School’s Out

Roughly 70 million students in kindergarten through college are finishing another year of school in the United States. By and large, the schools and classes they attended this year weren’t any different from the year before, or the year before that. Whereas it was the same old same old for students, the past year has been momentous for the education establishment. Two connected events portend a future fundamentally different from the past.

The first event is the severe economic recession. It brought public expenditure for education under scrutiny in ways that would have been unimaginable a couple of years ago. “Slew of Layoffs May Be Linked to Overhiring,” shouts the headline of a recent issue of Education Week. The article documents a rate of increase in K-12 public school staffing that is double the rate of increase in student enrollment, and questions whether an expensive bill moving through Congress to prevent teacher layoffs is justified. Productivity growth in private industry was 2.4 percent annually between 1995 and 2005. In contrast, it was a negative -0.2 percent in education. As Brookings economists Bosworth and Triplett put it a while back: “Education is the sick child of services productivity … and growing more so.” It is one thing for economists to know this. It is something else again for the general public to sense it, as is now the case.

The second event is the confluence of policy perspectives of the major sources of discretionary funding for education. Large education foundations—for example, Gates, Broad, Walton, as well many smaller foundations—are focused on fundamental changes in the way that public education is delivered. Whether the topic is charter schools, teacher evaluation, school leadership, data-driven management, or rigorous standards for learning, they talk the same language and often collaborate. To this add the extraordinary $5 billion that Congress made available to the Obama administration for its Race to the Top competitions. These have been implemented with the same policy vision that is prevalent in the foundation world, and often with the direct collaboration of private philanthropy. As a result, there is an unprecedented amount of money on the table to purchase particular flavors of reform.

This “golden leash” of federal and foundation grants can transform public education if it addresses productivity. We will have to learn to do what we’re presently doing more efficiently (e.g., replacing some fulltime teachers with adjuncts, reducing non-instructional staffing) and we will have to put in place new approaches that are inherently more productive, such as better curriculum, better trained teachers, greater use of distance learning and instructional software, and sophisticated accountability systems. If the foundation and government officials leading this effort make the right policy choices, assure that their grantees perform, and are prepared to learn as they go school will look different for students in the not so distant future.