Public education is important to the economic and social well-being of our nation, which is why it is the No. 1 line item in 41 state budgets. Today, more than 50 million students attend America’s public schools. Some students are succeeding: They graduate from high school, matriculate into college or join the workforce and military. Others are not doing so well: They drop out of school; graduate but are functionally illiterate; or are in the ranks of the unemployed.
Schools need extra money to help struggling students, or so goes the long-standing thinking of traditional education reformers who believe a lack of resources – teachers, counselors, social workers, technology, books, school supplies – is the problem. We agree that, at some level, resources matter to education. That said, a look back at the progress we’ve made under reformers’ traditional response to fixing low-performing schools – simply showering them with more money – makes it clear that this approach has been a costly failure.
Since World War II, inflation-adjusted spending per student in American public schools has increased by 663 percent. Where did all of that money go? One place it went was to hire more personnel. Between 1950 and 2009, American public schools experienced a 96 percent increase in student population. During that time, public schools increased their staff by 386 percent – four times the increase in students. The number of teachers increased by 252 percent, over 2.5 times the increase in students. The number of administrators and other staff increased by over seven times the increase in students.
One could argue that those extra staff were needed to educate students with special needs, who were excluded by most public schools prior to 1970. Or maybe these extra staff were utilized to provide equal opportunity to African-American students who had been traditionally discriminated against during the Jim Crow era.
This staffing surge still exists today. From 1992 to 2014 – the most recent year of available data – American public schools saw a 19 percent increase in their student population and a staffing increase of 36 percent.
In addition, public high school graduation rates experienced a long and slow decline between 1970 and 2000. Today, graduation rates are slightly above where they were in 1970.
We think it is time to reform our thinking about public schools. One avenue we should consider is the important role of parents. According to a 2005 meta-analysis by William H. Jeynes, students living with involved parents had an academic advantage of higher grades and test scores than those living with less-involved parents. And according to Strong Families, Strong Schools, studies of families show that the family’s influence on a student is more important to his or her success than family income or level of education.
Currently two states – Georgia and Massachusetts – are looking at ways to fix public schools beyond more bucks and bureaucracy.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is pushing a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take control of persistently failing public schools. Voters in November will decide whether to transfer control of and funding for these schools to a state entity – the Opportunity School District – that will either manage failing public schools directly or convert them to charter public schools governed by a local board of parents and other citizens. The amendment is likely to pass, despite fierce opposition from the public school establishment.
Massachusetts has one of the oldest charter school laws in the nation and is home to the highest-performing charter schools today. Low-income students in Boston charter schools generate learning growth equivalent to 31 days in math and 59 days in reading. With results like these, we might expect people to cheer. But this is not the case. Several groups, including the teachers’ union, oppose the state’s Charter School Expansion Initiative, a November ballot initiative, arguing that charters “create separate and unequal conditions for success by failing to serve as many high-need students as their host districts.”
It is long past time to try something new to improve American schools. To give all students an opportunity to succeed, public education needs innovative approaches for the delivery of teaching and learning – be it through the options up for a vote in Georgia and Massachusetts, or by empowering parents with more choices in public schools. Money, while important, cannot solve our nation’s public school challenges alone: It will take new and creative approaches that involve parents and communities, too.