this irregular arrangement, whereas others see it as a necessary adaptation to local needs.
Compromise in education reform is often undermined by personal distrusts and deep-seated fears. Each side accuses the other of acting in their own self-interest, rather than in the interest of the students. For example, conservatives often argue that teachers’ unions are merely out to line their own pockets while providing as little actual teaching as possible. The standard response is that conservatives only want to privatize the education system so that they can make money off it. A lot of liberals are honestly afraid of unchecked corporate interests taking over their schools, and a lot of conservatives are equally mistrustful of unions. Liberals, in turn, are often especially loyal to unions, and conservatives are especially trusting of business interests.
When all involved parties are passionately angry at each other, it’s very hard for a concerned outsider to understand what’s going on. To the general public, it often seems that attempting to understand school reform is like walking in on a bar fight. What should concerned parents do, if they are discouraged by the state of the local schools? Who should they trust?
It may or may not be comforting to remember that the day-to-day labors of operating something as big and complex as a school is a tremendously difficult task. At the end of the day, no one really know what policies will work best, but any concerned community member can make a difference volunteering their time with their local education system. Schools and community centers are often in need of mentors, coaches, community organizers or fundraisers, depending on the skills a volunteer might bring.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Who do you trust in the school reform debate, and why?
What do you think are the primary problems facing the public schools, and what do you think are the solutions? Do you feel like these problems are being discussed enough in the public education debate?
What do you think is the best way to form a fair opinion on a controversial subject?
School reform is a complicated issue, and it’s hard for an uninformed outsider to know what’s going on.
Some reformers think the public schools are doing a bad job, while others think they should be doing a very different job.
Due to the ambitious scope of the public schools, school reform is the rare issue where the status-quo is defended by liberals, while conservatives demand reform.