Education Reform: A Path to Bipartisan Agreement in Divided, Contentious Times

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

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The recent midterm elections have brought divided government back to the United States: the Democrats control the House of Representatives, while Republicans maintained their hold on the Senate and, of course, the presidency. I, for one, am a fan of divided government. Since neither party can do anything on its own, even though obstruction can be an appealing (and sometimes winning) tactic, there are more incentives to collaborate.

That may be why, immediately after the election results became clear, the word “infrastructure” started ringing through the halls of our media institutions. Then President Trump endorsed and Congress passed the “First Step Act”, a criminal justice reform act that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and send some prisoners home early. And though the divisive election season is behind us, politicians and pundits are already gearing up for 2020. But narrowing our focus to the next election leaves some of our problems not only unaddressed, but festering.

Insurgent candidates captured hearts and minds in the bases of both major parties in 2016, propelling one of those candidates into the White House and reflecting deep dissatisfaction with the state of American society. Only 37% of Americans today believe that their children will be better off than they are, a belief backed by data which shows that only half of the children born since 1980 will earn more than their parents, down from 90% in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and confirmed by the Fed, which also shows a significant decline in intergenerational mobility. Lack of economic opportunity is a key driver of this dissatisfaction; people blame their frustration that they can’t get ahead on nebulous boogiemen - coastal elites, the 1%, or Big Government in Washington.

But the simple explanations provided by scapegoats are rarely accurate - at least not fully. Globalization (arguably a project of the boogiemen listed above) has broadened the market, meaning that Americans now compete with workers from around the world. Yet our educational system has failed to keep pace. In the middle of the pack or worse on international test scores, the US ranked 30th in math and 19th in science out of 35 countries total within the OECD, an organization of mostly rich nations.

While it seems obvious that better education leads to greater social mobility, reforming our education system defies easy answers. Simply spending more money doesn’t work: education spending tripled over a 40-year period to 2014, while international test performance remains poor. Charter schools showed early promise through improved pedagogical techniques, and should be continued despite not completely living up to the hype. To start a conversation about how to improve education in America, I offer three ideas about reforms that, while not comprehensive and certainly not the final answer to the question of how to fix our schools, might be worth considering as means to improve educational performance, mitigate wealth inequality, and endow the next generation with the creative thinking skills needed to succeed.

Funding Sources

Funding public schools with property taxes, as is done in most of the U.S. makes sense on its face; taxes most directly associated with living somewhere fund the education of those who live there. But this creates a perverse dynamic: wealthy families in expensive homes fund their school systems lavishly with a relatively small property tax, while poor families pay out a higher percentage of their home’s value and just cover the basics. One proposal at the state level involves freezing property tax levels and providing schools across the state with an equal capitated payment for every enrolled student. School funding remains level for the state, but each student receives the same amount for facilities and supplies. Ideally, states could then harmonize property tax rates at what should be a lower percentage for most, without hurting overall funding. Such a reform encourages competition because students can take their capitated payment and move to higher performing schools, with states helping facilitate those moves to deliver higher academic performance.

Student Assessments

Students today are evaluated using standardized tests, which are easy to score and administer. But it is widely admitted that they don’t do a great job of measuring real knowledge and skill development. Reformed student assessments should focus on tangible hard skills, particularly in mathematics and data analysis. But soft skills are necessary to succeed in the economy of the future, so students need to be judged on problem solving and the ability to create and defend solutions in the absence of a definitively correct answer, as well as on the strength of their ability to communicate their ideas. These types of skills help build lifelong learners, people who are agile and resilient in the face of change. While these types of evaluations are challenging - you can’t just run them through a ScanTron machine - the long-term payoffs of aligning tests with skills students actually need will far outweigh the short-term costs.

Teacher Assessments

Teacher assessments are notoriously difficult, yet finding a way to determine who is a good teacher and who isn’t, in a systematic way that minimizes subjectivity, is perhaps one of the most important reforms we could make. It’s unrealistic to expect students to perform well when their teachers don’t teach well. Once we develop student assessments that accurately reflect improved cognitive abilities, we can begin to tie teacher assessments to student performance, not by measuring absolute performance, but by seeing how much students improve over prior performance, and how that performance endures over time. Giving teachers short-term incentives tied to how much student performance improves in-year, and long-term incentives tied to student performance over the next three to five years, should create momentum and accountability within the teaching population; analyzing teachers’ performance in the context of the performance of adjacent years will reveal the weak links and help create a virtuous cycle where good teaching practices are rewarded throughout the system, creating better results for everyone.

While certainly no panacea, reforms in these areas could help reduce systemic inequality, improve competition, and build a database that demonstrates what actually works and what doesn’t. Such evidence can help us create an education system that provides our children with the tools they will need to prosper in the years ahead.