When it comes to objectively measuring the quality of the US education system, the news isn’t so good.
A couple of years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its 2015 global rankings of student performance in math, reading, and science, based on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA (an exam given worldwide every three years to assess 15-year-olds in 72 countries).
The last several PISA scores have revealed that in terms of education outcomes, the United States is far from No. 1. In 2015, the United States suffered an 11-point drop in math scores, leaving it 35th in that subject and 20 points below the OECD average. The country’s students scored just above average in reading and science.
The debate around how to improve the education system in the United States is a fraught, complicated one with incredibly high stakes. But that shouldn’t discourage policy makers from engaging in it. In the spirit of finding reasonable places to begin, below are five of the first steps lawmakers and other officials should take in what’s sure to be a multiyear, multistep process to improve outcomes for students.
1. Acknowledge and address overcrowding
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of US schools exceed capacity. Of course, the problem is concentrated and disproportionately affects low-income and minority students. For example, approximately one in five Chicago Public Schools elementary students start the school year in overcrowded classrooms.
Overcrowded classrooms, time and again, have been shown to be less effective. Teachers are spread thin, students don’t get the attention or personalization they require, and they lose interest, which plants the seeds for dropping out.
Policy makers can begin to avoid this problem by drafting master plans that refuse to tolerate even slight overcrowding. This process must be ongoing, and maintenance will be necessary, as new housing developments can force shifts in school capacities. Dedicated task forces of lawmakers can stay on top of such changes.
2. Make funding schools a priority
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 34 states channel less funding on a per-student basis than they did prior to the recession years. Consider, too, that states contribute 44 percent of total education funding in the United States, and this number becomes even more significant—and upsetting.
The problem isn’t simply a matter of cash-strapped states or a federal government struggling to come up with revenues. It’s a matter of priorities. Consider this: just about every state in the country spends more to house the average inmate than it does to educate the average elementary/secondary student.
Starting with a progressive tax code that would tax wealthy citizens and corporations their due, local and federal governments could afford to bolster the public education system. The political will to make such a change seems to be growing more and more remote, but with a citizenry that is engaged in demanding that our society invest in its students, that can begin to change.
3. Address the school-to-prison pipeline
The statistics are shocking: Over half of black young men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma. Of these dropouts, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point.
The school-to-prison pipeline issue is complex, and its contributing forces include suspensions that disproportionately involve young black men, in-school arrests, and zero-tolerance policies with harsh punishments that were put in place after the 1999 Columbine shooting. Now that these patterns are being openly noted and discussed, policy makers can take concerted steps away from feeding the pipeline by focusing on restorative justice and keeping young people away from the justice system whenever possible.
4. Raise standards for teachers
Studies have found—not at all surprisingly—that under-qualified teachers are tied to poor outcomes for students. The good news is that this is one of the most straightforward areas where policy makers can have an impact. They must clarify standards for teachers seeking licenses and raise standards in areas where student outcomes are lowest.
5. Put classroom-running and curriculum-building decisions in the hands of the community
In recent decades, the education system has moved away from teachers and local boards in terms of who makes decisions that affect classrooms and curricula. Consequently, student outcomes have suffered. Policy makers who are aware of this pattern can push for a move away from standardized control and toward community-based mechanisms, such as community-elected school boards, that have the power and authority to make decisions about how their students are educated.
People coming together with coherent messages for policy makers about the changes they’d like to see in their education systems can only benefit students. With these initial steps in mind, lawmakers and their constituents can start to move together in the direction of change.