MIT - Integrated Learning Initiative

When thinking about schooling in the United States, one often only conjures up an image of the countries’ institutions of higher education. These prestigious institutions are continuously ranked the highest in the world in every list available. They, however, often mask the problems Americans face in their K-12 education to the outside world. While parents in the United States, just like in every other country, aspire to send their children to the best possible school, any choice they might have in this matter is often taken away. The lack of school choice, combined with the teacher union’s vested control in public schools, often leads to suboptimal outcomes on behalf of the child. If we agree that children are the future of a country and deserve to be adequately educated, then it is time for a severe change in direction.

  Public school education, because they receive their funding from the government, accept all qualified students. The term “qualified” in this scenario does not relate to one’s academic skills or motivation, but rather to whether the student lives inside a certain school district. These districts are imaginary lines drawn on a map as determined by the District Superintendent of Schools, who is not required to follow any prescribed procedure and can base their decision on any information that feels applicable. This means, for example, that close proximity to a school does not guarantee that a student is allowed to go to that particular school. It is very well possible that, within a single neighborhood, a parent’s child is assigned to one district while his neighbor’s kid is assigned to a different district, further indicating that the borders are not accounted for by geographical boundaries.

The United States Constitution leaves the responsibility for K-12 education with the states. However, it does provide assistance to the states and schools to supplement state support because of the compelling national interest in having an educated citizenry. This assistance accounts for about 8% of the school’s finances. The main portion of public schools’ budget comes approximately 48% from the state government and 44% from local districts. Local districts fund their part of the bill through the property taxes that it collects from the homeowners located in the district’s area. A child’s zip code, thus, becomes the critical determinant of the quality of schooling that is available for him to receive. 

The public-school system, which teaches approximately 90% of all students, is in desperate need for change. While it is absolutely correct that many of these schools provide an outstanding education to their students, a large part has become inefficient and ineffective. In 2015, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States was ranked 30th in mathematics, 19th in science, and 20th in reading among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). While these rankings are gruesome to the United States in and of themselves, the problem becomes even worse when one is taking education spending into account.

According to the OECD, in 2016, the United States’ total expenditure on education per full-time-equivalent (FTE) for elementary and secondary education was $13.600. This is 39% higher than the average of the OECD member countries, which was $9.800—calculated in constant 2018 dollars—and is the fifth-highest expenditure of the OECD countries. If only accounting for the average public spending on education per FTE, the United States spends about the average, or 3,21% of Gross Domestic Product, of the OECD countries. Clearly, unlike what is often claimed, a lack of funding cannot be seen as the root cause of America’s educational problem. 

Table shows the expenditure of GDP on education, source: OECD

So exactly how far does the United States’ educational problem go? The structure ofeducation in America is such that more impoverished communities have worse school opportunities than their more affluent counterparts. This, combined with the lack of competition within the school districts, leads to an educational death trap, from which children cannot escape. While this problem is universal among all less affluent districts, its most evident effects can be seen within Hispanic and Black communities. This is for an overwhelming part due to the fact that their real median household income—$50.486 and $40.258, respectively—is below the national median income of $61.145. 

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2005, in the 12th grade, 46% of Black students and 40% of Hispanic students tested below the basic in reading achievement levels. This is compared to 21% of White students and 26% of Asian students. Only 16% of Black seniors and 20% of Hispanic seniors tested at a proficient level or higher. These same results are likewise found concerning mathematics, where 70% of Black students and 60% of Hispanic students tested below the basic level. Only 5% and 8% respectively tested at the proficient level and none at advanced. These numbers show the seriousness of the problem: there is an inequality in human development. Numbers like this are a scandal, and society ought to be outraged by it because it warrants to be addressed with productive solutions.  

Tables from the National Assessment of Educational Progress

Our current solution to correct these disparities happens when students apply to institutions of higher education: through the use of affirmative action when a university chooses which students to admit. This program is intended to correct the effects of historical discrimination. However, since affirmative action only applies in situations where there is a rationing of access to scarce positions, this means that the highest application of affirmative action happens at the most elite universities. Now, let it be clear; this is not to say that affirmative action should not be allowed because it violates color blindness and is thus ethically unacceptable. There is an excellent case to be made that diversity is a social good and needs government intervention if it fails to be achieved by itself. Instead, it questions how we can expect people who have had a failed education in K-12 to perform at universities in fields such as STEM and economics? 

Is there any evidence showing no consequences post-admission from admitting students based on differing academic standards? If the goal is to create a more equal society, the current form will lead to equality in name only. Society needs to actually prepare students so that they can get by in their respective universities.

If the mismatch hypothesis in higher education due to affirmative action is correct, that does not mean the affirmative action programs do not have a proper function in society. Instead, it shows the need for better K-12 education to close these disparities. To point out the urgency of the current mismatch problem, all that is needed is to look at the research done by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This paper, using evidence from the University of California system, shows the chances of graduating for minorities that were miss-matched in STEM fields. This research shows that for students at UC Berkley, whose SAT score is in the bottom 25% of admitted scores, the probability of graduating in the sciences in 4 years is 0.6%. There is a clear need to reform secondary education to stop this mismatch problem from occurring.

There are many ways to fix the K-12 education system, and all proposals are centered around the same idea: breaking up the monopoly held by public schools within their district. The idea behind this is simple; monopolies hurt the consumer, so the best way to help students is to create and allow for competition within school districts. School choice is the idea that students from all backgrounds can self-select which school to go to, based on their interests and skills. In order to improve the quality of education as well as preparing students for their future, society needs to allow families to choose the school that best fits them. Whenever schools do not provide the proper services, parents ought to be able to pull their children out and send them to a school that does. 

image author: schoolchoiceweek.com

School choice can be accomplished effectively through a combination of programs. The first policy change, however, is needed to make the dominos fall. Currently, schools’ budgets are allocated based on their full capacity as determined by their district and are not adjusted if children opt to get their education elsewhere. This must change. The money ought to be allocated to whichever public school the student wants to join. Once the money gets distributed in this way, the need to lock children to a particular school district disappears. This, by itself, will allow parents to decide what public school is best for their child. They would no longer be stuck in a particular school; if it fails to deliver a good, safe, and effective education, parents would simply be able to move their child to a different one. This, however, can only truly generate benefits if the choice is real, relevant, and meaningful, i.e., if schools are allowed to distinguish themselves from each other.

Therefore, outside of the traditional school system, there is a need for alternative school systems or Charter schools as they are often called. These Charters are independently operated public schools that have the freedom to design the educational curriculum and school standards. Their high standards are outlined in their school contract, also known as “charter,” which needs to be met; otherwise, the school can be shut down. It is impossible to give a detailed account of how a Charter school operates due to the uniqueness of each school. They are all laboratories of education. 

Although Charters are publicly funded, they differ from the regular public schools in a variety of ways. Charter schools screen applicants and assess their academic records to see whether they are a good fit and how they can best match the child’s needs. This is important because these schools often have a more focused curriculum: some focus on preparing children to go to college, some have a curriculum that is highly focused on STEM courses, and there are many other options. Parents have to accept that Charters can require longer and more intense school days and that the school demands parents to engage actively in the education when the children are home. Currently, due to the limited amount of Charter schools that are allowed to operate, these requirements themselves work as a self-selecting process. The people who apply to enroll their children are those who highly value education. However, due to the small amount of currently available spots, a lottery system is often used to determine who gets in and who does not. The demand for Charter schools is so high that, for example, in New York City, 69,000 students applied while there were only 18,600 spots available. 

While it is true that when comparing Charter schools to public schools nation-wide, there is no significant difference in results, there are substantial differences in communities, especially for urban middle schools. A study from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research on the effect of Charter schools in Massachusetts found a large, positive, and statistically significant impact on its students’ performance on both the English Language Arts test results and math scores for urban middle schools. The National Bureau of Economic Research shows in their study just how impressive Charter schools’ effects are. They compared urban students who won the lottery to students who applied but did not get in, allowing for exceptional research into Charter schools’ effectiveness. They found that Charter schools in these areas often raise students’ test score performances by more than half a standard deviation after two years of attendance. It also finds corresponding long-term improvements such as reduced incarceration rates, teen pregnancies, and increasing enrollments into four-year colleges.

Increasing the competition would automatically add pressure on public schools to provide higher quality output. Low teaching quality—often exacerbated by public school administrators who prefer to hire teachers who graduated with education majors rather than those with specialized degrees—would be discouraged, given that this would lead to an exodus of children out of that particular school. When schools compete for funds and students, they are more likely to hire the most capable teachers available. Unleashing the Charter school entrepreneurship has blossomed in Washington, D.C., serving approximately 17,000 students. These students, virtually all racial minorities and 75% from low-income households, routinely outperform Washington D.C.’s public school students on mathematics and reading tests. 

This change in educational structure would push public schools to adapt to stay competitive, and they are very capable of doing so. Harvard economist Roland Fryer received permission to do an experiment that applied the lessons learned from Charter schools to public schools in Houston for an extended period of time. He found that—by focusing on human capital, using student data to drive instruction, providing a high dose of tutoring, extending time on tasks, and establishing a culture of high expectations—public schools’ results become comparable to those of successful Charters. The effects he found are enough to close the math achievement gap between some of the worst-performing schools in Houston, those he used in the experiment, and the average Houston public school in two years. 

The current broken system of education is an injustice to the children and needs to be reformed. Without decisive action, society fails in its duty to prepare its youth for the future; it is setting them up for failure. While the problems of the current system affect everybody, it is mostly harming those who come from low-income households. Citizens have a right to equality of opportunity, but by refusing to improve education, the general public is setting them up for inequality. Parents, according to public opinion polls, overwhelmingly support school choice. The entrenched monopoly power that public schools currently have is both expensive and ineffective. Research has shown that Charter schools are more effective at helping students in low-income urban areas and increasing the overall teaching quality; they are also more cost-effective. Clearly, throwing more money at traditional public schools is not the way to go forward. Politicians should listen to the people and govern on their behalf, not keep the status quo intact on behalf of the vested interest.