How to fix our faltering public schools

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The New York State Education Department declared last year that two of the 12 public schools in Ithaca, N.Y., where I live, were not in “good standing.” The announcement came after an analysis of academic achievement, performance in core subjects, English language proficiency and chronic absenteeism.

With low performance across all student groups — fewer than 10 percent were proficient in math, English and language arts; more than 60 percent were chronically absent — Enfield Elementary School needed “comprehensive support and improvement” (CSI). With a disproportionate percentage of Black students with low proficiency scores and chronic absenteeism, Beverly J. Martin Elementary School needed “targeted support and improvement” (TSI).

In May, the NYSED added Boynton and Dewitt Middle Schools to its TSI list, citing low proficiency scores and chronic absenteeism among Black students. NYSED also required Ithaca school administrators to develop an annual “comprehensive improvement plan” for the entire district.

Later that month, Ithaca residents rejected by a 2-1 margin the school district budget, which contained an 8.4 percent increase in the revenue derived from local property taxes. “I feel students are not being held accountable academically and for their behavior in the community,” a retired teacher said. A vote on a revised budget has been scheduled for late June.

Whether they voted yes or no, most Ithacans acknowledged, I assume, that neither “starving the beast” nor throwing money at the problem will rescue faltering or failing public schools.

Poor performing public schools exist throughout the United States — in prosperous, politically progressive communities like Ithaca, and even more often in economically distressed rural and urban areas. In science, math and reading proficiency, American students rank much lower than many other countries. The gap is growing between economically disadvantaged and more affluent students, as well as between white and Black students, in proficiency in these core subjects and in chronic absenteeism

Americans, alas, do not agree about the causes of, let alone the cures for, the crisis in public education. They are divided, for example, about whether teachers are injecting their personal and political views into the classroom instead of instructing students in “the basics.”

That said, here are some suggestions for K-12 public schools intended to stimulate a robust discussion about challenges that defy easy solutions.

Money should be appropriated to address a backlog of repairs on school buildings that are, on average, 50 years old. Structural integrity, safety and security, air conditioning, light fixtures, the removal of environmental hazards and installation of up-to-date technology should be at the top of the list.

To enhance recruitment and retention, the salaries of teachers should be higher. The size of classes should not be increased to balance the budget.

Given compelling evidence that smartphones distract students and increase anxiety and depression, students should be required to store the devices in lockers when they arrive at school. Administrators should encourage parents to remove smartphones from their child’s bedroom at night.

The amount of time preparing students to take standardized tests should be reduced. Teachers should assign a reasonable amount of homework, make sure it’s related to in-class lessons and expect students to hand it in on time. Unqualified students should not advance to the next grade or graduate to enhance a school’s ranking.

Parents should remain actively involved in the education of their children, while deferring to teachers’ subject area expertise. Teachers should have more discretion in dealing with disruptive students and having them removed from classrooms, if necessary. School administrators should partner with parents or guardians to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Since local property taxes cover a substantial proportion of K-12 public school appropriations, government funding formulas should take into account financial disparities between school districts.

Last, but by no means least, legislators should reassess the benefits and costs of “school choice” legislation on K-12 public schools. Dozens of states have granted public funds to families in the form of vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and refundable tax credits for use in private schools, charter schools and home schooling; 10 states have eliminated income requirements to enable affluent families to benefit from school choice programs.

These initiatives have raised enrollments in private schools and charter schools; meanwhile, enrollment in public schools of all children ages 5-17 dropped from 90.7 percent to 87 percent between 2012 and 2023. In Florida, the population between 5 and 17 years old has increased by 9 percent since 2012, while public school enrollment fell by 7 percent. Since budget allocations depend in part on the number of enrolled students, many public schools have taken a financial hit at the very moment that they are coping with the pandemic’s adverse impact on behavior, academic performance and student well-being.  

Public schools have also lost students who tend to be more motivated and academically well-prepared. Since 2001, the enrollment of students from low-income families in public schools has increased from 38 to 50 percent. States with the largest declines in public school enrollments, it’s also worth noting, have the lowest per pupil spending.

UCLA education expert Abbie Cohen notes that when more young people leave public schools, “those who are left, are left with less.”

Since a mind is a terrible thing to waste — for every individual and for society as a whole — we must do more, a lot more, to protect, promote and reform public schools, our nation’s most democratic institution.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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