Education for opportunity: 3 ideas for American education reform

September 18, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski

Did you know that Americans without a high
school diploma, compared to college graduates, are three times more likely to be unemployed,
and even those with high school diplomas average fifty percent less in annual income than those
with college degrees? But the gap between the educational “haves” and “have-nots”
is vast and only growing wider. Take Jennifer, a fourth grader born into the
poorest 20 percent. Without a college degree, she only has a 5 percent chance of reaching
the top, compared to a 45 percent chance of staying in poverty. With a college degree,
she’s more likely to make it to the top quintile than she is to remain in the bottom.
A quality education makes an enormous difference. But it will be an uphill climb because Jennifer’s
family will have fewer options for where she can attend school. Wealthier families can
afford to live in better school districts or to pay for private schools. Jennifer can
only hope the local public school is decent, or take her chances and try to get into a
magnet school or a charter school. The truth is, our education system stacks
the odds against the poorest children, like Jennifer. But here’s the thing: it’s not
a spending problem. In inflation-adjusted terms, the average yearly spending per student
from 1970 to today has more than doubled. Some of the cities in the United States with
the most grinding poverty actually spend among the most per student. Since 1950, while the
overall number of students has grown 96 percent, the total number of teachers and staff has
grown 252 percent and a whopping 702 percent, respectively. Jobs are opening for Miss Penny
and Principal Jones, but it’s not working for Jennifer.
The problem with the American educational system remains just that—the system. The
way we pay for, organize and regulate schools does not foster innovative and entrepreneurial
solutions. School districts have become bloated bureaucracies that stifle creativity. Principals
spend more time filling out paperwork and checking boxes on forms than acting as instructional
leaders in their schools. Teachers have to teach to a narrowed curriculum to maximize
scores on standardized tests. It’s demoralizing, it’s dehumanizing, and it hurts kids like
Jennifer. The good news? We can change it. There are
three big steps we can take right now. First, we need to fund schools in a way that’s
flexible and lets Jennifer and her parents choose the educational environment that fits
their needs. Students today flow into schools in their geographic areas — and the money
flows to those schools whether they’re serving kids or failing them. Vouchers and charter
schools are better, allowing students to take funding to the school of their choosing, and
increasing competition. But even this system funds each child in a
lump sum and requires each school to manage their students’ entire education. A better
system would make the dollars for each student flexible, so Jennifer and her parents could
customize the best education for her. Course Choice and Course Access programs allow them
to divide up the money and spend it with various providers, getting her the help she needs
with history, or paying for Mandarin classes because she wants to go into business. Similarly,
Education Savings Accounts would help her pay for private school, for tutoring or speech
therapy – and she can roll over dollars year-to-year, she can put away unused dollars
for college. Second, we need a better regulatory approach.
The current system uses standards and formulas to hold Jennifer’s school and teachers accountable
to a one-size-fits-all definition of success. This slows innovation and stifles teacher
creativity. We need to let parents vote with their feet. We also need a flexible, market-based
system that relies on performance contracts, inspectors and accreditors to hold educators
accountable to many kinds of results. Third and finally, the new schools and education
providers this system would create would need new sources of human and financial capital.
They would need the freedom to rethink the roles and compensation of teachers and leaders,
to retrain teachers for unique school environments, and to pursue new sources of capital through
public and private dollars. Look, there are no silver bullets. But the
best thing we can do for students like Jennifer is to create a marketplace that unleashes
education innovators and entrepreneurs. We should move from an education system to an
education ecosystem—a vibrant, evolving marketplace of options that compete for Jennifer’s
dollar by showing better results for her future. It’s pro-teacher, pro-principal, pro-family,
pro- children – and it can be done. To find out more, check out my book on Education and
Opportunity. For all the Jennifers out there, let’s get to work.