The Problem with Education Reform

Recently Fairfax County Public Schools have been in the news because of a proposed change in start times. While I know about as much regarding education as anyone else who’s been through the public education system, if I had any opinion on the subject it would be to offer the following thoughts: (a) schools did in fact start later than 7:20 when I was younger, until they started pushing back the day because (b) they kept cramming in more and more “periods” into an already overfull school day and (c) no, as a matter of fact I never did feel like I was getting enough sleep, even when I wasn’t doing any after school activities (I can’t even imagine what it was like for the teachers).

All that having been said I find the entire conversation to be rather trite and boring, because like most conversations about education it seems to miss the real issues. There always seems to be one of two underlying assumptions, either overlooked and unchallenged or just generally accepted, that need to be dragged out into the light:

  1. The system basically works; we just need to make a few tweaks at the margin (probably by throwing more money at it).
  2. The system is horribly broken, and we need to change everything (probably by throwing more money at it).

I’m not sure which the Sleep Number debate falls into, but in either case it suffers from the great money fallacy. The issue with education writ large is not, at its core, about money. Sure, money can be a factor, but the largest issue is that we are trying to create a common system that suits the needs and desires of everyone without demanding too much from anyone.

It goes something like this: yes, education is important, but it’s just one of several competing priorities such as housing and food (both on a personal and political level). These are competing needs, and each one requires resources such as time, money, land, and yes, political will, to make a reality. Then there’s the fact that each one has a ripple effect: more housing means more schools, more schools means more teachers, both mean more food, and all of it means more land, and every one of those costs money. That all adds up.

Plus, and here’s the dirty little secret everybody knows but nobody wants to hear: not every kid can learn everything, and certainly not at the same speed. I’m not even talking about special education here. I’m talking about perfectly normal, average, every day Joe and Jane, some of whom excel at math and science but can’t write a term paper, others are great at English but can’t learn French, and then there’s little Bobby who… well, he’s a nice boy. Maybe he’ll do something useful with his life. All the extra sleep in the world isn’t going to change the fact that these kids can’t all learn everything, but we keep upping the expectations and then passing judgment on them for failing to absorb material in high school that we never mastered in college.

There are no simple answers, and while I’m glad that the system is being challenged (even if it is only at the margin), we’ll never get at the complex answers we need until we start uprooting the false assumptions the system is built on. Otherwise we might as well just hit the snooze button on this argument until next summer.


2 Comments on “The Problem with Education Reform”

  1. Michael Reinemann says:

    One interesting note as to why education in the U.S. is not about money, is that the US spends more per student than any other country in the world (Okay, Switzerland is technically ahead of us, but their numbers all include 1-2 years of preschool, and they are only slightly ahead of us). For example, Russia spends about a third as much per child and their scores are just about identical with the US.l

    There are dozens of issues but no politician wants to touch them, because saying “We are spending enough on schools, in fact it’s been shown by many other countries we can do better with less spending. Frankly we need school districts to be more savvy. And heck, if your kid is failing odds are you aren’t doing everything you could be, and you should get on that.” is political suicide.

    We can tweak start times and curriculums, but unless there is a cultural shift on how we treat schools, we will get nowhere. No amount of new facilities, higher teacher pay, new testing protocols, flexible start times, or financial incentives linked to student performance, will make parents care about their child’s schooling.

    Instead of just being a downer, I propose a radical and unorthodox solution: have a “tuition” for k-12 schooling. There a tons of issues with this (*cough* the poor *cough*), but if we can link it somehow to tax credits for children (ugh, spending through the tax code), and allow families real choice and the ability to impact the schools, it might force parents to give a damn about their children’s studies. Then again, engineering cultural change is never easy, and rarely has the intended results.

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      Yeah…. I both agree with and horribly fear what you propose. Anytime someone suggest social engineering, particularly through the tax code, I shudder. Consider what happened with the housing market, as well as all the other lovely “untouchable” tax effects (like medical insurance) that we have in the tax code now, and once you start incorporating education it gets vastly more difficult. On the other hand, I see something like the EIC (which does everything the minimum wage was supposed to do only without most of the downsides) and I see it is possible to achieve good things. So I suppose it’s worth a try, if only because throwing around the “entrenched intrests” argument only goes so far. There are always entrenched interests, and they will always distort the picture.

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