Can we fix the schools? Fed­eral-funded so­lu­tions aren’t get­ting the job done

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

WASH­ING­TON – You can count on one fa­mil­iar re­frain in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign: Fix the schools. Faith in ed­u­ca­tion is one of the na­tion’s bedrock val­ues. Bet­ter schools would (we think) nar­row eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties and help peo­ple reach their per­sonal po­ten­tial. Prom­ises to re­vi­tal­ize schools are in­evitable.

There’s a mag­i­cal qual­ity to these pro­pos­als. The mes­sage seems to be that, if we can find the right com­bi­na­tion of ideas, we can un­leash ed­u­ca­tion’s up­lift­ing power. Be skep­ti­cal.

Al­ready, at least two Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are pitch­ing ma­jor ed­u­ca­tional pro­pos­als. Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, D-Calif., would give most teach­ers a huge pay raise, re­port­edly av­er­ag­ing about $13,500. Teach­ers, it’s ar­gued, are un­der­paid. This makes good ones hard to re­cruit and re­tain. Mean­while, ex-San An­to­nio Mayor Ju­lian Cas­tro ad­vo­cates universal pre-K classes to pre­pare chil­dren for school.

Both ideas sound sen­si­ble. But aside from the siz­able costs, his­tory sug­gests that cre­at­ing gains in achieve­ment and aca­demic skills for the poor is ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult.

That’s the find­ing of a ma­jor new study. It re­viewed test scores for Amer­i­cans born be­tween 1954 and 2001 to see how much the achieve­ment gap had closed be­tween stu­dents with low and high so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus.

The star­tling re­sult: hardly at all.

“The achieve­ment gap fails to close,” head­lined an ar­ti­cle in Ed­u­ca­tion Next. “Half cen­tury of test­ing shows [a] per­sis­tent di­vide be­tween haves and have-nots.”

The ex­pla­na­tion is not that pub­lic pol­icy wasn’t try­ing. The dis­cour­ag­ing con­clu­sion oc­curred de­spite the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide ex­tra fund­ing for poor schools un­der Title 1 of the Ed­u­ca­tion and Se­condary Ed­u­ca­tion Act of 1965. Pre­vi­ously, pub­lic schools were funded mainly by lo­cal­i­ties and states. Cor­rected for in­fla­tion, over­all spend­ing per stu­dent nearly quadru­pled from 1960 to 2015.

Still, there was lit­tle ef­fect on the achieve­ment gap. The study was con­ducted by Eric Hanushek and Laura Talpey of Stan­ford Univer­sity, Paul Peterson of Har­vard Univer­sity and Ludger Woess­mann of the Univer­sity of Munich. Tests were given at two ages – 14 and 17. Here are high­lights:

• The cen­tral prob­lem seems to oc­cur in high schools. Tests ad­min­is­tered at age 14 ac­tu­ally showed im­prov­ing stu­dent per­for­mance. But most of the gains re­versed by age 17, just when stu­dents were pre­par­ing for col­lege or work.

• Dur­ing this roughly half-cen­tury, there was no gen­eral rise in achieve­ment, which would have been a par­tial vic­tory – al­most ev­ery­one’s achieve­ment level would have in­creased even if the gap be­tween top and bot­tom hadn’t closed.

• The pop­u­la­tion’s chang­ing eth­nic and racial com­po­si­tion doesn’t ex­plain the stub­born achieve­ment gap. (In 1980, the pop­u­la­tion of chil­dren ages 5-17 was 74.6 per­cent white, 14.5 per­cent black, 8.5 per­cent His­panic and 2.5 per­cent “other.” By 2011, the cor­re­spond­ing fig­ures were 54.2 per­cent white, 14 per­cent black, 22.8 per­cent His­panic and 8.9 per­cent other.) Sep­a­rately, the study found sim­i­lar trends among whites, sug­gest­ing that race or eth­nic­ity aren’t ma­jor causes.

• The study did not find – con­trary to at least one other ma­jor study – that the achieve­ment gap has ac­tu­ally got­ten worse over the past half­cen­tury. If this con­clu­sion holds up, it would qual­ify as the study’s main bit of good news.

Re­peat­edly, the study’s au­thors ex­press frus­tra­tion that they can’t ex­plain what hap­pens in high school to undo pre­vi­ous gains in achieve­ment.

“The high school is a bro­ken in­sti­tu­tion,” Peterson said in an in­ter­view. “We need to cre­ate more learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for kids in high school.”

Broadly speak­ing, the study vin­di­cates the re­sults of ear­lier re­search con­ducted by so­ci­ol­o­gist James Cole­man (usu­ally called the “Cole­man re­port”) in 1966. As part of Lyn­don John­son’s “war on poverty,” Cole­man ex­am­ined what fac­tors pro­moted ed­u­ca­tional suc­cess. He found parental ed­u­ca­tion, in­come and race to be strongly con­nected to stu­dent achieve­ment, while per-pupil ex­pen­di­tures and class size were much less so.

The up­shot is that schools are be­ing asked to do for their stu­dents what fam­i­lies usu­ally do. This is a tall or­der that is prob­a­bly be­yond the ca­pa­bil­ity of most schools.

As a so­ci­ety, we should keep try­ing. But we should not ig­nore his­tory. The na­tional strat­egy of con­trol­ling the coun­try’s schools – through sub­si­dies and reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments – has pre­vailed for half a cen­tury. It’s failed. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment should exit the busi­ness of over­see­ing K-12 ed­u­ca­tion. Fed­eral aid would halt, and the fi­nan­cial loss would be off­set by hav­ing the na­tional gov­ern­ment as­sume all the states’ Med­i­caid costs.

We should let states and lo­cal­i­ties see whether they can make schools work bet­ter. The grandiose fix-it na­tional plans are mostly ex­er­cises in po­lit­i­cal mar­ket­ing. We need so­lu­tions, not slo­gans.

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