What’s the problem with education in America? There are disagreements over what’s wrong, but nearly everyone agrees with the premise: there is a problem. In his State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted two areas of concern: a 25% high school dropout rate and a college graduation rate that ranks 15th worldwide. This low performance is further magnified in the U.S. job market, where the unemployment rate for workers with only a high school education is significantly higher than those with college degrees. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between low and high income communities is astonishing. Merely half of students from low-income communities graduate from high school. Only 1 in 10 graduate from college. In short, we are failing on education in nearly every measure.
How can we make sense of these failings? The easiest way to make sense of a failure is to find someone to blame. That, in short, is exactly what many have done. Last year, three documentaries, “Waiting For Superman,” “The Lottery,” and “The Cartel” detailed the failings of the educational system. These films share the same thesis that dominates the public policy discussion today: Bad teachers and failing schools are at fault for our educational woes. The solution, then, is apparently obvious: fire bad teachers, make schools compete, and allow families more choice over which schools their children attend. This solution is politically popular because it is simple. Most of us understand how competition works and want the power to make choices that significantly affect our lives.
Although these reforms are well-intentioned, they are unlikely to succeed in improving educational performance in the U.S., particularly for low-income communities. Sadly, the truth is more complex than politicians and film directors make it out to be. For most students, the difference between having a “good” teacher and a “bad” one accounts for a 7.5% difference in achievement, making the teacher by far the most influential factor in the school, but still minuscule compared to noneducational factors. Nevertheless, we are expected to believe that firing 5-10% of teachers will significantly alter educational outcomes.
The vast majority of a child’s success depends on other factors such as family income and academic expectations. The latter is one area where we truly are failing our children. Author Amy Chua details how Chinese families have higher academic expectations than Western families , and how this produces positive educational outcomes. Politicians typically don’t discuss the failure of American families to set high expectations for their children—it wouldn’t make for a good soundbite. In any case, sociocultural factors are much more difficult for governments to influence than teachers and schools, who make for easy scapegoats.
Policies that encourage merit pay, value-added performance evaluations, and expanding school choice may do some good. However, these policies will not produce substantially different educational outcomes.
[Cross-posted at Policy Mic]