System fails to educate students adequately

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on August 26, 2001 at

By Matthew J. Brouillette and Mary F. Gifford / Special to The Detroit News

Question: How many children can a public school system fail before the public school system is labeled a failure?
   A. 86 percent.
   B. 63 percent.
   C. 47 percent.
   D. 34 percent.
   E. All of the above.
   Answer: E, all of the above.

Eighty-six percent of Detroit's Ford High School students do not have a passing composite score on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exams. Sixty-three percent of Michigan's urban eighth-graders score below the "basic" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Forty-seven percent of Detroit's students do not graduate. Thirty-four percent of Inkster students in Wayne County drop out. And nonurban schools look better only by comparison.

Yet none of these schools is officially labeled a failure.

Failing public schools are a crisis.

Most proposed solutions are well-intentioned, but the problem remains unsolved: Hundreds of thousands of children are assigned to schools that fail to educate them. The crisis persists despite numerous failed reforms and historically high education spending levels.

This crisis touches every community.

Students graduate from high school without knowing the basics. Research last year by Jay Greene of Harvard University revealed that Michigan businesses and institutions of higher learning spend more than $600 million annually to compensate for the lack of basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills possessed by high school graduates.

People within the public school system acknowledge government schools are not meeting the needs of all students. This acknowledgement comes, for example, in the form of a $219 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to "close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers."

But pleas for more money are their own indictment of the system. If public school officials insist there is no crisis, why do they demand funding increases of crisis-like proportions?

Reform and funding schemes are supposed to make government schools more effective. Most reforms focus on either changing rules or increasing resources.

Since 1995, the growth of Michigan per-pupil funding has outpaced inflation and state spending in all other agencies. According to the National Education Association, only six states exceed Michigan's $8,863 per-pupil public school revenue.

Advocates say student achievement will improve if we lengthen school days, provide more class time, reduce class sizes, increase testing, promote certification, build new schools and integrate technology. Yet these costly and time-consuming reforms have not led to significant and widespread improvement in student achievement, especially among the state's neediest students.

Because rules- and resource-based reforms have failed, we must ask a few tough questions:

What incentives are in place to encourage government-run schools to produce a high-quality education for all students?

If children do not thrive in one school, what opportunities exist to go elsewhere?

Are good teachers rewarded according to how well they teach their students? Are public school budgets tied to how well they turn out knowledgeable young scholars?

How often do schools that fail to educate children close?

An honest answer to these questions reveals that most public schools simply have no incentive, beyond the considerable benevolence of their teachers, to educate children. It is because of this lack of market incentives that numerous reforms and billions of dollars result in little or no improvement.

History and economics tell us that a system devoid of proper incentives will result in highly variable quality. One promising incentive-based reform is to remove barriers that prevent parents from choosing their children's school, public or private. Experiences in Milwaukee, Florida, Arizona and elsewhere prove that all schools have powerful incentives to improve when parents are freer to choose schools.

Former American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker, now deceased, clearly understood incentives. He said: "It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

An education system that helps all students must reward successful schools and teachers, sanction poorly performing schools, and free parents to choose the safest and best schools for their children. More of the same failed policies will get us more of the same or, in this case, "all of the above."

Matthew J. Brouillette is director of education policy and Mary F. Gifford is director of leadership development at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based institute.