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National Issues

Education in America: The issue we should be talking about

As Millennials, many of us are accustomed to clicking on “The Skim” and seeing taglines with issues that typically appear on our push notifications, such as terrorist attacks, election histrionics and gun violence.

As inhabitants of a university, we see free speech and racial justice issues dominating the majority of student-led protests and activism initiatives. We tend to forget, however, an underlying issue, one that speaks volumes to what propelled us to Duke: Education in America. It is not an issue that will ever garner front-page headlines, but its lack of both media coverage and political toxicity should not belie its significance in American society.

Our public education system was a premise behind the American Dream, giving rise to the idea of climbing the social ladder and doing better than one’s parents economically. It was intended to be a primer of social mobility, much more so than tax or minimum wage policy.

Unfortunately, the primer has lost its fuel. A Brookings Institute report showed the achievement gap between high and low-income students at an all-time high, with the latter students having little chance of breaking into the middle class, let alone the upper echelon of the income distribution, unless they obtain a college degree.

What’s more, our achievement gap is not just among Americans, but also between American students and their global counterparts. A PISA test revealed in 2013 that American students were below average in math scores and merely “close to average” compared to their global counterparts in reading and science scores. If test scores are any indication, our public education system is failing to provide students with the opportunities to become both socially mobile and globally competitive.

So, how do we reform public education in America? It can start with changing our approach to teaching, not in the sense that we focus on punishing bad teachers as much as we try to lure and keep good ones in the teaching profession. Unlike those in other wealthy nations, policymakers have adopted the axiom, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” They place too much of an emphasis on incentive-based solutions such as “merit pay” and test-score indicators as opposed to making teaching as respected a profession as in high-ranked Finland or Poland.

In North Carolina, it takes a teacher 15 years to raise his/her salary from $30,000 to $40,000, even though studies have shown a positive correlation between teacher pay and student performance. Such a model shifts the focus on attaining the quantity of experience rather than how teacher performance can grow during those years. It also assumes — incorrectly — that innately great teachers do not need continuous professional grooming, but rather time in order for them to become better teachers and improve student outcomes.

The issue of American education is also a return-on-investment problem. In 2010, the U.S. spent 39 percent more per full-time student on public education than the average for other well-developed Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

That said, the quality of the school matters in addition to the teachers’ performance and how much money is spent. According to Harvard researcher Roland Fryer, high-quality schools, including charter schools, do more (pdf) to increase academic achievement among the poor than moving them from low-quality, poverty-ridden environments. Fryer has acknowledged that while results are certainly mixed with respect to charter schools and whether they are worth their operating costs, success stories such as the Harlem Children’s Zone should be replicated as models and not belittled as outliers.

Fryer and Princeton researcher Will Dobbie also found (pdf) that such successful charter schools can not only lower the socioeconomic achievement gap, but also decrease the likelihood of teenage pregnancy and incarceration. If American education is to be improved, it must reconcile funding discrepancies with school quality, perhaps by applying some charter school methods to traditional public education.

Quality schools are often constrained by the issue of high-stakes testing, much of which neither adequately gauges nor substantially improves teacher and student performance. Under “No Child Left Behind,” school funding was tied directly to test performance in the name of “accountability,” perpetuating a cycle where schools in poor neighborhoods became even more cash-strapped and therefore lacked resources to improve.

When in 2015 President Obama signed the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” it supposedly took away the loathsome federal control over education and shifted more power to the states.

That said, many of the standards used to assess performance, such as Common Core, have not changed at all. Despite their aim at getting teachers to prepare students for college and beyond, education experts have shown much skepticism toward the standards. Sandra Stotsky, a member of the Common Core validation committee, has pointed to a lack of endorsements from any humanities organization in addition to mixed reviews from the STEM crowd in expressing her opposition to some of the standards. “No educational reform,” she says, “that produces fewer engineers, scientists, and doctors is worthy of the name.”

Education in America is not an issue that will accompany pithy punch lines or make waves in the media, but it is one to which we owe our attention. Its far-reaching consequences make it worthy of the discourse it should inspire, while its complex policy problems should encourage those who know nothing about it to learn.

Alex Martin, from Princeton, New Jersey, is a freshman studying public policy at Duke. He is a member of the Duke Political Union.


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