Kansas schools need to be much more dynamic and diverse in order to meet students’ needs and effectively engage them in learning. But the lack of school choice and charter schools in Kansas means that Kansas children are missing opportunities for learning that are present in some states. Until Kansas changes its educational policies, it is unlikely that schools will see any significant improvement.
These are some of the conclusions and recommendations of a report produced on behalf of the Kansas Policy Institute titled reinventing the Kansas K-12 school system to engage more children in productive learning.
Part of the problem is that huge increases in spending have not produced much results. Paradoxically, the education bureaucracy claims that even mild cuts in spending will have catastrophic results.
(It’s true that tests under control of Kansas have shown increases in student achievement. But independent measures don’t have the same trend, leading to serious doubts about the validity of the Kansas tests.)
Student engagement is the key to learning, says the report: “Typically, service recipients don’t assist in production of the service, but in education they do. Intellectual growth occurs only with the active cooperation of the clients, the students.”
While student engagement is important, studies find that most students are not engaged in schools. The Wichita school district has used the engagement argument many times in its quest for more funding for sports, arts, and other programs.
The report is critical of “attendance zones,” that is, the practice of assigning students to schools based on residency within a school’s boundary. Currently the Wichita school district is struggling with the process of redrawing school attendance boundaries, a process a Wichita Eagle headline describes as a “tricky job to tackle.” The Wichita school superintendent is quoted as saying “We’re talking about change, and that’s never easy.”
The challenges that attendance zones cause are described: “While students living within public school attendance zones are often homogeneous in terms of socio-economic status and ethnic makeup, the students themselves still have very different goals, subject interests, and learning style factors that influence and motivate how they learn best. In the subject interest and learning style diverse classrooms that result from assignment by residence and mainstreaming of special needs children, the material will seem too difficult to some or confusing because they can’t learn it via the prevailing pedagogy. … Large disparities in student intellect within individual classrooms cause many teachers to lower their standards so that the majority of their students can ‘succeed’ but then many under-achieve (or worse; disrupt or drop out) because of boredom. The large differences between students within attendance zones create an impossible teaching task; namely find a uniform process to address diverse instructional needs. … ‘Watering down’ practices appear to be especially debilitating in inner city schools, where most students perform below grade level on essential subjects.”
This is an example of how public schools are failing those who most desperately need a good education.
Age-grouping — keeping students together with other students of the same age — leads to classrooms with students at wide levels of achievement, which is not conducive to instruction.
The “single salary” schedule for teachers, where salary is determined by only longevity and earned educational credentials, leads to teacher shortages in certain subjects and locations. It also provides disincentive for talented teachers to remain in the schools, as they are paid the same as the very worst teachers, which the report labels “insulting and demoralizing.”
Accountability in schools is a problem. Currently public schools are managed through top-down accountability, that is, accountability to government. Bottom-up accountability is more customer-focused: “Bottom-up accountability in the private sector forces corporations to address all possible customer concerns, even the ones that are hard to quantify into objective performance measures. Since public schools do not receive funding directly from their customers, and instead receive government financing mostly as a function of the number of students assigned to their schools, consumer accountability is minimal in the public school system.”
Public school officials bristle at the thought of having customers. But accountability to customers leads to systems that recognize and embrace the diversity of needs and desires. Government accountability is weak (“school system personnel face few if any major repercussions when they fail to meet their objectives”) and leads to ineffective and destructive accountability laws like No Child Left Behind and “teaching to the test.”
Past attempts at reform haven’t worked, says the report. The most often desired reform — spending more — hasn’t worked. Spending has risen rapidly and there is little to show for it, despite a “sharp narrowing of the curriculum to focus specifically on the tested items.”
Smaller class sizes — a favorite of the education establishment — hasn’t worked, either. “The average U.S. class size fell steadily from 22.6 in the 1970s to 16.2 in 2002; a time of sharp decline in academic performance, followed by the recent leveling off in scores as more time has been spent on the core tested items and test preparation.” Reducing class size is very expensive, too.
The solution, recommends the report, is a wide variety of schooling options that are as diverse as the student population and their needs and interests. There should be a variety of specialized schools. The present system of magnet schools provides a “small, but hopefully compelling hint” of the benefits that could be had with even more opportunities for specialization. Surprisingly, school specialization leads to overall cost savings.
Creating a diversity of schools requires meaningful school choice, says the report. Furthermore, market-based pries signals need to be employed to match supply and demand for different types of specialized schools. This means that some specialized schools that happen to be in high demand will be able to charge students an extra add-on tuition. While this may seem a strange and even undesirable idea to many, tha lack of price signals means we have what we always have when there are price controls: “waste, shortages, stifled innovation, and declining product quality.”
Real school choice also means that schools will have to be accountable to parents for a broad range of performance measures, not just the narrow test focus that government requires: “Meaningful school choice fosters direct accountability to parent/student clients, which provides educators the necessary strong incentives to focus on the full schooling experience, not narrowly, and sometimes fraudulently, on tested items.”
School choice leads to competition for students. One of the byproducts is that there will be competition for the best teachers, improving the desirability of teaching as a profession. And instead of requiring that teachers be trained in ways that have been shown to not affect student achievement, schools would be free to hire and retain teachers based on their effective in actual teaching.
The report recommends four policy options for Kansas to consider. First is open enrollment, meaning that students may attend any school within the district.
Second, Kansas need a charter school law that actually encourages such schools. Currently, charter schools must be authorized by the local school district. As a result, there are very few in Kansas.
Third, Kansas needs school choice through vouchers. The fourth, and related, idea is tax credits for individuals and businesses to create scholarships for children to attend privates schools.
The report contains appendices that cover a overview of the U.S. educational system, myths surrounding school choice programs, and a summary of charter school research from the states. There are 193 footnotes.