The 4 best things we could do for schools

If you are willing to join me in stipulating that education is important and will further stipulate that good schools are preferable to mediocre or poor ones, then we have some priorities to rearrange because America is no longer even close to providing the best education in the world.

The road to an improved U.S. education system is long and winding, but the following four steps would be a good way to start the journey:

Keep state and national politicians as far away from schools as possible. It’s a crying shame it has come to this, but the less education is pondered on Capitol Hill and in state capitols, the better off our schools will be. Restoring local community control of schools needs to be Job One.

Stop testing kids to tears. All the incessant testing done nowadays doesn’t help students, it hurts them by cutting deeply into the time devoted to actual teaching and learning. The politicians’ testing fetish grew out of a desperate desire to do an end-run around a reality they find intolerably uncomfortable: Even the very best educators will almost always fail when they work in inadequately equipped schools and are tasked with teaching profoundly disadvantaged students. Rather than try to eliminate or at least diminish the disadvantages, the politicians look for an easier route. Nonstop testing gives them someone to point fingers at. It produces a plentiful supply of scapegoats but does little or nothing to help struggling students learn better or all students learn more.

No more “save our schools” referendums. Funding schools by public referendum is proving unsustainable in Wisconsin and elsewhere around the country. The worst thing about putting schools in the position of having to repeatedly get voter approval just to be able to sustain basic programs and keep up facilities is how it aggravates educational inequality. School officials in communities that are struggling economically are understandably reluctant to ask their neighbors to raise their own taxes. When they feel they have no choice but to seek funding, they ask for less than officials in affluent areas where people can more easily afford to say yes. Local elected school boards need to be trusted to put together responsible budgets and manage resources wisely, and state and federal school aid needs to be distributed in a way that equalizes funding across districts and provides adequate and equitable funding for all schools.

Align expectations with investments. Excellence doesn’t come cheap. It is no coincidence that the best performing schools are consistently found where education spending is highest. But this is another reality that politicians find intolerably uncomfortable, which is why they are forever in search of the scholastic equivalent of fairy dust and why American education is so prone to fads.

A quarter of a century ago, “school choice” was promoted as a miracle cure for what ailed American education. The 25-year experiment has done nothing to boost student achievement. The only thing it has done is prop up private schools experiencing steady enrollment loss. As it became increasingly clear that taxpayer-subsidized private schooling had no magical powers, the “school accountability” movement took hold. It enriched the standardized testing industry but has done little else. Yesterday’s “school to work” and today’s “STEM education” fixations haven’t prevented the American education system from continuing to slip toward mediocrity internationally, but have driven teaching of the arts and civics to the brink of extinction.

One strategy that has proven effective over the years is class size reduction. But having smaller classes means hiring more teachers and that costs money. Replacing the industrial-age factory model of schools and the mass-production, assembly-line approach to instruction with a more personalized, flexible and interactive approach can reverse the decline of U.S. educational performance, but it requires smaller classes and smaller schools and that gives politicians the willies.

As a society, we have decisions to make and priorities to set. If we expect excellence, we need to act like that’s what we want. If we can live with diminished international competitiveness that comes with increasing educational mediocrity here at home, then fads and fairy dust will do just fine.