For some time, the effectiveness of K-12 education has been questioned. A federal program called Race to The Top (RTTT) and generally referred to as Common Core has taken the questioning to a new level and the discussion must include you.
It is the responsibility of all parents, taxpayers and voters to learn what is being taught, how well children are being educated, and the total cost of education. We cannot leave the discussion to others.
Unfortunately, a half century of federal and state programs have fallen short of improving education in the classroom. Programs that are often more comfortable with standards and testing, or pointing the finger of blame somewhere else, have not addressed root causes of failure in the classroom, how to strengthen the parent-teacher relationship and how to maximize the involvement of local communities.
Forced by the adoption of requirements stipulated by RTTT, Delaware’s Department of Education and school board adopted requirements that had not been developed. These requirements were accepted in exchange for more taxpayer money, without understanding of how the program would work and with little evidence students would be better prepared.
Delaware needs to have this conversation because the failing education system is holding back our children and the state.
- Requisite skills have been moving sideways. For some time, reading and math skills of two thirds of Delaware students are basic or below; and for those categorized low income, Black, or Hispanic the number is nearly 80%. Delaware’s traditional public schools are not serving the educational needs of students even with the ninth highest expense to taxpayers.
- The state’s economic recovery is at the bottom of all states. Industry has little interest locating or expanding in the state because of the poor education system as well as a difficult regulatory environment and a high cost of energy.
Raising the performance of each pupil from minimally acceptable to proficient (even proficient by today’s standard) will increase the opportunity to be successful in life and restore the confidence of industry to locate and grow in Delaware. Families and communities must be deeply committed if we are to reclaim a leadership position.
In order to do so, parents and teachers – supported by principals, local boards and taxpayers – have to understand the implications of the entire system (curriculum, testing, assessments, stakeholders, cost, funding and others). Such an understanding moves the focus into the classroom, demands accountable leadership and reverses the benevolent elitism that has for a half century transformed the system into big education with money.
We cannot rely on others to do this because of two underlying factors: often the political effect is more relevant than the effect on the student, and the lack of balanced reportage does a disservice to pupils, families and communities.
Our elected and appointed officials must be accountable to the public and must clearly explain how solutions will fix a failing traditional public education system, benefit pupils and families, encourage diversity, understand projected results and foresee the impact on innovation.
The availability of diverse and innovative classroom environments is an important contributor to our culture. Regrettably, these have become less significant. The large increase in federal and state spending moved decision-making to a political and bureaucratic structure that seeks, despite the rhetoric, to narrow solutions by standardization and catering to special interests: a structure that forces attendance into a less innovative system; unless of course the parent has the personal income to pay taxes and tuition for alternatives such as private schools, blended schools or home schooling.
All of these factors require better accountability and transparency.
Accountability is essential for a healthy relationship between leaders and the people they serve. It enables citizens to understand the current and potential education reality in their communities which promotes better decision-making. Easy to understand information readily available to the average person builds trust in the system because all citizens know how the pupil, teacher and family are impacted, how efficiently money is spent, and what they can expect for their children.
Accountability requires transparency that scrutinizes policies, decisions and arguments. A structure that creates a lack of transparency often has a feeling of accountability to the political or bureaucratic system, and a lack of commitment to informed decision-making. This type of structure can subvert the best interest of parents, teachers, principals, and local policy-makers. Research reveals that the vast majority of citizens do not know the cost or performance of their school. When they learn the high cost and low performance, their attitudes change.
Delaware’s annual total cost for education is $2.3 billion and by 2018 is projected to increase to $3.8 billion – a 65% increase.
The inability to easily access and analyze information prevents a working understanding and is often confusing. For example, the most commonly reported cost of education in Delaware reflects only the state portion of total cost. While state funding contributes an average 60 percent or $11,340 per student for operations, it fails to account for other items such as capital, infrastructure, technology, some maintenance and repairs or programs for special education. The contribution from all sources increases the total cost to $18,518.
It is not easy to get an accurate picture of how much spending reaches the classroom. The lack of generally accepted accounting standards and the diversity of funding sources makes it difficult to understand how much of the dollars allocated for the education of children actually goes to children and teachers and how much goes to the bureaucrats above the classroom.
A recent study of state education departments by the Cato Institute reveals “that very few state education departments provide complete and timely financial data that is understandable to the general public. Half of all states report a ‘per pupil expenditures’ figure that leaves out major cost items such as capital expenditures, thereby significantly understating what is actually spent.”1
Delaware received a failing grade in this study.
The Delaware Public Policy Institute (DPPI), a non-profit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental public policy research organization that conducts research and encourages the study and discussion of public policy and emerging issues that drive Delaware’s future public policy agenda, went even further, observing that the:
“. . . education finance system is simply not organized with the goal of knowing whether how money spent produces results or whether alternate allocations of resources would increase student achievement. Instead, the system is organized around counting kids. District finance personnel focus on managing unit counts (the codified system for counting students in districts and school buildings) in order to maximize revenues.”2 (Emphasis added)
The primary purpose of our research is to improve family and taxpayer understanding of how tax dollars set aside for education are used, promote accountability, and shape public policy encouraging better performance, local governance and increasing spending in classrooms.
Leadership shaped by an informed public with better access to data creates a healthy environment for sensible oversight, regulation, and achieving predictable results.
This report will look at the total cost of education in Delaware and student outcomes as a measure of efficiency. SAT scores, dropout rates and college completion estimates are examined in this series to bring transparency and remove the mystery of how well the education system is working for the children of Delaware.
The intent is to improve the future for children by enabling account-giving leadership and enhancing decision-making with a real focus in the local classroom, encourage opportunity for quality and diverse education experiences, and improve the stating point – transparency.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit the demands of everyday life stress our intellectual stamina, preventing us from being as involved in the education of our children as we would like. And, after all, school boards and departments of education take care of it for us. We all wish that were true — unfortunately it is not.
There are many stories about how a single person turned a boy or girl away from a dependent life to one that is making a contribution to our society. Today, given the number of alternatives to traditional public schools and new technology, we increasingly have unique opportunities to provide a learning environment tailored to each child. It is time for each of us to be that person – get involved, make the time in busy schedules to secure for your children the opportunity for a quality education and productive lives.
Yet even with best intention, many will be deprived of that opportunity because of a lack of income. We must change that system by expanding the opportunity to all families to be decision-makers and move it away from anonymous people remote from families, communities and classrooms who will not pay a price or face the consequences of failure. The good intentions started mid last century remain unfulfilled.
Someday, we all will stand in front of our children and be judged. Will you be able to say you stood up and fought for his or her best educational experience?
Hopefully you did and hopefully we helped.
(Jessica Kuperavage, Ph.D., contributed to this article. In the next segment, we will explore the sources of funding in school districts.)
1 Cato Institute (2013), http://www.cato.org/cracking-books
2 Delaware Public Policy Institute (2008), Toward More Effective Financing of Student Achievement in Delaware’s Schools