Are U.S. schools really underperforming? A new study may change the perception of American public education’s shortcoming as one of cash, not curriculum.
For years, a narrative of the U.S. lagging behind other industrialized countries has dominated the media. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks the United States as 27th in math and 17th in reading internationally — far below the international average — while the U.S. maintains the highest federal education budget in the world.
The United States certainly has underwhelming scores, but that isn’t the whole picture.
A new Columbia University study by Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff has found that the United States outperforms every single country in the world when controlling for schools with a child poverty rate of less than 20 percent.
While noted education experts have started to come out against standardized testing in response to the U.S.’s supposedly abysmal performance, perhaps a new takeaway should be drawn. Namely, our “education” problem is really a problem of poverty.
Given the United States’ huge education budget, it may seem baffling that schools would need even more money, but consider how funding is dispersed in the United States. Nearly half of school revenue comes from local property taxes, meaning per-student spending increases with more affluent neighborhoods. For example, in Philadelphia, poor school districts would need an additional $1 billion to have the same funding as the rich public schools.
Even school districts contribute to making poor schools poorer. Research from Education Next suggests that districts do not distribute education resources equally between schools even when they are serving the same kids. Poorer schools tend to have more junior — and thus less experienced — teachers and produce lower test scores. Those failing schools often lose federal funding once again due to their poor scores. The cycle continues.
But, contrary to what many experts say, the solution is not simply pouring more money into failing schools. The more fundamental problem is that American students are set up to underachieve because they must attend these failing schools. Most students do not have an option not to.
Fortunately, parents are using school voucher systems when it is made available to give their children access to high-performing private schools. For example, in Washington D.C., almost half (41 percent) of all students offered vouchers used them through the duration of the offered program (three years). Not only that, but study after study has shown that private schools regularly outperform public schools across the country. One recent report from the Journal of Public Economicsconcludes that private schools do better because “public schools may in fact not have experienced significant incentives to compete” and “few public schools have been forced to close.”
The solution, then, is students should be allowed to evacuate failing schools by giving them the opportunity to attend private or high-achieving public schools. They should be offered the chance to experience what being first in the world in education looks like, particularly if they are in areas with a child poverty rate of higher than 20 percent.
As tragic as it may seem, the only way for such a policy to be imposed is by incentivizing failing schools to perform well with an ultimatum of closure. Instead of being subjected to an extensive reform process that hasn’t been known to be effective, failing schools should shut down. This is policy is often called “the parent trigger” and has been implemented in several states. Administrators running a successful school will make good use of the new funds.
In an outcry against school vouchers, Jeff Bryant recently proclaimed, “Vouchers... turn public dollars for education into private coin to be expended as parents wish and legislators allow.” However, the more important question is what’s the problem with giving parents the right to choose a future for their children? At the end of the day, legislators should not only allow it, they should encourage it.
Burger is a Young Voices Advocate living in Washington, DC.