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Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Problem With Generalizing About ‘America’s Schools’ - The Atlantic

Revisiting Reagan's 'A Nation at Risk' Report 35 Years Later - The Atlantic

The Problem With Generalizing About ‘America’s Schools’
It’s an abstraction that has obscured the true workings of the country’s education system for decades.

Revisiting Reagan's 'A Nation at Risk' Report 35 Years Later 

Thirty-five years ago, in April of 1983, Ronald Reagan appeared before the press to publicize a government report warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity” that had begun to erode America’s education system. Were such conditions imposed by an unfriendly foreign power, the authors declared, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Despite its grave tone, the report, titled “A Nation at Risk,” had little direct impact on policy. It did, however, establish a new way of talking about public education in the United States, a master narrative that has endured—and even subtly changed American education policy for the worse—over the past several decades.
Across that stretch of time, politicians and policy makers have spoken often of the inadequacy of “America’s schools.” In fact, this trope is one of the few things that Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s regulation-averse secretary of education, has in common with her predecessors; she and previous education secretaries have regularly discussed the nation’s schools as a cohesive whole. This phrasing is useful shorthand for a national official, but it obscures the fact that the United States does not actually have a national education system. Many countries do. In France, for example, a centralized ministry of education governs schools directly. But in the U.S., all 50 states maintain authority over public education. And across those 50 states, roughly 13,000 districts shape much, possibly even most, of what happens in local schools.

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. Consider the issue of funding. On average, federal money accounts for less than 10 percent of education budgets across the country, and the rest of the financial responsibility falls to states and local schools. If local schools are unable to raise what they need, the state is usually well positioned to make up the difference, but states differ dramatically in their approaches. On average, states spend roughly $13,000 per student on public education—but looking at the average alone is misleading. Only about half of states spend anything close to that figure: A dozen spend 25 percent more than the national average, and 10 states spend 25 percent less. The result is significant disparities, and some striking incongruities. New York’s schools, for instance, spend roughly three times as much per student as Utah’s schools—a huge difference, even after accounting for New York’s higher cost of living.
Additionally, some states do much more than others to ensure that each district is properly funded. Local property taxes help fund schools nationwide, but in some places, like Massachusetts, the state steps in to provide additional resources for lower-income areas. In other places, like Illinois, property taxes are simply the primary sources of school funding, which means less money for poor districts than for wealthy ones.
Though states often take similar approaches on curricula and teacher licensure, they tend to differ considerably in policy and practice. Things like early  continue reading: Revisiting Reagan's 'A Nation at Risk' Report 35 Years Later - The Atlantic