Education

Public Education Funding

October 4, 2016 – Members of the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss Public Education Funding in the United States, led by Education Center co-directors Nicki Felmus and Guy Raber. Some of the questions they asked were: is smart spending or equitable funding more important? What role does the federal government play when it comes to funding public schools?

 

One of the most popular policy solutions was the “Robin Hood” funding model, in which the property taxes from wealthy districts in a state are redistributed to poorer districts. Proponents of this idea saw this as a way to relieve some of the stark funding disparities that districts in the same state can have. Opponents to this model stressed the need for smart spending, citing the statistic that Camden, New Jersey spends more than twice the national average per student, but 90% of their students are below proficiency in several key areas. This also served as a call to reconsider the idea that education is necessarily better served by more money. It was suggested that, in every state, a smart, targeted distribution of funds would have a bigger impact. This idea was met with resistance from those who argued that any infusion of money into the country’s poorest school districts would be helpful, if only in running their day-to-day operations or to pay their teachers.

 

Much of the conversation focused on programs that would operate outside of the traditional school day. There were multiple calls for universal pre-K, something that states such as Oklahoma, Florida, and New York already have, citing the fact that children who begin their education at an earlier age typically see benefits for their entire life. Others brought up expanded afterschool and weekend activities, designed to keep students engaged in their school communities. One member brought up an idea for busses that run several hours after the end of the school day, allowing students whose parents work to participate in these afterschool activities without needing to arrange alternate transportation.

 

Another popular idea was that of a universal minimum salary for teachers in public schools. This would prevent more skilled and experienced teachers from leaving poorer schools or districts for those that can pay them more. This would combat the “teacher brain drain” that many disadvantaged or underfunded school districts see. A related idea advocated for expanded partnerships with local private universities, a relationship that some schools already take advantage of.

 

There is, in all likelihood, no single solution to how we fund our public education system. Though specific policy proposals differed, everyone agreed that something needs to be done about the state of public education in the United States, and that many of its issues stem from insufficient or ineffective funding.

Monopolization of Standardized Testing

by Emma Cloyd

On Tuesday, November 17, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia discussed the monopolization of textbook — the three major ones being McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson —companies on high school curriculums in the United States. Many states also have standardized, state mandated tests designed by these companies that they use to assess how schools are operating vis-à-vis student scores. The discussion was moderated by Nicki Felmus, the Education Center Chair, and Karen Reppy, a general body member.

In most states, these companies set public schools’ curriculums. This has both positive and negative consequences. Since the companies are private, competition between them to make the best possible textbooks with the most up to date research allows for increased quality in educational materials. However, multiple members raised concerns about the impact that these private companies can have on the content of curriculums as Pearson writes different tests for different states. Ricardo Esteves, who is from Texas, raised this concern by discussing how there are movements within the state government to ban teachings of evolution in public schools. Since these textbooks companies are private and for profit, they have no reason to not indulge Texas in such requests. All of the members agreed that this control that private companies exert on public educations should be concerning to Americans because it does not necessarily guarantee an equal or even similar education to all students.

Furthermore, the competition between the three major companies comes across through the high pricing of the textbooks. Many of these textbooks cost well over $100 and are a massive financial burden to many school districts. Additionally, the same companies that design the books typically design the state mandated standardized tests, used to rank high schools, students, teachers and ultimately to decide the amount of funding a school should receive. One member of Roosevelt, Emma Gomez, remembered taking a test on a subject that clearly corresponded to a newer version of a textbook than the one her school had used; this adversely affected the test results and the students’ learning outcomes.

This led to a discussion of the cyclical nature of rewarding schools for higher test scores. Schools that score well on state mandated standardized tests tend to receive more funding from their state. As a result, these schools become further advantaged by gaining or increasing their financial capability to hire the best teachers, improve their facilities and purchase the best textbooks. Conversely, schools who do poorly on the tests are subjected to budget cuts which in turn make it more difficult for them to improve or maintain their current quality of education.

The dramatic impacts of these state mandated standardized tests made the group ponder the overall emphasis our education system puts on standardized testing more closely. Not all students are good test takers, despite how much practice they have, therefore it is not necessarily fair to use these results alone to judge how schools are operating. Furthermore, when students have low test scores, teachers are often blamed and are at risk of losing their jobs. Therefore many teachers teach “to the test,” planning their curriculum around achieving higher test scores rather than broader educational goals. Many members of Roosevelt agreed that this is not a good idea because it teaches students to find loopholes in the test rather than how to think critically.

The group also discussed the importance of the SAT and ACT in college admissions. Like the aforementioned state tests, these college admissions tests can be gamed for higher scores; however, in order to learn how to do so students often have to hire expensive tutors or attend classes. This is incredibly unfair to who cannot afford extra prep. Furthermore, these tests cost money to take and send to colleges, again giving deeper-pocketed students a leg up. As a result of the amount of money required to do well on these tests and subsequently utilize them, underprivileged students are at an extreme disadvantage.

Roosevelters proposed many policy solutions ranging from removing state mandated and college admissions tests to leaving these tests in place but deemphasizing them. The group almost unanimously agreed that these tests should not hold as much weight as they currently do. The members also agreed that if these state mandated tests do stay in place, schools that do poorly on them should receive more funding rather than less. This would facilitate improvement, allowing all public schools to offer equal educations to students in the United States.

America’s College Promise Proposal

By Nicole Felmus

This Tuesday, Roosevelt discussed the efficacy of President Obama’s America’s College Promise Proposal, as presented in his most recent State of the Union Address.

The discussion was very insightful, providing much discussion of the advantages and the disadvantages of a free community college education to people who fit certain requirements (being at least a part time student, having and maintaining a 2.5 GPA while in college, taking courses with credits transferable to a 4 year college or university, and having a household family income of less than $200,000). Many members expressed the necessity for community colleges to revamp their image. In addition, some members suggested moving classes away from the “liberal arts” track and moving them towards a “career ready” mindset. As a way of achieving this, members suggested collaborating with employers about the skills they want to see from degree earners entering the workforce.

At the end of the conversation, we seemed to reach a consensus that the best way to combat inequality and the systematic oppression of minorities was through investing in primary education programs that already exist, such as Head Start. While this sentiment persisted, several other members thought that providing community college could help fight inequality in the short term.

Thank you to all who came out! If you have any other thoughts about the meeting, please direct them to Education Center Director, Kunal Shah.

Common Core Standards and the Future of American Education

Last Tuesday, the Education Center hosted a discussion on the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that are being implemented in public K-12 classrooms across 45 states.  These new standards were created by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association working together with parents, teachers, and school administrators  to prepare students to compete and succeed in college and the workplace.  The CCSS will encourage more critical thinking in English and Math, and attempt to bring the standards of American education to higher international levels.

The discussion began with the question of whether these standards are truly an improvement over previous ones, and if standardized education is good for American students moving forward.  Many discussion participants agreed that in a country such as the United States with states that are so different in terms of education quality, funding, and rigor, nationalized standards may be helpful to ensure skills are taught equally in different states, and to bring states with lower education quality higher.  However, these comprehensive standards, particularly nationalized ones, appear to be a “one shoe fits all” policy, which is not conducive to the individual needs and interests of students.  These increasingly difficult standards may leave slower students behind, and hold back students who are too advanced.   Moreover, standardized learning often leads to teachers “teaching to the test”–that is, only teaching students curriculum aligned to the standards rather than interesting, unique material that may be more likely to pique interest within students.  This problem arises from the connection between school funding and standardized test scores; when students do poorly on state assessments, the school receives less funding, and teachers may be reprimanded or reevaluated.  Consequently, teachers are incentivized to be less creative with their curriculum and instead only ensure students know the standards well.   In regards to the CCSS bringing the United States up to the standards of Singapore or Hong Kong, participants agreed that the United States should not be compared to these countries, as our country is so much more diverse.

The discussion then evolved to determining how education can truly improve in the United States, independent of just fixing standards.  Participants agreed that the view of schools in communities need to evolve such that schools become the focal point of these areas.  Parental involvement needs to improve drastically for socioeconomically disadvantaged students and schools, as such involvement directly correlates to better test scores, higher graduation rates, and higher college enrollment rates.  While the need for improved school funding was a consensus, an interesting point was the need for de-privatization of education materials provided to students.  Some participants contended that education in the U.S. has become a large business, and with CollegeBoard, Kaplan, and other companies dominating the industry, access to education comes at a high price, and only the wealthy are able to have the resources they need to succeed.  The majority of participants came to an agreement that the changes in the status quo are not nearly enough to fix the systemic issues in American education.

Any questions regarding the content of this discussion or further education policy ideas or proposals can be directed to Kunal Shah at kjs2165@columbia.edu.