Public education is vital to a healthy economy and, more broadly, a thriving democracy. In 1785, John Adams wrote that citizens should not just “educate the whole people,” but “be willing to bear the expense of it.” In practical terms, an uneducated workforce is limited in what it can achieve—a failing that affects everyone.
As a Washington Post editorial points out, public education does more than provide universal access to free education. It helps guarantees equal opportunities for all children, prepares people for citizenship, leads them to become economically self-sufficient, improves social conditions, and unifies a diverse population.
From this perspective, one could argue that a nation’s strength depends in large part on the power of its education system. Recent concerns over the state of public schools have ignited a fierce national debate about how little teachers are paid, what classes students should take, and the merits of education itself, among many other topics. Still, most people can agree that stronger schools contribute to a stronger nation, even if they disagree on how to go about it.
Education policy is messy and, some would argue, so tied up in politics and budget debates that creating real change sometimes seems impossible. While this may be true, it calls to mind the widespread belief that some of the most challenging tasks are also the most worthy. There are many ways that we can begin improving public education—and ways you can get involved in the process.
The United States has long emphasized school accessibility, but data suggests it does a poor job of ensuring that all students receive the same quality of education. This is particularly apparent when scrutinizing the educational spending in low-income districts and those with a higher-than-average share of students of color.
According to a 2018 report from The Education Trust, districts serving the largest populations of Black, American Indian or Latino students receive about 13 percent less state and local funding per student than those serving the fewest students of color.
Meanwhile, districts with the highest poverty rates—those that would benefit most from quality education—receive an average of 7 percent less per student than the nation’s richest districts. The picture only darkens when one adjusts these figures to account for the added cost of educating low-income students, such as investing in more student support services and higher quality early education.
One of the primary drivers if this inequity is the states’ failure to identify the schools that need to improve and prioritize funding for those with the greatest need. Instead, the Education Trust notes that states artificially limit the number of in-need schools to whatever number policymakers decide they can help. This paints an incomplete picture of the state of education in that state and often leaves high-need schools unidentified.
As former secretary of education and Education Trust president and CEO John King told Yale Insights, funding is managed mostly on the local level where leaders rely primarily on property taxes to determine educational spending. The result: the wealthiest communities spend dramatically more per pupil than more impoverished communities, exacerbating funding and achievement gaps. King advises that states and the federal government account for a more significant share of school funding and dispersing it in a way that ensures the schools that need the funds the most receive them.
For decades, school success was determined by students’ performance on standardized tests, and student performance on those tests was considered the leading indicator of teacher quality. Therefore, if students performed poorly, teachers shouldered the blame (and consequences).
The Every Student Succeeds Act puts some of the responsibility for student success on districts and, in turn, their leaders, but some experts suggest it does not go far enough. According to the Education Trust, administrators play a vital role in student success. They generally oversee funding and staffing, for instance. District and school leaders that do their jobs poorly should be held accountable for those failings rather than letting the blame be passed onto teachers, who are frequently overworked and underpaid.
The other side of the coin, of course, is identifying successful school leaders and leveraging their expertise. Administrators in districts that have proven that they can close achievement gaps, staff schools adequately, and turn around poor performance are a vital resource in improving public education. Research indicates that strong leadership is second only to teaching in its positive impact on student learning.
Effective leaders also tend to create a culture that attracts higher quality teachers. States can do more than acknowledge proven leaders or pay them more, though it is a good start. Policymakers should make a more considerable effort to talk to and work with school leaders who know what needs to be done and how to best go about it.
Perhaps one of the simplest ways to improve school quality without major funding increases is to partner high- and low-performing schools or districts, putting the stronger leaders in the role of mentor and giving them some authority to make critical staffing and funding changes.
According to The Education Trust, recent research out of England suggests that these types of strategic partnerships can significantly improve student outcomes. The key is in ensuring both schools or districts see the benefits of collaborating and focus their efforts on an established list of challenges.
Every year the World Economic Forum produces a report on the state of the world’s economies, evaluating them on several metrics, including education, and every year the same key players come out on top; the U.S. is not one of them. Among those top performers, is Finland.
Finland’s performance in global testing metrics varies, but it remains home to some of the happiest and most successful students in the world. Experts credit several possible factors for Finland’s educational prowess, including the fact that it does not separate students by ability, only requires one standardized test, and assigns relatively little homework. However, perhaps the most vital secret to Finland’s success is the quality of its teachers.
The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) suggests that quality teacher training—and therefore quality teachers—drive educational success in Finland. According to the report, surveys have repeatedly indicated that teaching is Finland’s most admired profession. Why? Only the nation’s best and brightest can teach.
Finnish teacher education programs are highly selective. Only 10 percent of applicants are admitted, and they all tend to rank in the top quarter of college students in academics. The nation also recently transferred teacher prep programs into major research universities, further emphasizing the prestige of the profession. The respectability of teaching in Finland makes education the most highly sought-after field. According to the NCEE, the reputation of teaching and the nature of the work—not higher pay—attracts the most promising candidates.
All of this focus on education scales and metrics has had a profound effect on students. The increasing importance of high standardized test scores has put additional pressure on districts, schools, teachers, and students to perform. TIME reports that in 2015, American students took an average of 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade. More tests mean more of the student’s day must be dedicated to learning the material and less time for playing. Studies suggest that is a problem.
TIME reports that 16 percent of states required elementary schools to provide a daily recess in 2016, despite experts’ insistence that recess is critical to child development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that all children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day, some of which coming from recess. According to a 2013 AAP policy statement, recess is a “necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development,” and should not be withheld “for academic or punitive reasons.”
Other reports have linked recess with better classroom behavior and, yes, academic performance. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report suggests that there is “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.” In other words, education’s emphasis on test scores over play time is counter-productive at best and downright damaging at worst. If we want happier, more successful children, recess should be a priority.
The idea that schools should include more vocational and career training instruction speaks to the very heart of what public school is all about: strengthening our economy and democracy. As education advocate and Center on Education Policy leader, Maria Ferguson, points out, preparing students for the future does not begin and end with college preparation.
Research indicates that employers need a broad range of skills, including vocational skills and knowledge. Just as importantly, however, they need social and personal strengths to help them communicate effectively, work in teams, and face challenges. Those skills cannot be cultivated through academic instruction alone.
The idea that Americans should diversify public education is not new: surveys suggest the vast majority of Americans now believe public schools should teach more job and career skills, even if that means cutting back on academic coursework. How we can achieve that is more debatable. Some career education advocates call for more partnerships between secondary schools and career and technical colleges; others want to bring back an apprentice-based model similar to the one in Germany. Even mandatory career skills courses that prepare students to work in a diverse workplace could help tremendously.
If the above suggest anything, it is that the public education system is a complicated bundle of budgets, policy, and varied success metrics. Improving the system is not as simple as increasing funding, tweaking curricula, or increasing standardized tests. Still, difficult is not impossible, and no effort to improve our schools is too small. There are many ways parents and other concerned citizens can get involved.
Attend town hall and city council meetings to advocate for stronger leadership, more equitable funding, and more play. Create (or join) a local movement of like-minded voters. Organize protests and petitions. Write letters to local editors, or otherwise work to inform and motivate the public. And finally, write, call, and email your local, state and federal representatives to let them know what you want and why. Such campaigns may be more effective when executed as an organized group, so hop on social media or write the local paper to get the word out.