Call me cynical, but there’s no hope for US public schools
I had lunch with a friend today and we talked about the state of education in the US. We mostly shared stories of experiences in the broken system of higher education but recognized the issues in public education run all the way through. I thought I might review spending and how it relates to student achievement and write a little blurb. I read several articles and started coalescing data, and then it dawned on me. I don’t really care anymore.
I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to imagine creative ways to engage students, teach them how to learn, and inspire them to be curious about the world around them. I am passionate about teaching and learning. Making connections between seemingly disparate facts and ideas excites me. But teachers generally don’t get to teach anymore, at least in the public school systems. They administrate, discuss, assess, test, review, and file paperwork. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, the reason teachers are leaving the field in droves is that they have little autonomy and even less respect.
It’s not even about money. There is ample money provided for education. The issue is, that money doesn’t go where it’s needed most: classrooms and teachers. Look at these statistics:
- Federal, state, and local governments provide $764.7 billion or $15,120 per pupil to fund K-12 public education.
- The difference between spending and funding is $97.85 billion or $1,935 per pupil.
- The federal government provides 7.9% of funding for public K-12 education.
- Public postsecondary schools spend an average of $28,977 per pupil.
- The national gross domestic product (GDP) grows 71.6% faster than public education budgets.
Give teachers control over $7k per student and see what happens. Limit class sizes to 24. That gives teachers $168k to spend on curriculum, texts, supplies, and their salaries. That still leaves more than half the money for administrative costs, custodians, buses, and whatever. Fund libraries. Serve breakfast and lunch to all students. Free teachers to do the work they know and love. Let them meet students where they are and take them to the next level. Let older students tutor younger ones. Make sure every kid has a book to take home. Teach parents how to read to their kids from Kindergarten on.
We have the research to prove that small class sizes lead to better student success. We have the research to prove that parents reading to their kids benefits the whole family. We know that kids with full bellies learn better. We know that individualized instruction means, not only better test outcomes but also better learners in general. The data is readily available, but it gets ignored.
Where does the money go if not to student needs? Publishers, superintendents, bloated administrations, programs, and a plethora of PR.
In 2020, when schools shut down for the pandemic, I had great hopes of an education reset. It was a perfect opportunity to evaluate and remediate priorities. It was a chance to reorganize and start fresh with new ideas based on research. But no. Instead, the people running the system doubled down on all the things that don’t work. Standardized tests benefit no one and actually harm students in rural America and poor inner cities. More emphasis on expensive curricula developed by “experts” in towers where no one under 17 is permitted. “Read the script,” they said, “read the script and everyone gets smarter.” Except scripts generalize and students are individuals. Who wins? Publishers and the “experts” who rake in the cash.
I’m tired of thinking about it. I’m tired of caring. If learning isn’t a priority, then scrap the whole school thing. It’s a convenient and very expensive babysitter for too many people. I don’t have answers. School choice? Maybe. Neighborhood school pods? Probably not, although homeschooling families seem to be making that work. It doesn’t really matter anyway, because the system is broken beyond repair. And I just can’t care about it anymore.
But I do.
Hanson, Melanie. “U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics” EducationData.org, June 15, 2022, https://educationdata.org/public-education-spending-statistics