How to Improve Our Schools

Peter Marber, a Columbia professor specializing in global education issues, has an article in Quartz magazine suggesting four ways to improve America’s public schools. I think he has some important proposals, especially when it comes to changing how we fund schools and promoting genuine equality of opportunity. On the latter:

In the global age, we need to create better students by starting public education much earlier. Influential Harvard studies note that without sufficient early nurturing, nutrition, and stimulation, a child’s ability to learn and thrive is severely impaired over a lifetime. Indeed, income levels that a child is born into generally determine his lifetime economic and health trajectory. This is sad but true; children who are deprived—both economically and socially—routinely enter American kindergartens already “left behind.” Many studies note the wide economic disparities and problems later in life could be alleviated through earlier interventions in education. As former undersecretary of education Linus Wright observes:

…what if all children during their very early years were given the tools to be successful in the school environment? They would be better able to make good choices, follow a productive path, and have greater chance of success in their college years. As a matter of economic policy, this change could substantially reduce expenses, at all levels, associated with remedial education and student dropouts—not to mention potential longer-term savings in reduced welfare, incarceration, and Medicaid costs.

But this also requires more than education. It also requires that we make sure those kids are well-fed from infancy forward, which means expanding our food aid system from the paltry food stamp program we currently have (and which is now being cut even more). A child who is undernourished in their early years is a child who is much more likely to fail educationally once they get to school. Poor children start off by giving wealthier kids a huge head start, guaranteeing inequality at every stage later.

And on that note, we also need to change the way we fund public schools:

Property taxes have largely financed American public education, with very little federal funding. As wealthy zip codes can spend more on education, the overall system becomes uneven and reinforces skill gaps and socio-economic divides.

If we could start with a blank slate and look around the world, we would probably institute state and federal funding in public education like virtually every other country, and not fund education largely through property taxes. This would create a far more even system. For those who want to opt out of the public system, there will always be private alternatives. A political impossibility? Maybe, but not insurmountable if implemented over a 30-year period, for example, with re-balancing over time from real estate taxes towards state and local income taxes.

This has become especially clear since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, with school districts in areas hit hard by the foreclosure crisis being starved for resources while wealthier districts continue to thrive. This again guarantees inequality. We are handicapping a huge portion of students from the get go and then wondering why our society is becoming more and more unequal.

He also suggests that we expand higher education opportunities that do not require four year degrees, which I have long argued for. He specifically mentions “(1) employer-based training, (2) industry-based certifications, (3) apprenticeships, (4) postsecondary certificates by colleges, and (5) associate’s degrees.” Not everyone needs a liberal arts higher education to build a career that can support themselves and a family and we need to provide plausible pathways to those careers for those who are less academically-minded.

I think these are excellent suggestions.

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  • John Hinkle

    It also requires that we make sure those kids are well-fed from infancy forward, which means expanding our food aid system…

    Wow, this sounds like you want to take even more from the makers and give to the moochers, who will then vote Democrat. The little tykes ought to get off their bums and get jobs if they want to eat steak and drive caddies.

  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/LDORIGINALS Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    One that isn’t mentioned, but is absolutely vital, is a curriculum standardized primarily at the Federal level, cutting out all the yahoo school boards that currently infest the country.

  • tfkreference

    If they’re too lazy to be born into a wealthy family, they’re going to be too lazy to benefit from good schools.

  • http://onhandcomments.blogspot.com/ left0ver1under

    Property taxes have largely financed American public education, with very little federal funding. As wealthy zip codes can spend more on education, the overall system becomes uneven and reinforces skill gaps and socio-economic divides.

    “Waste” is one of the biggest lies (if not the biggest) told about education spending in the US. Schools in poorer areas have a lower tax base to draw from, but the wingnuts talk as if those districs had the revenues of wealthy areas and misused it. It’s just the latest retelling of the “welfare queen” myth, inferring that the poor (and those running the schools) “aren’t capable of caring for themselves”. It smacks of the same racism, since many poorer areas in the US tend to be non-white, and so are the administrators and teachers in those schools.

    Compare it with Canada where taxation is pooled and distributed to schools and districts on a per student basis, and both student loans and college tuition aren’t as burdensome as in the US. The result? 51% in 2012, up from 40% in 2000.

    He also suggests that we expand higher education opportunities that do not require four year degrees, which I have long argued for.

    Free public schooling until grade 12 became available early in the 20th century. At that time, it was sufficient for any person to succeed in life. That’s no longer true and hasn’t been for at least 20 years, probably more. If college education isn’t freely available to all, then as least some post secondary credits should be to reflect the reality of a changing world.

    Give people a year (or two) of free post secondary credits at community colleges, and create one year programs that will provide useful skills, whether trades (e.g. electronics), business (e.g. accounting), or others. Eligibility for student loans could then be tied to grades rather than family income.

    Another idea would be a voluntary increase in basic income tax. A 0.5% surtax on a $2400/month income over 25 years would be enough to pay for a year’s tuition at a community college. With better education comes a higher income, so people would pay more back into the system over time than they take out, and still have a better standard of living even with the extra tax paid. People would be paying for their own educations, not “taxpayers like us” as the rich try to pretend.

    0.5% x $2400 x 12months x 25years = $3600 (before compound interest)

    From the American Association of Community Colleges website:

    Average Annual Tuition and Fees (2012–2013)

    Community Colleges (public, in district)—$3,130

  • jnorris

    Prenatal nutrition is also important.

  • colnago80

    State support for public universities has been going down for years. When I was a freshman at Berkeley a million years ago, the tuition charge was $50/semester, regardless of the number of units taken. Now it’s getting hard to distinguish between Berkeley and Stanford relative to tuition charges.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    What about Supply Side Education, Ed? Via property tax cuts, cut education funding, giving it to those at the top (who earned it), then it’ll Trickle Down to the rest.

  • countryboy

    These ideas make sense, which is why they’ll never be implemented. The country seems to be infested by yahoos that want to turn the US into a third world shithole.

  • AnatomyProf

    “Not everyone needs a liberal arts higher education to build a career that can support themselves and a family and we need to provide plausible pathways to those careers for those who are less academically-minded.”

    This idea, while seemingly very practical, scares me in its application. I am a biology professor at a community college. I teach a general education course and a nursing prerequisite. This year we removed introductory biology as a prerequisite for the human anatomy course in the interest of streamlining the pathway to a nursing degree and to quality for national accreditation in nursing. Our nurses will not longer be grounded in evolution and ecology in addition to the more technical aspects of human biology that they will learn in their prerequisites. While they will have the basic technical abilities required to be nurses we are removing an understanding of the natural world that will make them both less academic and less equipped to serve as informed citizens in our society. A world where educated people miss out on learning about basic concepts such as evolution and the fundamentals of scientific inquiry is a world where the right wing has a greater potential to manipulate voters. It is unsurprising that the conservatives on campus embraced the removal of this course, finding little value in the teaching of basic scientific principles and evolution.

    While there is value in getting people in and out of school so that they may get on with their lives, there is a risk in abandoning the principles of a liberal education. Do we benefit from a world of technically proficient but narrow minded drones? What happens when they decide to pull a history course to streamline a degree that is already very narrow in is supposed breath? This would be less problematic if the students had a better K-12 education and already had a solid understanding of some of these basic principles useful to citizens. This is often not a reasonable assumption for students attending community college. I fear that, if we are not cautious, we will be playing into the hands of those who want a stratified society rather than working to equalize opportunity. Two-year degrees with an abbreviated liberal education are great. Certificates, with no breadth, may exchange a short-term positive for a long term negative in the form of limited opportunity for the certificate earner and decreased decision making ability for society.

  • eric

    Property taxes have largely financed American public education, with very little federal funding. As wealthy zip codes can spend more on education, the overall system becomes uneven and reinforces skill gaps and socio-economic divides.

    I don’t see why property taxes couldn’t be evenly distributed over a state, on a per student basis, as John states is done in Canada. Unfair? I don’t see how. Property taxes are exactly the system conservatives keep saying they want – a flat tax rate. Everyone pays 5% (or whatever), and if your house is worth more, well, too bad so sad, you knew that when you bought it. Want your schools to be better equipped? Vote for a raise in property taxes.

    Now I have no problem with changing the financing system to some other type of tax. I just don’t see the reliance on property taxes as the main issue or an unfixable issue.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I don’t see why property taxes couldn’t be evenly distributed over a state, on a per student basis, as John states is done in Canada.

    This is an issue that came up in Arizona. The State Constitution requires a “uniform system of education.” For almost a century, what the State had was a system of school districts (independent municipalities, unconnected to cities like in most of the country) each with its own funding and some supplementation by the State.

    Then a public-interest group filed a lawsuit, challenging that setup on Constitutional grounds. And won. Now the funding really is uniform, just as you describe, across the State. Unfortunately, this has resulted in dramatic cuts to educational funding and a flood of money to private schools, but remember this is Arizona — where the Constitution also requires that education at the State’s universities be “as nearly free as possible,” which the Supreme Court has ruled to permit in-State tuition rates higher than in half of the other States in the USA.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    What AnatomyProf said @9.

    I recently finished reading “Stylized– A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”.

    Therein is a quote which I will paraphrase (since I can’t put my finger on the page at the moment). Will Strunk, a professor of English (and other subjects) at Cornelll University, in correspondence to a colleague, said that a lack of understanding of the basic rules of usage of the English language leads to a populace of uncritical boobs (my words, not his). It is evident, listening to public speaking or reading transcripts of same by many, many persons in positions of authority that they don’t know how to speak or write properly. Their audience is largely unaware of/unconcerned about this. Not being clear, when clarity is called for, is a recipe for misunderstanding or worse.

    Technical education without any liberal educational principles will lead to drones who are capable of following rote instructions and who will ENJOY their Soylent Green.

  • Michael Heath

    Re AnatomyProf’s topic @ 9,

    I have a specialized business mgt. degree in what is now known as Supply Chain Management aka “SCM”. For the fourteen years right after I earned this degree the jobs I held were directly relevant. I worked in the tech sector in a repetitive manufacturing area.

    As manger then executive, I always advocated that the people who worked inside a SCM department that didn’t have a university degree or were instead degreed in an unrelated area take APICS training and pass the tests to become APICS certified. That is if they wanted to advance in supply chain mgt. I was APICs certified myself.

    APICS certification classes and testing were very similar to the business classes I took that provided me the SCM aspect of my business management degree, e.g., the algorithms inherent in computer programs needed to do production scheduling and develop direct material requirements (both purchased and manufactured in-house). While APICS certification didn’t require near the time I spent taking SCM classes nor was the testing nearly as rigorous, I concluded APICs training and certification was nearly equivalent to the specialized SCM university training I took when coupled to the experiences APICS students received working in a SCM department.

    Now AnatomyProf made the very good point that our society benefits when people have a liberal education, not merely specialized training in a particular. A point with which I obviously concur, we all should. However, I also found specialized training alone suppressed career growth without a broader education. APCIS training made for better individual contributors and lower-level supervisors, but the non-degreeds’ careers were still stifled by a lack of perspective beyond SCM. They didn’t have as a good of grasp on the dynamics at play in the enterprise and supply chain beyond the SCM departments one gets with a business degree that goes beyond one’s function and delves into marketing, finance, quantitative research methods, statistics, and economics. They also lacked the communication and thinking skills one can hone at university in required classes outside the business school.

    So a university education doesn’t merely develop better citizens as AnatomyProf rightly points out, it’s also necessary even within the enterprise in order for the various business functions to optimally co-exist and to groom upper management talent.

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