Education and Legislation: It’s Time for a Real Debate

Education and Legislation: It’s Time for a Real Debate


Education and Legislation

There was a discussion about education this morning among the congressional republican leadership in Washington D.C. around 529 savings accounts and a move toward local funding (you can see it here on C-SPAN). Neither issue is as clear cut as was suggested by the rhetoric. In particular, the idea that schools with more autonomy from the “Washington Bureaucracy” will perform better, and allow American children to compete better for jobs and economic participation.

What wasn’t said is that there is no right model for education.  China, long perceived as a threat American competitiveness, has a centralized education systems, based on its Ministry of Education, though states have some autonomy. Finland, which often tops the charts of best education systems, is also completely funded by the state. They however, eschew measurement, early childhood education and centralized curriculum. They do however, maintain small classes for science, demand masters degrees in teaching (which they fund) and place a big emphasis on play. Finland achieves it education goals with a lower percentage of investment than the U.S. while graduating 93% of high school seniors (for more see Smithsonian Magazine: Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?).

The Deeper Picture

I turned to an excellent analysis by Ludger Woessmann at Education Next for deeper insights into why students in some countries do better. The analysis is lengthy and will likely never be the topic of a political soundbite, but thoughtful parents and voters should read it. I point to this paragraph as an example of how messy the issue of education governance really is:

On the other hand, enhanced autonomy makes it easier for school personnel to reduce their workload, unless they are subject to external monitoring and evaluation. The more flexibility a school has, the more important it is to have external standards and assessments. Putting decisions on the size of the school budget in the hands of school personnel might also harm performance; it is clearly in their interest to garner additional funds for themselves or resources that lighten their workload.

From Why Students in Some Countries Do Better

Schools need to be adaptive and responsive, yes, but an external body, in Woessmann’s findings, provides a common way to evaluate performance across the schools, which provides not only insight for parents, but also tactical decision making input for educators and administrators as to how well their choices have worked. If everything is autonomous, and all measures local, it will become increasingly difficult to understand what good practice looks like, or to compare outcomes. Interestingly, the move away from centralized education is also the antithesis of the often conservative propensity to scale through industrialization. Perhaps, as with different factories, the idea is to create locally autonomous schools that offer different competitive models but for which the outcome is the same. If you think about a factory that creates nails, several may create exactly the same nail, but they may do so in radically different ways that aren’t evident to the consumer. If that model is the goal of the conservative leadership in congress, I would like to see them articulate their vision in a holistic way so that the various pieces of legislation can be see in the light of a framework, not as disparate actions.

Charter schools were mentioned this morning as well. The success of charter schools remains hotly contested. While some studies, like the one from the Boston Foundation, suggest that schools are meeting academic goals(see Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness), access to well-run charter schools remains an issue. The inconsistency of performance overall, however, demonstrates that charter schools are not a panacea. RAND, a leading research organization tracking the evolution of charter schools, suggests that “guidelines to help evaluate performance could help states improve or eliminate low-performing charter schools” (see What Do We Know About Charter Schools? Moving Beyond the Talking Points). Bringing back into the discussion, where such guidelines should originate.

Many politicians harken back to the days there youth for models and aspirations, suggesting in some way that the funding model for education has shifted, but national inputs to education haven’t changed all that much. With the exceptions of some peaks in the 50s and 80s where the U.S. government increased their contributions, most of the money spent on education has always come from local direct spending (see data at Proponents of the new legislation seem to want more state spending, but the trend lines indicate that is already the trend. What the U.S. government actually spends on education is a categorization exercise, as outlined in the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project which brings together line items from the U.S. Department of Education and from Health and Human Services. They come to a 2014 total of roughly $141B or 4 percent of the budget. This includes everything from the U.S. Department of Education appropriation to funding for school nutrition programs and the implications of tax credits.

The type of legislation being discussed this morning then, while it may amount to large sums in absolute dollars when compared to individual wealth, is relatively less impactful when looking at total education investment across federal, state and local budgets. Thus as with much of legislative action, the allocation of budget is more about policy and perception than it is about dollar influence, in this case, dollars spent in the classroom.

The Past is Not a Model for the Future

What is perhaps most important, and is not often the topic of discussion, is that spending categories for education have shifted dramatically since baby boomers where in school. While textbooks could be cared for and their costs amortized across, sometimes, decades of use, technology requires continued investment. Schools with obsolete equipment quickly appear  lagging in today’s environment. The cost of equipping classrooms has also increased dramatically from the days of a phone, a clock, a speaker, a cabinet and a chalkboard. Buses and other transportation used to be the primary drivers of maintenance budgets and capital replacement. Computers, smart boards, networking technology, sophisticated scientific equipment and other technologies come at relatively higher initial investments than textbook, they require maintenance and they become obsolete, so must be replaced even if they remain functional. This is a very different model, one that is more expensive and more ephemeral.

Rethinking education will not take place across packages of federal legislation, and it will not come from the U.S. Department of Education — it will require deep local and national dialog that recognizes the complexity of the education environment, the changes in investment models, competing business models and ever greater uncertainty on a number of topics, from what skills will be important to the type of learning that will best prepare students to be engaged lifelong leaners and actively participating citizens. Voters should ask elected officials and candidates, and demand of the media, that we return to exploratory debates. We need to reveal not just positions stated as soundbites, but expose the reasoning processes of individuals, their understanding of relevant information and their ability to think strategically. We should, in other words, ask out politicians to apply the kinds of thinking they advocate that education imbue in our children.


Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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