Fixing Our Public Schools

I guess it’s not surprising that the Republican Party proposes that we deal with poor quality educational outcomes in many of America’s public schools by (A) threatening teachers if they do not produce better results (AKA `testing’), and by (B) giving parents the option of putting their children in `better’ private schools instead of the `bad’ public schools (AKA `vouchers’). It fits right in with their ongoing campaign to demonize all government institutions as inherently defective in their ability to produce a quality product. Like most Republican proposals on most issues, these ideas on how to fix public schools are simplistic and stupid.

There are two fundamental reasons why public schools (in general) fail to produce the same quality educational outcomes that many private schools are able to produce. Neither of these reasons has anything to do with the ‘government-ness’ of public schools, as Republican politicians like to suggest. One reason centers around the economics of public schools; the other has to do with discipline matters. Today I want to just focus on the economic needs of public schools that are not being met.

Schools are productive enterprises, just like any business. They bring together certain inputs and use them to create an output (product) that we call `education.’ As in any other productive enterprise, the quality of the educational product that students receive depends on the quality of the inputs that are used. If you want superior quality, you can’t skimp on the ingredients. It’s just that simple. Public schools that produce an inferior educational product do so because they lack the resources they need to be able to produce better educational outcomes.

What kind of resources are we talking about? Well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have more computers, etc., but high-tech hardware is not the Number One resource that poorer public school districts are in dire need of. The one resource their teachers need in much greater quantities is time. It takes time to help students who do not regularly make the honor roll. The kids who make A’s all the time are `low-maintenance’ students who require only a minimal amount of explanation in order to get good grades. It’s the kids who are struggling who require more of a teacher’s time, and those are the kinds of students one sees more often in the poorer school districts.

Private schools are able to produce better educational outcomes largely because they are able to restrict admission to only those students who can afford to pay the high price of a private school education. For a number of reasons, these students tend to be of the `low-maintenance’ type. Given a certain amount of time to spend each day, teachers in private schools find it much easier to produce higher-quality educational outcomes overall than teachers in public schools (who have many more `high-maintenance’ students). Give the teachers in poorer school districts the time resources they need to teach more high-maintenance students and they will be able to produce much better results.

How do we give teachers more of the time they need to teach high-maintenance kids? Reduce the number of students that they must teach. Most parents and taxpayers don’t realize it, but teachers spend an enormous amount of time outside of the classroom grading tests/quizzes/projects and evaluating each child’s performance. Much individual instruction must also be provided after class hours. Interaction with the parents of every student is absolutely crucial and that is something that can only happen after class hours. If a teacher has twenty students or more in his class, then he is simply not going to have the time to spend on each child that he would have if he had half as many students.

I argue that parents would get the kind of quality educational outcomes that they want if the average class size nationally were reduced to between 7-8 students per teacher. The bottom line that should not be too shocking to any of us is this: if America wants to improve the quality of the education that American children receive in the nation’s public schools, it will have to pay more for it. We need more teachers and more classrooms in order to shrink student-to-teacher ratios. That costs money, the kind of money that the federal government could provide to local school districts.

Republican politicians tell us that we can get superior quality in education without paying more for it by simply getting tough with teachers and `demanding better results’ from them. It is yet another example of the general incompetence of Republican politicians at the art of governing. The sober reality they refuse to acknowledge is that teachers are doing all that they can with the limited resources they have to work with. In part two, I’ll discuss the things that local school districts can do to solve the discipline problem that teachers face in their classrooms.

(How To Pay For More Teachers.)

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