Education’s Problem Isn’t Too Many Bad Schools; It’s Too Few Great Ones

I grew up in Villa Ridge, Missouri, a town of fewer than 3,000 people 40 miles southwest of St. Louis down Interstate 44. Growing up, there were few great places to eat in my hometown. The truck stop down the road served a pretty good breakfast, but the atmosphere left a bit to be desired, and you certainly couldn’t take a date there on a Saturday night. You could pop over to the gas station and grab a Blimpie submarine sandwich, or you could go to the other gas station and grab some Burger King (That was living!). But that was about it.

Despite our plight, you rarely heard people complaining about these restaurants. They were fine and they served their purpose. Our problem was a lack of high-quality options. In other words, the issue wasn’t too many bad restaurants; it was too few great ones.

We have the same problem in education today, too few great educational options for students. Yet, too often our discourse on the topic completely misses this point.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I recently attended a hearing by the Joint Committee on Education of the Missouri legislature. The meeting was held ostensibly to discuss expanding charter schools in the state. Currently, charters exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City because, while technically allowed elsewhere, the administrative hurdles prospective operators have to clear are incredibly high. The committee was taking testimony on the possibility of streamlining the expansion of charter schools statewide.

As I sat through the hearing, I was struck by the tenor of the testimony and the questions from the committee members. The bulk of the conversation was about failure. How many failing charter schools are there? How many failing school districts are there? What are we going to do about failing schools? What regulations can we impose to hold these schools accountable? You get the point.

As I took the stand, I told the committee that the biggest problem we face in education today is not a lack of regulation. Missouri, like most states, began pursuing standards and testing in the mid-1980s. These efforts bloomed into accountability systems in the 1990s and culminated with No Child Left Behind in 2001. Today, our education system is highly regulated at every level. State departments of education prescribe how teachers must be trained and test teachers upon entry to the field. We dictate what students must learn and then test them to see if they have mastered the concepts. Given these results, we have systems in place to intervene when students or schools fail to meet specific benchmarks. If these regulations are accountability, we’re awash in accountability.

Despite our decades of effort in tinkering with regulation, we still have students throughout the state that lack high quality educational options. This isn’t about failure. Even in “good” schools, there are some students who need something different. Just like in my small town, the problem is not too many bad schools; the problem is too few great ones. Our students lack quality educational options.

This is an important issue to understand because our actions as a society will be radically different if we are attempting to address issues of failure or opportunity. When we focus on failure, we put in place heavy handed regulations in an effort to mandate success. Over the past 30 years of increasing regulation under the guise of accountability, we have shown that this strategy, while potentially impactful at the margins, does not produce great schools.

If, on the other hand, we focus on opportunity, our policies look radically different. When we pursue opportunity, we make it easier for charter schools to open, and we expand access to private schools. We attempt to build an environment where school operators want to open and where success is possible. Importantly, we also seek to remove restrictions that hamper traditional public schools from effectively meeting the needs of students.

The amazing thing about focusing our attention on educational opportunity is that in doing so we also get a great deal of accountability. The power of accountability shifts from compliance with state regulations, to complying with the desires and needs of families.

It is time for our society to shift our thinking in terms of education. You do not turn the truck stop diner into a five-star restaurant by government regulations. Neither do you transform failing or even mediocre schools into paragons of educational achievement by instituting more tests or accountability systems. To do either of these, you have to build the environment for excellence to take root. You have to expand opportunity.