Grading the American Education System and Federal Education Policy
Last month, the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) Renewing America initiative published a progress report and scorecard on federal education policy, providing striking comparisons between the US system and those found in other developed nations. The report sheds light on the grimmest details of federal education policy and the shortcomings that led to the nation’s decline in worldwide educational rankings. Through their research and exploration, the authors identified a persistent and consistent shortcoming of the American system, the manifestations of which can be seen across the educational spectrum in the United States. The authors write, “…the real scourge of the U.S. education system – and its greatest competitive weakness – is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.” It is this shortcoming that provides the foundation for the report’s analysis and recommendations.
President Obama, as the report points out, came into office with an ambitious education agenda. He “pledged that by 2020 the United States ‘will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.’” The 2009 stimulus package tripled the Department of Education’s spending in just one year, an increase far and above any other federal agency’s spending. He vowed to reform K-12 education to expand access and quality for low-income students and has challenged the leadership of colleges and universities regarding the level of tuition increases. Despite these efforts, however, the report notes that inequality in education persists and has led to the nation’s declining ranking in comparison to other nations. The report notes, “Among people aged fifty-five to sixty-four in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Americans ranked first in high school completion and third in postsecondary completion. Among people aged twenty-five to thirty four, Americans rank tenth in high school completion and thirteenth in postsecondary completion.” Essentially, this means that the up-and-coming generation is less educated than the preceding and the reasons for this, according to the CFR’s report, include the achievement gap plaguing the US education system and its students.
According to the report, the problems begin as early as the pre-K years. Only 69 percent of four-year-olds in the United States attends a preschool program while “nearly all four-year-olds in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan are enrolled in preschool.” The report cites a “conservative estimate” on the return on investment in preschool education stating that for every dollar invested in preschool programs, there is a three dollar return. The federal government has sponsored a public pre-K program, Head Start, since 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson instituted it as part of his Great Society reforms. Though the Head Start program has expanded significantly since its inception nearly fifty years ago, the program still serves a meager 11 percent of the nation’s four-year-olds. For low income families who are not participating in the federal Head Start program, childcare subsidies are available but the report notes that this money is often spent at centers that are not licensed and/or do not provide curriculum-based educational opportunities for the nation’s youngest minds. There are child care tax credits available to all American families, in fact, but because they are nonrefundable (meaning that it cannot be paid to a recipient without a tax payment to the IRS), “more than 60 percent of child care tax credits go to the richest 40 percent of families” in America. The report recommends that the United States follow the lead of most developed countries and work toward universal pre-K education for children with appropriate checks in place to ensure quality.
The achievement gap driven by socioeconomic status continues into and throughout the K-12 system. The report notes that the federal government supports about ten percent of national K-12 funding with the rest resting on the shoulders and local and state governments. The portion coming from local and state entities is often raised through property taxes. This means that the more affluent a community, the more funding for public schools; the less affluent, the less funding. In this way, the achievement gap as it relates to socioeconomic status persists. Though President Obama and many on both sides of the aisle in Congress have recognized the woeful student achievement outcomes as reported through President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, the federal government continues to struggle to identify and implement an effective way to ensure quality education for all American students. President Obama’s education agenda has put forth several initiatives (including Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation among others) that reward grant money to jurisdictions that excel in four “pillars” of education: improving teacher evaluation and effectiveness; expanding high-quality charter schools; encouraging states to adopt common, college-ready standards; and developing data systems to track student performance.
One of the most persistent problems plaguing K-12 education vis-à-vis the achievement gap is teacher quality and effectiveness. The report notes that “In high-achieving countries, such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, teachers come from the top of their high school graduating classes, teaching schools have a high bar for acceptance, and teachers’ salaries are competitive with those of lawyers and scientists.” Perhaps better teacher pay is one way of addressing the situation in K-12 education but school districts are already struggling to make ends meet as it is. Without a tremendous influx of funding (and, from where would that funding come?), turning the tide of the current situation in America by increasing teacher pay seems unattainable for the moment. The report recommends other initiatives to improve teacher quality and effectiveness, suggesting for example, that “pay-for-performance” methods may be a more realistic solution in the near-term. In an interesting and ironic Catch-22 situation, even initiatives that attempt to provide greater educational opportunity to students may exacerbate the achievement gap issues. For example, charter schools are often touted as a good solution to failing K-12 schools; they are publically funded but independently managed with “more flexibility to innovate with management, staffing, curriculum, and teaching techniques.” The authors point out that even though charter schools do not outperform public schools on a national level, they often are incubators for new and innovative ideas and techniques which could have the potential to transform education in general. However, the authors caution that “one risk with charter schools is that they take only the most motivated students, leaving the most vulnerable behind and making the local public schools even worse.” Obviously, this situation perpetuates the achievement gap that the authors continually revisit throughout their analysis.
As the authors analyze the postsecondary education system in American, the achievement gap theme continues even though the federal government’s role in the postsecondary system is dramatically different from its role in pre-K and K-12 education. Whereas federal funds are distributed to education service providers or to states to distribute as they see fit, federal dollars for postsecondary education opportunities are given in the form of aid to students and their families so that they may choose the educational provider themselves. Through loan programs and grant initiatives like the Pell Grant for low income students, nearly half of all full-time undergraduate students in the United States receive federal funding to attend college. According to the report, “Outstanding federal student loans total about $750 billion, with about $100 billion of new federal loans taken out every year.” The authors note also that President Obama’s first term in office saw an increase in federal student aid. They also report that “the expansion in generosity has benefited higher-income students the most.” .
According to the authors, additional benefits introduced by the Obama administration will overwhelmingly assist higher income students more than they will low income students. For example, the report explores the more lenient debt repayment terms, Income-Based Repayment Plan and reduced amount of time after which loans can be forgiven, noting that “Borrowers with the largest debts – who tend to be graduate or professional students and who also tend to have higher incomes and more earning potential – will reap nearly all the benefits….A person earning $70,000 a year with an advanced degree could have $100,000 of federal debt forgiven….This federal subsidy is four times larger than that provided to low income students through Pell Grants ($22,000) to obtain a college degree in four years.” The report also calls attention to the irony in these initiatives: “Ramping up federal student aid and debt forgiveness gives colleges every incentive to continue raising tuition.” In response to rising tuition rates, however, the report does point out that the Administration has implemented (or is attempting to implement) a variety of other initiatives including requiring all accredited institutions to provide a “net price” calculator so that prospective students have a full understanding of the cost of attendance.
In considering the future of higher education, the report briefly explores new technologies like MOOCs, stating that MOOCs (as well as other technological developments) could “shake things up” in the higher education landscape. The authors point to online learning as a possible remedy for many of the issues discussed previously but they note that there are challenges associated with MOOC-style learning including many that I’ve written about on this blog (i.e. high dropout rates, questionable learning outcomes, integrity issues of student submissions, etc.)
I found this report to be insightful, and I appreciate that the authors identified and discussed one of the fundamental issues in today’s American education system, namely the large and growing achievement gap determined mainly by socioeconomic status. At times, the problems in the American higher education system appear to be overwhelming and so interconnected that it can be difficult to focus on prioritizing solutions. Fundamentally, if we are to regain our preeminence in the area of education, we must begin to pick apart these issues, examine each of them thoroughly, and develop lasting solutions that will close the achievement gap. These solutions are not only for the benefit of the individual student and his or her family, but also for our society as a whole. As the report states, “It is an economist’s rule that an increase of one year in a country’s average schooling level corresponds to an increase of three to four percent in long-term economic growth.” Hopefully, our political leaders on the state and federal level will recognize the importance of quality education and work together to close the gap and improve our global ranking.