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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Benjamin Deitchman
February 10, 2015
“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of man, – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
- Horace Mann, Education Reformer, (1796-1859)
The public education system in the United States is world class. The public education system in the United States is also a disaster, an embarrassment for an affluent nation.
At Pittsford Mendon High School, a public school in the Rochester (New York) metropolitan area, almost 9 in 10 high school students participate in the Advanced Placement program, and 99.6 percent of students graduate in four years of study. A few miles down the road in the City of Rochester at James Monroe High School fewer than 4 in 10 students graduate on time. It’s an abysmally low number, but a result consistent with the 51 percent graduation rate for the city public school system as a whole. Overcoming the achievement gap is one of the most vexing and pressing public policy issues of our time. Solving this challenge could alleviate income inequality and strengthen economic growth for decades to come. The question, however, is whether we can actually hope and expect education to be the “great equalizer.”
There are reasons for optimism for American education. Stakeholders understand the critical role of public education in shaping the future—“winning the future” as President Obama is apt to say. The debate over the Common Core curriculum features some of the worst of American ideological divisiveness. However, the passions underscore citizens’ recognition of the importance of public education and the desire for a better standard of education for the 21st century.
Educational achievement is a strong predictor of economic outcomes and remains a critical factor for career advancement in a technology-based future. Policy innovations in education may not end income inequality or resolve ongoing civil rights struggles, but efforts to improve scholastic performance for students regardless of geography or socioeconomic status could have positive implications for society.
Innovation in education policy requires entrepreneurial pilot efforts that succeed, diffuse and scale. In considering the diffusion of societal innovations in the modern world, medical doctor Atul Gawande writes in The New Yorker that, “we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions to the major difficulties of the world […]. Every change requires effort, [however,] and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”
For all of our policy prescriptions as to what ails education, people and social factors are critical. In a Policy Studies Journal article Kenneth Meier observes, “I am consistently struck by the basic fact that high performing schools and low-performing schools are often using the exact same programs in the same environment with relatively equal resources […]. The key difference is not the programs, but the people.”
Implementing an innovative method of instruction, such as a problem-based curriculum for eighth grade physical science that incorporates hands-on discovery through robotics for which I served as a program evaluator, requires an adjustment to teachers’ professional practice. Analyzing interviews with teachers revealed that making a change in the context of a public school classroom- with the testing requirements from state and federal authorities and pressures from key stakeholders-required significant financial and professional development resources. It resulted in academic achievement and surveys showed stronger interest and enjoyment from the scholastic experience.
Creating a primary or secondary school environment where students learn and enjoy learning is an accomplishment in any school within any community. These accomplishments in individual classrooms across the nation, however, will not overcome the financial, social, and geographic challenges that foment inequality in the United States. They are a start, but they are nowhere close to permanently closing the achievement gap.
The recent film Selma portrays a struggle for equality from an earlier era, exploring the experiences of American history during the 1960s civil rights movement. As Rev. Martin Luther King (brilliantly portrayed by David Oyelowo) expresses to President Lyndon B. Johnson (as played by Tom Wilkinson), Washington’s leaders could overcome the blight of limitations on voting rights with a law that regulates equality. While there was nothing simple about the adoption of the Voting Rights Act, the challenge of inequality that continues into the present day requires more than a single stroke of a pen to sign a law, but rather the stroke of every pen that works to implement social policy- including education policy- across the land. There is no one solution, but that is not an excuse for public administrators not to work with key stakeholders and put forth their best efforts to improve the education system, and thus, focus on advancing the balance-wheel of the social machinery.
Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is visiting assistant professor of public policy in the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology. You can email him at [email protected] and/or follow him on Twitter: @BHDRIT.