Nobody doubts the need to improve our schools. Students across the nation are being left less than fully prepared to meet the challenges of the new economy. But the problem is especially acute in our urban centers, including Saint Louis and Kansas City, which have been declared educationally bankrupt.
Kansas City is historically famous as an example of the problems facing much of the nation. Following a federal judge’s desegregation order that gave school officials a license to dream (at no cost to the district), the school system moved to the very top of the spending rankings for urban districts in the nation during the early 1990s. But student performance did not budge, and the eventual withdrawal of court support and state funding left the city with some great facilities — but without more learning. Saint Louis followed a slightly different court-ordered plan, spent almost as much money as Kansas City, and got the same dismal student achievement results.
Saint Louis and Kansas City have not been alone. Nationally, schools — urban, rural, and suburban — have pursued aggressive spending programs. They have followed conventional wisdom, reducing class sizes, introducing a wide variety of “reforms,” and hiring more educated and experienced teachers. And, as a nation, our achievement today is little different than it was in 1970.
What is wrong with this picture? We have moved our schools to a vastly different level of resources — almost quadrupling since 1960, after allowing for inflation. Yet we have not improved our performance. We do not come close to equaling the performance of students in East Asia, or in the better European countries, or in Canada.
This general problem confronts our nation, which is entering into a new competitive era in the international economy. And it particularly falls on our urban populations that lag the United States as a whole, and thus lag the dynamic economies of the world.
The most direct conclusion is that we need to make much more fundamental changes in our schools. We cannot continue doing what has not worked, even if we do this more intensively.
A fundamental issue is that we do not reward success. The current system has few rewards for producing higher achievement, but instead supports failure. If a school does well, the staff should be rewarded, not punished. If a teacher does well, she should be rewarded.
Some such better incentives are being put in place. Saint Louis and Kansas City have had a large out-migration, students fleeing the regular public schools for charters or for the suburbs. In a best of worlds, these public schools would recognize that they must change and would break from the long history of mediocre to poor schools. In the worst of worlds, everybody except perhaps the most immobile will simply leave the shell of Missouri urban public schools. The future options could not present a more stark contrast.
Eric Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He is the author of a Show-Me Institute study on education finance and has been a guest speaker for the Show-Me Institute lecture series with Saint Louis University and the Kansas City Public Library.