A Decade Left Behind

A Decade Left Behind

Tags: education, schools, school, public, improve, pennsylvania, system, children, students, behind

My first career started a few decades ago in the classroom as a high school history teacher.  While much has changed since then – including the use of technology and smaller class sizes – the one constant is the need for "reform" to improve our education system.

Ten years ago, politicians from the Left and Right embraced "landmark" legislation that was supposed to fix everything wrong with American education.  President George W. Bush, with the help of Sen. Ted Kennedy, passed the "No Child Left Behind Act" into law on January 8, 2002, setting the lofty goal of having all children reach proficiency in math and reading by the year 2014.  It is clear we will fall far short of this goal.

Despite the best intentions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), over 80,000 children in Pennsylvania attend violent and failing schools where fewer than 40 percent of the students are at grade level in these subjects.  According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, four out of every five students in Philadelphia public schools are not proficient, and a significant racial achievement gap persists in Pennsylvania.  NCLB was supposed to fix these problems.  So why did it fail?

NCLB embodied two ideas for reforming education – changing the rules and increasing the resources.  Standardized tests and academic proficiency standards were implemented.  But these rule-based reforms have failed to deliver the promised improvements in education.

It's not for lack of resources either.  Pennsylvania increased education spending by 56 percent in the No Child Left Behind era.  But again, there has been little to show for our investment: SAT scores have stagnated, state PSSA test exams show only minor gains, and NAEP scores have changed little

The state of education in Pennsylvania is a state of emergency because rules and resource-based reforms fail to answer a very basic question: Why do we see a relentless drive for continuous quality improvement in nearly every other sector of our economy except public education?

The answer is incentives. We don't see the kinds of improvement we expect because our public schools lack the necessary incentives.  The late Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, summarized this best when he said: "It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity."  Shanker added, "It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

Shanker understood what Harrisburg has not.  We need incentive-based reform to spur schools towards innovation and excellence.  When schools compete, they must respond to parents making choices, or they risk going out of business. 

In the marketplace, companies don't improve simply because investors pour in money or the executives aim for high standards.  If companies don't improve, a competitor will come up with a better way to serve their customers and take their business.  In this scenario, it is the customer who wins, not the underperforming company.  The opposite holds true in Pennsylvania schools.  Without the right incentives, the most important customers – our children – lose.  

How do we know competition in education works?  Here's one example: School vouchers allow students to take public tax dollars we already spend on them to the school of their choice.  Not only do such programs improve the learning of students who may come from failing public schools, but 18 of 19 studies show that vouchers also improve public school performance.

It is clear that schools do respond to competition.  In Pennsylvania, family demand for spots in cyber schools has skyrocketed, with enrollment exploding from zero students a decade ago to nearly 28,000 today.  In response, several school districts now offer their own online learning programs.  Cyber schools, charter schools and scholarships funded by businesses are restoring opportunity and a future for children once left behind.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all system of education, we need to fully embrace an education marketplace where choice and competition is the rule rather than the exception.

Ten years of good intentions – with more rules and greater resources – have failed to dramatically improve our public school system.  Only when we empower parents to choose the best school for their children will we truly give them greater opportunities rather than just good intentions.

# # #

Matthew J. Brouillette is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org), Pennsylvania's free-market think tank.

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Reno said... Rating: 0   Vote +   Vote -  

First of all I want to say that yes there are some bad kids out there that get a lot of publicity. I am 45 and I set arnuod and gripe about these kids just like everyone else. But I truly believe that there are even more really good kids today than there were when I was a kid (long time ago).They are dedicated and motivated to doing good things for others. They work harder than we ever did. I am a sponsor for a school organization here and I am responsible for helping them do fundraising. And believe me, I agree with you, I hate the constant selling. And my kids hate it too. We are going to do something that involves their labor instead of just selling things. We will use a lot of this money to help with certain charatible causes. The kids are excited about doing this.I am not going to get into NCLB. It is like all government programs, sounds good but goes to hell in a handbasket as soon as the bureaucrats get a hold of it. And yes, the teachers unions are full of it too. But you would really be surprised how few teachers actually beleive in what the unions say.So now that I have gotten that off my chest I guess I can get to the original point that I wanted to state. Yes, schools have learned how to selectively target cuts to get peoples attention. Just like all other government agencies, they know exactly which programs they can threaten to keep the funding for their own pet projects. Amtrak, EPA, Parks, they all do this every year to save their budget.Well this has been long and not very focused but I really do want to emphasize once again that we need to remember just how many good kids there are out ther.

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