Friday, June 16, 2017

Education update

Taylor School, rehabbed after the 2008 flood,
1.5 miles from New Bohemia
President Trump's appointment of a prominent advocate of private schools, Betsy DeVos, as U.S. Secretary of Education, has brought new attention to long-standing questions surrounding education. There have been public schools in America for nearly four hundred years, but they are not exempt from those who argue that the market could do it better. It's my impression that this question gets raised a lot more often these days than it did when I was attending school decades ago in my middle-class hometown, from which nearly all of my classmates went off to attend college. President Trump has called school choice "the civil rights issue for our time" and promised $20 million in funding during his 2016 campaign; DeVos told an audience at the Brookings Institution in March that she supports school choice because
  1. Parents know what is best for their kids and no parent should be denied the opportunity to send their son or daughter to a school where they feel confident he or she is going to learn in a safe and learning and growing environment.
  2. Good teachers know what's best for students in their classrooms.
  3. State and local leaders are best equipped to address the challenges they face, not the federal government.
These principles are intended to be self-evident, although I'd say each is at least arguable.

The fiscal 2018 budget contains a 13.5 percent cut ($9 billion) in federal spending on education, while including a new line of $1.4 billion to "support new investments in public and private school choice." This would occur through Title I (of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965), which goes to districts with high poverty populations, will include bonuses for districts that "allow Federal, State and local funds to follow students to the public school of their choice." More research money would be specifically directed to the topic of school choice as well (Mann, Ujifusa).

In previous passes at education policy (see links below) I've noted that spending on education by all levels of government has held steady at about 4 percent of GDP since the late 1960s, yet concerns about the adequacy of funding have increased. In 2014 it was exactly 4.0 percent, which on the one hand was the lowest since 1988, but on the other hand spending never exceeded 4.5 percent during this period. Surely one factor in the financial squeeze is transportation: Each decade school districts transport a greater number of students, and spend more on transporting them. [See this article by Krista Johnson of Iowa Watch detailing how financial pressures on Iowa school districts are exacerbated by Iowa's school aid formula.]

Valid measures of vitally important education outcomes are hard to get.
  • Graduation from high school is a basic but rather crude measure of educational attainment; rates have been rising until recently, but more slowly in 2015 and 2016, and definitively accounting for either phenomenon is difficult. Great differences exist by state and race (Dynarksi). 
  • On international tests, American students score slightly above average. On the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) American 4th graders finished 11th among 57 countries in mathematics and 8th in science; American 8th graders finished 9th among 33 countries in mathematics and 8th in science. [The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), referenced in my post,last August, was given in 2016 and the results are not yet available. In the last test, in 2011, American 4th graders ranked 6th among 53 countries.] These overall measures, of course, mask great differences within the United States based on socio-economic status and place of residence. And it's not clear that the tests measure actual educational objectives. Few if any jobs involve a person taking a series of timed tests.
It seems clear, though, that in a world where career opportunities are getting ever more challenging, a lot of young adults are not prepared for the challenge. And it also seems, particularly in densely-populated urban areas, that there are opportunities to re-think education in ways that address diversities of learning styles, talents, aspirations and more. However, it won't do to make a fetish of freedom, or of budget savings, or to outsource the community's responsibility to educate every citizen. A recent article in The American Prospect showed how closing schools in Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington achieved neither budgetary savings nor improved educational outcomes, placed burdens on students most of whom are non-white, and in some cases left neighborhoods with large empty buildings (Cohen). Cedar Rapids Community School District is considering similar widespread closings.

We only have a common life when all are included and opportunities are substantially equal. That begins by recognizing that we're not there yet. State--and to a lesser extent, federal--funding has mostly equalized wide disparities among local school districts, but as Matthew M. Chingos and Kristin Blagg at the Urban Institute point out, that hardly covers the disadvantages with which poor students start. A stronger response to this situation will surely involve innovation and budgetary efficiencies, but not if that means trying out our pet theories on poor students, and certainly not if it leaves poor students worse off.

Matthew M. Chingos and Kristin Blagg, "School Funding: Do Poor Kids Get Their Fair Share?" (Urban Institute, 2017)
Rachel M. Cohen, "The Devastating Impact of School Closures on Students and Communities," The American Prospect, 22 April 2016
Mark Dynarski, "What We Don't  Know About High Schools Can Hurt Us," Brookings, 18 May 2017
Elizabeth Mann, "3 Observations on Trump's Education Budget," Brown Center Chalkboard, 7 June 2017
Grant Ujifusa, "Trump Budget Would Slash Education Dept. Spending, Boost School Choice," Politics K-12, 23 May 2017

"Starting a Conversation about Education," 16 August 2015
"Is Our Children Learning?" 15 August 2016

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