When it comes to objectively measuring the quality of the US education system, the news is disappointing.
In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its global rankings of student performance in math, reading, and science, based on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA (an exam given worldwide every three years to assess 15-year-olds in 72 countries). The last several PISA scores have revealed that in terms of education outcomes, the United States is far from No. 1. That year, the United States suffered an 11-point drop in math scores, leaving it 35th in that subject and 20 points below the OECD average. The country’s students scored just above average in reading and science.
The debate around how to improve the education system in the United States is a fraught, complicated one with incredibly high stakes. But that shouldn’t discourage policy makers from engaging in it. In the spirit of finding reasonable places to begin, below are five of the first steps lawmakers and other officials should take in what’s sure to be a multiyear, multistep process to improve outcomes for students.
- Acknowledge and address overcrowding.
- Make funding schools a priority.
- Address the school-to-prison pipeline.
- Raise standards for teachers.
- Put classroom-running and curriculum-building decisions in the hands of the community.
1. Acknowledge and address overcrowding
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of US schools exceed capacity. Of course, the problem is concentrated and disproportionately affects low-income and minority students. For example, approximately one in five Chicago Public Schools elementary students start the school year in overcrowded classrooms.
Overcrowded classrooms, time and again, have been shown to be less effective:
- Teachers are spread thin.
- Students don’t get the attention or personalization they require.
- Students lose interest, which plants the seeds for dropping out.
- Teachers and students feel increased stress.
Policy makers can begin to avoid this problem by drafting master plans that refuse to tolerate even slight overcrowding. This process must be ongoing, and maintenance will be necessary, as new housing developments can force shifts in school capacities. Dedicated task forces of lawmakers can stay on top of such changes.
An ongoing issue
The issue of overcrowding in schools isn’t a new one. Another study based in New York in the mid-1990s found that overcrowding is “sharply” linked to lower achievement among students of low socioeconomic background. That study found that both students and teachers felt overwhelmed, discouraged, and, at times, disgusted with the state of overcrowding within their schools.
What’s more, teachers in overcrowded schools often report a lack of resources or that their schools are in less than ideal condition. This lack of space can lead to lessons being taught in non-instructional areas, such as gymnasiums, which, in turn, can heighten levels of stress among both students and teachers.
2. Make funding schools a priority
The statistics around school funding in the United States are sobering:
- States contribute 44 percent of total education funding in the United States.
- The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 34 states channel less funding into education on a per-student basis than they did prior to the recession years.
- Between 2008 and 2016, local school districts cut a net total of roughly 297,000 teaching jobs.
The problem isn’t simply a matter of cash-strapped states or the federal government struggling to come up with revenues. It’s a matter of priorities. Consider this: just about every state in the country spends more to house the average inmate than it does to educate the average elementary/secondary student.
Here’s what some of those priorities could look like:
- Implement a progressive tax code. By taxing wealthy citizens and corporations their due, local and federal governments could afford to bolster the public education system. The political will to make such a change seems to be growing more and more remote, but with a citizenry that is engaged in demanding that our society invest in its students, that can begin to change.
- Look at the bigger picture. This investment pays off, too—in a big way. In 2008, economists found that investing in education has an impact on the country’s overall economic health by increasing the gross domestic product (GDP).
- Increase teacher funding and support. Policy makers should focus not only on funding for building new schools and improving older buildings but also on increasing funding for teachers, particularly in low-income areas. Since many teachers choose to work in affluent areas because of the potential for better pay or working conditions, the quality of teaching in poorer schools can suffer. If policy makers and school officials can work together to attract and retain teachers at such schools, students with greater educational needs will benefit from the improved teaching quality.
3. Address the school-to-prison pipeline
The statistics are unsettling:
- More than half of African American young men who attend high schools in urban areas do not earn a diploma.
- Of these dropouts, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point in their lives.
The school-to-prison pipeline issue is complex, and its contributing forces include suspensions that disproportionately involve young African American men, in-school arrests, and zero-tolerance policies with harsh punishments that were put in place after the 1999 Columbine shooting.
Now that these patterns are being openly noted and discussed, policy makers can take concerted steps away from feeding the pipeline by focusing on restorative justice and keeping young people away from the justice system whenever possible.
Restorative justice works
A greater emphasis on alternative discipline methods, rather than detention or suspension, can lead to significant improvement in student retention and success. In one case, a high school district in California reduced the number of expulsions from 1,096 in the 2010-11 academic year to just 66 in 2014-15 by focusing on restorative justice as a means of conflict resolution.
Build a school community for all students
If schools are focused on measuring their success solely by overall student achievement, students who bring down the average are more likely to be forced out. Instead, curriculum development and classroom priorities should focus on each student’s individual success. A more compassionate and understanding school environment is likely to reduce the need for security guards, police officers, and zero-tolerance policies—all of which contribute to a hostile and regimented environment.
4. Raise standards for teachers
Studies have found—not at all surprisingly—that underqualified teachers are tied to poor outcomes for students. The good news is that this is one of the most straightforward areas where policy makers can have an impact. They must clarify standards for teachers seeking licenses and raise standards in areas where student outcomes are lowest.
Raise the bar
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, has had the opposite effect. ESSA eliminated the “Highly Qualified Teacher” provision from the previous law, meaning that the federal government is much less involved in teacher licensing and evaluation.
The National Education Organization says that theses changes promote alternative teacher education programs that don’t adequately prepare teachers to enter the classroom. With these changes, individual states need to raise the bar for teacher certifications to ensure that educators are truly prepared for their jobs.
5. Put classroom-running and curriculum-building decisions in the hands of the community
In recent decades, the education system has moved away from teachers and local boards in terms of who makes decisions that affect classrooms and curricula. Consequently, student outcomes have suffered.
Policy makers who are aware of this pattern can push for a move away from standardized control and toward community-based mechanisms, such as community-elected school boards, that have the power and authority to make decisions about how their students are educated.
Involving parents in their children’s education where possible can also contribute to a student’s achievement.
People coming together with coherent messages for policy makers about the changes they’d like to see in their education systems can only benefit students. With these initial steps in mind, lawmakers and their constituents can start to move together in the direction of change.