Giving thanks for public education

Our public education system has been criticized for many things, but today, I want to pause to think about what a remarkable system it is.

This year, a record number of 49.8 million students will be attending about 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools.  Altogether, our public school systems employ 3.3 million teachers and spend $543 billion annually.  We have a teacher to student ration of 15.2 to 1, down from 16:1 from 10 years ago, and we are expected to spend $10,844 per student this year, up from $9,683 from two years ago.

Education is not the only business of the schools.  Students must be transported somehow from their homes to schools. In 2005-2006, 55.1% of students were transported at public expense, to the tune of $18.87 billion.  Students must eat lunch in school.  The National School Lunch Program, run by the Department of Agriculture, feeds more than 30.5 million children each school day with a total expenditure of $9.3 billion in 2008.

To be sure, the quality of our education system lags behind that of other developed nations.  Our schools suffer from grave problems of inequality and inefficiency.  Only 72% of our students in our public education system are deemed “on track” academically for their age and grade level.  Only 98% of our adults are literate, compared to 100% in other developed nations.

Nonetheless, we have come a long way.  The scale and complexity of our education system is breathtaking when you consider how young our nation is, and how differently we conceived of education merely two centuries ago.  At the founding of our nation, access to education was by and large only open to the wealthy and the nobility.  When Thomas Paine advocated free universal education, his idea was considered radical and unattainable.  Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Amendments mention school or education, and the power to regulate education was reserved for the states via the Tenth Amendment.

But sometime around mid-1800s, the idea took hold that the state should take responsibility in educating its citizenry.  By 1918, 150 short years after Paine advocated his “radical” idea, mandatory school attendance laws existed in all states.  By 1919, all states have laws providing for the transportation of children to schools.

Massachusetts bears special mentioning as a constant champion of public education. When it was still a colony, it established the first grammar school, and was also the first one among colonies to require every town that has at least 50 families to establish schools.  In 1827, it became the first state to require the establishment of a public high school open to all students in every town.  In 1852, it was the first state to enact laws that required school attendance.

The idea of public education is not a new one.  Plato’s Republic advocated compulsory education for all children in the polis so they could learn virtue and the state could sort them into different classes and professions.  The Aztecs, too, established mandatory schools for their male children where they received religious instructions and learned how to read and write.  Protestant clergymen advocated compulsory education to enable their congregation to read the Bible themselves.

But there is something new in the magnitude of the project that we have undertaken.  What is also new is our reasoning for why people should be educated.  Plato, the Aztecs, and Protestant clergymen wanted universal education because they saw education as a tool for the state or the church to instill desirable values into its students.  Their conception of education sometimes smacked disturbingly of brainwashing.  It is no surprise that communist countries were also zealous in establishing free and universal education for their children.

But we in a free and democratic society have no such narrow requirements for our students and no such strictly-defined goals of what schools ought to teach.  As a society, we provide this service to our children, not only because we believe that it would make them better citizens and more useful for our country.

We provide it because education and the chance to succeed should not be restricted to those with means to enjoy it, but be open for all who have the desire and the capacity.  We believe in a basic equality and the human potential to excel.  And yes, we also believe that when all children are given this opportunity, we will be a better society as a result.

Let us give thanks to our public schools.  Let us give thanks to our idea of public education.

Advertisements

California vs. Nebraska: two models of university governance

Protesters against the California tuition hike.

Two important education news items today both have to do with public universities. They invite interesting comparisons of the types of governance structure in our public universities.

First, the University of California is set to increase undergraduate tuition by 32%.  The increase is meant to make up for large cuts in state funding.

Second, the University of Nebraska is considering regulations to restrict stem cell research more severely than federal regulations.  If the regulation passes, it would be the first time that a university implements higher limits for stem cell research than either state or federal laws.

Both measures are meeting oppositions from the public.  In California, the tuition hike is being protested by thousands of students across the state.  In Nebraska, the medical research community has spoken out against the possible restrictions, arguing that a policy like this would have extremely negative effects on Nebraska’s ability to attract research funding and scholars.

Which leads to the question: how much control does the public have over the decisions and the decision-making processes at these two universities?

The answer: probably much more so at Nebraska than at California.  Though the decisions at both universities were made by the board of regents, the two boards have very different appointment processes.

In California, the state constitution mandates the appointment process for the board of regents.  There are 26 members on the board.  18 members are appointed by the governor and serve 12 year terms, 7 members are ex officio members which include the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the state assembly, and various officers of the alumni association that serve one-year terms. There is also a student member appointed by the board, who serves a one-year term.

The University of Nebraska board of regents, on the other hand, is almost entirely elected by the general public.  The board has 8 voting members serving 6-year-terms, all of which are elected by the public in the 8 districts within the state, and 4 non-voting members serving 1-year terms, who are student body presidents from each of the four campuses.

The selection process for the board of regents and the terms of service ensure that, relatively speaking, the public exerts a more direct control on the University of Nebraska.   In contrast, despite the tradition of grass-root democracy and the notorious state-wide referendum process in California, the public control over major decisions in its university system is surprisingly meager and indirect.

Sure, the governor is theoretically accountable to the public for both his policy choices about the university system and his regent appointments, but I doubt that those issues are the most salient ones on the minds of voters during any election. Thus, depending on which side of the fence you are on, you can either call the Nebraska system “more accountable to the public” or say that the University of California “enjoys a greater degree of autonomy.”

Given the more direct public control, we can expect that the decisions made by the University of Nebraska will likely reflect the mood and ideologies of its constituency more accurately than California.  The regents of the University of California, on the other hand, will more likely make controversial or unpopular decisions, because there are minimal consequences to themselves.

The drastic tuition hike that the regents of the University of California approved today once again spurred criticism that major public research universities are becoming more and more indistinguishable from private universities.  But long before its tuition begins to resemble that of a private university, the governing body of the University of California system already resembled an quasi-autonomous institution.

The inevitable question is, of course, which system is better?  More public control, or more autonomy?  That, of course, depends on what type of school you think a public university should be.

10 things you should know about Race to the Top

The biggest story in education last week was the release of the final application for the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” funding that the federal government has made available for states. But what is the fund?  What are its objectives?  How do states actually receive the money?  Here are 10 things you should know about the fund.

1). It is a lot of money, but it is a small percentage of the annual education budget.

Qualifying states could receive as much as $700 million, which sounds like a lot.  But the $4.35 billion fund actually represents a small fraction of the annual U.S. spending in K-12 education, which was estimated to be about $667 billion in the 2008-2009 school year.  Cash-strapped states in this recession year will of course be more than happy to receive this funding. 

2). The fund is designed to encourage education reform and reward the best proposals by the states.

States must submit applications that explain in detail how they plan to reform their education system and to implement a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system to measure whether they have met these goals. 

3). The state applications are evaluated based on a 500-point scale.

A detailed summary and explanation of the scoring system and the scale can be found here.

4). There are two phases in the application process.

The funding application process is divided into two phases.  States that are ready now can apply in Phase I, which has a deadline on January 19, 2010.  Those that need more time can apply during Phase II, which has a deadline of June 1, 2010.  States that received grants in Phase I cannot reapply during Phase II, but states that did not receive grants are invited to reapply in Phase II.

5). The fund encourages linking teacher evaluation to student performance.

States are not eligible to receive the funds unless they do away with statutory or regulatory barriers to link student test scores and performance to teacher evaluation. Many states currently have this barrier, and several state legislatures have already moved to pass legislation that abolish these prohibitions in order to be eligible for the funding.

6). The fund encourages charter schools.

Both President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have been outspoken supporters of charter schools.  Race to the Top encourages states to create more charter schools.  Ten state legislatures have already responded by raising or repealing caps on the number of charter schools within the state.

7). “Common standards” and “data” are key words in the application process. 

This mean (mostly) student test scores.  The states are encouraged to develop and adopt “standardized assessment” of student performance, implementing data systems to track and evaluate the performance over time, and score teachers and principals based on performance data.  

Altogether, tho parts of the application that deal with standard and data-collection are worth 175 points.  Moreover, “demonstrating progress” (30 points), demonstrating the turnaround of low-performance schools (40 points), and the effective implementation of other measures all rely on common standards and the development of a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system.

8). The biggest opposition has (and will continue to) come from teacher’s unions.

Unsurprisingly, the emphasis on using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, and the move towards “merit pay” in some states, have already met with fierce criticism from teacher’s unions and educational associations.

9). There is not enough focus on implementation.

Some are troubled by how little emphasis has been put on for making sure that states actually implement the wonderful plans that they create once they receive the funding.  One commentator put it very well:

I expect the plans to be truly impressive with the level of investment that Gates is making in helping states develop the plans. But education is full of well written plans that then become shelf art. I have written some of that wonderful shelf art myself. But, putting in place mechanisms to ensure that a state and its school districts live up to the plan that they have written does not seem to get much attention in this process.

10). Public reaction to the application has been largely positive but cautious.

Many questions remain, including how strictly the Department of Education will be enforcing the stated criteria and how high it would set the bar, and how much money would be left if the four biggest states (New York, California, Texas, Florida) decide to apply in Phase I.  We will be able to learn much more after April 2010, when the winners for Phase I are announced.

What merit scholarships say about us

Who should the college gates keep out?

Who should these gates keep out?

The College Board released data on Tuesday that shows substantial increases in tuition at public colleges in the country last year.  Prices increased by an average of 6.5% last year, despite low inflation rates and a negative consumer price index.  The tuition hike is yet another symptom of the state budgetary crisis, which have resulted in cuts in higher education spending.  This created shortfalls for state universities and colleges that must then be made up by increased payments from students.

The budgetary crisis has led some states to reconsider their merit scholarship programs.  More than 15 states currently have scholarships for the state’s public universities awarded according to  student grades, class ranks, and standardized testing scores.  While merit scholarships seem like a fairly standard and uncontroversial practice, at least for private universities, critics charge that public universities ought not to have them, because these programs drain financial resources away from students who have greater financial needs.

The argument is simple: recipients of merit scholarships–those with good grades, good SAT scores, etc.–tend to be students from more affluent families, who are more able to afford college and who would likely receive private scholarships anyway.  The limited resources should be saved for students who truly need it, who would not be able to attend college without it.

This type of criticism brings out an important debate about the educational mission of public universities.  It also reveals a tension between research universities and teaching-oriented schools such as community colleges.

My co-author on these blogs, Adam, has already written about the function of the universities as producers of knowledge.  The reality, however, is more complicated.  Realistically speaking, relatively few of the public universities in this country actually engage in the exalted activity of knowledge production.  Out of the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., only 150 institutions receive more than $40 million in federal research grants.  Among those, about 60 universities grant more than half of all the doctoral degrees in the country.  30 of those are public universities.  We can assume that knowledge-production goes on mostly in those large research universities.

The overwhelming number of colleges do not “produce” knowledge.  Their mission is more mundane: teaching the 18.2 million students that enroll in an undergraduate program each year.  There are, for example, nearly 1,200 2-year community colleges in the U.S., educating nearly half of the total undergraduate population.

As is typical of recessions, enrollment at these community colleges has been soaring as cost-conscious students and parents look for cheaper alternatives.  The budgetary cuts on education by many states, therefore, could not have come at a worse time.  It’s hardly surprising that merit scholarships seems like a classic example of a nonessential expense that begs to be cut.

But merit scholarships have a more complex rationale as well.  They were usually instituted to encourage top students in a state who might otherwise leave the state and go elsewhere for college to stay within the state.  Presumably, these students would then remain after college, become productive members of the workforce and contribute tax dollars to the state.  Attracting these students would also increase the prestige and the ranking of the in-state universities and in turn attract other students from out of state.

It seems that, in times of economic recession, when middle-class and upper-middle-class households are feeling most squeezed by the downturn and sensitive to price differences, this type of merit scholarships would be at its most effective.  If a state is looking to attract top students, both homegrown and abroad, it should expand, rather than contract, its merit scholarship programs right now.

Which brings me back to my original question of the basic educational mission of public universities — is it to give as many citizens as possible the opportunity to attend college, or is it to educate only, or preferably, the best and the brightest, because educating them brings more benefits to the state (and perhaps to society)?  This, in turn, probes our notion of what education is: is it a basic right that should be enjoyed by the many, or is it a kind of luxury, a privilege that society confers on the talented and skilled (and rich) few?  We can also see that in these questions, the mission of the community colleges (fulfilling the more democratic mission of educating the masses) is at tension with the mission of the public research universities (competing with the private universities and catering to the talented few).

In time of economic prosperity, it was possible that both missions could co-exist peacefully.  But a time of scarcity brings these tensions to the fore.

Too focused on the racial achievement gap?

thegapIt seems that our society has an obsession for anything related to race. Last Wednesday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released disappointing results for math exams that the nation’s fourth and eighth graders took earlier this year. The results were worrisome, to say the least: only 39% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders performed above the proficiency level. In addition to the predictable stories about low scores and the lack of improvements, many media outlets also reported on the achievement gaps among the nation’s various ethnic and racial groups.

The gaps are huge, and they have widened slightly from two years ago. The New York Times reports that on the 500-points exam where the average score for eighth graders was 282, the average white students scored 293 points, black students averaged only 261 points while hispanics scored 266 points. The 32-point gap between white and black students represents about 3 years worth of learning.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, while 82% of white students have “basic” math skills and 43% have “proficient” skills, only 49% of black students have basic skills, and a dismal 12% are proficient. Hispanic students once again fare slightly better than black students (56%, 17%) but are still leagues behind white students.

These numbers are certainly cause for concern, and there is no doubt that our schools are failing a large portion of our nation’s children, but why do we focus on race? A short foray into the nifty and slightly addictive NAEP website (where you can build your own charts and compare the performance of different groups based on hundreds of different criteria) reveal a host of even more dramatic achievement gaps.

One such gap is the rich-poor gap.  While direct economic data for the students are not available from the NAEP exams, a useful proxy is whether the student is eligible for the federal free lunch program. Here, the gap is 27 points, almost as much as the black-white achievement gap and exactly the same as the white-hispanic achievement gap. Only 17% of those eligible for free school lunches have reached a proficient level, compared to 45% of those not eligible.

And what about the rich-school-district-poor-school-district gap? Here, the difference is even more dramatic.  The nation’s richest districts — those with 0% of their students eligible for free lunches — have an average score of 302 — 20 points above the national average. The poorest districts — those with 100% of eligible students, averaged a score of 258. The 44 points gap represents about four years of education.

And what about the state achievement gaps? Massachusetts eighth graders had the highest average scores in the nation with 299 points. Minnesota came in second at 294, and a slew of other states, all of them northern, follow them at 293. At the bottom, DC schools are the worst in the nation, clocking in at 254 points, 45 points behind Massachusetts. Mississippi and Alabama are at 265 and 269 points each.

I can come up with a host of other interesting achievement gaps: students whose parents graduated from college vs. students whose parents did not finish high school (30 points), students with fewer than 10 books in the home and students with 100 books or more (41 points), and a public-private school gap (14 points).

All of these achievement gaps have something to do with the socio-economic status of the students. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that students from more affluent backgrounds, whose parents are better educated and whose neighborhoods are safer, learn more in school and perform better at standardized exams. It also won’t surprise anyone that the schools in richer neighborhoods have more resources and are better run, thereby making teaching and learning more effective. The differences that these scores have shown are dramatic and infuriating.

Which is why I find it even harder to understand our fixation on race. Is it really so surprising, given that a larger percentage of this nation’s black and hispanic citizens live in poverty and have a lower average income, that their children would perform worse in school? It seems that our concern with the racial achievement gap is, in large part, a concern with the underlying socioeconomic ills that plague a disproportionate percentage of minorities in our nation. Rather than clarifying the problems that these youngsters and our schools face, our fixation on race obfuscates it.