Moving forward: Challenges in Education

For the better part of a year, the vast majority of education news has related to the pandemic: what schools are and aren’t doing, anger from parents, battles between teachers and policymakers, the effect on students and more. Researchers are accumulating an impressive amount of data which will be analyzed for decades to come. All of this will hopefully yield some important lessons to inform future decisions. Still, when schools open in the Fall as they did in 2019, the same challenges will be there, some even bigger than before. Just a few of these include:

  1. Teacher shortages: Teacher shortages have been building for decades. This past year has been particularly discouraging. Early retirement is up 44% in Michigan this year. Teacher attrition rates in the United States are already higher (on average about 8%) than in other countries (Finland’s is 4%). High stress, low pay and poor working conditions are just some of the reasons teachers leave. Furthermore, less people are choosing to enter the profession in the first place. According to a report from the Education Policy Institute in 2019: “From the 2008–2009 to 2015–2016 school years, there was a 15.4 percent drop in the number of education degrees awarded and a 27.4 percent drop in the number of people who completed a teacher preparation program.” So, we have large numbers leaving the profession and not enough people coming in. Ultimately, this hurts students who end up in overcrowded classrooms or without qualified professionals providing their education.
  2. Teacher pay: As noted above one of the major issues in teacher attrition is low pay. Simply put we don’t pay teachers enough for the work they do. Education is perhaps the single most important service a government can provide the community. By not paying teachers what they are worth, we struggle to attract and retain talented individuals to the profession. When I met my husband, I was in my third year teaching. I had a master’s degree and I made less than half what he did as a third year engineer, not counting his stock options and bonuses. According to the OECD, United States teacher salaries rank 27th among 32 developed countries. Teachers are paid significantly less than other professions with similar levels of education. Simply put, teachers need to be paid more.
  3. Unequal funding: The distribution of funding still favors the upper, middle class White students in the United States. According to a 2018 report from Education Trust, schools with high concentrations of Black or Latino students receive on average $1,800 less per student than low minority schools. Schools serving high-income students receive approximately $1,000 more per student than low-income students. Even if you reject the argument that high poverty schools need more money to provide necessary resources, there is no reason why schools that education students of different races or incomes should receive different amounts. At the minimum every school should receive equal funding for students. (You can read my thoughts on what is truly equitable funding elsewhere). The school funding formula is complex and varies by state, but ultimately it is the government’s job to provide equitable funding for every student.
  4. Less experienced teachers in majority poverty schools: Majority poverty schools face unique challenges. Research shows that as compared to schools with high-income students, schools with high concentrations of low socioeconomic students come to school less prepared, have higher absentee rates, have lower rates of parental involvement, and higher rates of health-related issues. The least experienced teachers are often placed in these challenging environments, ill-prepared or equipped to deal with problems that go beyond simply educating children. High-poverty schools are likely to have large numbers of newly credentialed or un-credentialed teachers who have less experience teaching. Attrition is higher in the first five years of teaching, which means that there is high turnover in high-poverty schools, which negatively affects the school climate and ultimately student outcomes. The good news that recent research shows a narrowing in the gap of teacher experience in some places. For example, New York City has been able to increase the qualifications of teachers in high-poverty schools.
  5. Unequal opportunity: segregation by class and race
  6. The billionaire “silver bullet:” There is an arrogance amongst billionaires that because they have been successful in one area of their lives, they know how to fix the world. Education is a target for many of the billionaires. You know the group I’m talking about it: Gates, Zuckerberg, Reed, Walton, and Carnegie, to name a few. Non-education professionals swoop in with their big money and ask desperate schools to jump through hoops to implement their “silver bullet” solution. As has written about extensively, these programs not only tend to fail but also cost schools valuable resources that could otherwise be spent on best practices for students. If billionaires want to contribute to educational outcomes, they should simply pay more taxes or donate the money with no strings attached.
  7. Charter school expansion: Although recent legislation has begun to curb the growth of charter schools, their growth continues to take valuable funds from public school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Between fall 2000 and fall 2017, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 0.4 million to 3.1 million.” Charter schools are funded with public education funds but operate independently of school districts. Their teachers are not members of the teacher’s union. They determine their curriculum and schedule. The cost to school districts is non-trivial. Operating two education systems is expensive. Furthermore, charter schools divert funds from traditional public schools. This is a problem that cannot be ignored as we move forward.
  8. Multi-generational poverty: people like to ignore the simple fact that poverty does affect educational outcomes. We simply cannot provide an equitable system without reducing the number of children living in poverty. Being raised in poverty can impact not only cognitive ability due to poor nutrition or access to food but also educational attainment. Research shows that multigenerational poverty can have even a greater negative impact.

These are problems that have persisted for year and in some cases decades, which I suppose is why they continue to be largely ignored. Policy that tinkers at the edges of change has done little to improve our system. It is time to stop fooling around and make meaningful change. Addressing one or more of the above will impact generations to come.

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