In the 2020 presidential campaign, there is a familiar refrain you can count on: Fix the schools. One of the bedrock values of a nation is having faith in education. Economic inequalities would be narrowed and many people will have the opportunity of reaching their personal potential when we fix the schools. Promise of revitalizing schools is everywhere and there are magical qualities 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.
Major educational proposals are being pitched by at least two Democratic presidential candidates on fix the school. Sen. Kamal D. Harris (Calif) promised to give a lot of teachers a huge increase in their income on an average of $13,500; the argument being that teachers are underpaid. This makes fixing the school difficult and also makes good teachers hard to retain or recruit. Ex-San Antonio who is a mayor Julian Castro meanwhile advocated 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.
What we are talking about is not the fact that public policy wasn’t trying to fix the schools, but the discouraging conclusion occurred despite the federal government’s decision to provide extra funding for poor schools under Title I of the Education and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Public schools were previously funded by localities and states mainly. From the space of 1960 to 2015, the overall spending per student nearly quadrupled.
On the achievement gap of fixing the schools, there were little effects. The study was conducted by Eric A. Hanushek and Laura M. Talpey of Stanford University, Paul E. 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 first thing the test brought out was that the central problem why fixing the schools is necessary was because the problems 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.
Another thing in fixing the schools is because during this roughly half-century, there was no general rise in achievement which would have been a partial victory. Everyone’s level of achievement will increase even if the gap between top and bottom is not close when we fix the schools.
The population’s changing ethnic and racial composition doesn’t explain the stubborn achievement gap. (In 1980, the population of children ages 5 to 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.
In fixing the schools, study did not find contrary to at least one other major study that the achievement gap has actually worsened over the past half-century. This conclusion would qualify as the study’s main bit of good news if it holds up.
Repeatedly, the study’s authors express frustration that they can’t explain what happens in high school to undo previous gains in achievement. They dismiss “senioritis,” the reputed tendency of students to slacken in their studies, as a major cause. They speculate, though they admit that they don’t know, that teaching in high school is harder than at lower levels. “The high school is a broken institution,” Peterson said in an interview. “We need to create more learning opportunities for kids in high school.”
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The upshot is that schools are being asked to do for their students what families usually do. This is one of the ways to fix the schools. 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 has 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.