This issue has been recognized for decades, tracing back to the pivotal date in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education disseminated “A Nation at Risk,” a seminal report that has shaped reform efforts to the present day.
Despite the changes and innovations spawned by this report, our public schools have continued to struggle under the weight of misguided reform and legislation. Meanwhile, politicians neglected to consider the thing that might improve education the most but never emerged as part of a far-reaching solution set: investing more public money in our teachers and children. Today, we must rectify that mistake and properly fund our schools.
This grave mistake stemmed from one assertion in “A Nation at Risk”: that the U.S. public education system had reached a crisis point, marked by American students comparing unfavorably with peers elsewhere in achievement, steady declines in standardized test scores beginning the moment the Soviet satellite Sputnik launched into space and rising rates of functional illiteracy plaguing the American public. At the same time, low teacher salaries and limited training programs drove record-high turnover rates in the profession, leaving the country at a grave “risk” of falling behind its peers at the dawn of the Information Age.
According to the report, the crisis stemmed from an “incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt” of curriculums that lowered standards and positioned students to coast to their high school diplomas, all without gaining the skills they needed to succeed in the workforce. “A Nation at Risk” shaped a prevailing, decades-long perception of public schools as, at best, uniformly underperforming and, at worst, beyond repair. The only hope for public education seemed to be new, rigorous, comprehensive standards for all students.
The problem with this framing? It wasn’t the only way to interpret the data. The committee chose to de-emphasize findings that showed that American high school students were actually graduating and attending college at rising rates. By framing public schools as an institution in crisis, the report encouraged resources to flow toward particular, standards-based reforms. And most states raced to answer the report’s clarion call, forming the basis for modern-day education reform.
But in the rush to enforce standards, the reforms enacted overemphasized standardized tests in place of other kinds of changes that might address the real problems: education support and after-school programs that have been demonstrated to shrink “gaps.” These reforms also hampered educators’ flexibility and satisfaction in the classroom, driving the downward spiral of the profession that continues to unfold today.
At the federal level, the most comprehensive education bill in a generation, 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, ultimately emblematized this mistaken path. The law established punitive accountability systems that left states with no choice but to lower their standards to assure satisfactory rates of proficiency. It was only more than a decade later, when, because of the sense that the federal government had encroached upon the authority of the states, Congress reversed course through the Every Student Succeeds Act.
But the framing of public schools in a state of crisis did more than produce counterproductive reforms. It also captured widespread media and public attention, propelling a growing cascade of reports, articles and reform movements that have fueled the notion that our public schools are flailing, bloated institutions, providing a poor product at great expense.
These stories, in turn, drove the privatization and school choice movements in the 1990s and 2000s, which only further diverted resources from our public classrooms — and exacerbated the issues hampering public education.
And this is the problem. The perception that education is in crisis has contributed to a fundamentally distorted view of the system that ignores the biggest problem plaguing U.S. public schools: a lack of resources.
That’s why, despite the many forms of capital devoted to addressing the purported crisis over three-plus decades of school reform efforts, we have failed to take one common-sense step: sinking adequate public funds into our schools, teachers and children, and distributing it equitably.
Schools have been starved for funds even as mounting research illustrated that greater investments in public schools pave the way for students to realize lasting academic gains, particularly if we place an emphasis on the early years and grades.
This lack of investment was only compounded by the Great Recession, which prompted state legislatures to shift already limited funds and sources of revenue from districts to balance their budgets and bridge spending gaps elsewhere. Nonwhite communities and underserved rural and urban areas particularly suffered the consequences, languishing as a result of regressive funding formulas tied to property taxes. To this day, funding levels have failed to recover from this raid on our schools’ financial reserves.
That is plain to see as today’s students across our industrial cities and rural communities learn in inadequate, decaying facilities with dangerous levels of lead and mold. Millions of children must make do with deep cuts to curriculums and programming. And appalling teacher pay leaves many educators with little choice but to take on second and third jobs, limiting their ability to deliver high-quality instruction for students and further starving a profession of the talent it desperately needs in the face of massive, nationwide shortages. Federal data reveals that schools are so strapped for funds that over 90 percent of our underpaid teachers spend an average of nearly $500 of their own money on supplies every year.
The decades of debate since “A Nation at Risk” have revolved around whether public, private or charter schools provide better education and spurred battles over testing and accountability. These fights have caused us to lose sight of the fact that our public education system is a national resource fundamental to our shared social, political and economic success — and, as a result, the idea of public education remains neglected and degraded today.
It is time to change that pattern and reinvest in the ideal and promise of public education. The federal government must take the first step by funding programs that, for example, increase teacher pay; scale up innovative, evidence-based programs; and prioritize support for students’ socioemotional learning, which we know can translate to greater academic gains. Instead of annually threatening to end the Title II program, for example, one of the few federal programs devoted to teacher training, Congress can fund evidence-based teacher preparation and professional development initiatives.
And investing more money in our schools doesn’t have to be divisive. The idea can have widespread appeal if it empowers state and local leaders to manage their education funds and reduce regulations enmeshing key programs. In doing so, states and localities may be incentivized not only to curtail inefficient programs, but to reallocate those resources to the most important education priorities.
For example, the federal government could provide the discretion to dedicate professional development funds (estimated to be in the thousands per teacher) to improved curriculums, better and more useful assessments, or lower-cost, effective forms of training. The federal government could also give state agencies authority to assess and surface inefficiencies in bloated areas such as state-mandated assessments, allocating savings back to pressing needs like recruiting teachers or fixing facilities.
Such flexibility could help produce greater funding for what ought to be the No. 1 educational priority: higher teacher salaries. Higher pay will ensure that educators can focus on their primary responsibility, empowering children with the knowledge and skills to succeed — and inspiring talented people to enter the teacher workforce. To facilitate higher salaries politically, teacher unions have to become more responsive toward performance evaluations, understanding that only compromise solutions can produce the necessary influx of funds to secure our future.
These solutions should appeal to both sides of the aisle, increasing investments in innovative, proven programs.
To embrace them, we must reject the flawed, decades-long narrative that paints our public schools as ineffective, intransigent and overly expensive institutions. It’s time to strengthen our public education system and restore a once firmly held belief in its virtue and value.