16 May 2015

US educators get schooled in a free-market approach


Can a country that produces tech innovators like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and over 350 Nobel laureates be producing legions of under-performing students?

Looks like it. According to the international rankings for education, the average US student scores mediocrely at best. The low numbers would be worse, in fact, if terrific schools weren’t blended with abject failures. How did this happen?

The widely held explanation by a host of politicians, teachers’ unions, and experts of various stripes is that a lack of financial support is to blame. In inner cities and rural areas with poorer residents and less tax money for schools, this once might have been the case. But is it still true?

In fiscal year 2014, the US federal government allocated $141 billion for public education. To give this figure some scale, note that the US spent $92.3 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same year. This is a fairly shocking sticker price for educating the American youth – but perhaps more shocking is how little we have to show for it.

Let’s take a look at the 2012 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a math-heavy test administered every three years, which is considered a general estimate of educational achievement. Unsurprisingly, Asia dominated the top of the pyramid, with Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong coming in first, second, and third in math. European countries didn’t make an appearance until 8th place, with Liechtenstein.

All the way down the column is the US, embarrassingly lackluster with a rank of 36. (The UK thoroughly beats us in 26th place, although many would expect this ranking to be higher as well.) The United States is behind Spain, the Russian Federation, and the Slovak Republic – the last of which spends about $53,000 per student between the ages of 6 and 15, compared to the US’s whooping $115,000 per head. More money clearly does not equate with better-educated students. So, what does?

There are various views on what’s causing American schools to under-perform. Some blame the quality and enthusiasm of teachers, others inadequate support of education in the home while some say education is simply not valued enough by the communities. Assuming these all play a role, what then? How do we break the status quo?

Anyone looking to reform this sector should consider what improves other products and services: competition. Adam Smith coined the term “invisible hand” to refer to the natural forces of the free market –  if consumers can choose what to buy and producers can choose what to sell, supply and demand will adjust over time until the needs of the market are met.

Smith has gone in and out of fashion, depending which political party is in power, but his basic concepts are at the root of support for school choice. Without other options, families seeking better schools would need to move to another district or pay for private education, which most parents can’t afford. The few academically respected public schools are quickly filled by outstanding students from all economic levels who gain access through testing. This leaves the majority of low-income students without an exit route.

Enter charter schools. The independent management of charter schools allows them to bypass public school bureaucracy, while flexible standards and rules for students and teachers creates a more supportive school environment. What’s more, the same government funds allocated for public schools follow the students to pay for their charter schools. This is a great start – except for the resistance and hostility from the public schools, and the politicians who champion them.

The resistance from the public school establishment is understandable. A huge underperforming monopoly is now faced with a rising competitor. Private schools have long been an alternative for those who can afford them, or for the children who earn merit-based scholarships. But again, this leaves most in chaotic school environments, where learning potential is sabotaged by disruptive students and complacent or burned-out teachers.

More committed students and involved families can find their way to a better school, but is it wrong? With more charters around, public schools would have to improve or lose their customers – the students. The school administrations would have to address both the problem students and the dull, uninspiring teachers holding them back. The point, according to Senator John McCain, is that “no entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.”

But factions of the political population – and most threateningly, the federal and local government – continue to be very resistant to the idea of school choice, even when faced with its success. In Los Angeles, a local school board argued against expanding charter schools in the area, even though seven in ten charters outpaced their public school equivalents in the district.

President Obama himself has a history of speaking out against school choice. This is easy for him – his daughters attend the private Sidwell Friends School, where annual high school tuition is $36,264. But maybe Mr. Obama will rethink the matter, now that we’ve tracked the influence of a voucher program on a group of students from kindergarten (1997) to college enrollment (2011). With vouchers randomly assigned to the student participants of the study, results showed that an African American student who could use a voucher to attend private school was 24% more likely to enroll in college than an African American student who couldn’t.

What makes better schools so much better? Good teachers top the list. At any academic level, they can make the difference between understanding the material or not. Too bad the current system doesn’t distinguish between inspiring teachers and lousy ones. They earn points based on longevity, not teaching talent. And since union rules make teacher replacement nearly impossible, substandard teachers could stay on the job almost indefinitely.

In fact, in New York City, only 61 teachers – that’s about 6 out of 78,000 teachers per year – were removed over a period of ten years due to poor performance. They may retain their position after multiple “unsatisfactory” ratings, entire weeks of missed work, or even physical abuse of a student. Even when an individual is dismissed, the process can take over a year and cost taxpayers $250,000. By all accounts, it doesn’t seem like we’re helping our students; it seems like we’re protecting the teachers.

That said, teaching can be a tough job, especially in schools where the majority of students seem at best uninterested in learning, and at worst actively hostile. Earlier this year, there was an incident in Paterson, New Jersey, where a student tackled his 62-year-old teacher to the ground. This was to retrieve his cell phone, which had been taken away when the student was seen texting in class. Cases like this are enough to try the patience of Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love.

The factors contributing to the behavioral and academic problems of urban youth are many – poverty, substance abuse, gang culture, and chronic unemployment top the list. But children from essentially the same backgrounds may show wildly different results in the classroom.

Harlem-based St. Aloysius has students from kindergarten to eighth grade. According to school officials: “We have tracked our students over several years, and all of them have graduated from St. Aloysius on time and matriculated to good high schools, most to private or charter schools. Furthermore, 90% of our alumni in high school graduate in four years – for those who participate in our Graduate Support Program, that rate climbs to 96%. This stands in stark contrast to the 54% on-time high school graduation rate for African American students in New York City.”

St. Aloysius, a mostly privately-funded Catholic school (small family contributions are required), is similar to private and charter schools in that it has more stringent rules and standards for students and teachers. These conditions seem to have changed the outcome for this demographic. As the school went on to say, “an overwhelming majority of our alumni go on to college. These results are even more significant given that St. Aloysius accepts students with a wide range of proficiency, from high- to low-achieving, even those who have experienced past academic failure.”

Stories like this are getting around in communities short on good news. The fact that charter schools have waiting lists is an example of the free market at work. The loss of students to charter schools, if allowed to happen, should force public schools to improve. Providing educational options is the fairest way to give kids at the bottom and kids at the top the same ladder to advancement.

Rebecca Konolige previously has worked in the External Relations office at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and on a get-out-the-vote campaign for youth for the UK election. She is currently working on outreach policies for young people.