Seeking Comprehensive Solutions for Systemic Problems in Education

By Joseph Monardo

We speak of an education system in the United States, a phrasing that highlights an important degree of interconnectedness. The system that educates students throughout their formative years is an intricate network of care centers, schools and external resources. Any discussion that does not address the integrity of that larger system is lacking; any policy solution that does not aim to fit itself, first and foremost, within the broader framework of that larger system will ultimately be counterproductive.

And contemporary American schools are in need of some solutions to shortcomings both real and perceived. Based on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), less than 40% of 4th-grade students scored at or above “proficient,” a measure designed to approximate competency over challenging subject matter and an ability to apply knowledge to real-world situations. Those levels decrease as students progress, and NAEP’s Governing Board estimates that only 40% of high-school graduates are college- and career-ready, a lower standard than “proficient” but one more directly-relevant to after-school outcomes. Despite the low rates of readiness among high-school seniors, the nationwide high-school graduation rate was a robust 82%. The K-12 education track is failing to give most students the tools they need for life after school but handing out diplomas to them, regardless.

Americans generally recognize that their country’s school system is imperfect. Just 24% of Americans give national public schools an “A” or “B” grade, often citing concerns about funding, education standards, and teacher quality. Interestingly, it’s not necessarily people’s personal experience driving low confidence in the school system: half of all respondents give their local schools an “A” or “B” grade. Public-school parents report an even-higher level of confidence in local schools, with 62% giving the system a high grade and 71% doing so for their family’s own school, directly.

What drives the variation in scores as the scope of the question changes? It could be that respondents don’t really know much about schools nationally and assume the worst, while local schools’ higher grades actually reflect a higher level of school success. That parents grade their local schools higher than the system as a whole would support the notion that more intimate knowledge about how schools work and what they achieve leads to higher scores. However, the disparity also reveals that respondents recognize gaps in the system beyond the schools that immediately serve them. Even if seven out of 10 parents are satisfied with their child’s school, confidence in the entire system could still be very low if a lot of those satisfied parents know of poor conditions elsewhere.

That brings us back to the topic of what solutions should look like in the school setting. Assuming we take it as our aim to deliver high-quality education to every child in America – an assumption which likely does not reflect all politicians’ and policymakers’ current priorities – it becomes clear that policies must provide fundamental systemic solutions, not workarounds or patchwork relief. Policies should be considered in two ways: how does the given policy fit into any particular student’s long-range education process, and how does the policy fit within an education system that is truly for all?

The first lens is essentially one of an individual student timeline. Policies aimed at improving conditions at a specific point in that timeline will not necessarily improve overall outcomes for the student. For example, the long-term impact of Head Start and other early-education programs is unclear and may not be significantly positive. Even students with extra care, attention, and preparation early in their learning careers may ultimately be failed by the system they flow into as they age.

The second lens is universal, as opposed to individual, and aims to encompass all students within its view. Last week’s BPPJ blog discussed universal Pre-K through this lens, assessing the ways in which expansion might actually jeopardize quality accessible care. Ongoing debates about school choice are also relevant here, as charter schools and voucher programs create a rift within the school system. Without delving into an in-depth consideration of the rational merits of charter schooling or weighing concerns about management and transparency, the fact that it subdivides and weakens an integral system is cause for scrutiny. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a noted proponent of school choice, has been quite clear in prioritizing individual students over a stable system. Her line of reasoning can only stand for so long, though. Without a healthy, well-functioning system delivering primary and secondary education to all, many individual students will necessarily fail. As charter schools pull funds away from districts, the overall health of the system is threatened. Even well-intentioned attempts to provide improved schooling to select families or individuals – as DeVos has done to the extreme degree – will hoist up a few winners while leaving many losers in a deteriorating situation.

That’s not to say narrow, targeted plans can’t be valuable. Aside from the very real assistance they can offer some individual students, they can also serve as testing grounds for innovative, potentially scalable solutions. But to truly be successful they must operate within an improved system that can provide every student with the foundation necessary to unlock the benefits of any ancillary programs. Obviously, bringing positive change to an entire system is a much bigger task than delivering a clear and present good to a specific group, which is why many education entities have developed and offered targeted plans as feasible ways to help some students. And, indeed, it may not seem particularly insightful to propose a complete solution as opposed to a partial one, as most advocates of targeted reform would undoubtedly prefer universal progress in the absence of resource constraints, every policy professional would sign up for the larger solution than the narrower one.

Regardless, there does need to be an intensified focus on developing  comprehensive improvements. One example of an initiative approximating this all-encompassing approach is the community school idea, which aims to provide all forms of support students and families need to succeed. Another comes in the writing of David Kirp, who has described what a national education system must look like if we are to be successful in supporting children’s development from crib to college. Kirp proposes a collection of policies that, working in unison, could create a robust support system. Although straightforwardly logical, any such  proposal would amount to a massive policy undertaking.

And why should we expect anything less? The defining features of a national education system – no small thing – are a reflection of the country’s culture and priorities, as Lucy Crehan explored in Cleverlands. For enduring, far-reaching improvements in student achievement, the United States must address the needs of the system in its entirety. In the meantime, policies and programs that fail to enact comprehensive solutions, whether they are actually detrimental to a healthy system or are simply disconnected from it, will be of limited value.

Joseph Monardo is a first-year Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy interested in promoting social mobility and equality through education policy.