The Electoral Issue:America spends more per student than many countries whose education system produces better results, putting us at a competitive disadvantage in an economy that increasingly demands an educated workforce.
The Challenge:To provide a higher-quality primary and secondary education for more students, and to send more students to college, creating an American workforce educated to fill the needs of the 21st century economy.
By almost any measure, the United States lags behind many of its global competitors in the math, science, and reading proficiency of its students.
Perhaps the most prominent global education ranking, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered every three years, compares the scores of 15 year olds in most of the developed world and parts of the developing world. The results of the most recent test, administered in 2009, were not encouraging for the United States. Compared to the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), our 15 year olds ranked 25th in mathematics, 17th in science, and 14th in reading. Ahead of us in every category were the countries that are widely considered our competitors in the 21st century: China, Korea, Japan, much of Northern Europe, and others.
According to a 2010 report from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, only 6 percent of American students performed at an "advanced" mathematics level, a lower percentage than that seen in 30 other countries.
In 2011, education expenditures comprised two percent of the federal budget, a significant portion that is nonetheless dwarfed by many other budgetary items. State and local governments provide the lion's share of education funding (93 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; the remainder is provided by the federal government.)
Proposals to improve education frequently advocate pouring more money into the system, but there is no conclusive evidence that additional money would produce better outcomes.
In 2009, the U.S. spent 35 percent more per pupil than in 1990. On average, America spends $10,995 per year on each student, which is already more than $2,000 above the average for industrialized countries in the OECD. Many countries who spend less than America on a per-pupil basis, like Japan and Korea, have far more competitive performance indicators.
Harvard's Kennedy School cross-referenced funding increases with performance improvements on a state-by-state basis and found "precious little support for the theory" that more money produces better test scores. Researchers found a "slight positive relationship" between the two variables, but many states posting big gains had not dramatically increased funding, and many that had increased funding demonstrated negligible gains, flummoxing the results.
Teachers: Underappreciated or Coddled?
Depending on who you ask, America's teachers are either the biggest obstacle to reform, or the single most important asset we have in improving our education system. Many conservatives argue that teachers - and their unions - are standing in the way of progress by demanding teacher tenure laws that offer undue job security to even the worst educators.
In New Jersey, for example, before recent reforms, teachers were given lifetime tenure after only 3 years in the classroom, making it very difficult to remove ineffective teachers. New Jersey's education system also operated under a "last-in-first-out" staffing policy, in which any teacher layoffs must first target those educators with the least experience in the classroom. The old system also tied pay primarily to longevity, offering little incentive for teachers to burnish their excellence or for promising would-be teachers to take the plunge. Critics of similar systems contend that it keeps good teachers out of the classroom and bad teachers in the classroom.
Nonsense, say many teachers - the problem with teaching as a profession isn't job security, it's job profitability.
Teachers' salaries, adjusted for inflation, have been declining for 30 years now. They now earn 14 percent less than other professionals with similar levels of education. The average starting salary for a teacher is $39,000. After 25 years on the job, the average salary rises to only $67,000. For many teachers, it's not enough to make ends meet: 62 percent of teachers work outside the classroom for additional income. The effect of these numbers leads to a breathtaking turnover rate: every year, in urban school districts, 20 percent of teachers call it quits. 46 percent of all new teachers leave the profession before their fifth year on the job.
Because education is the purview of local governments, not the federal government, education policies and student performance can vary greatly from state to state. While some states have posted impressive overall results and demonstrated marked improvement in student performance, others continue to grossly underserve their students. Even within specific districts, the quality of schools can vary greatly. Because most localities fund their schools with property taxes, more affluent areas with higher property values tend to appropriate more funding for their schools, while schools in poorer areas tend to be cash strapped. This "funding gap" can create a feedback loop that reinforces existing patterns of excellence and mediocrity - the best schools in the best areas continue to get the best funding, while those schools most in need of improvement get the short end of the stick.
High School Graduation
According to the Department of Education, the averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR) in 2009 was 75.5 percent. That number was a slight improvement from 2001, when the AFGR was 71.7 percent, but it is still unacceptably low. One in four high school freshmen nationwide will not complete their high school diploma, leaving them ill-equipped for participation in a workforce that increasingly demands the analytical and practical skills that come with secondary and post-secondary education.
Cost of Higher Education
As states grapple with their budget crises, many state governments have responded by reducing the funding they provide for higher education.
Ohio, for example, devoted 17 percent of state expenditures to higher education in the 1970s, a figure that has shrunk to 11 percent today. (To compare, over the same period, prison funding escalated from 4 percent to 8 percent.) Some schools have had to make up the difference by raising tuition rates, charging an increasingly steep price for 2- and 4-year degrees. Ohio's flagship university, Ohio State University, has increased tuition and fees by 60 percent since 2002.
Between 2001 and 2011, according to the College Board, state and local funding per higher education student declined by 24 percent nationwide. During the same period, tuition and mandatory fees at public universities increased by 72 percent. At non-profit private colleges, tuition and fees were hiked 29 percent. Funding is now at a 25-year low, adjusted for inflation, and costs have never been higher.
One result of the rapid escalation of higher-education costs has been an enormous accumulation of student-loan debt. As college becomes more expensive, more students are borrowing more money.
Outstanding student loan debt currently totals over a trillion dollars, surpassing even credit card debt as American households' single biggest financial liability. The balance of federal student loans, which account for 90 percent of all student loans, has grown by 60 percent over the last five years.
According to a Department of Education Survey, approximately 2/3 of all bachelors degree recipients in 2007-2008 took out loans to finance their degree. Among those who graduated in 1992-1993, only 45 percent took out a loan. The average debt among borrowers in 2011 was $23,300, and 10 percent of borrowers owe more than $54,000. For some, it has proven to be too great a cross to bear: one in ten of those who began repaying their loans in 2009 defaulted within 2 years.
And it's not just a personal economic problem, it can have broader effects on consumption and economic growth patterns: a Rutgers University survey of recent college graduates found that 40 percent had delayed a major purchase due to their student loan debt burden.
Next page: The solutions
School Choice / Vouchers
A reform proposal that was spearheaded by conservatives but has gained some currency among urban progressives and other elements of the Democratic coalition, vouchers are provided to some students in failing school systems to subsidize their tuition at a private school, providing these students with a private education on the government's dime. Other school-choice initiatives allow students to choose a public charter school over the standard public school for which they are zoned. Proponents of vouchers and charter schools pitch them as a way of injecting choice and competition into our education system, providing school systems with the experimentation necessary to develop and propagate best practices.
President Obama, who has drawn the ire of conservative education-reform advocates for seeking to end the D.C. Public School System voucher program, opposes private school vouchers, arguing that they sap money from an already under-resourced public system, but he has made school choice a priority with his robust of public charter schools. Mitt Romney has proposed allowing parents to use federal funding to pay for a number of school options, including private schools.
Challenges: Increasing the availability of education options may help some students, but it cannot be an option available to everyone unless we privatize our education system outright.
According to a study from Stanford University, charter schools may not even provide a better education than their normal public-school counterparts. The authors, in a press release announcing their findings, spoke of the "wide variance in the quality of the nation's several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools."
The emphasis on school choice may also weaken the public education system by reducing funding and obscuring the imperative of reform. School choice risks providing an escape hatch for some at the expense of others. Advocates for school choice must explain how they will ensure the preservation of a competent, robust public education system.
Renew No Child Left Behind
In 2002, with the support of a broad bipartisan majority of Congress, then-President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring each state to develop standardized annual tests to measure student achievement in math, science, and reading, to improve results each year, and to bring all students to grade-level proficiency by 2014. The law also contained provisions expanding school choice, allowing qualified students in underperforming schools to switch to a better school or receive additional tutoring. Finally, the law also required each classroom to be headed by a "highly qualified" instructor, allowing states to develop their own criteria for what constitutes "highly qualified."
President Obama's administration has issued waivers to some states and the District of Columbia, freeing them from some of the requirements of NCLB (particularly the requirement of universal proficiency by 2014) and arguing that greater flexibility at the state level may actually improve results. In August 2012, Nevada became the 33rd state to receive such a waiver. (Updated Oct. 2, 11:35 a.m.)
Challenges: Conservatives, many of whom supported the law's passage, now regard it as an undue federal intrusion into education policy, an area typically reserved for the states. Others have objected to the law as an "unfunded mandate," saying that it requires school districts to institute costly new policies without supplying them with the requisite funding.
President Obama has quipped that No Child Left Behind "left the money behind." Moreover, others have objected to the law's emphasis on standardized testing, saying that it could lead to teachers "teaching to the test" to improve scores while neglecting creative and innovative learning approaches that could actually yield more well-rounded, capable students. Many schools have actually adjusted their scoring systems to reflect continued student improvement even if absolute scores did not increase, gaming the system to remain in compliance with the law's requirement that scores improve each year.
Race to the Top
President Obama's signature education initiative, the Race to the Top is a competitive grant program that awards federal money to states that demonstrate a commitment to education reform in accordance with the Department of Education's reform recommendations. The idea behind the program is that incentives, rather than coercion, may be more a more effective way of nudging states to make necessary changes in education policy.
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act appropriated $4.35 billion in award money for the program. States could make their applications for grant money more competitive by, among other things, improving access to charter schools, adopting and testing for more rigorous academic standards, instituting some kind of merit-based teacher compensation, and turning around poorly-performing schools. After the third round of awards, 21 states and the District of Columbia had received grants under Race to the Top. (Updated Oct. 2, 11:35 a.m.)
Challenges: While the program is generally credited with accelerating the education reform movement, some detractors remain.
Teachers and their unions object to the law's continued emphasis on standardized testing, saying such tests are often a poor measure of an educator's ability. Some conservatives have objected to the law, as they do to No Child Left Behind, as a federal power grab, sapping states of their rightful control over education policy.
Finally, the Economic Policy Institute released a report in 2010 that argued that the process that selected Delaware and Tennessee as the first grant recipients was "subjective and arbitrary, more a matter of bias or chance than a result of these states' superior compliance with reform policies."
Merit Pay / Teacher Tenure
If we can attract more well-qualified teachers to the profession, and if we can more easily fire those teachers who do not educate their students effectively, American public education would be in a much better state than it is today. To that end, some states have proposed (or enacted) reforms that would replace old teacher tenure systems, which give teachers yearly raises regardless of job performance, with merit-pay systems, which evaluate teachers annually and give the best educators the biggest raises. The policy is billed as a twofer - bad teachers can be shown the door, and good teachers can earn more money, providing more incentive for able professionals to enter the field.
President Obama has increased funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund, a program that provides additional grant money to schools that adopt merit-based compensation systems for teachers and administrators. Mitt Romney has lauded the President's emphasis on merit-pay as a "positive" development.
Challenges: Teachers are understandably supportive of any measures that could increase their compensation, but they are skeptical of exactly how a teacher's aptitude could be measured and quantified. If the compensation rubric is test score improvement, the standard objections to standardized testing resurface - it's a measurement that could inaccurately malign good teachers and unduly reward bad teachers who simply got lucky. It could also lead to even more manipulation of test results - teachers may be willing to simply erase wrong answers to reflect better results if additional compensation is tied to test results.
A merit-pay system has the potential to sow discord among educational professionals who would feel compelled to compete tooth-and-nail against colleagues with whom they should be cooperating. Veteran teachers, as the beneficiaries of the tenure system that rewards their longevity, are skeptical of any program that could replace their years of hard work with the whim of a single test. Supporters of merit pay must explain how they will assess merit, taking into account objections from educators who worry about the capricious disbursement of additional compensation.
Longer School Year
American students, give or take, attend school for 180 days per year. Many have observed that countries with better educational performance indicators tend to have longer school years: Japanese students are in class for 243 days per year; Korean students are in school for 220 days.
At a recent forum, Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained, "Most people realize that our current day is based on the agrarian economy, and we don't have too many kids working out in the fields nowadays [...] Schools in countries that are beating us are going to school 25-30 days more than us. If you practice basketball five times a week, you're gonna be better than the people who practice three times a week."
Eyeing the link between school year-length and student performance, some policymakers have advanced proposals to lengthen the school year. In March of this year, Chicago's school board passed a proposal to lengthen the school year by 10 days starting in the fall.
President Obama hassupport for a longer school year. Mitt Romney has not weighed in on the issue.
Challenges: Time is money. If you increase the length of the school year or school day, you have to also increase the amount of resources necessary to keep the school functioning - more money for teachers who are working longer, more money to keep facilities open during the additional days.
Teachers' unions in Chicago warned that increasing the school year could also lead to student burnout and decreased morale among faculty and staff who worried that they would not be duly compensated for their additional time. Proponents of extending the school year must explain how they plan to pay for the extension, and they must also detail what they would do to make classrooms more productive (as opposed to just more time-consuming.)