The School Reform Quandry

On September 10th, the Chicago Public School District closed its doors to its more than 350,000 students. The district’s teachers have gone on strike after months of heated bargaining between the teacher’s union and the district over contracts. Similar battles have been fought in Boston and New York, among other cities, with parties enduring months, even years, of negotiations. A number of issues have been brought to the table—teacher compensation, extended school days, teacher assessment—but the problems over which these drawn out conflicts have occurred are indicative of a wider crisis at hand.

America’s schools are malfunctioning, the complicated and crumbling mechanisms that control them are antiquated, and without widespread and innovative school reform, the consequences could be devastating.

The crisis in education is enormous and has far-reaching implications. 1.3 million students drop out of school each year—that’s 7,200 students each school day.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders who do not learn how to read by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or welfare. We are not only failing our children by hindering their ability to succeed, we are also failing to prepare the next generation to compete in an increasingly complex and global economy.

Over the past decade, politicians have been paying more and more attention to America’s decaying school system. Yet many of our leaders fail to understand the intricacies of education policy and the many factors that must be balanced in order to produce effective reforms. School is too often reduced to a simple formula: Kids go to class, read books, learn their multiplication tables, and draw hand turkeys. Teachers stand in front of classrooms, chalk diagrams on the blackboard, and serve as general guidance counselors throughout their students’ learning career.

In reality, public education is a multifaceted partnership between teachers, students, parents, and government. Schools in high-poverty areas often lack access to quality teachers, necessary resources, and the positive environment that enables other schools, usually in suburban areas, to thrive. Something in the formula is plainly broken—there’s a reason students in under-performing districts are not receiving the same quality of education as students in high-performing ones.

Here is where policy comes into play. Politicians like Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney support reforms such as vouchers that would allow students to attend any school in the state they choose, public or private. While vouchers would, in theory, accelerate school improvement by creating competition between high-performing and low-performing schools, they provide no standards of accountability and do not address any of the problems that are causing schools to fail in the first place. Romney’s plan fails to offer solutions to many of the real and thorny issues that are hindering American education—issues like access to federal funding, accountability, standards, and evaluations.

This apparent lack of understanding of the forces that drive education is, frankly, dangerous. We need better and more nuanced reform. President Obama, by contrast, has voiced the kind of fresh and progressive ideas that education policy needs. Reforms like Race to the Top, which encourages discussion and innovative solutions from states and districts, have helped bring much-needed attention to the education crisis. Obama’s emphasis on accountability, strong federal funding, teacher improvement, and turnarounds of under-performing schools has instigated national conversation and experimentation in states and districts, resulting in turnaround schools and public charter schools. Obama has had the political courage to address difficult questions. Furthermore, the leadership, foresight, and open-mindedness he has brought to the table constitute exactly the approach we need in order to make a difference in America’s schools.

Education can no longer take a political back seat. The strength of our education system is crucial to America’s future success and well-being. The process of fixing our nation’s schools is undoubtedly a rocky path to travel: It will be messy, taking political casualties and creating uncertain outcomes—but it is no longer an undertaking we can afford to ignore. President Obama has set an example of the kind innovation the system needs. If we can learn from our mistakes, embrace our successes, and bounce back from our failures, then perhaps we can guarantee the strong and equitable system of education America’s children deserve.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prepare to get our hands dirty. Education is the most important investment we can make as a society. It will take hard work, collaboration, and sacrifices on the part of every player involved, but they are sacrifices worth making.

Riley K. Carney ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.