Meeting the education challenge
May 28, 2009
By Rebecca Hurley
In his first presidential speech broaching the topic of education, President Barack Obama said, “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us. … What’s at stake is nothing less than the American dream.”
He wasn’t exaggerating — in 2006, the Program for International Student Assessment found that 15-year-old American students place 25th out of 30 developed nations in mathematics, literacy and problem solving.
Many find comfort in the knowledge that $1 billion from the economic stimulus package has been allocated to education, and that even in the midst of the economic downturn education is not being overlooked. Indeed, lack of funding and resources has long been used as an excuse for failing school systems. But more dollars can’t buy the reform our schools need.
In the 1990s, the struggling Kansas City school district was given an additional $2 billion to build the ideal school system. The resulting Olympic-sized swimming pool, new computer labs, taxis for students and even a zoo didn’t improve educational outcomes. Instead Kansas City schools worsened to the point they eventually lost their accreditation.
If money were the solution, then the Washington D.C. school system should far surpass most other public school systems in the nation. During this past year, D.C. schools spent $13,848 per student, the third highest in the United States and more than $4,000 above the national average. The result was that only 14 percent of fourth graders scored at or above proficiency in mathematics and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
In contrast, Minnesota spends $9,180 per pupil, slightly less than the national average, but produced the best results of any state. In fact, 50 percent of Minnesota fourth graders scored at or above proficiency in math, and 37 percent scored at or above proficiency in reading, according to the NAEP. This was the best in the nation and it is still far from acceptable.
Locally, Vermont spends an average of $13,090 per student. According to the NAEP, 49 percent of fourth graders scored at or above proficiency in math, and 41 percent did so in reading.
The results for all 50 states were analyzed in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s publication, “Report Card on American Education,” which for 15 years has ranked states based on test results, financial inputs and other factors. Vermont received the second best score in the country.
This report also considers the correlations between student performance and such factors as teacher-pupil ratio and teacher salary. The result is that there is no consistent relationship between per-pupil expenditure, class size or teacher salary and students actually being able to read or do math at grade level.
What does appear to produce results is parent involvement, teacher dedication and school-by-school autonomy in setting curricula. Consider the American Indian Public Charter School. Once among the worst schools in Oakland, Calif., it is now the highest-scoring middle school in the city under the leadership of Ben Chavis. The transformation occurred despite spending $2,000 less per pupil than the district (and having no computers for the students). Charter schools, such as American Indian Public, are free to select their own staff and are given more autonomy to tailor their style and curriculum to meet the needs of their students.
Subscribing to what has been coined the “money myth,” the belief that more money will lead to better education, is a costly mistake. Taxpayers are forced to pay for something with little to no results. What is worse is that other solutions are avoided despite their promising potential. We cannot afford to keep overlooking these options while dumping more and more money into the current education system.
Obama has clearly stated his support for greater accountability and flexibility, and called on states to open new, innovative charter schools. There is hope that our schools will take up this challenge. After all, it is the American dream that is at stake.
Rebecca Hurley is a research associate at the American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington, D.C.