April 8, 2020

Focused on Quality

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Feb. 29, 2020

Education has become an actual issue in the Democratic presidential primary, though it's mostly about cost. They should be focused on quality.
 
Newsweek gives it a try and ranks the United States 26th in the world in the quality and efficacy of our education system. Unfortunately, the results were based entirely on the opinions of a large group of educational, business, and community leaders. All subjectivity absent any objectivity. 
 
Literacy seems to be a statistical barometer used to rank countries and would certainly be somewhat indicative of education systems. It's also simply defined — the ability to read and write at appropriate grade or age level —  and convenient since countries keep track of this.
 
According to WorldAtlas.com, the literacy rate in the United States is 86 percent, which sounds pretty good. But it ranks us 125th in the world, just behind Oman but ahead of Syria. Another ranking outfit, Index Mundi, moves us all the way up to 104th, having fallen one rung behind Syria but ahead of Burundi. (A half-dozen countries have achieved 100 percent literacy.)
 
Is it our public schools? High school graduation, for example, is declining. Michigan ranks 40th or 41stin graduation rates, at just under 81 percent. That's too many being left behind. (Montana is first, at 93 percent.)
 
The lack of qualified teachers doesn't help. The Economic Policy Institute says our shortage of qualified teachers has reached nearly 310,000 and is growing. Experienced teachers are leaving and too often being replaced by marginally qualified newcomers. Teachers leaving cite a litany of issues that include poor pay and shrinking benefits; government intrusion, including frequently changing mandatory tests; lack of administrative or school board support; lack of community support; and intrusive parents.  
 
Nor is it helpful that more than half the states are still funding public education at or below 2008 levels. We know more money is not the only answer; Washington, D.C., with the highest per pupil spending in the country does not have the best student performance.
 
But we're pretty sure not having enough money doesn't work, either. It means always being behind on facility upgrades and maintenance, plus having an inability to attract the best teachers or include programs addressing the educational needs of children at all achievement levels.  
 
At least our colleges are good. Or not.  
 
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks our colleges and universities 19th out of the 28 countries they studied. Much of our low ranking involved cost and graduation rates.
 
We are the unquestioned leader in student debt, which has now ballooned to a staggering $1.5 trillion. The average U.S. college student graduates with a debt of more than $28,000, while the debt surges to $32,000 at private institutions. That doesn't include graduate school, and we've all heard stories of graduate students with six-figure debts.
 Focused on Quality
 
Stephen Tuttle
 
Education has become an actual issue in the Democratic presidential primary, though it's mostly about cost. They should be focused on quality.
 
Newsweek gives it a try and ranks the United States 26th in the world in the quality and efficacy of our education system. Unfortunately, the results were based entirely on the opinions of a large group of educational, business, and community leaders. All subjectivity absent any objectivity. 
 
Literacy seems to be a statistical barometer used to rank countries and would certainly be somewhat indicative of education systems. It's also simply defined — the ability to read and write at appropriate grade or age level —  and convenient since countries keep track of this.
 
According to WorldAtlas.com, the literacy rate in the United States is 86 percent, which sounds pretty good. But it ranks us 125th in the world, just behind Oman but ahead of Syria. Another ranking outfit, Index Mundi, moves us all the way up to 104th, having fallen one rung behind Syria but ahead of Burundi. (A half-dozen countries have achieved 100 percent literacy.)
 
Is it our public schools? High school graduation, for example, is declining. Michigan ranks 40th or 41stin graduation rates, at just under 81 percent. That's too many being left behind. (Montana is first, at 93 percent.)
 
The lack of qualified teachers doesn't help. The Economic Policy Institute says our shortage of qualified teachers has reached nearly 310,000 and is growing. Experienced teachers are leaving and too often being replaced by marginally qualified newcomers. Teachers leaving cite a litany of issues that include poor pay and shrinking benefits; government intrusion, including frequently changing mandatory tests; lack of administrative or school board support; lack of community support; and intrusive parents.  
 
Nor is it helpful that more than half the states are still funding public education at or below 2008 levels. We know more money is not the only answer; Washington, D.C., with the highest per pupil spending in the country does not have the best student performance.
 
But we're pretty sure not having enough money doesn't work, either. It means always being behind on facility upgrades and maintenance, plus having an inability to attract the best teachers or include programs addressing the educational needs of children at all achievement levels.  
 
At least our colleges are good. Or not.  
 
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks our colleges and universities 19th out of the 28 countries they studied. Much of our low ranking involved cost and graduation rates.
 
We are the unquestioned leader in student debt, which has now ballooned to a staggering $1.5 trillion. The average U.S. college student graduates with a debt of more than $28,000, while the debt surges to $32,000 at private institutions. That doesn't include graduate school, and we've all heard stories of graduate students with six-figure debts.
 
Even worse, only six in 10 students who enroll in college graduate within six years, and half the rest don't graduate at all — nevertheless piling up years of debt as they try.
 
The colleges and universities are hardly blameless. According to US News, since 2000, tuition and fees have increased 154 percent at private colleges, 181 percent at public schools, and — the biggest jump of all — 221 percent for in-state tuition at public colleges. By comparison, inflation during those two decades has increased a cumulative 50 percent. 
 
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, cost is being cited as the leading reason enrollment at colleges and universities is down another 1.8 percent in 2019, the eighth straight year of enrollment decline. International student enrollment, a major source of income, is down 10 percent since 2016. 
 
It's college costs where the Democratic debate takes place: How to deal with student costs and debt.
 
Bernie Sanders would forgive all $1.5 trillion, which would be good news for students but presumably not such good news for lenders. He would also make community colleges and public universities tuition-free. Other candidates have more modest versions of similar financial relief for students.  
 
(Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos opposes any debt or tuition relief, even for those who were overcharged by sham institutions no longer in existence.)
 
The Democrats would be better served focusing on education much earlier. Student tuition costs and debt are legitimate issues, but improving K–12 public education is a better starting point.
 
Part of the solution has been right in front of us all along: Elect legislators who support truly equitable funding and stop meddling in the classroom. Elect apolitical school boards who hire and support quality administrators who provide clear guidelines and hire and support good teachers. Then get out of the way and let teachers teach to the needs of the students, not the latest test fad. Better student achievement will follow. 
 
Even worse, only six in 10 students who enroll in college graduate within six years, and half the rest don't graduate at all — nevertheless piling up years of debt as they try.
 
The colleges and universities are hardly blameless. According to US News, since 2000, tuition and fees have increased 154 percent at private colleges, 181 percent at public schools, and — the biggest jump of all — 221 percent for in-state tuition at public colleges. By comparison, inflation during those two decades has increased a cumulative 50 percent. 
 
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, cost is being cited as the leading reason enrollment at colleges and universities is down another 1.8 percent in 2019, the eighth straight year of enrollment decline. International student enrollment, a major source of income, is down 10 percent since 2016. 
 
It's college costs where the Democratic debate takes place: How to deal with student costs and debt.
 
Bernie Sanders would forgive all $1.5 trillion, which would be good news for students but presumably not such good news for lenders. He would also make community colleges and public universities tuition-free. Other candidates have more modest versions of similar financial relief for students.  
 
(Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos opposes any debt or tuition relief, even for those who were overcharged by sham institutions no longer in existence.)
 
The Democrats would be better served focusing on education much earlier. Student tuition costs and debt are legitimate issues, but improving K–12 public education is a better starting point.
 
Part of the solution has been right in front of us all along: Elect legislators who support truly equitable funding and stop meddling in the classroom. Elect apolitical school boards who hire and support quality administrators who provide clear guidelines and hire and support good teachers. Then get out of the way and let teachers teach to the needs of the students, not the latest test fad. Better student achievement will follow. 

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