Improving America’s Classrooms Through School Choice

Problematic public school classroom conditions have survived decades of education reform efforts. With federal lawmakers considering reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act—and new state lawmakers pursuing different types of education reforms—it is worth reviewing the root causes of our school system’s ineffectiveness and the policy reforms that would eliminate those problems—for the benefit of educators and their students, alike.

The latest edition of the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows that only 38 percent of 17-year-old students areproficient in reading, with 27 percent lacking even basic skills. Obviously the frenzied activity since the first Nation at Risk declaration in 1983 has done little to adequately address the core reasons for insufficient, properly focused engagement in high-value academics. It’s not that the reasons are hard to grasp. They’ve all been noted in a piecemeal fashion, including especially:

  1. Weak, often poorly targeted, incentives for educator effectiveness and parental involvement.
  2. Classroom composition policies that minimize student engagement.
  3. High rates of out-of-subject-field teaching.
  4. The micro-management of professional educators.
  5. Teacher tenure, combined with high rates of teacher burnout.
  6. Misleading, boring curricula and textbooks.
  7. Discipline problems coupled with related regulation and lawsuit fear among educators.

This blog will discuss the first three; saving the others for future posts. Policy leaders with the wisdom and will to propose and successfully fight for systemic change must not ignore that addressing those issues would greatly improve educators’ classroom experiences and students’ academic progress.

On a personal note, my review of America’s education ills and solution proposals have very humble, ground-level starting points. As a college professor, I noticed severe deficiencies in the preparedness of many of my students. Basic skill deficiencies in the college bound are especially alarming. The average skills of the non-college-bound are even lower. And, as husband to a former public school teacher who taught diverse groups of children, including students with special needs, I heard firsthand information on the workings of the public school system and tales from inner-city and suburban school districts. The stories my wife brought home were often so traumatic to her we had to set limits on when and where such discussions could occur. That anecdotal evidence painted a picture of inefficiency, chaos, and disappointment no one should have to endure. As an economist, I had to investigate whether the problems evident to my wife and me were the exceptions or the norms of a low-performing system—and then offer solutions.

Weak, often poorly targeted, incentives for educator effectiveness and parental involvement

With the exception of some chartered public schools, the taxpayer-financed part of America’s K-12 education system provides for few, if any, immediate, tangible consequences for educator effectiveness, for parental involvement, or for student achievement. Even the intangibles are often misaligned. For example, it is quite common for educators to face negative peer pressure for entrepreneurial and innovative initiatives they employ.

The widespread disconnect between pay and performance is about more than the political challenges of implementing genuine merit pay. The intricate explanations of why it is difficult to objectively and accurately assess merit through administrator observations and checklists and why the zero-sum nature of taxpayer-funded merit pay creates problems is worth an addendum to this series. For now, it is enough to note that reward for individual educator merit, or punishment for lack thereof, is rare. And often what is rewarded in those rare instances of something called merit pay is school merit—typified by increases in the school’s budget—and not individual merit via salary raises.

As for parental involvement, a key reason it is low is that report cards and teacher conferences typically lack the critical information that parents need to make good decisions. Grade inflation, including social promotion, is known to lull parents into a false sense of security, in part because for many teachers talking to parents is among their least favorite things to do. And even if lack of progress is evident to a parent, and the child might be successful in a non-mainstream setting, parents may be powerless – lacking adequate school choice – to influence the factors that would benefit their children. Powerlessness discourages involvement.

Despite much talk about increased accountability, it has been widely considered politically incorrect to hold many of the current system’s players accountable for anything. Furthermore, it is arguably unfair to hold teachers accountable for poorly conceived instructional strategies; for example, sorting children into public school classrooms only by age and neighborhood. Then in that often overwhelmingly diverse setting, teachers are glibly implored to be successful through the impossibly demanding feat of broadly differentiated instruction. And then after maximizing the difficulty of the teaching task, the system denies the professional status that might give teachers a fighting chance to achieve tolerable results. For example, teacher micro-management includes system-selected curricula, tests, textbooks, and mandated teaching timetables, including those insultingly termed “teacher proof.”

Classroom composition policies that minimize student engagement

By matching children only by age and neighborhood, the current system ignores children’s and even educators’ learning styles, subject themes, or interests. For example, a high-quality science subject theme would achieve engagement of some children, but leave others behind. And even if all those students were equally interested in science, some children learn better in front of a computer with great instructional software whereas others do better in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting.

Relying solely on children’s age and neighborhood frequently leads to classrooms with a mix of overwhelmed, bored, distracted, and disinterested students. Education reform scholar Dr. Herbert Walberg makes this salient point:

Compared with privately provided goods and services, perhaps the most fundamental market problem with publicly funded schools is to provide a uniform education that is satisfying to all families. How difficult would it be for automobile manufacturers, restaurants, hairdressers, and barbers to satisfy the majority, let alone all, of their clients with a single, uniform product or service?

The resulting difficulty feeling successful and maintaining good relations with parents and administrators is a key reason why so many teachers quickly abandon teaching careers. It also is why so many teachers suffer burnout, but stay on the job for lack of viable income-producing alternatives and lack of pressure to improve or exit.

The same overwhelming challenge—meeting the diverse needs of each attendance zone—explains why district superintendents so often struggle to dent districts’ academic performance levels, and why superintendents suffer from such high turnover rates. Longtime education scholar, Paul Hill, argued that, “many superintendents have concluded that, in the words of one, the job is undoable. Most agree that a successful superintendent is usually one who has avoided a financial crisis or survived a tense labor negotiation, not one who has transformed a district’s schools.”

High rates of out-of-subject-field teaching

Teacher pay almost always depends just on teachers’ formal credentials and seniority. Though it is grossly unfair to the more advanced teachers, varying pay by teacher subject field is also widely considered politically incorrect. The resulting surpluses and shortages of specific types of teachers yield pandemic out-of-field teaching. For example, 69 percent of fifth to eighth graders are being taught math by teachers without a mathematics degree or certificate, and 93 percent of those same students are being taught physical sciences by teachers with no physical science degree or certificate. With so many math and science courses staffed by teachers who did not major in math or science, is it any wonder so few American students are succeeding in those subjects? (That’s not meant to slight non-math teachers but rather to recognize how important it is schools sync teachers to their fields of expertise.)


To be clear, policymakers should stay out of the classroom as much as possible. The issues addressed herein should be left to principals, teachers, and parents to solve. So where then do policymakers fit in?

Policymakers should reduce instructional challenges and create tangible incentives to deliver the highest quality, correctly targeted instruction by letting parents decide the schools where public funding will support their children. They are much closer to classrooms and their children. Empowered with information and full control of the money earmarked for their children’s schooling, parents can work with principals and teachers to provide localized incentives, identify their children’s educational tracks, and choose the teachers skilled in the instructional approaches that best fit the needs of their children.

Other issues facing educators and students will be explored in part two of this series on America’s classrooms.