Education Reform on the Wrong Track


What is wrong with education in America? While there may be no consensus over what reforms are necessary, nearly everyone agrees on one thing: We have a problem. But, the politically popular solutions will not be the right medicine.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama highlighted two areas of concern: A 25% high school dropout rate and a college graduation rate that ranks 15th worldwide. This shoddy performance means inequality in the job market, where the unemployment rate for workers with only a high school education is significantly higher than for those with college degrees. Moreover, the achievement gap between low and high-income communities is astonishing; only half of students from low-income communities graduate from high school and one in ten graduate from college.

In short, the American education system is failing them on every level.

How can we make sense of these failings? The easiest way is to find someone to blame, which is exactly what many have done. Last year, three documentaries — "Waiting For Superman," "The Lottery," and "The Cartel" — detailed the failings of the educational system. These films share the same thesis that dominates today’s public policy discussion: Bad teachers and negligent school administrations are at fault for our educational woes. The solution, then, should be obvious: Fire bad teachers, make schools compete, and allow families more choice over which schools their children attend. This solution is politically popular because it seems simple. Most of us understand how competition works and want to make the choices that significantly affect our lives.

Although these reforms are well intentioned, they are unlikely to succeed in improving educational performance, particularly in low-income communities. Sadly, the truth is more complex than politicians and film directors make it out to be. For most students, the difference between having a “good” teacher and a “bad” one accounts for a 7.5% difference in achievement, which makes the teacher the most influential player in a school’s success, but still a minuscule factor compared to non-educational concerns. Despite this, we are expected to believe that firing 5-10% of teachers will significantly alter educational outcomes.

The crux of a child's success is drawn from means outside schools’ purview, such as family income and parents’ academic expectations. The latter is one area where the public is truly failing its children. Author Amy Chua details how Chinese families have higher academic expectations than Western families, and how this produces positive educational outcomes. Politicians typically do not discuss how American families fail to set high expectations for their children; it would not make for a good sound bite. Moreover, socio-cultural dynamics are logistically more difficult for governments to influence than teachers and schools, who make for easy scapegoats.

Policies that encourage merit pay, value-added performance evaluations, and expanding school choice may do some good. However, these policies will not produce substantially different outcomes. If we are to rise to the expectations we set for ourselves, we need more dramatic reform. 

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons