How to Improve Our Schools

How to Improve Our Schools November 23, 2013

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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