American public education is like climate change. We‘re all aware of the two’s earth-shattering repercussions, daily influence in the quality of our lives, and gargantuan cost. Both are quintessentially American phenomena. Both are textbook examples of long term responsibility — yet for that very reason, we sweep them under the rug. Who wants to deal with the delayed gratification of photovoltaic research or lunch programs?
But here’s where climate change differs from public education: rolemodels. We don’t have another version of Earth we can study that’s solved global warming. However, we do have other countries that have successfully tackled the same issues plaguing education in the United States.
Of course, each country is different. But I think it’s prudent to consider that one country’s educative issues do not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, the commonalities between other, more successful countries offer striking — and dare I say surprising — insights into how we can fix public education here at home.
What’s the problem?
Evidently, the assumption that the United States does worse than other countries needs grounding. In fact, I recently read a Huffington Post article claiming the contrary, that American public schools are among the best in the world. However, this argument breaks down in the face of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test sponsored by the nonpartisan OECD that academically evaluates fifteen-year-olds from around the world every few years. In that test, the United States always falls below or just makes the global average, “regularly competing at the rate of third world countries,” as Michio Kaku puts it.
In the face of the many grievances associated with standardized testing in the United States, I wouldn’t have given credence to PISA. But the fact remains that PISA reliably predicts both the educational attainment and eventual economic output of tested students.
In fact, the argument that standardized testing doesn’t accurately map a student’s potential doesn’t even seem to apply to PISA. Absolutely, there are a few surprising exceptions. But ever since the test’s inception in 2000, PISA’s measurements have consistently shown a one-to-one correlation between higher scores, salary, human development, and economic productivity in both STEM and non-STEM fields. We’re even seeing the effects of these scores in graduate school admissions. As of 2011, fifty percent of PhD candidates in American universities were foreign-born. At NYU, one-hundred percent of PhD candidates were foreign-born the same year. Compare that to twenty-five years ago, where almost eighty percent of PhD candidates were native-born. And it’s not looking any better today.
For a country that spends more money per student than any other country (both by PPP and inflation-adjusted), this is bad news. We’re not creating a workforce for tomorrow — we’re creating a workforce for yesterday. The dollar cost of an undereducated workforce exceeds the dollar cost of a robust educational system. If we want to keep our competitive edge economically and politically, we need to step up our education game.
What’s the cause of poor results?
Though popular opinion suggests otherwise, a lack of funds is not the cause for poor performance. In fact, PISA showed that there wasn’t a statistical difference in student proficiency between states that spent more than eight thousand dollars per student and states that spent less. Clearly, the money’s being wasted somewhere.
There was a more interesting pattern that lent insight into where the money’s going. States with education funds that were constant over a long period of time did better than states with frequent education spending cuts and hikes, irrespective of the actual dollar amount. It’s harder for teachers and administrators to create and develop robust programs one year when the spending for that program can be cut the next year.
My middle school had the same issue — a district-wide MENSA program was initiated one year before my sixth grade only to be shut down two years later. An expensive air-conditioning system that was installed during a budget surplus three years ago is now collecting dust after the school couldn’t afford maintaining it this past school-year.
Understandably, public schools cannot create and maintain innovative solutions to their problems without the ability to spend their money in a predictable manner. To prevent the money from going unspent, they purchase short-term items that have low maintenance instead of long-term items that can actually help poor performances. It’s why you see a $2.2 million Mac Pro computer room in a school that can barely run its own lunch program. It’s also why most of the middle school clubs and electives suck — they haven’t had the time to develop!
Instructional Material Availability
In tandem with this short term thinking, some standardized testing deepens the disparity between medium income and low income students. McGraw-Hill, for example, is one of the “big three” for-profit institutions with $186 million federal contract for writing and grading standardized tests. A teacher who wants their students to pass the test has to use the material from the big three publishers. However, this contract does not provide the expensive textbooks for all students, placing the economically disadvantaged at, well, another disadvantage.
(Note that I didn’t mention Common Core. By virtue of being a state-sponsored educational initiative, Common Core is not subject to market incentives, nor does it restrict its open-access instructional material for students. There are some “oops” moments like when a teacher had a negative incentive to teach because his students were already exceeding the curriculum’s standards, or when several math problems were poorly written— but those issues are quickly and efficiently corrected (and it turns out that teacher had a clerical error on his hands). Bottom line: it seems that many of the criticisms of Common Core are anecdotal, and do not reflect the reality that educators face. In fact, Common Core’s main criticism, that it takes away teachers’ abilities to customize their own pedagogy, is criminally incorrect. In fact, teachers write more of their curricula as a direct result of Common Core. Brad Decker writes a good piece on this.)
Each year in my secondary schooling, there would always be a charismatic, masterful genius teaching humanities, science, or some flavor of fine arts. And his or her antithesis was always one door down, skimming their Facebook feed while their own students accomplished nothing. According to the unholy triumvirate of the school administration, the teacher’s union, and students’ parents, the two teachers were functionally and productively identical. What’s the issue?
The great teachers are paid the same as the bad teachers.
A performance-driven compensation program, such as commissions on standardized-test scores, can only go so far. For example, a teacher in a wealthy neighborhood would need to work a lot less than a teacher in a less-wealthy neighborhood to earn commission, when both should be incentivized to actively transform their students into the best they can be.
Similarly, other modes of evaluation like “stealth assessments” and in-class evaluations are often successful and unsuccessful on a case-by-case basis. The people performing the evaluations are more indicative of one’s success than the evaluative content itself — when was the last time you sat in the back of a class for fifteen minutes and successfully judged a teacher’s entire pedagogy?
Funds need to be spent more efficiently. We need a level playing ground for those who are disadvantaged without cannibalizing opportunities for high achievers.There needs to be a way to incentivize great teachers.
Oh, and we need a better lunch program.
How to fix these problems?
Beginning in 2013, a community college teacher named Lucy Crehan spent several years abroad trying to figure out why other countries produced more competent students than her own England and the United States. In 2016, she published her findings in Cleverlands, where she analyzes education from both a big-picture and individual teacher-student perspective. It’s a great read.
There, she describes places that already offer poignant solutions to the problems of money management, instructional material and meritocracy.
Finland’s educational reforms lasted from 1972 to 1988, successfully developing a classroom and workspace culture that emphasizes healthy learning — and consistently produces top students in the PISA rankings. And I don’t take the term “healthy learning” lightly. In fact, elementary schools in Finland offer a plethora of services, ranging from healthcare and dental to complete psychiatric assistance — all for less money than we spend here in the United States. Their magic bullet was consistent funding.
In fact, while bond measures in the United States at the time supplied schools with funding for up to a couple years, Finnish schools were receiving funding contracts that supplied them for up to a decade, essentially guaranteeing that whatever programs they established had zero chances of being removed. Job security also increased, as wage contracts lengthened from a year to several years at a time, allowing long-term services such as extra counseling and healthcare through the economics of scale. And to this day, Finland has one of the most efficient educational systems in the world — and similar spending dynamics exist in Hong Kong, Singapore, Macao and South Korea, which see similar educative success in a completely different context.
The key here is to lengthen bond measures. Not to increase spending or cut spending, but just lengthen funding contracts so that educators can have confidence in the lifetimes of their programs.
Japan’s cram schools get a bad rap in the United States, probably by virtue of having the word “cram” in their name. And I haven’t the slightest clue why cram schools are called, well, cram schools. They do anything but perform rote memorization and last-minute studying. Ever heard of Kumon? Sylvan? Even AP test prep courses. Those are cram schools that do anything but cram.
My point is that we need more supplementary learning venues in the United States that are close to free of charge. And who better to lead these ventures than teachers themselves? I had three teachers throughout my middle and high school years who wanted to give lectures on the side — but their district wouldn’t allow it, citing a cannibalization of in-class learning for after school learning. And that couldn’t be farther from reality. The students who get ahead are the students who engage academically both in-class and outside of class. Middle school and high school teachers ought to be treated more like tenured professors in this regard, because they need as much sovereignty as possible in spreading their own knowledge. Ireland, Estonia, New Zealand, and Germany also allow their teachers to give instruction outside of their own job. This way, we give more opportunities for those who are disadvantaged as well as those who aren’t. We level the playing field.
And finally, Shanghai fosters a meritocracy in what I believe is the most innovative method I’ve ever seen, using the priorities of a teacher to create a win-win scenario.
See, my friend wants to be a writer. So, while pursuing a literarily-focused degree, he’ll find a teaching job to make ends meet. Separately, two of my teachers pursued PhDs while they taught in high school. One of my relatives also finished a teaching degree while subbing at a local public school. Notice a similarity?
Both Shanghai and Tokyo offer free degrees for teachers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a department chair or a substitute teacher — you can walk into the local university and get any degree you want, for free. In the face of mounting college debt, the program has become so aligned with graduate students’ interests that they often voluntarily become teachers to pursue their own degrees, furthering the new adage that “those who can, teach.”
(Some states already implement programs that partially pay for specific degrees. But the cost remains prohibitive).
And as teachers get more degrees, their base salary also increases. It’s surprising how easily this professionalizes teaching. In Singapore’s Teacher Education Partnership Model (TEPM), many teachers matriculate in and out over the five-year periods it takes for them to earn their degree. But some don’t — many go even farther, pursuing another degree while teaching, and another, so on and so forth. The teachers who do leave, by virtue of their education, are poised to be successful wherever they go. In Tokyo, the few who do not matriculate out of the education system — those who have demonstrably shown a passion for both learning and teaching — become “master teachers” who “determine national learning targets and goals”. These “master teachers” also direct staff development programs.
Let’s try something like the TEPM in the United States. Not only does this system reward the great teachers, but it’s also a robust pipeline for making highly-educated academic wizards who leave the educational system and contribute greatly to other fields. I daresay that teaching under this system isn’t just pleasant — it’s sexy.
No, these three actions won’t solve all our problems. But just maybe, it’ll bring public education out from under the rug, into meaningful conversations, and finally initiate a comprehensive solution.